Belfast Telegraph

My family's unknown soldier: War project historian uncovers forgotten story of his great-uncle

By Ivan Little

A young historian who has launched a massive search to trace the names of all of the thousands of soldiers from east Belfast who fought or died in the Great War has made a shock discovery of his own.

Jason Burke was astounded to learn that his own great-uncle was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916.

"It came completely out of the blue," Jason said. "I didn't know a thing about Rifleman George Burke and no other relatives had ever heard about him either.

"I stumbled across his story completely by chance.

"I spotted a record of his surname, which was obviously the same as my own, and then realised from his address that there had to be a connection with my own family."

Intrigued, Jason started to dig even deeper into George's military career.

He said: "I learnt that at the outbreak of war George lied about his age to make himself younger.

"He was 35 but he told the recruiting sergeant that he was only 29."

Rifleman Burke was discharged a month later because of injury, but he re-enlisted in the Army in the 9th Royal Irish Rifles and died at the Somme.

Jason was eventually provided with a grainy photograph of his great uncle by the Great War Belfast Clippings website.

The picture had appeared in the Belfast Telegraph along with a wartime appeal from his immediate relatives for information about him after he was declared missing.

He was not confirmed dead until a year later but his body was never found.

Earlier this week Jason was at Stormont for the official launch of his two-year project to compile a database containing the details of every serviceman and woman from east Belfast who served in WW1.

Five volunteers will trawl through a variety of sources including newspapers, military records and war graves files for information.

It's known that hundreds of east Belfast men died at the Somme but Jason Burke believes that as many as 5,000 service personnel from the area may have fought in the war.

The general belief is that they were all volunteers with the 36th Ulster Division, but Jason, who comes from the Woodstock Road area, says that's only part of a bigger picture.

"There were professional regular soldiers as well as volunteers," he said. "There were also people in the flying corps and the navy and others who fought at battles other than the Somme."

The initial research has also discovered that it wasn't just Protestant east Belfast which took up arms.

Jason revealed: "We have found names and addresses from the Short Strand too, and we want to tell their stories as well.

"Many of them were in the Connaught Rangers but we have also found Catholics who were in the 36th Ulster Division."

The project organisers, who have received a £10,000 Heritage Lottery Fund award, will eventually take a roadshow around east Belfast appealing to community groups and individuals to share their stories of their WW1 ancestors and to let them digitally record heirlooms like diaries, letters and photographs for their database which will be available online.

It's also planned to publish a book.

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