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Queen unveils statue to VC hero a century years after his Somme valour

Crowds line streets as Her Majesty honours Bushmills soldier awarded military’s highest medal for risking his life to rescue others

By Ivan Little

Published 29/06/2016

The Queen and Prince Philip at the Giant’s Causeway
The Queen and Prince Philip at the Giant’s Causeway
The Queen unveils a stature to Great War hero Robert Quigg
The Queen unveils a stature to Great War hero Robert Quigg
The Irish Guards form a guard of honour
The monarch smiles after arriving on a steam train
Crowds wave as they depart Coleraine
Children line the streets as the royal cavalcade goes by
More crowds at Coleraine
Robert Quigg meeting the Queen in 1953

She isn't going to the Somme for this week's centenary commemorations of Britain's bloodiest battle, which resulted in a million casualties, but the Queen was in Bushmills yesterday to pay homage to an Ulster war hero whose courage saved seven of his colleagues.

The monarch unveiled a life-size statue of Victoria Cross winner Sergeant Robert Quigg in his home town as his descendants looked on along with a man who would not be alive if it had not been for the soldier's valour.

Robert Matthews' father, who was also called Robert, was one of the men who Sgt Quigg rescued, and he said: "My father was badly wounded, but he lived until 1950 and it's only in recent times that I discovered about Robert Quigg's actions."

Thousands of people had packed the main street of Bushmills to see the unveiling ceremony, but only a handful of them got even a glimpse of the Queen during her brief visit, which lasted less than 20 minutes.

A number of residents took their places behind crush barriers at 5.30am yesterday, six-and-a-quarter hours before the royal party arrived for the unveiling after visiting the Giant's Causeway several miles away.

There the Queen and Prince Philip had heard stories about the mythical hero Finn McCool, but in Bushmills they learned about a real-life one from the grandnephew of Robert Quigg.

Leonard Quigg was one of the prime movers in the campaign to raise £60,000 to fund the erection of the statue of his famous ancestor, who he said in his address at the ceremony had shown remarkable courage on the first day of the Somme as he searched for his platoon commander, Lt Harry Macnaughton, who had been reported missing in the fierce battle. Leonard Quigg said: "Robert had a very special sense of duty towards his officer for at least two reasons - first, he was Lt Macnaughton's batman or personal servant, and before the outbreak of the Great War he had worked on the Macnaughton estate in Bushmills where Lt Macnaughton was the youthful squire.

"So Robert went out into no-man's land under heavy enemy fire in a desperate attempt to rescue his young master.

"He went out not once but seven times but unfortunately he never found him."

However, on each of his seven daring rescue acts, Robert Quigg returned with a wounded soldier.

Leonard Quigg said that the statue's plinth, which was unveiled by Prince Philip, was made up of bronze hexagons similar to the stones at the Giant's Causeway where his great uncle spent much of his time.

He added: "The plinth consists of seven Causeway stones, representing the seven wounded soldiers who Robert rescued from the blood-soaked mud of the Somme."

Dozens of members of the Royal British Legion had marched to the ceremony behind the band of the Irish Guards, led by their Irish wolfhound, called Domhnall.

The wait for the Queen proved too much for one teenage member of the Legion's youth section, who fainted and needed help from St John Ambulance Volunteers.

Security measures were exceptionally rigorous with invited guests and the media being searched in a marquee at the Bushmills Distillery before being bussed into the area around the Quigg statue.

All roads leading into Bushmills were sealed off several hours before the royals were due to arrive.

One of the two clerics who conducted the religious service at the unveiling was the Rev John Anderson, the rector of Billy Parish Church where Robert Quigg had been a life-long member.

He told the assembled guests that Bushmills was remembering the heroism and sacrifices amidst the horrors of conflict at the Somme and he hoped people would be moved to work for peace and justice across the world.

Afterwards, Mr Anderson said that Rifleman Quigg, "had put Billy on the map" because so many people came to the graveyard to see his final resting place. He added: "We've even had to put up signs directing people to the grave. We have bus-loads of people coming to Billy to see it."

After the ceremony, the Queen spoke to a small number of people, including the Scottish sculptor David Annand who had also made sculptures of guitarist Rory Gallagher and motorcycle ace Robert Dunlop.

Mervyn Storey of the DUP said the recognition of Robert Quigg's bravery was hugely significant and he added: "This is Bushmills' proudest day. The town now has a lasting memorial to one of its finest sons and to have the Queen here to unveil the statue really is the icing on the cake."

Leonard Quigg told the Belfast Telegraph that he had never met the decorated soldier, adding: "I can remember his funeral but I was too young to be allowed to go to it.

"We were always aware of what he had done, but there was never a fuss about it. It's only as the centenary has been approaching that there was this great interest in him."

He said the statue of "Bushmills' homespun hero" had been placed against the backdrop of the Macnaughton estate where Robert Quigg worked as a labourer before the outbreak of war. "It's also been positioned so that he is looking up the street towards the Diamond and the war memorial where his dead comrades are commemorated," he added.

Robert Quigg and the Queen met in Coleraine in 1953 during her Coronation tour. Sixteen years earlier her grandfather King George V presented him with his VC and told him, "You're a brave man Quigg," to which the soldier apparently replied, "You're a quare brave man yourself, your Majesty."

Anna Wright and Imogen Baker who are both 11-year-old pupils at Straidbilly Primary School had come to Bushmills armed with bouquets for the Queen but they did not get the chance to present them to her.

Their principal Mrs Gillian McConnell said they were not disappointed: "It was still a real honour and privilege to see Her Majesty on this special day."

Later yesterday afternoon the Ulster History Circle unveiled a blue plaque to Robert Quigg at the old Causeway School he attended near the Giant's Causeway. The grandnephew of another Ulster VC recipient, William McFadzean, was in Bushmills for the Quigg commemorations.

Private McFadzean died after throwing himself on top of a box of bombs which had slipped into a trench and exploded, killing McFadzean but saving many of his comrades, before the start of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. The actual centenary of the start of the Somme will be marked in Bushmills on Friday morning at the town's War Memorial. The battle started with the blowing of whistles which was the signal for the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division to go over the top from their trenches.

In Bushmills on Friday, James McCullough, a young member of the Royal British Legion, will blow a whistle which belonged to his great-grandfather who was also called James McCullough and who survived the Somme.

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