The battle was an offensive planned by the Allied forces on the western front, taking place from the 7th to the 14th June 1917. British, Canadian and ANZAC forces were actively involved in the objective of taking the German, heavily fortified and ‘impregnable’ 15kms long, Messines Ridge in western Belgium. The New Zealand division was assigned the task of attacking the southern bastion of the German defences upon the ridge. The Irish 16th Division, including the Royal Irish Regiment were assigned the task of attacking the north eastern fortified ridge.
The detailed planning of the battle had its origins back in 1916, part of which was the essential tunnelling of 22 mines, some were 660m in length under the German held ridge. This tough, secretive tunnelling task was undertaken by experienced miners, signed up members of the Northumberland and Durham British regiments as well as from Canadian and ANZAC forces. Upwards of 440t of ammonal explosives per mine were laid and charged for synchronous explosion on the 7th June at 03:10am. Many craters 76m in diameter and 12m deep were left behind in the awful aftermath. The subsequent explosion was to be heard as far away as Dublin.
The Egan brothers of Tullamore:
Kevin Fergus Egan born on the 4th September 1887 was the fifth son of Henry Egan of the firm P. & H. Egan Limited, Tullamore. He enlisted with the 16th division, Royal Irish Regiment in December 1915 as a 2nd Lieutenant and was based at Devonport, prior to being sent to the western front via Le Havre. The regiment was part of the 11th Brigade of the 4th Division and was involved in the first battle of Albert and the battle of Le Transloy in 1916. Now a full Lieutenant, Kevin Fergus Egan fought and survived the battle of Messines, 7th to 14th June 1917 and Pilckem Ridge, Ypres on the 31st July 1917 and the battle of Lagemarck the 16th August 1917.
The third battle of Albert in late August 1918 was regarded as the opening push of the second battle of the Somme. It was part of the 100-day offensive leading to armistice day on the 11th November 1918. It appears from his official army medical card that he was injured in battle on the 28th August. A survivor, Egan was discharged and qualified for the silver war badge(S.W.B.) awarded him on the 3rd September 1918, (badge number B13573).
It is estimated that close on 28,000 Irish soldiers attached to the 16th (Irish) Division died or were declared missing during World War 1.
Gerald Joseph Egan his younger brother and sixth son of Henry Egan was born on the 22nd December 1891. He had emigrated around 1912 to farm with their orchardist and Canvastown hotelier brother William Joseph Egan in Neudorf, Nelson, New Zealand. Aged 23, the young, six foot and fit Gerald J. enlisted at Nelson on the 18th August 1914, three weeks after Britain declared war on the Germans. He joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. After 88 days of training drills Private Gerald Joseph Egan bade farewell to his brother William for the last time as he was shipped off to Egypt. He was to spend 3 years and 155 days in action in the Great War.
It was not Private Gerald Egan who was to die prematurely, but sadly, his older brother William who died of heart failure at Moutuka Hospital interred therein for seven days suffering pneumonia. William had spent six years in New Zealand and at the tender age of 34 passed away on the 18th November 1916.
From Alexandria, Private Egan served time with the ANZAC forces, having fought and survived at the Dardanelles, shipped through Mudros and Imbros and also fought and survived Galapolli in 1915. According to his military records, he was discharged to base at Alexandria, suffering dysentery, and later jaundice. Once discharged from hospital, he was then shipped to the western front in Belgium after training at 2nd army sniper school at Sling, Wiltshire. As part of the 3rd Canterbury Infantry Battalion he was to serve and survive the brutality of the Battle of Messines, a prelude to the third Battle of Ypres.
In taking the strategically important and well-fortified German held village of Messines, Egan sustained a gunshot wound to his right knee and was removed via field ambulance to the South African field hospital on the 7th June 1917. Egan was transferred to Abbeville, Rouen in France and onto Bathurst and lost his right leg to amputation on the 22nd Jan 1918.
He was declared unfit for further action on the 28th Jan 1918 and was shipped back to home-base through Liverpool bound for Mauaganui, New Zealand on board the ‘Encouibo’.
Was it possible, the brothers knew they were fighting together on the Messines battlefield?
At the battle of Messines Lt. Kevin Fergus Egan would appear to have been part of the Royal Irish Regiment, 16th division. They were tasked with attacking the Messines Ridge from the north-eastern side. Simultaneously, the ANZAC forces, of which 2nd Pt. Gerald Joseph Egan was part of the 3rd Canterbury Infantry, whose task it was to attack the same ridge from the Southern side. In one week of fighting between the 7th June and the 14th June both the Allied and German forces lost a staggering 25,000 casualties on each side, either died or were never found. The ANZAC forces alone, lost 4,978 men. Due to the high level of secrecy and primitive levels of communication around the battle it is highly unlikely they knew of one another’s plight.
Nevertheless, both Egan brothers survived.
Kevin Fergus Egan was decorated with 3 medals, the 1914-1915 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Additionally, he received the Silver War Badge. He returned to his wife Julia Maye Egan (nee Hoey), whom he had married on the 8th June, six months before going off to war in 1915. He became a director of the family firm and headed up its well-known and successful Maltings business, based in Tullamore and Rathangan. He died of Parkinson’s disease on the 12th May 1948 aged 60.
Gerald Joseph Egan: 6/221 was decorated with 3 medals, the 1914-1915 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. He was discharged on army pension on the 16th April 1918 and was never to return to his family in Ireland. He died unmarried and alone, of coronary sclerosis and an old infracture of the heart on the 31st January 1959 at 44 Austin Street, Wellington. The Coroner conducted a post mortem but decided, under the circumstances, not to conduct an inquest. His remains are interred at Karori, Wellington. He was aged 67.
Maurice Egan is Executive Chairman of P. & H. Egan (Tullamore) Ltd.