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On Monday, 24 April 1916, as the Volunteers and Citizen Army were taking over buildings in Dublin, the men of the Sherwood Forester Battalions of the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Brigade of the North Midland (59th) Division were training in England at Watford.

Among the first British troops called to quell the Rising were the Sherwood Foresters.

The Foresters left Liverpool and arrived in Kingstown (now Dunlaoghaire) on Wednesday morning – tired, seasick, and disoriented. One column headed to Royal Hospital Kilmainham by way of the Stillorgan-Donnybrook-South Circular Road route, and made it without incident.

The other column was ordered to head to Trinity College and marched into a massacre now known as the Battle of Mount Street Bridge.

25 Northumberland Road, Clanwilliam House and the Parochial Hall at the bridge were perfectly sited and manned by thirteen 3rd Battalion Volunteer troops who were excellent marksmen with plenty of ammunition. The 800 British were raw troops, many of whom had never fired a live cartridge, had had training only in trench fighting, had no grenades at first, and were completely overwhelmed by urban/street fighting.

The Sherwoods marched from Kingstown up to Sandymount by Merrion Road, then through Pembroke Road, then finally into Northumberland Road. The column continued to advance with C Company (Cpt Frank Pragnell) in the lead accompanied by the O/C, Lt Colonel Fane, followed by A Company (Cpt Wright), B Company (Cpt Hanson) with the reserve, D Company (Cpt Cooper) bringing up the rear. C Company advanced in a box formation, with the front platoon in line and the following platoons advancing along the pavement in column, the intention being that they could cover any side streets and clear houses, if required.

Three-quarters of the Sherwood Foresters who fought at Mount Street Bridge had no more than three months’ service and no training in street fighting. Later the Irish said ‘A lot of their [British] losses were their own fault. They made sitting ducks for amateur riflemen’.

Unlike many of the British soldiers at the time, the Sherwoods were volunteers, recruited form the towns of Nottinghamshire, and were still in their basic training at Watford. They were still unblooded troops, and were unfamiliar with their weapons.

Though they were a much better armed force than the Irish and were well organised and disciplined with good morale, they were not front-line, battle-tested troops. In fact, many of the South Staffordshire and Sherwood Forester Regiment troops who came to Ireland to fight in the Rising were disembarked in Kingstown and immediately marched out onto the piers to load and fire their weapons – for many, that was the only live fire training they had before going into battle in Dublin.

(Below) Reenactment of a firing squad in action

British Cpt E. Gerrard noted some of their troops were ‘untrained, undersized products of the English slums….The young Sherwoods that I had [at Beggars Bush Barracks] had never fired a service rifle before. They were not even able to load them. We had to show them how to load them’.

In that regard, many of the rebels were better trained than the British soldiers, and many were excellent marksmen/women. While for almost all of the Volunteers/Citizen Army the Rising was their introduction to war, so it was for the majority of the British troops, as well.

In this engagement the Sherwood Foresters’ casualties were three officers killed, fourteen wounded, and 216 other ranks killed or wounded. Every officer was either killed or wounded. The loss of the officers caused great confusion amongst the raw Robin Hoods, and the British gave full credit to the defensive positions and the courage of the Volunteers saying after the Rising that if every position had been defended with such skill and determination that the insurrection would have been three times as long.

When they finally broke through the Bridge, they arrived at Trinity College a badly mauled Regiment.

As a "reward" for their gallantry, troops from the Sherwood Foresters, the regiment whose ranks were so decimated at Mount Street Bridge, were chosen to form the firing squads for the leaders of the Rising who were to be executed in Kilmainham Gaol.

Between 3 May and 12 May 1916, 14 men were shot to death, including James Connolly who was shot in a chair on 12 May because he was so badly wounded he could not stand.

Brigadier J. Young was in charge here and laid down the procedures for the executions after the Rising; the first prisoner to be executed was paraded at 3.30 am to face a firing squad of twelve men.

The commander of the firing squad was Maj Charles Harold Heathcote, second in command of the regiment. Maj Heathcote was sent to Richmond Barracks to take charge of the prisoners and their effects and escort them to Kilmainham. He took with him B Company and Cpt Orr and Lt Maine (acting as Adjutant). They were under the command of Provost Marshall Col Fraser. 

As is customary in firing squads, eleven of the soldiers had live rounds in their weapons, and one round was a blank. The officers loaded the weapons for the soldiers so no soldier knew if his weapon contained the blank round or a live one. If necessary, the officer commanding shot the prisoner in the head with a handgun as a coup de grace.

While Maj Heathcote was identified as the commander, the Regiment also followed the custom of not identifying the men who were in the firing squad, and the regimental records have no listing of the squad members.

All of the executions took place in the Stonebreaker’s Yard of the Gaol.

As a final note on their service in Dublin, along with the Foresters killed, twelve men were so seriously wounded that they were discharged from the Army due to their physical incapacity. As Dublin was considered ‘Home service’ the men killed or discharged through wounds earned no medals as only overseas service qualified a man for such honours.

(Below) Stonebreakers' Yard. lllustrations (c) Kilmainham Tales 2013

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