2nd Lt Herbert Justin Lemass

Co. Dublin

2nd Lieutenant Lemass was from Dublin and was killed on 23 October 1916 in Gun Pits, Somme. He was 19 years old.

early life

Herbert Justin Lemass was born on 24 February 1897. He was from a well-off Catholic family and was living in Leeson Park in Rathmines. By 1916 his family had moved to No. 3 Clifton Terrace in Monkstown. 


Herbert's father was Dr. Peter Edmund Lemass (born c.1850) who at the time was the Senior Secretary of the National Board of Education. This would have been similar in status to the modern day Minister for Education. He is listed in Thom's Directory 1911 as "Lemass, Peter Edmund - ISO LRCSI sec. Board of Nat. Education - Rate paid - 68l".

His mother's name was Maria Patricia Lemass (neé Scanlan) and he had five siblings, four of whom survived childhood. Herbert's older brother Edwin Stephen Lemass fought as well but survived the war. 



Herbert attended the Catholic University School (CUS) and then went to Blackrock College, a private all-boys Catholic school, from 1908-1913. He went to Trinity College Dublin in 1913 aged 16 as a pensioner i.e. he paid a fixed annual fee for his education where he joined the Medical School. He showed an early interest in the military becoming a member of the Dublin University Officer Training Corps. He was too young to enlist when war broke out so in August 1915 he joined Sandhurst Military Academy in Berkshire as a cadet. Family history relates that his family didn't have much time for the Home Rule party and so he was unlikely to be following Redmond's call; it also seems unlikely that his family as staunch Catholics would have been British patriots. His joining the Training Corps and then the Military Academy seems to suggest that he had an interest in the military and wanted to pursue it as a career. The war would have seemed like the perfect opportunity to start progressing that career. 

Sandhurst Military Academy

Cuff of the uniform of a 2nd Lieuthenant

Life in the military

Herbert was very successful in Sandhurst and in December of 1915, after having been there for only five months, he was given a permanent commission in the Regular Army, meaning that even after the war ended he would still belong to the army. He was gazetted to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and was sent to France in June 1916. He was put in the 2nd Battalion (10th Brigade, 4th Division) and given the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. During the time that Herbert was in the army, his battalion fought in the Battle of Albert and the Battle of Le Transloy.

Badge of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers

The cuff of a 2nd Lieutenant is visible on the uniform in this photograph of Herbert. 


After five months of fighting at the Somme, Herbert Lemass was killed on Monday, 23 October 1916. He died of wounds sustained while fighting to take an area of German territory known as Gun Pits. The following is an extract from his battalion's War Diary from the day Herbert was killed.

"No opposition was met within about 30 ft of GUN PITS, when a heavy machine gun and rifle fire was met, compelling our leading lines to lie down. They, however, crawled forward and bombed the GUN PITS, and eventually got into them, where very heavy hand-to-hand fighting ensued and it was the survival of the fittest. The GUN PITS were strongly held and had four machine guns...2nd Lieuts: - L. G. DORAN, H. G. KILLINGLY, H. J. LEMASS, Killed in Action.

Extract from the Wartime Diary recounting the activities of Herbert's battalion the day he was killed.

This photograph is an extract from his battalion's Wartime Diary listing the men killed.

This is the medal card which documents the medals awarded to each soldier. Herbert is recorded on the bottom left-hand corner as having been awarded the British War Medal, which is given to those who serve overseas, and the British War Victory Medal which was awarded to soldiers who fought in the First World War. Above Herbert's record on the left-hand side is that of his older brother Captain Edwin Stephen Lemass, who survived the war.

This photograph is of an original ink and watercolour drawing of Herbert on card. On the reverse a message in pencil reads 'Lieutenant Herbert Lemass fell at the Somme France 23 October 1916. RIP.'

Photograph of Herbert in uniform.


Herbert Lemass is buried in the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in Longueval. His grave reference is XVII K1. He is commemorated in the Hall of Honour in Trinity College Dublin, on the Great War Memorial in Sandhurst Military Academy, his parents' gravestone in Dean's Grange Cemetery and on the Blackrock College Union website.  

This is the postcard signed by King George V that was sent to Herbert's family after his death.

This is the memorial scroll sent to Herbert's family.

This is a pair of of British War and Victory Medals which Herbert would have been awarded. 

The following was reported on 4th November 1916: 'Dr:. P. Lemass, of Monkstown, former Secretary of the Board of Education, has been officially informed of the death, in action in France, of his second son, Lieut. Herbert Justin Lemass. He was only nineteen years of age at the time of his death. Educated at the Catholic University and Trinity College, he came from Sandhurst last December, and was attached to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and went to France. A daring officer and a splendid example to his men, he is deeply deplored. His elder brother, Mr. Edwin Stephen Lemass, barrister-at-law, is serving in France with the Army Service Corps.'

A newspaper supplement to Irish Life entitled 'Our Heroes' was published after the war containing a photograph and a biography of the officers who had been killed at war.

Herbert's family

Herbert's parents, Peter and Maria Lemass, died in 1928 and 1932 respectively and were buried in Dean's Grange Cemetery with their daughter Gertrude.

Edwin Stephen Lemass

Edwin Stephen Lemass was Herbert's older brother who was 21 while serving in France. He was a captain in the Royal Army Service Corps and survived the war. He studied law at Trinity College Dublin. He did brilliantly and was called to the bar at the age of 22. He practised for some time on the North Western Circuit. Family history relates that when he returned home after the war he was warned by the IRA to leave the country. He joined the Colonial Service, became a judge and went to live in Tangier, Morocco. He was stationed in Cairo in Egypt for a few years and then moved to Alexandria. He became one of the leading judges in Egypt and did significant work reorganising the courts in Egypt. He never returned to live in Ireland but used to visit to see his sister. He married an Italian woman named Dori and died in Egypt in April 1970.

He used to come home occasionally to see his sisters and we used to look forward to his visit because we had stamp collections and he always brought us stamps from different countries.

Owen Lemass, second cousin of Herbert and Edwin.

Herbert's sisters

Edith Ursula (Edie): Edie served as a VAD with the British Red Cross during the war. following the war she became an actress and performed a lot in the Abbey Theatre where she was a member. She also taught elocution.

Gertrude Mary: Gertrude died young and is buried with her parents in Dean's Grange Cemetery.

Maria Angela: Maria became a member of the congregation in Sion Hill Dominican Convent in Blackrock.

Seán Lemass

Seán Lemass was Herbert's second cousin. While Herbert and Edwin were fighting in the trenches, 17-year-old Seán Lemass was fighting in the GPO during the Easter Rising. He became one of the most prominent politicians in Ireland and served as Taoiseach from 1959 - 1966. He was the first Fianna Fáil leader to make a positive statement about the war, possibly with his cousins in mind.

In later years it was common - and I was also guilty in this respect - to question the motives of those who joined the new British armies at the outbreak of the war, but it must be in their honour and in fairness to their memory, be said, that they were motivated by the highest purpose.

Seán Lemass

Discovery of Herbert's documents

After the war, Herbert's family, like many others who had relatives who fought in the Great War, simply never spoke of him. He was forgotten, and his photographs, newspaper clippings and memorial scroll and postcard along with some of his brother Edwin's papers were kept by his sister Edith (Edie) Lemass. When she died and her neighbours were cleaning out the house, they were found and sent to Owen Lemass, a second cousin of Herbert and Edith, and their closest living relative. They were placed in the attic and forgotten about until they were discovered in a clear-out in 2012. 

Visiting the Grave

I visited Herbert's final resting place in Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in Longueval on 27 June 2015 and laid soil from Dublin on his grave. It was moving to finally pay my respects to the soldier I feel like I've come to know over the past few months.

If anyone has any further information about Herbert or any questions about my research, please don't hesitate to contact me at katharinewoods46@gmail.com.

About me

I am 16 years old and have just finished Transition Year in Wesley College in Ballinteer. I have always loved studying history, especially the First World War, so when I heard about the Adopt a Soldier project I knew that I had to apply. I was surprised and delighted when I found out that I had been chosen to represent Dublin.  I feel like I have a family connection to the period; my great-uncle, Thornley, died on the Somme just four days after Herbert Lemass. I also found out not long ago that my great-grandmother, Monica Roberts, set up a society to send gifts to the men at the front and had a large collection of letters that she received back from them which are really interesting to read. (The letters are in the Dublin City Library, and you can also view the collection online by clicking on the link below). This project has really made the First World War more personal and it seems even more tragic when viewed from the perspective of one family. I feel like I have really got to know Herbert as I found out more and more about his life and it is an honour to represent him. I found it fascinating researching his story especially in the context of the time and his relationship with Seán Lemass. It seems only fitting that his story should be shared and remembered after being forgotten for almost a hundred years. I am really looking forward to the trip and paying my respects to Herbert's grave after I have found out so much about him. I know that it will be a poignant and enriching experience. 

Many thanks to Owen Lemass and his daughter Angela (right) who were very generous with their time to talk to me about Herbert's story. Thanks also to Ken Kinsella of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers archive and to the archivists in the Dublin City Library, where the originals of many of the photographs of Herbert can be found.

Visiting Herbert’s grave

We started our trip meeting in the Phoenix Park on Friday morning and popped into Áras an Uachtaráin to meet President Higgins. We were introduced to the president and he spoke to us about how valuable our project is. We then had tea and coffee and were impressed by the president’s personalised teacups and napkins. It was off to the airport then to catch our flight to Brussels.

Saturday morning saw us at the massive Lochnagar Crater which was blown up by the British on the morning of the Somme offensive on July 1st 1916. It is 300 feet wide and 90 feet deep.

We started to visit the cemeteries where the soldiers from our different counties are buried. There was something special and touching about each individual cemetery and we could have spent days wandering around looking at all the different headstones. It was heart-breaking seeing the sheer number of graves, especially those marking the unknown soldiers, “Known unto God”. The graveyards were all so peaceful and well-maintained and it served as such a contrast to what it must have been like 100 years ago.

What I found particularly moving was the German cemetery we visited, with its rows of black crosses, each marking four soldiers’ graves. The Jewish headstones stood out from the crosses and it was poignant to think about how these soldiers were dishonoured when the Second World War came around. At the back of the cemetery were four mass graves, containing in total 12,000 men. It was a sobering number for such a small space of ground.

The German cemetery.

A Jewish headstone.

One of the four mass graves.

One of the most special moments for me on the trip was visiting my soldier’s grave. On Saturday afternoon just before lunch, we stopped off at Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in Longueval where Herbert is buried. After spending so much time researching Herbert’s life over the last six months, I really feel a personal connection to him and it feels as if I knew him, which made visiting his final resting place very moving. I sprinkled soil from Dublin on the grave and signed the cemetery register. 

We visited the Ulster Memorial tower on Saturday afternoon and got a tour of some restored trenches in Theipval Wood. Nathan, Emily and Kyle dressed as a WW1 soldier, a nurse and modern day soldier to see what their uniforms are really like.

Our next stop was the Theipval Memorial where the soldiers from the Somme with no known grave are remembered. Unfortunately the memorial itself was under restoration so we couldn’t go into it to see the names, but we held a ceremony at the Cross of Sacrifice. I read the poem ‘To My Daughter’ by Thomas Kettle and we each laid a rose in memory of the soldiers from our counties on the memorial. We also had David singing a song and Manus playing on his fiddle.

On Sunday morning we visited Newfoundland Park where the Canadian soldiers fought. We were able to walk through some of the original trenches and learned about the Canadian contribution to the Somme in the interpretive centre. After visiting the remainder of our soldiers’ cemeteries we headed off on the bus for Ypres.

We attended the Menin Gate ceremony which is held every evening in memory of those who fell at Ypres. The Last Post was played and Emma and Manus laid flowers on behalf of the group. It was a beautiful and moving ceremony.

After a sleepless Sunday night, we transferred back to Brussels early on Monday morning for our visit to the European Parliament. We met MEP Marian Harkin, who had provided the funding for our trip, and had a look around the parliament which was really interesting. A trip to a theme park in Brussels was the last thing on our agenda before flying back to Dublin. 

The students from Leinster. 

This trip was the most amazing experience and I was so lucky to be able to be a part of it. I met people from all over Ireland who are all passionate about history as well and it was amazing how quickly we all became friends. Visiting all the cemeteries was heart-breaking, poignant and wonderful. I can’t believe how quickly the time went once we were out there and I will definitely be going back. Thanks to Gerry and his crew who organised an absolutely unforgettable experience. It was the trip of a lifetime.