Sombre visit to remember grandad who survived First World Ward battle

Michael with a picture of his grandfather who went to war Michael Sylvester McMahon
Michael with a picture of his grandfather who went to war Michael Sylvester McMahon

Pensioner Michael McMahon never served in the armed forces, but comes from a proud fighting family that did.

In July he will follow his grandfather’s footsteps to the Western Front at Ypres in Belgium to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele where Private Michael Sylvester McMahon was captured and taken prisoner.

Michael's grandfather, Michael Sylvester McMahon of the Royal Munster Fusiliers.

Michael's grandfather, Michael Sylvester McMahon of the Royal Munster Fusiliers.

He has been invited by the UK Government to make the nostalgic trip as one of the direct descendents of 4000 men who fought in one of the bloodiest conflicts of The Great War.

The battle raged between July and November 1917 and caused an estimated 250,000 British and Commonwealth casualties.

The 74-year-old from Bonnybridge will be part of two days of events which will remember them and also the hundreds of thousands of other troops who served on the Ypres Salient from 1914 to 1918.

To start the commemorations, a traditional Last Post ceremony will be held on July 30 at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Menin Gate in Ypres.

The Dulmen POW camp where Michael Sylvester spent some time after being captured

The Dulmen POW camp where Michael Sylvester spent some time after being captured

On July 31, to mark the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, Michael will attend a service at the Tyne Cot cemetery at Zonnebeke seven miles away where 12,000 soldiers are interred and a memorial wall holds the names of 35,000 others who have no known grave.

He said: “Although my grandfather was one of the lucky ones who managed to make it home, he rarely spoke about the war and it’s difficult to imagine what the horrors of the battlefields and incarceration as a prisoner of war must have been like for him.

“This will be an emotional journey for me, but a great honour to be present at the ceremony in Ypres to remember him and those who died in such a terrible battle.”

The retired pipe fitter and welder who worked around the world in the oil and gas industry revealed that as well as his grandfather enlisting, his grandfather and great uncle on his mother’s side, Private Richard Mackie and Lance Sergeant Joseph Mackie, as well as his own wife, Mary’s, grandfather, Sergeant Hugh Ferguson, all served with the Argylls in the conflict.

Conditions were harsh for prisoners of ward at the Munster Camp where Michael was also held for a time

Conditions were harsh for prisoners of ward at the Munster Camp where Michael was also held for a time

In addition, Michael’s great-grandfather, Sergeant James McMahon, served with distinction with The Royal Munster Fusiliers in India in the 1890s and in 1922 his grandfather’s brother-in-law Jack Byrne with the first unit of the regular Free State Army at Beggars Bush Barracks in Dublin.

Michael, who with Mary has three children and three granddaughters, said: “I suppose you could say the family has done its bit protecting the country over the years. I’m very proud of them all, but particularly the man that I’m named after.”

Michael Sylvester McMahon was born in 1894 at a British Army barracks in Cawnpore, now Kanpur, India, to Sgt McMahon and his wife Elizabeth.

At age 19 he came to Bonnybridge, married his wife Catherine, and worked at the stove and brickmaker Smith and Wellstood.

He joined his father’s regiment on August 31, 1916. Initially he had been rejected for not being tall enough – but after insisting that as a ‘son of the regiment’ he was entitled to join the ranks – accepted.

Michael and his division were involved in some of the notable actions on the Western Front in 1917, including the German retreat to the Hindenberg Line in March that year and ‘Operation Hush, the cancelled British amphibious landings on the Flanders coast which ended in the British defence of Nieuport in July.

The Fusiliers were involved in the Second Battle of Passchendaele, the final battle in the major Allied campaign of 1917, to break through German lines to destroy the submarine bases on the Belgian coast.

In support of Canadian forces, Michael was part of two battalions who advanced early on November 10, the last day of the costly campaign. Their objective was a small crossroads on high ground near the village of Passchendaele but, with the ground destroyed by years of fighting, the battlefield had become a waterlogged quagmire – men and horses drowned.

Despite the conditions they did reach their objective, but Michael was captured in the German counter attack.

He was initially posted as missing, and Catherine was not told he was still alive until a month later.

Michael was first in a holding camp at Dendermonde, Belgium, then spent the rest of the war in various POW camps in the Westphalia region of Germany.

He was repatriated back to Britain in December 1918, but transferred to the Royal Army Service Corps as a driver working in London before finally being discharged and allowed back to Bonnybridge on July 27, 1919 - nearly two years after the start of the battle.

He had left Catherine and their son, Matthew, to go to war but the couple went on to raise three other children, William James, Michael’s dad, and daughters Bridget and Elizabeth.

Michael Sylvester McMahon died in Bonnybridge in 1971 age 77.

Culture secretary Karen Bradley said: “As we continue to commemorate the centenary of the First World War it is important that we remember the horrors of the battlefields of Ypres and honour the many who lost their lives.

“It is the descendants of those who experienced Passchendaele who can help tell its story and it is hugely symbolic for them to be able to stand on Belgian soil to remember their relatives’ service and sacrifice.”