Victoria Cross hero who joined the IRA: the WW1 soldier whose awesome courage during the conflict has been forgotten by history

First published in the Mail on Sunday on 27 January 2019.

At first glance, his simple grave at Grangegorman Military Cemetery in Dublin appears no different to those of the other 622 fallen soldiers from two world wars.

Only the inscription etched in the pale grey gravestone indicates that this is the last resting place of a highly decorated war hero: ‘Coy. Sgt. Major Martin Doyle, VC, MM, Royal Munster Fusiliers Died 20th Nov. 1940.’

VC stands, of course, for Victoria Cross, Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious gallantry medal for bravery in the face of the enemy. MM stands for Military Medal, Doyle’s other notable decoration from his First World War service.

However, three other letters that are equally relevant to Doyle’s remarkable life are missing: IRA.

For this brave soldier has the unique distinction of being the only VC recipient in the award’s 163-year history who was also known to be a member of the Irish Republican Army.

Over the past three decades, I have amassed the largest VC collection in the world and among them is Doyle’s medal group, which I purchased at an auction in London more than 20 years ago.

Many of the 200-plus men whose VCs are in my collection are colourful – as well as courageous – characters but few, if any, led a life as adventurous and complex as Doyle.

To mark the centenary of his VC award next Thursday, I have carried out extensive enquiries, with the help of his extended family, into his highly unconventional life.

Doyle was born on October 25, 1894, in the village of Gusserane, close to the Co Wexford town of New Ross, which was once home to members of the famous US Kennedy family.

He was the son of Larry Doyle, a farmer struggling to make a living off the land, and his wife Bridget.

Educated at primary schools in Gusserane and nearby Cushinstown, Doyle joined the Royal Irish Regiment on Boxing Day 1909 and was given service number 9962.

At the time, he had only recently turned 15 but he lied to the authorities that he was two years older.

After his father discovered his son was in the Army at such a young age, he sold a cow to buy him out. However, within days Doyle was back with his regiment, this time for good.

Doyle, a keen runner, served in India in 1913, where he won both the regimental lightweight boxing title and an elephant in a local raffle.

In India at the time, it was like winning a modern-day tractor as elephants were used to work the land. Needless to say, Doyle was unable to bring his raffle prize home when his unit returned to Ireland.

In August 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the Great War, when he was still only 19, Doyle was transferred to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He went to France with his new regiment and served in some of the early campaigns. He was promoted to sergeant in 1916.

It was after transferring to the 1st Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers, in early March 1918 that Doyle received official recognition for his bravery on the battlefield.

On March 24, he showed such bravery in northern France when capturing a barn held by a German gun crew that he was awarded the MM.

Doyle later described his part in the action in Hattenville to an Irish newspaper, The Free Press: ‘We had to cross about 1,000 yards of open country, exposed to terrible shell and machine-gun fire. The casualties were very heavy. Having reached the trench we found that the Germans were dug in not more than 40 yards ahead of us.

‘A big barn stood in the ground between us and a fight ensued to take possession of it.

‘On the enemy side there was long grass, which afforded them cover, and a machine-gun party succeeded in creeping out and capturing the ruin, and they set up a heavy fire.

‘I called for volunteers and went over the top at the charge but when I reached the barn I was alone.

‘I bayoneted the two Germans I found there, seized the machine-gun, and took possession of the barn.’

As the enemy pushed forwards later in March 1918, Doyle was captured during fighting early in the German’s Spring Offensive and he became a prisoner of war. It is unclear how long he spent as a PoW but it was no more than a matter of days as he was freed again following an Allied counter-attack.

Doyle was promoted to Acting Company Sergeant Major (CSM) in August 1918, just days before his VC action in France.

His citation for his VC action takes up the story: ‘For most conspicuous bravery on the 2nd September, 1918, near Riencourt, when as Acting Company Serjeant-Major, command of the company devolved upon him consequent on officer casualties.

‘Observing that some of our men were surrounded by the enemy, he led a party to their assistance, and by skill and leadership worked his way along the trenches, killed several of the enemy and extricated the party, carrying back, under heavy fire, a wounded officer to a place of safety.

‘Later, seeing a tank in difficulties, he rushed forward under intense fire, routed the enemy who were attempting to get into it, and prevented the advance of another enemy party collecting for a further attack on the tank.

‘An enemy machine-gun now opened on the tank at close range, rendering it impossible to get the wounded away, whereupon CSM Doyle, with great gallantry, rushed forward, and, single-handed, silenced the machine-gun, capturing it with three prisoners.

‘He then carried a wounded man to safety under very heavy fire. Later in the day, when the enemy counter-attacked his position, he showed great power of command, driving back the enemy and capturing many prisoners. Throughout the whole of these operations, CSM Doyle set the very highest example to all ranks by his courage and total disregard of danger.’

His VC was formally announced in The London Gazette on January 31, 1919, more than two months after the Armistice. As a result of his decoration, Doyle was given a hero’s welcome when he returned to New Ross in March 1919.

Doyle later told The Free Press about the last part of his VC action: ‘I had gone about 20 yards [down a trench] when I met a German officer with a machine-gun under his arm.

‘He shouted to me in English, “Hands up!” and I shot him through the chest with a revolver that I had taken from the tank.

‘I then went on down the trench by the way that he had come, picking up a rifle and a bayonet on the way, and I came on the machine-gun crew that he had commanded.

‘I bayoneted three of the four Germans and then went back to the tank. It was on fire and the enemy were swarming around it and threatening to take the lot of us prisoners. A sergeant who was in the tank was badly wounded, and I got him on my back and carried him to a place of safety.’

Doyle attended a Buckingham Place investiture on May 8, 1919, at which he received both his MM and VC from King George V.

However, after being demobbed in July, the Ireland that Doyle and his comrades returned to was very different to the one they had left at the start of the Great War.

After the Easter Rising of April 1916, there was a surge of Irish nationalism, with more and more men and women seeking to sever their ties with Britain. As a result, some returning troops were looked upon as traitors for fighting for what had become the ‘enemy’ during the Great War.

Many former troops returning to Ireland were quickly won over to the cause of Irish republicanism and, after the IRA was formed in 1919, Doyle was one of those who swiftly joined the ‘cause’.

In fact, he was recruited to the IRA at around the time that he got married to a local girl, Charlotte Kennedy, on November 25, 1919, and the couple lived at 18 Mary Street in the heart of New Ross.

Doyle served with the Mid Clare Brigade of the IRA in Ennis and he was working as an undercover agent for the Republican cause, though he would have preferred to have openly taken up arms against the British. Because of his distinguished military career, Doyle was given a role by the British at their garrison in Ennis and the IRA’s leaders were not slow to see that his value as a spy was greater than his value as a fighter.

Writing long after the War of Independence had ended, an IRA colleague, Patrick McMahon, stated that Doyle had ‘advanced all sorts of arguments to prove why he should leave the home with his rifle and go to the hills, but rightly or wrongly I succeeded in convincing him that he was more useful in the British Barracks at the time’.

It is understood that Doyle provided information to the IRA on troop movements and even smuggled out weapons and ammunition from the barracks.

Doyle was certainly serving in the IRA when he attended a garden party for Victoria Cross recipients at Buckingham Palace in June 1920. Within five months, he was back in London, this time representing the Royal Munster Fusiliers at a party to mark the unveiling of the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

After the truce of July 1921, which later resulted in Irish independence but also with the partition of the country, there were divisions in the new Republic between Michael Collins’s Provisional Irish Free State Government and more radical republicans.

Doyle sided with Collins and, in February 1922, he enlisted into the Irish Free State Army, serving during the 1922-23 civil war in Waterford, Kilkenny and South Tipperary.

The civil war divided many families, including Doyle’s – some relatives were angry with him for joining the ‘wrong’ side.

In one incident, Doyle was badly wounded in his left arm, apparently trying to stop a bullet fired at him from close range.

However, he recovered from his injuries and, after the end of the civil war, he continued his military career, serving with the 2nd and 20th Infantry Battalions and the School of Instruction.

In November 1929, Doyle attended a dinner for VC recipients at the House of Lords and in 1937 he was awarded a Coronation Medal. Doyle retired from the Irish Free State Army in 1937.

For the final three years of his life, he worked at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin while living in Kimmage, Co Dublin, in a house owned by the Irish Soldiers and Sailors Trust, which provided homes for Irish Free State Army ex-servicemen.

Doyle died of polio on November 20, 1940, at Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital in Dublin, aged 46.

By then, he had three daughters, all of whom are still alive and in their 80s and 90s.

His gravestone in a corner of Grangegorman Military Cemetery was paid for by his former regiment’s Old Comrades Association. It bears the badge of the Royal Munster Fusiliers but not the design of the VC.

His family, many of whom still live in New Ross, strongly contradict past suggestions that he asked to be buried in his British Army uniform, stating categorically that he was buried instead in a brown habit, then traditional Roman Catholic burial attire.

They also reject rumours that while serving in the IRA he may have been a double agent for the British. They are 100 per cent convinced that, once he joined the IRA, his conversion to the Republican cause was genuine and lasting. The fact that he was posthumously decorated by the Irish Government with the War of Independence medal suggests that his family’s assessment is correct.

I was assisted with this article by two members of Doyle’s family: Leighton Thomas, 42, his great-grand nephew, an electrician from New Ross; and Padraig Ryan, 55, his great nephew, a storeman, who also lives in the town.

Mr Ryan, a married man with four children, said: ‘Martin Doyle was a man with a drive and with a passion and the British Army and, later, the Irish Army were his outlet for that. He was a true patriot.’

Mr Thomas, also married with four children and who owes his Christian name and surname to the fact that his Irish mother married a Welshman, started investigating Doyle’s life after encouraging one of his children to study the VC recipient for a school project.

In the next few weeks, a blue plaque commissioned by Wexford County Council will be placed outside Doyle’s former home in New Ross.

I am in favour of such public recognition for this brave soldier, even though he decided to take up arms against Britain within a year of being decorated for gallantry.

Most historians and observers distinguish between the early IRA that was fighting for independence and the Provisional IRA that was a terrorist group willing to blow up innocent civilians in its quest to end British rule in Northern Ireland.

It is unfortunate that both Britain and Ireland have, for decades, seemed somewhat uncomfortable in championing Doyle’s courage: the former because he took up arms against Britain and the latter because he was highly decorated by Britain.

This new blue plaque, unlike his gravestone, will list his IRA service, stating clearly that he served in the British Army, Mid Clare IRA and the Irish Army.

Mr Thomas said: ‘Martin Doyle was a true hero.

‘He was a proud Irishman who would have liked to have won his VC for Ireland [rather than Britain] but, of course, when the Great War started, Ireland did not exist.

‘I wanted his bravery to be more widely recognised which is why I campaigned for him to have a blue plaque. I want to make sure that he will always be remembered in his home town.’

Read this article on the DailyMail.co.uk.

Sign up for free email alerts
Read new posts as soon as they appear on lordashcroft.com