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Relatives of Somme hero and the soldier he saved while under fire finally meet after 100 years

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 17/08/2016

The two families stand side-by-side for a ceremony at the Royal British Legion, Portadown
The two families stand side-by-side for a ceremony at the Royal British Legion, Portadown
The picture which Anthony Shillington presented to Retha Flavell-Robinson, the granddaughter of Sam Neill, depicting their two relatives at the Somme

Descendants of two men linked by a remarkable act of heroism on the battlefields of the Somme have been brought together after 100 years.

Lieutenant Geoffrey Shillington-Cather's daring acts of bravery saved the lives of three of his Royal Irish Fusiliers colleagues on the first day of fighting.

They included Sam Neill, who was wounded after coming under enemy fire. He survived, but Lt Shillington-Cather died the next day attempting another courageous rescue.

The story had been largely forgotten until a chance conversation earlier this year. It ended with the two men's families being put in touch, and yesterday they met for the first time.

After the emotional meeting in Portadown they held a memorial service at the cenotaph.

Lt Shillington-Cather's closest surviving relative, Anthony Shillington, said: "It is incredibly poignant that this story has emerged in this, the centenary year of the Somme."

The Somme was one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, with more than one million casualties over 141 days.

The story of Lt Shillington-Cather's heroism emerged as preparations were being made to mark the centenary.

Mr Neill, who was from Tandragee, was serving with the Royal Irish Fusiliers when he was hit and left for dead on the morning of July 1, 1916.

Lt Shillington-Cather gave first aid under fire before carrying him to safety. He saved another two lives in the following hours, but was killed trying a further rescue the next day.

He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Mr Neill survived and, after the war, moved to New York. He later returned to Tandragee to work on the family farm, where his granddaughter Retha Flavell-Robinson still lives.

Although born in London, Lt Shillington-Cather's uncle, Major David Graham Shillington, was from Portadown.

The families' meeting only happened after a chance conversation. Retired Major Philip Morrison, president of Portadown's Royal British Legion, was visiting the Royal Irish Fusiliers museum in Armagh earlier this year. The curator was arranging some medals, including two Victoria Crosses, one of which belonged to Lt Shillington-Cather.

He took a photo to share with a friend. Peter Neill, Sam Neill's great nephew, overheard the conversation and realised that one of the recipients was the man who rescued his great-uncle.

"Philip was in possession of a photograph of two of the gents who had won VCs at the Battle of the Somme," Mr Neill said. "I overhead the conversation and it just threw me back to stories that I heard about my great uncle."

Mr Morrison, whose photograph triggered the connection, said it was a "quite amazing" story. "It's a million-to-one," he said. "I've worked with Peter for 10 years and this had never emerged. I couldn't believe it."

Mr Neill added: "The story was there, and when I heard about Shillington-Cather getting the VC, I asked Philip could he find out why he was awarded that. 'Was it an individual act of bravery?', I said, because I had a great uncle who was rescued on the first day by an officer named Shillington-Cather.

"It's incredible - he was standing there with this medal and I had grown up with this story."

Anthony Shillington, who travelled from England for yesterday's event, said his family was extremely proud of Lt Shillington-Cather's heroism.

"It is very special to be able to meet the family of someone he rescued," he added. "We are terribly proud of what he did and the courage he showed."

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