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Webmatters : The O'Brien Butler brothers at war

The O'Brien Butler brothers

Belvedere College

Sometimes a name strikes a chord and in wandering the battlefields I chanced upon two soldiers by the name of O’Brien Butler. One with a hyphen the other without.

Looking at their CWGC entries they appeared to be brothers without actually saying so. A little further digging found both their names on the roll of honour at Belvedere College in Dublin along with a third brother and a brother-in-law.

The College is extremely interesting because it has former pupils from both sides of the Irish political divide at the time. Some like the O’Brien Butlers were fighting for the British Empire whilst others such Republican activist Joseph Plunkett were executed for their part in the Easter Rising of 1916 (Plunkett was a signatory of the Proclamation of Independence).

With some help from the historical records as well as information offered by the college here is a short account about these four former students.


Lieutenant Pierce O’Brien Butler

Army Service Corps

Died on 15th January 1902 aged 24

The eldest of the three brothers had become an international rugby player, playing for Ireland as a full back between 1897 to 1900. However, with a father who had been a Major in the 60th Foot it was no surprise that he would also consider a military career.

And so, following his last International on 10th February 1900 he set sail with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers to take part in the Boer War. Transferred into the Army Service Corps he was promoted to Lieutenant in November 1901. It was a short lived honour because a few months later he fell ill with dysentery and died as a consequence on 15th January 1902.


Charles Paget O’Brien Butler

Captain RAMC, Attached to 5th Royal Irish Lancers

Died on 31st October 1914 aged 33

Captain Paget O'Brien Butler
Charles Paget O’Brien Butler

The second of the two brothers had also flirted with the game of rugby though never attaining the prowess of his elder brother. However, Paget was small, like his brother (who despite being a rugby international was only 1.67m tall) and quickly found that his main passion was horse racing. He was so successful that he would become an outstanding amateur jockey before the war.

The loss of his brother did not impede Paget from joining the Army as a medical officer and finding a place within a cavalry regiment : the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers.

On 12th October 1914 during the race to the sea the Regiment was approaching the Mont des Cats near the Franco-Belgian border (It is one of the famous Monts de Flandres and can be seen quite easily with its modern aerial sticking out of the top near to the Trappist Abbey : good cheese and they now sell a beer as well — brewed by the monks at Chimay).

The abbey was believed to have been fortified by the 3rd Bavarian Cavalry Division who had dug trenches across its front. The British 3rd Cavalry Brigade made up of the 5th Lancers the 16th Lancers and the 4th Hussars were ordered forward (on foot) to occupy the abbey. This was successfully carried out but only after heavy fighting.

Amongst the German wounded was a young oberleutnant of the Leib-Dragoner-Regiment Nr 24 : Prince Maximilian von Hesse (a great-grandson of Queen Victoria). As the Medical Officer attached to the 5th Lancers, it fell to Paget O’Brien Butler to tend the wounded officer whose injuries were clearly mortal. Speaking in very good English the Prince offered Paget his gold watch in thanks for his efforts to save him.

He died shortly afterwards and was originally buried within the abbey grounds by the 5th Lancers. In 1926 his body was removed back to Germany.

Over the next few days the 5th Lancers continued in the general advance towards Klein Zillebeke to the south-east of Ieper. The 1st Battle of Ypres had begun on the 19th October and the Germans were pressing with all their might against everything the British, French and Belgians could muster to close the remaining kilometres between them and the coast.

The Lancers were forced with the rest of their Brigade to make a fighting retreat in the face of overwhelming numbers of German infantry. There were no rear lines of defence at this stage of the war and the Troopers had to find cover as best as they could as they retreated.

Eventually the line was steadied but Paget O’Brien Butler had become one of the day’s victims — killed by a shell blast whilst looking after the wounded.

The first member of his old school to die during the war; he would not, sadly, be the last : even of his own family.

Following the war’s end the gold watch, given as a gift, was returned to the Hesse Royal family.

Captain Paget O’Brien Butler is buried in Bailleul Communal Cemetery (Grave: B 17).


Captain Hugh O’Brien

2nd Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers

Died on the 22nd December 1914 aged 34

Captain Hugh O'Brien
Hugh O’Brien

The son of Lt Colonel H O’Brien RAMC, Hugh was married to a sister of the O’Brien Butler brothers.

Hugh had already seen service in the Boer War and on the North West Frontier and joined the 2nd Bn Royal Munster Fusiliers on the outbreak of the Great War.

The German’s last offensive for 1914 was launched at 0900 hours the 20th December against one of the weaker parts of the line near Festubert and Givenchy — held by the Indian Army. Nine mines were detonated under the allied lines coupled with a heavy bombardment.

At 1430 hours GHQ sent orders that the 1st Guard’s Brigade (which included the 2nd Munsters) should march immediately from Bailleul about 35 kilometres to the north.

The forced march was carried out in the pouring rain with the odd hailstorm thrown in for good measure.

Arriving in Béthune at 0300 hours the Brigade was allowed to rest up and grab a miserable breakfast before being sent in to the attack at noon.

Their objective was the village of Givenchy lès la Bassée which was being held by the 1st Bn Manchester Regiment — but only just. Advancing up through the Indians across the rain soaked ground the Irishmen made slow but steady progress but even so it was dark by the time they were approaching Givenchy and they discovered that the Manchesters, having given up all hope of being relieved had pulled out of the village.

The situation was becoming critical and Captain O’Brien was at the front of the fighting to retake Givenchy.

Urging his men on he was brought down with a wound to the left side but continued to rally his men, encouraging them forward. The Munsters losses were mounting as the Germans plied their attacking waves with machine gun fire.

Whilst he was being bandaged up a shell exploded right next to Captain O’Brien and he was killed.

Although he was buried close to the spot where he fell the grave was lost in the midst of the fighting in the area and he is now commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing at Le Touret (Panel 43).


Captain Capel O’Brien Butler

6th Battalion Royal Irish Regiment

Died on the 7th June 1917 aged 27

Captain Capel O'Brien Butler
Capel O’Brien Butler

Although a more than satisfactory student he did not share the same flair for sports as his brothers, but nonetheless followed in the family traditions joining the 6th Bn Royal Irish Regiment (which was also the unit of the Irish MP William Redmond).

Early in 1917 he received the Military Cross for bravery and began training for the masterpiece that would be the Battle of Messines in June 1917.

Without a doubt it counts as one of the best organised offensives throughout the war by either side and was unique in that it was the first time that the 16th Irish Division would fight alongside the 36th Ulster Division.

On Thursday the 7th June 1917 the entire German front line in front of Messines village (Mesen) evaporated as the British detonated a series of devastating mines.

Lessons had been learnt and the infantry were swiftly off their marks against the remaining German bunkers and trenches.

In some cases bunkers were found with an entire compliment of defenders killed by shock waves but as Captain O’Brien Butler advanced against one of the others he was hit by a round and died instantly.

The day was a complete success but the Irish had lost more than a gallant Captain, for Major Redmond had also been wounded within the opening moments of the attack and although tended to by medics from the Ulster Division he died of his wounds at the Loker Hospice a short distance behind the lines.

Capel O’Brien Butler, the third and last son of the family to die in the Great War, is buried on the other side of the hill to Redmond at Kemmel Château Cemetery (Grave: X 74).