This is the story of a Dublin woman in search of the grave of her granduncle who died in Belgium in 1918, and who was unaware that an author in Belgium was trying to find relatives of the same man.
The author Patrick Lernout was compiling a book about the Flanders Field American Cemetery in Waregem, Belgium and was seeking details on a soldier buried there called John Masterson – the granduncle of Dublin woman Breda Gaynor.
Eventually, Breda made contact with Lernout and tracked down the grave of Masterson, which had been lost to her family for almost a hundred years.
Breda was then invited to the 90th anniversary of the Flanders battle and got to visit the grave of her granduncle, which she has done many times since.
In 2016, her sister Eileen, also visited the grave on Memorial Day, along with her daughters (pictured below). The discovery of their granduncle’s grave, and visiting it, has played a major part in bringing Breda and Eileen back together. For many years, they had not been in communication.
It is a fitting tribute to the memory of John Masterson and to the pursuit of his grave that this positive side effect has happened. And it is something which often occurs for such families in pursuit of their history.
John Masterson, from Abbeylara in County Longford, was killed in action on 9 August 1918, aged 24. He had not long been in the United States, and yet found himself back in Europe within just a few years to fight in the First World War. This was a not uncommon experience for many Irish emigrants.
John Masterson lived at 123 Pierrepoint Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, with his sister Ellen Masterson, but she returned to Ireland.
John volunteered with the 14th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard, which later became the 106th Infantry Regiment.
The ’14th’ were a legendary regiment which fought in the American Civil War. The Confederate General, Stonewall Jackson, gave them the nickname the ‘red legged devils’ due to their red trousers but also their prowess and refusal to surrender ground.
For this reason, the regiment retained its ’14th’ designation despite subsequent absorption into a broader New York regiment. The 14th later fought in World War One, an involvement marked by the sculpture of a Doughboy (pictured below) outside the 14th Regiment Armoury in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
In August 1918, Masterson and three others from ‘the 14th’ were killed when a German shell hit their shelter during an intense bombardment. It was in the final months of the war. In his last letter home, John had described large numbers of Germans being taken prisoner.
Above : A Brooklyn newspaper describes how Private John Masterson died.
John was one of thirteen children raised on a small farm in Derragh, Granard, County Longford. His twin sister, Brigid, was Breda Gaynor’s grandmother.
John’s brother Bernard also served in the Great War (with the British Army), and severely injured his arm. This injury did not, however, prevent his later involvement in the Irish War of Independence and in the Irish Civil War.
Bernard’s son, also called Masterson, served for many years in the Irish Army.
Pictured below: John’s mother, Bridget.
Pictured below: a passionate letter from Bridget Masterson to the US military, hoping that John’s remains stay in Europe and wishing that she could see her son’s grave.
Pictured below: US military form for reburial of John’s remains in 1922
Pictured below: US military letter regarding a new grave for John Masterson
Pictured below: letter from the US military explaining that it cannot provide a family visit to John’s grave.
Contact was then lost with John Masterson’s grave. Over the decades his relatives passed on and the precise location of his grave became gradually unknown. The correspondence pictured above was only unearthed much later when Breda Gaynor made investigations in 2008.
As a child, Breda had often heard her father speak about how one day ‘they must track down Uncle John’s grave’. It was a constant refrain with him. By 2008, Breda’s father had passed on, but she then decided to follow up on her father’s wishes and speculation. She was fascinated by Uncle John’s story.
Breda lives in her family home on St Ignatius Avenue, in Drumcondra, one of the long, tightly terraced streets leading down to Dorset Street in Dublin’s north city. If you removed the cars, it could be a streetscape from a hundred years ago, and is not unlike similiar streets in Belfast and the north of England.
Breda grew up here and her own personal story is very interesting, as is her knowledge of the area, with many stories about local characters and events. Her father was an inspector with the Monuments section of the Office of Public Works and Breda went to university, something very unusual for the area and the time. Her husband sadly died some years ago.
In 2008, Breda began a search for the location of her Uncle’s grave. She wrote to the US military, which replied (image below) stating that it had no knowledge of John Masterson’s grave. This was mainly due to a fire in 1973,it claimed, which destroyed a large section of the military’s records.
However, as with so many searches like this, and especially for military and family records, the internet has changed everything and Breda Gaynor was able to trawl online, in a way that previous generations could not.
Eventually she found a family heritage site for people named Masterson, with a message on it from Patrick Lernout, in Belgium, stating that he was writing a book about the men buried in Flanders Field Cemetery and did anyone know about a man buried there called John Masterson. Lernout’s co-author was Christopher Sims.
The message was two years old but Breda was understandably excited and immediately wrote to Patrick. He replied and their correspondence is below:
Pictured below: letter from Patrick Lernout to Breda Gaynor in April 2008.
Breda Gaynor and Patrick were delighted to have made contact with each other and to have tracked down a family for the grave of John Masterson.
Breda was then invited to the 90th anniversary of the Flanders battle in Waregem, Belgium where she finally visited the grave of her granduncle.
Above: Breda meets the US Ambassador, Sam Fox.
Below: Breda meets Patrick Lernout and Christopher Sims in Flanders Field American Cemetery.
Pictured below : Breda receives a commemorative badge from the US Ambassador.
Below: ceremony line up by serving US soldiers.
Pictured below is the cover of the booklet compiled by Patrick Lernout and Christopher Sims about the Flanders Field American Cemetery. It was eventually published in 2017. Much research has gone into its compilation, with approximately a page per soldier, and many photos.
Patrick Lernout lived near the Cemetery and his interest in it arose when, as a schoolboy, he would pass by and wonder about the strange names on the markers.
Below : the page on John Masterson in the booklet.
Pictured below : Flanders Field American cemetery.
Apparently, a local couple, Luc and Regine De Groote-De Clercq, have adopted John Masterson’s grave and place flowers on it on his anniversary and at Christmas.
Below: line up by US military personnel.
Pictured below : wreath-laying by US Ambassador and Yves Leterme, Prime Minister of Belgium.
Below : speech by US Ambassador, Sam Fox.
Pictured below : group shot of honoured guests.
Below : Memorial Tower at Flanders Field American Cemetery. (This, and all pictures here, courtesy of Breda Gaynor.)
Below: Programme card for the Memorial Day Service.
Below : Running order for the Memorial Day Service.
Below : Back in Dublin – Breda Gaynor with Eamon Delaney.