Everyone is familiar with the BBC comedy series “Dad’s Army” about the actions of Britain’s Second World War Home Guard, but their Great War predecessors were one of the first British regiments in action during the 1916 Dublin Rising. They were officially titled the Georgius Rex Brigade and were a balance to the parading Irish Volunteers in the weeks before the Rising. They were subjected to the insults of Dublin’s children, who had nicknamed them the ‘Gorgeous Wrecks’. They spent their parade meeting drilling; did church parades and lectured on the history of the Empire. Every once in a while, they went on a route march and partook in mock fights against an imaginary foe. Such was their unfortunate fortune, that they should have gone on such an outing on Easter Monday 1916. Early in the morning, they had left their base at the Beggars Bush Barracks and headed south towards Kingstown, for Bank Holiday manoeuvres. By early afternoon, they were fighting an exercise near Ticknock, when news came trough of Sinn Feiners rioting in the city centre. Major Harris, of the Officer Training Corp ended the exercise and prepared his men to return to barracks for further orders.
Two hundred men, including a dozen officers marched back towards the presumed safety of south Dublin. They got as far as Lansdowne Road without incident. The unfit veterans were tired in the unusual spring heat and took a ten minute rest. They did not expect any trouble and, although they were in uniform and carrying rifles, they had no ammunition for them. The rebels had occupied houses overlooking Mount Street Bridge and the approaches to Beggars Bush Barracks. They also had men positioned on the railway embankment controlling Shelbourne Road. At 4pm, Major Harris divided the men into two columns. While he took the main party and turned right onto Shelbourne Road, Mr F.H. Browning led the second group of forty men to the left, onto Northumberland Road towards Mount Street Bridge. The rebel ‘Peter-the-Painter’ repeat revolvers trained on their every step, unseen by the tired part timers. The rebels on the railway embankment targeted their Howth rifles on the innocent ‘Wrecks’. These men fired first, as the soldiers marched parallel with the railway line. The old men scattered, being unable to shoot back. Harris and some of his men made it to the Barrack’s main gate and temporary safety. The rest of his group retreated back down Lansdowne Road and climbed the barrack’s rear wall. The barrack was in turmoil and almost in total panic when the G.R.s arrived back. A total of 9 officers and 81 men got into the barracks and were able to add their six rifles to the barrack’s total of seventeen. The ‘Wrecks’ were even ordered to use their obsolete Italian rifles as clubs should the rebels attack, the barracks having no bullets for them.
Mr Browning’s party on Northumberland Road ran into real trouble having passed the junction with Haddington Road. Mr Browning was leading his men, intending to turn right at Mount Street Bridge and march to the barrack’s main entrance. As he passed No 25, a ‘peter-the-painter’ spat and he was shot through the head. A young woman, standing at her drawing-room window witnessed his death:
“I saw a small detachment of G.R. veterans marching. The afternoon had been warm, they looked hot and tired. A sharp report rings out, and Mr Browning in the foremost rank fell forward, apparently dead; a ghastly stream of blood flowing from his head. His comrades made for cover – the shelter of the trees, the side of a flight of steps.”
Guns opened up from both sides of the street and from Clanwilliam House, north of the bridge. The soldiers, like their colleagues with Major Harris, carried rifles but no bullets. They hugged whatever cover they had found. The road fell quiet and seemed totally deserted. A woman opened her door and started to descend her front steps. One of the soldiers rose and dashed across the road towards her and the safety of her home. Bullets swept the path and he dropped dead at her feet. The distraught woman set up a wail of terror until her domestic managed to get her back indoors. The witness, still at her drawing-room window noticed six men crouching behind the tree in front of her house, and recorded:
“Of the six men by the tree only one is now standing – the others must have lain down – but no, they have fallen on their backs, one over another – they are all wounded! Oh, the horror of it all – what does it mean?”
A wounded soldier was carried by his compatriots into her next-door neighbour’s house and she turned to attend her very old and frail mother, sitting quietly by the fire. She later noticed a bare-headed, white-coated doctor drive up in a motor-car. He attended to what wounded could be delivered to her neighbour’s home. A gang of curious onlookers watched the whole event from Harrington’s corner, blind to the severe risk they had exposed themselves to. They only dispersed after the seriously wounded were driven off to Baggot Street Hospital.
The bodies of four khaki-clad ‘Wrecks’ lay scattered across the street, a stark reminder to the brutal levels the rebels were prepared to go to, to increase their death toll. A further seven had being wounded in the engagement. News of the ambush of the unarmed elderly men spread quickly through the city, causing disgust among the civilian population and steadying the resolve of the Crown forces. Padraig Pearse issued orders to all the rebel garrisons to only shoot at armed British soldiers. Still, it would have been impossible for the rebels to know that these soldiers had no bullets. They had made no attempt to surrender, and did not change their route after engaging their enemy. They did however get their chance for revenge. When ammunition was got to Beggars Bush Barracks by the arrival of the Sherwood Foresters on Wednesday, the Georgius Rex veterans occupied the barrack’s roofs and engaged the rebels at both the railway embankment and at Mount Street Bridge. No one ever said, “You stupid Boy!” to the ‘Gorgeous Wrecks’ again!