A time to respect the fallen

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

NOVEMBER is a solemn month when we remember the sacrifice of the fallen in two World Wars and the words of English poet Laurence Binyon. For many years Remembrance Sunday has been a divisive event in Ireland symbolised by the annual controversy over the wearing of the poppy. The Irishmen who died in these horrific conflicts gave their lives to save Europe’s small nations from dictatorship. They set aside their quarrel over Home Rule to fight and die together for a just cause.

Remembrance Sunday never ceases to move me for I am the proud grandson and son of soldiers who fought and survived and the phrase ‘we will remember them’ has deep personal meaning for me and many others of my generation. We will be the last to have known the heroes of The Great War and World War Two. This is my family’s story.

The Post Office Telegram that arrived at Woodbine Cottage in Draperstown on May 20, 1915, broke Margaret Wilson’s heart. It read: “Exceedingly regret to inform you that number 51478 private GH Wilson was killed in action on May 8.” A personal message from General Kitchener added: “The King commands me to assure you of the true sympathy of His Majesty and The Queen in your sorrow.”

It was a no different from telegrams that arrived at 30,000 other Irish households during The Great War. While the official sympathy was sincere it failed to recognise the suffering and loss this mother had already endured. Margaret was left a widow with one-year-old twin boys, Herbie and Gordon, when her husband William, a Royal Irish Constabulary constable, drowned while swimming at Cushendall in 1893. She returned to the family home in Draperstown to eke out a living as a dressmaker. She raised her sons with the help of her family which included three devoted sisters.

Margaret’s 32-year-old brother Henry Sargent and her 17-year-old son Herbie took passage to Canada on the SS Lake Champlain in 1910 but Henry was killed in a hunting accident just three weeks after they arrived in Manitoba to work on a farm. Gordon joined his twin brother in Canada and as The Great War engulfed the British Empire the boys felt compelled to join the fight. However Herbie was declared ‘medically unfit’ and rejected for military service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Gravely ill with potentially deadly tuberculosis, he was confined to a sanatorium. But Gordon became a soldier with the Canadian Light Infantry and was sent to the front line in France.

Across the county at Cullycapple in Aghadowey another family, and another set of brothers, was engulfed by the shadow of the great conflict. Robert Neill, an estate worker at Aghadowey, joined the UVF to fight Home Rule and then enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and was determined to take on the Kaiser. He was sent for training to Finner Camp in Donegal, then marched to Randalstown for an exercise in the Antrim hills before departing for camp in England and the Western Front. His older brother James, who was working in Scotland, enlisted with the North Fife Horse.

Robert was wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 but after treatment was sent back to the Front. James’ regiment was so depleted in battle that it was amalgamated with the Black Watch. He was then posted to the campaign in Palestine but fell ill and was placed on a hospital ship with a ticket home. He did not return to his parents and three devoted sisters. Private James Neill died at sea and was buried with his fallen comrades in La Pieta military cemetery in Valetta on the island of Malta.

Robert Neill survived the war and did return home. He took a job in the village of Upperlands where he raised a family of three. He worked in the beetling mill for William Clarke and Sons linen makers until his retirement. Herbie Wilson survived tuberculosis and joined the Canadian railroad. He returned to his mother in 1918 and raised a family of four. He was the stationmaster in Maghera county Londonderry when he retired.

Miraculously his twin brother Gordon, declared dead in 1915, also survived the conflict. A postcard from Stalag 383 arrived at Woodbine Cottage as The Great War drew to a close and revealed he was alive in Germany. The telegram that brought so much grief to his mother Margaret in 1915 was incorrect and the King’s true sympathy misplaced. Gordon was not killed in action but taken prisoner by the Germans. He returned to Draperstown in 1918, married and raised two sons. He was a railway clerk at York Road station in Belfast until his retirement. Herbie Wilson was my mother’s father. Robert Neill was my father’s father.

My father David, Robert Neill’s only son, ran away to join the Royal Engineers in 1939 when he was just 15. He lost a leg at the Battle of the Rhine as the Allies closed in on Germany. He returned home to a job with the Imperial Civil Service war pensions division where he was responsible for the welfare of veterans like himself. As a boy I would journey with him to the office in Derry where he would meet with old soldiers from the other side of the border. I always wondered why all his friends had an arm or a leg missing. These dignified old men had lived in poverty all their lives and were often shunned in their own communities yet they asked for little from the British state. The phrase ‘we will remember them’ has special meaning for me for I met many of these heroic old soldiers and can never forget them.

My good friend in Fermanagh, David Keys, has completed much important work identifying the graves of ex-servicemen, from both sides of the border, who survived the slaughter of the World Wars yet have no gravestones to mark their final resting places. When our generation is gone this work cannot continue because the last memories will be lost. There will be no one left who can honestly say ‘we remember them.’

© Maurice Neill 2019