By Sean Ryan
A special day took place in Kilkenny city on Sunday, 11 October, with the unveiling of a monument to one of the youngest victims of World War I.
The memorial was unveiled to remember Thomas Joseph Woodgate, one of the youngest military casualties of World War I and the youngest Irish casualty. The monument is the latest of a number commissioned and organised by the Kilkenny War Memorial Group, remembering people from the area who died in the conflict between 1914-1918.
It was assumed for almost a century that Private John Condon from Waterford City was the youngest British soldier to die in the First World War and therefore the youngest Irish fatality of the war. Recently, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has recognised that the Irish combatant Thomas Woodgate, who it previously assumed was 18, was really 14.
The story of Thomas Woodgate makes intriguing reading, to say the very least. Born on 31 December, 1903, Woodgate duped recruiting officers by claiming he was 18 and enlisted in the Royal Air Force on 19 September, 1918.
He left his home in Mill Street in Callan, Co Kilkenny, to begin a journey to join his training squadron in Egypt. He sailed on the RMS Leinster steamship from Dún Laoghaire, then known as Kingstown, on 10 October. However, shortly after leaving the harbour, a German submarine attacked the ship with torpedoes and sank it.
The Irish boy was one of over 500, men, women and children who lost their lives in the attack. Thomas’s tombstone in the military cemetery in Grangegorman in Dublin stated he was 18.
His true age was revealed a century later when the Kilkenny Great War Memorial Committee was organising a public memorial for the 829 who lost their lives in the war and who were from Co. Kilkenny.
Committee chairman Donal Croghan said the ages of those who died were being included on the newly built memorial. When Thomas’s age was being checked, the records in Callan parish showed he was born and baptised on New Year’s Eve 1903.
As well as the unveiling of a public sculpture at the Market Yard, near Kilkenny Courthouse, the Air Corps also staged a fly-past over the city to honour Thomas. Thomas’s nephew Seamus Gary Woodgate (84), Thomas’s grandniece, Joan Bryan (72), attended the ceremony, as well as Minister of State, Malcolm Noonan TD and Mayor of County Kilkenny, Cllr Andrew McGuinness (FF).
PROUD BUT SAD
Speaking at the event Joan Bryan said: “We’re very proud of Thomas but a bit sad that he was just 14 when he died.” She added: “The family thought he was 18 but then we found out he was 14. He was born on 31 December, 1903, and was christened on the same day. He’s buried in Grangegorman military cemetery in Dublin. We have been up there and there’s a new stone there now with 14 on it, it used to be 18 on it.’’
Thomas Woodgate’s closest living relative is Gary Woodgate, a nephew now aged 84, who was also present at the unveiling ceremony in the city. Speaking with RTÉ of his famous uncle he said: “He was very, very young. He was only 14 and a half but he looked bigger and that’s how he got into it. An awful lot of them have gone since, a lot of them did die,” he said. “We have something to remember him by anyway.”
A NEED TO COMMEMORATE
Speaking about the research that was done David Croghan said: “In our research for the memorials here in Kilkenny, we came across how young he was and we confirmed his age with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We felt we should commemorate him as part of the work we do,” Mr Croghan said.
He added: “I think as a country, we have matured. First of all these were Kilkenny men, or boys in this case. They were Irishmen and they happened to put on a different uniform. They were written out of history so that’s why it’s important to remember them.”