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Lest we forget: The 10 brave souls who put their lives on the line for king and country

Remembering 10 Ulstermen who received the supreme accolade in recognition of their bravery on the field of battle

By Robert Hamilton

The Victoria Cross is Britain's highest military accolade. In all, 627 VCs were awarded for gallantry in the First World War - and 10 of the holders hailed from Ulster.

From Lurgan-born Private William McFadzean, who threw himself on top of exploding grenades, thereby saving the lives of his comrades at the cost of his own, to Private Robert Quigg, from Co Antrim, who rescued no fewer than seven of his fellow soldiers from the battlefield despite withering machine-gun fire, their stories stand as testament to acts of almost unimaginable heroism. They came from all across the province; from Dungannon to Enniskillen, Cookstown to Carrickfergus.

They were bank clerks and lumberjacks, farm workers and architecture students.

Although first awarded in 1857, the number of VC holders more than doubled during the First World War.

But one in four of the men did not survive to have the medal pinned to their chest.

My new book - Victoria Cross Heroes of World War One - tells the inspiring, moving and humbling stories of these men who risked - and, in many cases, gave - all for a greater cause.

It is a heart-rending tribute to the ageless values of loyalty, bravery, selflessness and comradeship displayed by these British and Commonwealth heroes.

I have been fortunate to source almost 2,000 stunning rare and unseen photographs vividly portraying each VC recipient and the bleak conditions they lived and fought in.

These, then, are the stories of Ulster's bravest of the brave.

Robert Morrow


(September 7, 1891-April 26, 1915)

Royal Irish Fusiliers (Princess Victoria’s), Messines, Belgium, April 12, 1915

Robert Morrow, from Dungannon, joined the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers in 1911.

As a regular soldier he was mobilised as part of the British Expeditionary Force at the very start of the war and embarked for France.

On April 12, 1915, below the Messines Ridge, a German onslaught was decimating the Allied line and men and officers were being buried under the collapsing trenches.

Despite the heavy shelling, Private Morrow managed to dig out and rescue six of his comrades and carry them to safety.

He did not live to hear of his VC award, as he died two weeks later after being badly wounded in action at St Julien.

As well as the Victoria Cross, he was awarded the Russian Medal of St George for his selfless act  of bravery.

Robert Morrow is buried in White House Cemetery at St Jean-Les-Ypres in Belgium.

His VC is held at The Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum in Armagh.


Eric Norman Frankland Bell

Temporary Captain

(August 28, 1895-July 1, 1916)

Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Thiepval, France, July 1, 1916

Eric Bell, born in Enniskillen, was studying architecture at Liverpool University when war broke out.

He and his two brothers followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the 9th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Eric being attached to the Light Trench Mortar Battery.

On July 1, 1916, at Thiepval, Captain Bell was in command of a Trench Mortar Battery when he advanced in an attack with the infantry.

As the front line was being raked with machine-gun fire, Captain Bell crept forward and shot the machine-gunner.

On several occasions later on, when various bombing parties were unable to make any progress, he went forward on his own and threw trench mortar bombs among the enemy.

When he had run out of bombs, Bell stood on the parapet under intense fire and used a rifle on the advancing Germans.

He was killed while rallying and reorganising infantry parties which had lost their officers.

As his body was never recovered, Captain Bell is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial and the nearby Ulster Memorial Tower.

He was one of the nine men on that first day of the Battle of the Somme to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

His medal was presented to his family by King George V at Buckingham Palace on November 29, 1916 and, in 2001, was gifted to The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers Regimental Museum in Enniskillen.


Edward Barry Stewart Bingham


(July 26, 1881-September 24, 1939)

HMS Nestor, Jutland, Denmark, May 31, 1916

Son of the Fifth Baron of Clanmorris and born at Bangor Castle, the Honourable Edward Bingham entered the Royal Navy in 1895 and, by the outset of war, had reached the rank of commander.

During the Battle of Jutland, off the coast of Denmark, Bingham was in command of a destroyer division and it was on May 31, 1916, that he led his division in their attack, first on enemy destroyers and then on their battle cruisers.

As soon as the enemy was within sight, Bingham ordered his own destroyer, HMS Nestor, and HMS Nicator, the only other remaining destroyer of his division, to close to within 3,000 yards of the enemy and thereby gain a favourable position for firing his torpedoes.

During the attack, both Nestor and Nicator came under concentrated fire from the secondary batteries of the German High Seas Fleet; Nestor was subsequently sunk. Having been picked up from the sea by the enemy, Bingham remained a prisoner of war until 1918.

After the war, his career with the Royal Navy continued until 1932, when he retired with the rank of Rear Admiral. He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1919.

Commander Bingham died in 1939 and is buried in Golders Green Cemetery in north-west London.

His VC is held at the North Down Heritage Centre in Bangor Castle — former seat of the Baron of Clanmorris.


William Frederick McFadzean


(October 9, 1895-July 1, 1916)

Royal Irish Rifles, Thiepval, France, July 1, 1916

Lurgan-born William McFadzean was the first winner of the nine Victoria Crosses awarded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

A bomber, whose job was to go over the top of the trenches armed with buckets of hand grenades, he stood six feet tall and had been an enthusiastic rugby player before the war. He was also a member of the East Belfast Regiment of the Ulster Volunteers and the Young Citizens’ Volunteers.

On July 1, 1916, near Thiepval Wood in northern France, Private McFadzean stood in a crowded concentration trench where a box of bombs was being opened for distribution prior to an attack.

The box fell down into the trench and two of the safety pins fell out. Instantly realising the danger to his comrades, the private threw himself on top of the bombs, which exploded instantly, blowing him to pieces, but injuring only one other man. He fully understood the danger, but gave his life for his comrades without a moment’s hesitation. William’s father was presented with his son’s gallantry award by King George V in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace on February 28, 1917. The medal is now on display at the Royal Ulster Rifles Museum in Belfast.

Private McFadzean is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial in northern France and the nearby Ulster Memorial Tower, which commemorates the heavy losses (almost 5,000 casualties) suffered by 36th (Ulster) Division on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.


Robert Quigg


(February 28, 1885-May 14, 1955)

Royal Ulster Rifles, Hamel, France, July 1, 1916

Born into the small, rural community of Ardihannon in Co Antrim, Robert Quigg worked on the nearby Macnaghten Estate as a farmworker after leaving school.

Robert was an active member of the Ulster Volunteer Force and, when war came, he enlisted in the 12th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, where his platoon commander was Lieutenant Harry Macnaghten, who was the heir to the Bushmills’ Macnaghten Estate.

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, advances by the British troops were slow and also costly.

Private Quigg’s platoon suffered hundreds of casualties as it was beaten back three times by the Germans.

As the battle raged, Lieutenant Macnaghten went missing and it was Robert Quigg who immediately volunteered to search for his commander in no-man’s land.

Under heavy shell and machine-gun fire, he made seven sorties, each time bringing back a wounded man.

The last man he dragged in on a waterproof sheet from within yards of the enemy’s wire.

After seven hours of trying, an exhausted Quigg finally gave up; the body of Harry Macnaghten was never found.

Private Quigg was one of four Ulster soldiers to receive the VC that day and the only non-posthumous one.

He received his Victoria Cross from King George V at Sandringham on January 8, 1917.

When he returned to his home town, the people of Bushmills and the surrounding district were there to give him a hero’s welcome.

Quigg died in Ballycastle and was buried with full military honours at nearby Billy Parish Church.

He is remembered, along with the other nine Ulster VC holders from the First World War, on the Ulster Memorial Tower at Thiepval; a statue of him now stands in Bushmills town centre.

His VC medal is held at the Royal Ulster Rifles Museum in Belfast.


John Alexander Sinton


(December 2, 1884-March 25, 1956)

Indian Army, Orah Ruins, Mesopotamia, January 21, 1916

The third of seven children in a family of Quaker linen manufacturers from Cookstown, John Sinton returned with them from his Canadian birthplace to their native Ulster in 1890, where he studied medicine at Queen’s University, Belfast.

In 1911, he entered the Indian Medical Service, serving with the military branch from 1912. In 1916, Captain Sinton was serving as a medical officer to an Indian cavalry regiment fighting in the Mesopotamian campaign and it was here that he saw the military action leading to his award of the Victoria Cross.

By the beginning of 1916, this Middle Eastern theatre of war had been waged for almost 18 months, with casualties arising as much from disease as from battle.

On January 21, 1916 at the Orah Ruins, Mesopotamia, Captain Sinton was attending to the wounded under severe enemy fire.

Although shot through both arms and through the side, he refused to go to hospital and remained until daylight ran out, making sure that the wounded were brought in and treated. In three previous actions Captain Sinton had displayed the utmost bravery. Having survived the war, Sinton’s interests led him into the study of malaria, for which he earned himself an international reputation.

This expertise was put to good use during the Second World War by the War Office. In 1945, he retired to Cookstown, where he died at the age of 73 and was buried with full military honours in Claggan Presbyterian Cemetery.

John Sinton’s VC medal is held by the Army Medical Services Museum at Aldershot in Hampshire.

He is the only man ever to have been both a holder of the Victoria Cross and a Fellow of the Royal Society


John Spencer Dunville

Second Lieutenant

(May 7, 1896-June 26, 1917)

1st Royal Dragoons, Epehy, France, June 24-25, 1917

Etonian John Dunville was born in London, although the family lived in Belfast, where his father was chairman of the Dunville & Co Whiskey Distillers. John passed the exams for Cambridge, but opted to join the Army instead.

At Epehy in northern France, Second Lieutenant Dunville was in charge of a party consisting of Scouts and Royal Engineers engaged in the demolition of the enemy’s wire during a raid on the their trenches.

To ensure the work was a success he protected the NCO, who was dismantling the wire, from enemy fire by placing himself in the line of the guns. This allowed the soldier to complete his vitally important work.

Although Dunville was severely wounded during this manoeuvre, he continued to direct his men in the wire-cutting and general operations until the raid was successfully completed.

Second Lieutenant Dunville died of his wounds the next day, June 26, 1917. He is interred at the Villiers-Faucon Communal Cemetery on the Somme.

His posthumously-awarded Victoria Cross was received by his father from George V at Buckingham Palace in August 1917 and is now held at the Household Cavalry Museum in London.


Robert Hill Hanna

Company Sergeant Major

(August 6, 1887-June 15, 1967)

29th Battalion, CanadianExpeditionary Force, Lens, France, August 21, 1917

A native of Kilkeel, Co Down, Hanna emigrated to Canada in 1905 at the age of 18, where he worked as a lumberjack.

He joined the Canadian Army as a private in November 1914, and was sent to France with the 29th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force.

 On August 21, 1917, at Hill 70, near Lens, Company Sergeant Major Hanna’s company met with severe enemy resistance at a heavily-protected strong point, which had beaten off three assaults.

All the officers of the company had been killed, or wounded, and so Hanna, under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, coolly collected and led a party against the strong point.

He rushed through the wire and personally killed four of the enemy, capturing an important tactical position and silencing the machine-gun.

He returned to Canada after the war and ran a logging company before turning to farming.

He died at the age of 79 and is buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Burnaby, British Columbia.

His VC medal is believed to be held by his family.


James Crichton


(July 15, 1879-September 22, 1961)

Auckland Infantry Regiment, Crevecour, France, September 30, 1918

New Zealander James Crichton was originally from Carrickfergus and served with the Army during the Second Boer War.

He later emigrated to New Zealand and, although officially too old, he enlisted on the outbreak of war.

On September 30, 1918, when his platoon was under heavy fire trying to cross the Scheldt River, near Crevecoeur, Private Crichton continued with the advancing troops despite being wounded in the foot and having to cross difficult canal and river obstacles.

When his platoon was forced back by a counter-attack, he managed to carry a message, which involved swimming a river and crossing an area swept by machine-gun fire, after which he rejoined his platoon.

On his own initiative, Crichton then decided to save a bridge which had been mined, by removing the charges and returning with the fuses and detonators, despite being under close fire of machine-guns and snipers.

The seriousness of his wounds meant that Private Crichton was discharged in September 1919.

During the Second World War he tried to re-enlist, but this time was turned down, as he was 60, and instead joined the Merchant Navy.

He died in New Zealand at the age of 82 and is buried in Waikumete Cemetery in Auckland.

His VC is held at the Auckland War Memorial Museum


Edmund de Wind

Second Lieutenant

(December 11, 1883-March 21, 1918)

Royal Irish Rifles, Grugies, France, March 21, 1918

At the age of 28, Edmund de Wind left his job as a bank clerk in Comber, Co Down and emigrated to Canada.

On the outbreak of war, he was working at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and, by November of that year, had enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, seeing action as a private on the Western Front before being commissioned as an officer in the Royal Irish Rifles in September 1917. On March 21, 1918, during the Second Battle of the Somme at the Race Course Redoubt, near Grugies, Lieutenant  de Wind held a key position for seven hours.

Despite being wounded twice, he almost single-handedly maintained his position until another section came to his aid.

On two occasions, accompanied by only two NCOs, he went out under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire and cleared the enemy out of the trench, killing many soldiers.

He continued to repel attack after attack until he was mortally wounded and collapsed. De Wind was listed as missing in April, his death being confirmed five months later. He has no known grave and so is commemorated on the Pozieres Memorial to the Missing in the Somme.

Mount de Wind in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada, is named in his honour.

  • Victoria Cross Heroes of World War One by Robert Hamilton is published by Atlantic Publishing at £40 in hardcover

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