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Hero's royal gift is Somme surprise

Like a time capsule from the trenches, my uncle's WWI comfort pack rediscovered

By Eddie McIlwaine

Military memorabilia collector Gary Campbell could hardly believe it when a non-descript brown paper parcel arrived in the post. For when he opened it up the parcel contained Great War souvenirs that had been missing for years. A metal cigarette box, a pack of cigarettes and a pack of tobacco, all in perfect condition.

But there was something else in the parcel to amaze Gary even more. A note made it clear that the bits and pieces belonged to old soldier James McIlwaine, who served in and survived the Somme.

My uncle Jimmy, would you believe. Gary knew at once that the souvenirs were the property of my father's eldest brother. He had heard me talking about him often enough.

The parcel that brought about this military surprise in the first place had been dispatched to collector Campbell by a builder who just happened to be installing a new kitchen in a house at Queen's Park, Glengormley, in which bachelor Jimmy lived until his death in his late 80s.

"The builder, who is shy and doesn't want to be named, came across the tobacco tin and the packs stuffed away in the back of an old cupboard, obviously for safekeeping," explained Gary. "He didn't realise what they stood for until he read a Great War newspaper story on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak. He retrieved them from his garage, where they had been kept since the mid-Nineties, and sent them to me. What a delight when I was able to make them available to the McIlwaine family. It was a happy coincidence the way it all worked out."

The story of the tobacco was that a cigarette box and the packs were a Christmas present to every soldier in the Army that December 1914 - when WWI was already six months old - from Princess Mary, the Princess Diana of her day.

Non-smokers were made presents of boxes of chocolates instead of tobacco.

Some time into the raging war junior ranker Jimmy was taken prisoner in France, but when it was all over and he was back home in Carnmoney, where he grew up, he never talked about his experiences except to tell me once that the Germans put him in charge of their horses. He said food was so short that he sometimes shared the oats meant for the horses with fellow prisoners.

The war turned my uncle in to a quiet, reclusive individual who worked for years at the Henry Campbell linen works in Mossley. He had one great love affair, but never married.

WWI began on July 28, 1914 and lasted until November 11, 1918. More than 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians died.

Day Jack preached to converted, all of us huge fans of rugby legend

The first time I set eyes on rugby great Jack Kyle he was in the pulpit of Carnmoney Presbyterian Church.

Jack, who has just died at 88, was at his sporting peak that Sabbath in the late Forties. Jack was a man of deep faith. The church was packed to hear what he had to say. He didn't preach at the congregation as the Rev Samuel Nicholson introduced his guest. He could have been having a chat by a fireside. It was a moment of pride for me that the job of leading Jack into the pulpit fell to my father John.

And Kyle didn't rush away after the service - he stayed for a cup of tea and we boys were allowed to ask a question or two.

He kept a promise a few weeks later and paid a visit to Ballyclare High School.

A few of us accepted an invite from Kyle to be in the stand at an international match of our choice and we did see Ireland and him taking on France at Ravenhill in a following season.

He and I never met up face to face again, but I followed his medical and missionary career with interest.

Finally, a question: why did Jack Kyle never get a knighthood?

Belfast Telegraph


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