INSPIRED by the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, reader Stanley Bullock of Cradley Heath paid a visit to Bugle House recently with an old leather case containing the effects of his late grandfather, Harold Bullock of Bilston.
Harold was one of the many thousands who answered the call and headed overseas to take part in the fighting which raged on so many fronts, but his is a story less often heard. For Harold's war, brief as it turned out to be, was fought entirely in Ireland, when the British Army were called upon to fight Republican rebels during the Easter Rising of 1916.
Harold's military career lasted less than a year, and while he was spared the horror of the trenches of France and Belgium, his experiences were every bit as life-threatening. At the height of the Easter stand-off, he received an injury which resulted in his losing a leg.
Born in 1893 in Bilston, Harold joined the 6th South Staffordshire regiment in February 1916 at the age of 22. Blue eyed and dark haired, he stood just 5 feet 2 ½ tall. He entered the 2nd Battalion as Private H Bullock, No. 5025, and after training, probably at St Albans, was suddenly and unexpectedly despatched to Dublin where the 6th South Staffs were given the task of sorting out the Irish rebels.
In 1916, Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, but the growing Republican movement saw an opportunity to push for independence. With British forces, and minds, wholly focused on fighting in Europe, Irish rebels seized the opportunity to stage their most significant uprising since the late 1700s.
Weeks after the British government had declared war on Germany in 1914, a group known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who had recently formed a military force called the Irish Volunteers, drew up plans for an uprising while Britain's attention was elsewhere. A group of trade unionists had formed their own force, the Irish Citizen Army with similar aims, and leading Republicans had held secret meetings with the German Ambassador to the United States, at which they floated a plan to engage British forces in Dublin as a distraction from a German landing on Ireland's west coast.
With compulsory conscription into the British Army a likelihood for Irish men should the war continue for any length of time, there was growing support for independence, and the movement now had its best chance in generations.
The Rising began early on the morning of Easter Monday, 24th April 1916, nearly two years into the war. A force of around 1,200, formed chiefly of the Irish Volunteers (including Cummann na mBan, the women's paramilitary wing), and the Irish Citizen Army seized key points in the centre of Dublin. They took the main Post Office as the rebel headquarters and raised the Republican flag over it. Groups of volunteers stationed themselves at the city's Four Courts building, a mill, a hospital, a distillery and a biscuit factory. They failed to take Dublin Castle, the centre of British rule in Ireland, but the long-planned rising had now begun, and the British had been caught off guard.
There were some attempts by British soldiers already stationed in Dublin to tackle the rebels, but being unprepared and few in number, little was achieved. And when three unarmed policemen were shot by the rebels and the rest of the force pulled off the streets for their own safety, looting broke out and added to the chaos.
On Tuesday, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Wimborne, declared martial law. At this point, British soldiers numbered roughly the same as the rebels, but with the latter having left the ports and railway stations out of their plans, the British were able to bring in thousands more men, not just from the Curragh and Belfast, but from England too. Which is where the 2nd battalion, 6th South Staffs came in, with Private Harold Bullock among them.
Before the week was out, around 16,000 British soldiers had flooded the city and either surrounded or bombarded the rebel positions. But they were taking heavy losses at a variety of locations, including around the Grand Canal at Kingstown as they disembarked, surrounded by entrenched rebels. There were also casualties at the South Dublin Union and the Marrowbone Lane Distillery.
On Thursday 27th, the South Staffs were despatched to North King Street, sent to flush out the rebels in the Four Courts. The insurgents were barricaded in, and they managed to hold their ground for two days, before they got word of their leaders' surrender from their base at the Post Office on Saturday. The South Staffs had been unable to breach their defences despite heavy fighting, and records show that 11 of their number were killed, with 28 injured.
In just under a week, more than a hundred British soldiers were killed, and more than 60 rebel fighters. By far the largest number of dead were civilians, numbering over 200, the majority of whom were killed by stray artillery fire.
The British had put down the Rising, but at some cost, and not only in terms of men killed and injured. The deaths of civilians would further fan the flames of Republicanism, and the execution soon after of several of the ringleaders would never be forgotten. Just over six years later in 1922, Ireland, with the exception of the mostly pro-British north, became the Irish Free State.
But what of Private Harold Bullock, one of the injured 28? A letter sent from an officer in Kingstown to Harold's mother in Bilston a week after the Rising, suggested that he was in fine spirits and not too badly injured:
"6th South Staffs. Regt, 59th Division, Kingstown, Ireland.
"I was very sorry indeed when your son No. 5025 Pte H Bullock was wounded on Friday last.
"I saw him in King George's Hospital, Dublin, yesterday, and found him very cheerful and happy; showing great pluck.
"The wound is in his thigh and will not prove dangerous I think, and he is making fine progress. He had shown great pluck throughout some very trying times here, and I am extremely sorry he is disabled, but I hope you will have him with you before very long.
"Yours very truly,
R.M. Sheppard, Capt.
May 5th, 1916."
Either the Captain was painting a deliberately bright picture, or things took a turn for the worse. Two Discharge Certificates , each dated 25th November that year, describe Private Bullock as 'being no longer physically fit for War Service'. Though not mentioned in his paperwork, his leg, hit by shrapnel, had been amputated, and his career as a soldier was over 291 days after it had begun.
His Discharge Certificate follows the 'Medals, Clasps and Decorations' with 'Nil', but another paper, dating from the following month, informed Harold that he had been awarded the War Badge, for Services Rendered in H.M.'s Military Forces since 4th August, 1914.
Also treasured by Harold was a small sheet of printed notepaper which bore the following:
"Sent by the Countess of Huntingdon and other well-wishers as a small token of their appreciation of the part you played under such trying circumstances during the Rebellion in Ireland. April and May 1916."
Harold was fitted with a tin leg and then had to fight his own battle; to find a civilian role for himself despite his disability. And he coped admirably, becoming a publican well-known to many a Black Country tippler. Among the pubs he ran, grandson Stanley tells us, were the Commercial in Bilston, the Lion in Upper Gornal, the Angel in Willenhall and the Black Horse in Dudley High Street.
Despite his early, traumatic experience, Harold went on to live a long life. He lived well into retirement age, and died at the age of 77 in 1970.