My mother was about 4 years old when she first noticed it. She had hauled herself up through the flowers and small shrubs her mother had carefully planted on the slope immediately to the back of their house. When her mother went to look for her she saw that she had reached the top of the flowerbed and was pointing her little muddied stubby finger in the direction of the gun battery, located about a half mile from the house. The huge black snout of the long gun pointed straight back at her – its 9.2 inch calibre not showing because of the wooden plug at the end.
The 9.2 was part of a battery of two such guns, known as Rerrin Battery. British army fortification had begun on Bere Island with a compulsory purchase order in 1898, after which tenants were cleared from the East end of the island. The reason for these fortifications was to protect British Dreadnoughts when they were in port, as they needed 48 hours of elaborate protection while routine maintenance had to be carried out and while they got up sufficient steam in their boilers. This phase of construction led to the construction of seven gun batteries in total.
The house my mother grew up in was a two-storey structure partially set back into the hill so that it was below the line of fire of the garrison battery. Her grandfather would have built the house long before the British occupation. Her father had served in the Royal Navy as had many men from the island. He was now retired while still a comparatively young man and held down a good job as the maintenance man responsible for the target butts on the rifle range.
Firing Number One
My mother was much older when she remembered the first time the military had fired the big gun. In particular, she recollected the preparations beforehand, answering a knocking at their front door, to be met with a gangly pimpled British Tommy not much older than her.
“Tell your Mum, Major Hawkins sends his regards and asks her to please follow the instructions given to her and be ready for eleven o‟clock tomorrow morning.” Once he had blurted all of this out quickly, he paused and then added shyly “they are going to fire number one tomorrow.”
Thus she and her mother began to hurry about the house. Large serving dinner plates which were used mainly for carving the turkey at Christmas or suchlike were taken from the shelf where they were proudly displayed, to be wrapped individually in blankets and carefully stored in the blanket box itself. The same action was applied to any of the more precious glass and china ornaments that had been handed down from previous generations. Next followed removal of the eggs from under the laying hen and placement deep in the protection of the hayshed, so that they would have time to settle in their temporary home until the firing practice was over. On the morning of the firing all windows were opened about halfway and her mother gave her cotton wool, telling her “have that ready when I tell you to plug your ears”!
The Great War
Years later my mother recalled that, even with her ears protected, she could still hear the lonely howl of the shell from the 9.2 as it passed over their house and headed towards the targets being towed in the bay. Later, when the army decided to remove the guns from that battery her father told her that he had heard they were being taken to France to be mounted on railcars and could be used on the front in the Great War that was raging in France. She had heard about places like the Somme. She wept with a great sadness when her thoughts pictured the possibility of the teenage soldier who had called to them being on the receiving end of one of those howling shells from the big guns.