Quick march, into the record books: The night Cork soldiers made history

In 1944, a Cork battalion marched 42 miles in just short of 12 hours... with a full, 40 lb battle kit on their backs. TERENCE O’REILLY takes up the remarkable story
Quick march, into the record books: The night Cork soldiers made history
A unit of the 4th Infantry Battalion at the time of their record-breaking march in 1944, including Comdt Mick Gill - note gas masks on their chests

IF you’ve got an old Guinness Book Of Record from the years 1974 to 1991, you will notice an entry relating to a remarkable Cork feat.

“On the night of September 12-13, 1944, a team of nine from B Company 4th Infantry Battalion of the Irish Army made a night march of 42 miles (67.59 km) in full battle order carrying 40 lb (18.1kg) in 11 hours 49 minutes.”

The endurance record stands alongside a reference to The Great March of the Red Army of the Communist Party of China by Mao in 1935 — and, as far as we know, still stands.

So how did the Irish army join such exalted company?

The story begins in the summer of 1944, when the Irish Defence Forces were 36,000-strong at a time during World War II when Irish neutrality was seen as under threat.

The 4th Infantry Battalion, normally based in Cork city but based in West Cork since 1940, had attained a high standard of fitness by routinely marching between 20 and 30 miles in full kit.

Rivalry between battalions was keen and, after an exercise in which the 4th had soundly defeated another battalion, consideration was given “to carrying out a realistic endurance test which, once and for all, would demonstrate the 4th’s superiority over all others.”

Fighting talk, indeed!

Each of the Battalion’s five companies would field a team of volunteers, each consisting of an officer and two NCOs and six men — 45 men in all in five teams. Each would carry his rifle, respirator and full battle order, with a steel helmet carried but not worn: a total weight of 40 lb — equivalent to a three-year-old child.

For sustenance, the soldiers had cold tea in their water bottles — thermos flasks being rare at that time— and sandwiches.

The route laid out was to start in Fermoy Camp, marching through Ballyhooley, Castletownroche, Kildorrery and Mitchelstown and finishing in Fermoy; a total journey of 42 statute miles. That’s like walking from Cork city to Rosscarbery or Gougane Barra!

Each team was to consider itself a fighting patrol, detailed to blow up Fermoy Bridge. On concluding the march, each team would dig slit trenches.

The B Company team was led by 2nd Lieutenant George McEnery and an NCO, Corporal Ned Courtney, a famous goalkeeper who played on the same Cork GAA team as Jack Lynch and later with Cork United.

Other members of B Company included Cpl Clancy, 26, Pte Foley, 32, Pte Ryan, 26, Pte Kelly, 25, Pte Walsh, 23, Pte Galvin, 29, and Pte Harris, 28.

McEnery, 28, had in his team “two men who could be considered as medically unfit... one suffered from epileptic fits periodically while the other had spent three months in hospital suffering from tubercular glands. Both performed splendidly”.

He added: “I chose these two men in preference to some others and if anything is to be learned from this march, it may be that physical fitness should not be the final decider.”

The HQ Company team was led by Comdt Mick Gill, 25, who later recalled the evening in Fermoy Camp before the march: “The headquarters of each team was like a jockeys’ dressing room, with willing assistants adjusting equipment, soaping socks, donating cigarettes and chocolate for the road and giving still more last minute advice.”

The first team to march out from Fermoy that Tuesday, September 12, at 9pm, just after sunset, was B Company’s, followed at half-hour intervals by the HQ Company team, then the C, A and D Company teams.

McEnery’s men covered the first ten miles of the 16-mile ‘bound’ over first class tarred roads, through Ballyhooley and then Castletownroche. However, the last part was over second and third class roads with rough and stony surfaces, which caused some difficulty in the darkness.

The team reached Kildorrery at midnight, celebrating with a sip of cold tea and a 15-minute rest. However, one young soldier’s feet were already stripped; after his officer bandaged his feet and provided his own spare socks, the team set out again, 27 miles ahead of them on an unseasonably cold and dark night.

The next stretch, seven-and-a- half miles to Mitchelstown, was marched in 90 minutes and celebrated with a rest and a sandwich, washed down by cold tea. The B Company team, decisively in the lead, now set out on the next seven-mile stretch, which they covered in 100 minutes and celebrated with another swig of cold tea, having now covered 30 miles. It began to rain at 3am and would continue to 6am.

Gill recalled: “I found the greatest strain to be the weight of the equipment and suffered considerably from cramp and pains in shoulders and arms. Singing helped us but it was difficult to find songs suitable in rhythm.”

There were 12 lung-busting miles left, divided into three final stretches, with an hour allocated for each. Gill said: “Tempers did not improve towards the end and little annoyances were magnified out of all proportion.

“The darkness of the night was exceptionally trying and a similar march in daylight would be a far less formidable task.”

Disaster nearly struck McEnery’s team with only four gruelling miles left: one of their fittest men refused to go on. Only after his equipment had been distributed among his teammates did he change his mind, take his equipment back and resume the march.

Another break of 10 minutes in this last bound was made near Labbacallee, just south of Glanworth, to permit a member of the team to fix his socks, which had slipped down over his heel, while the other men thirstily drank water from a roadside pump.

The B Company team were met by the Battalion Pipe Band outside Fermoy, and reached Fermoy Camp at 8.49am, with the entire 4th Infantry Battalion massed at the front gate to cheer them in.

The battalion commander had cancelled the ‘dig-in’ part of the exercise, but the B Company team dug slit trenches anyway.

Over the next two hours, the remaining teams arrived, but B Company’s time remained the fastest and set the new record.

Gill’s most vivid recollection “was the enthusiastic, emotion-charged reception we got from the battalion as we marched home”.

Each company proudly welcomed their own team with a mug of whiskey-fortified tea. Only four soldiers failed to complete the march, three of whom were from the HQ Company team.

Certificates were issued to all successful participants, signed by the top brass, stating: “We consider that this march is the finest achievement of its kind of which we have any knowledge.”

However, it would be another 30 years before a veteran of the 4th Infantry Battalion contacted the Guinness Book of Records, who investigated the claim and recognised it as the fastest long distance military march carried out under peacetime conditions.

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