Belfast Telegraph

First World War centenary: VC hero McFadzean's 'death penny' brought back to Somme

By Ivan Little

Descendants of Ulster's best known war hero William McFadzean recently brought one of his cherished medals back to the Somme where he was killed after throwing himself on top of a box of exploding hand grenades to save his comrades.

A relative returned a month ago to Thiepval Wood where the young Lurgan soldier died and had with him his bronze memorial medallion – nicknamed the death penny – which was issued by the Government to the next of kin of soldiers killed as a result of the war.

The medallion was still in the envelope addressed to Rubicon, the house on the Cregagh Road where the McFadzeans lived.

A plaque in memory of McFadzean who was awarded the highest military honour, the Victoria Cross, is on the wall of what is now a dental surgery on the Cregagh Road, though there has long been a debate over whether or not the family home was actually next door.

The McFadzeans used to bring his Victoria Cross to the Somme but were advised that showing such a valuable medal to all and sundry was fraught with risks and it's now in the safe keeping of a regimental museum in Belfast.

Visitors to Thiepval Wood, bought on the open market by the Somme Association nine years ago, frequently ask to see the place where McFadzean died. A number of small crosses have been laid there.

The Wood is not open all the time and can only be accessed by the public on twice daily tours of its renovated trenches which are ran by staff from the Ulster Memorial Tower across the road.

A website about the Wood says it is "hallowed ground for many people from Ireland and belongs to the men who still lie beneath its soil".

Soldiers' stories

Geoffrey Cather was born in England but his parents were from Northern Ireland and he was determined to serve in the Great War with Irish regiments.

At the Somme he won the Victoria Cross for ignoring enemy fire during a disastrous advance on German defences to rescue soldiers trapped in No Man’s Land.

Robert Quigg, one of nine VC winners commemorated on a plaque at the Ulster Memorial Tower on the Somme, was the only one to survive the war. The Bushmills man showed remarkable courage during the Somme as he tried to rescue his platoon commander Lt Harry McNaughton for whom he had worked back home.

James Emerson was the only soldier from Co Louth to be awarded the Victoria Cross during the Great War. A member of the 9th Royal Inniskillings, he was wounded by a German bullet which pierced his steel helmet as he and his colleagues tried to hold the Hindenburg Line north of La Vacquerie in France in December 1917.

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