John Condon - The Youngest Soldier to Die in the First World War
aged 14 years
It???s nice to know that the Waterford City Council have decided to erect some sort of a memorial
to John Condon who has become known as ???The Boy Soldier???. John???s story is just one of hundreds of tales of sorrow and sadness that nearly every family in Waterford suffered by the fatalities of World War
The reason why they joined is for another day, and let???s hope that the memorial will remember and honour all that lost their lives. For those that do not know the story of John Condon who died in battle aged just 14 ,here are some of the facts:
John was born in No. 12 Jenkins Lane to John Condon a general labourer and his wife Kate Condon and was the second youngest of a family of five. Kate, Peter, Marie, John and Patrick. Their living conditions would be described as good, lodging with Daniel Donovan and his wife Lizzie renting a three room apartment. Daniel Donovan was a tinsmith by trade.
In 1910 the family moved to their own home No. 3 St. Thomas Avenue which was affectionately known as Wheelbarrow Lane. The lane could almost be described as a cul de sac, but for a little alley way that linked it to Wellington Street through which only a wheelbarrow could negotiate, hence the name. Just six months later John Condon had lost his mother and sister Kate to the dreadful contagious disease called Tuberculosis which devastated the cities and towns of Ireland. Following their deaths John Condon went to live with his uncle Michael Condon who carried on a boot and shoe repair business in Kneefs Lane. It was here that John became very attached to his older cousin Patrick and they became inseparable. Both had sampled working as helpers in a bottling store.
How John and Patrick Condon joined the army started off a boyish adventure and been reared in these dreadful conditions of the times, they became streetwise at a young age.
For many years the Waterford Steamship Company???s steamers plied between Waterford and Liverpool three times each week almost completely crewed by Waterford men. It was well known that these ships many the time afforded passage to penniless individuals seeking escape from their wretched conditions by stowaways, often known to the crew. John had been promised a job by his uncle in Liverpool so with his cousin Patrick they decided to stowaway to Liverpool on the steamer still affectionately known as the ???Cladagh??? although her name had been changed.
The ???Cladagh??? got a refit when the Clyde company took over the Waterford Steamship Company in 1913 and became the ???Coninbeg???. She too was to become a victim of the war just a few years later. Captained by Captain Willie Lumley, a Waterford man and a Waterford crew she was sunk by a German submarine with all hands on December 24, 1917.
John and Patrick Condon arrived in Liverpool early in January 1915 but the job promised by their uncle did not materialise. They tried their luck around for over a week without any success. They were taken in by all the razzamatazz about recruiting for the army taking place all around them. Back home as they played about Ballybricken they were well aware of John Redmond???s recruiting campaign and probably followed the Erin???s Hope Band as it led local volunteers to the station almost every night. With luck running out they enlisted in the army with the Lancashire Fusiliers one of the local regiments. With the heavy casualties in the early stage of the war it seems the recruiting sergeant was not too inquisitive about ages.
Patrick was a fine fellow and could easily falsify his age, John was 5ft. 2ins. but slightly built. John may have had a change of mind and was not too happy training amongst the English and asked for a transfer to the Royal Irish Regiment while Patrick remained with the regiment to survive the war. And so the once inseparable cousins parted never to see each other again.
THE WESTERN FRONT
Private John Condon No. 6322 was assigned to the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment 12th Brigade, 4th Division. His regiment was sent to a little area between France and Belgium known as the Salient in early April. Here both sides seemed deadlocked on what was to become known as the Western front for the four years of the war. When John arrived at the front the first battle for the little town of Ypres had taken place with an unbelievable loss of life, 135,000 German casualties without any gain and about 75,000 Allied forces in some of the heaviest battles ever fought. When the main attack petered out, combat was reduced to localised skirmishing and some trench warfare in which John Condon received his baptism of fire.
THE SECOND BATTLE OF YPRES
The second battle for Ypres was launched by the Germans on April 22, 1915 with the first release of Chlorine gas in warfare. Chlorine gas is widely used today in the sterilising of drinking water. Some gases have a density lighter than air and when released, rise into the atmosphere and get lost. Cooking gas has a density heavier than air and when released falls to the ground. But Chlorine gas has a rare quality of being highly corrosive and has the same density as air so when released it???s invisible and remains at the level it is released and is carried with the air currents. The gas was first used on the French and Algerians and took the Allies completely by surprise. In the trenches hundreds began to drop in agony not knowing what was happening to them by this invisible and noiseless enemy. The French and Algerians on whom the gas was used took flight leaving the Germans to gain over 3 km. without a shot being fired. Heavy fighting and frequent gas attacks continued around Ypres until May 25 the final day of the battle that lasted eight days and nights non-stop. Unfortunately for John Condon on May 24, 1915 near a little town named St. Julien, he fell victim of a gas attack. One could say it was the last day of the battle when John Condon and twelve other Waterford men lost their lives on that fatal day.
John suffered the most agonising death, as when the Chlorine gas comes into contact with moisture of the throat and lungs it turns into acid setting up a burning and painful fatal action lasting hours. John and his comrades were buried close to a farm building where it is believed they sought shelter from the gas.
LAID TO REST
Most of the dead of the War were buried in shallow graves where they fell and it was not until 1924 that agreement could be reached between the governments to clear the countryside of bodies that were being dug up during tillage. John Condon???s body and his comrades were collected with others from a large area and brought to Interment Cemetery No. 108. John Condon was identified by his number stamped on his boot and this was passed to his family in 1924 which they still have today. It was during correspondence at this time that the age of John Condon was established. It???s fair to say that some questions could be asked as to its credibility. However, the War Office confirmed that John Condon was the youngest soldier killed during the war and who are we to question such an authority. John Condon???s father also died in 1924.
BRITISH CEMETERY NO. 108 POELKAPPLE
John Condon was buried in Plot LV1 Row F. on the far side from the entrance with 6,541 members of the British forces, 117 Australians, 237 New Zealanders, 525 Canadians, 10 South Africans, 9 New Foundlanders and 4 from Jersey. Of these 6231 are ???Known Only To God???.
The grave of John Condon, the boy soldier, has become almost a national shrine with hundreds visiting it every day, particularly in the tourist season. It is bedecked with flowers and poppy wreaths. Unfortunately in Waterford John and his 500 local comrades were forgotten. John Condon???s nephews and nieces still live in Waterford City. They are in possession of all his war medals and somewhat sadly the stamped part of his boot.