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New bus tour to show off east Belfast war memorials

East Belfast is dotted with memorials to the dead of the Great War. Now local historian Nigel Henderson has devised a unique 90-minute bus tour that pays tribute to their sacrifice. We join him on a journey back in time

Nigel Henderson at the monument on the Belmont Road
Nigel Henderson at the monument on the Belmont Road
A war plaque near Thiepval Avenue
Street signs in east Belfast named after WW1 battles
Street signs in east Belfast named after WW1 battles
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

It'll be a journey through the past, a bus trip that'll pay homage to the never-to-be-forgotten sacrifices of a generation who fought and died in the Great War. But Nigel Henderson's 90-minute guided tour around the war memorials of east Belfast won't be able to access a number of tablets and plaques that are now hidden from public view or have disappeared altogether for myriad reasons.

However, Nigel, from an organisation called History Hub Ulster, has gathered together enough information about all the memorials to keep his passengers enthralled on their tour, which is being run under the auspices of the Eastside Arts Festival.

Nigel is concentrating on memorials that were erected between the wars and he's steering well away from any possible political connotations.

Armed with facts and figures about the memorials and the people commemorated at all the locations, Nigel plans to pay his own tribute to the soldiers who died during a difficult and dark era for Ireland, north and south.

The statistics are sobering. It's thought that as many as 210,000 Irish men fought in British forces during the First World War and, as there was no conscription, it's believed that 140,000 of them joined during the war as volunteers.

Around 35,000 Irish soldiers died, and names like the Somme, Messines and Ypres still resonate across the island, which was deeply divided between nationalists and unionists at the time of the outbreak of war in 1914.

The same men who'd been preparing to fight for (or against) Home Rule sometimes ended up in combat together in the mainly Protestant 36th (Ulster) Division and the mostly Catholic 10th (Irish) and 16th (Irish) Divisions.

The seeds of Nigel's tour were sown after the publication of a book, Ulster War Memorials, which was designed to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice on the Western Front, signed on November 11, 1918.

Nigel collated material about - and photographed - many of the more unusual memorials across the nine counties of Ulster.

As well as visiting the memorials, Nigel also carried out research using newspapers and online websites to find out who designed and sculpted them and to establish who dedicated them.

The scope of Nigel's work in the book was wide, and he was also invited to deliver a number of talks in east Belfast about the memorials there, particularly in the shipyards, many of whose workers died in the war.

"My talk was obviously focusing on the Harland and Wolff and the Workman Clark memorials, and I spoke about a lot of aspects of their constructions and about some of the men who were commemorated," says Nigel, who was approached shortly after his talk by the Eastside Arts Festival organisers to see if he would be interested in utilising his knowledge for a tour around the memorials in east Belfast.

The upshot is next Saturday morning's bus tour, and Nigel is looking forward to leading it and revealing some nuggets of information that he has only just discovered.

He's also negotiating with Translink for permission for his time-travellers to be able to view a memorial that is out of sight, but not out of mind for people interested in the Great War.

The tablet was erected by the old Lagan Feltworks roofing company in their premises on Short Strand, but it's now in the Metro/Translink depot and can't be seen from outside.

Just across the road, other significant memorials were situated on the site of the former Sirocco Works, but are now in the Somme Museum at Conlig, along with a number of commemorative plaques from now-abandoned churches and Orange halls.

Nigel's tour actually starts outside the headquarters of Harland and Wolff, but his passengers won't be able to see a memorial to the war dead inside the premises.

"I will be showing the visitors a photograph of the memorial and talking to them about its unveiling and its dedication," says Nigel, who will disclose just how many Harland and Wolff workers served and died in the Great War.

The next port of call, so to speak, will be the Pump House at the Thompson Dock in the Titanic Quarter, where the Workman Clark memorial can be seen, though it's in need of restoration.

It was commissioned by Frank Workman, the shipbuilding tycoon, in memory of his late son, Edward Workman, who won the Military Cross with the 5th Irish Rifles.

Nigel says the names of more men from the shipyard who died were added later, but it hasn't been established when.

The plaque, by acclaimed Ulster artist Sophia Rosamond Praeger, was unveiled by Sir Edward Carson inside the Workman Clark shipyard itself in 1919, but when it closed 16 years later, it was moved to the Pump House.

The tour's next stop will be at the bottom of the Woodstock Road at the site of what was the Willowfield Unionist Club, which opened in 1913. Memorial plaques that were erected there within the next decade disappeared and Nigel says no one knows what happened to them.

He adds: "One of the stories I've heard is that they were smelted down for their cash value. And the building itself fell into wrack and ruin and was knocked down after an arson attack.

"Again, I will have photographs of the tablet which was installed inside the building. The same names that were on it have been reproduced on a new, more modern obelisk that stands in the area and which we will be visiting.

"A cafe on the old site has a lot of memorabilia from the Great War period and the Home Rule crisis, so there's still a connection there."

Just a short distance away from the Woodstock Road is a very different reminder of the First World War.

And the bus trip will allow the passengers to see what's known as the 'Cregagh Colony' up close and personal.

After the war ended, the Irish Sailors and Soldiers Land Trust Fund built houses for ex-servicemen in several locations in Northern Ireland, including Whiteabbey, Randalstown, Co Fermanagh, Dungannon and Londonderry.

But the biggest of the developments was built off the Cregagh Road in streets named after battles on the Western Front.

They include Somme Drive, Thiepval Avenue, Hamel Drive, Albert Drive, Picardy Avenue and Bapaume Avenue.

The houses in Derry were built in Messines Park, off the Buncrana Road, and Nigel says an interesting and rarely discussed aside about the development was that it was the only part of the Maiden City to be bombed by Hitler's Luftwaffe during the Second World War.

Nigel says: "Everyone knows that Belfast was targeted during the Blitz, but very few people realise that the bombers also struck in Derry in April 1941."

Thirteen people - men, women and children - were killed as four houses, which had been built for ex-servicemen, were wrecked.

The houses went up across the UK in response to Lloyd George's call for the building of "homes fit for heroes" returning from the First World War, but the rent was sometimes beyond their means.

Says Nigel: "They certainly weren't peppercorn rents and some men were brought to court for failing to pay them.

"Indeed, a resident magistrate of the time in Belfast declared that he was astounded at the level of the rent for ex-servicemen."

More houses were built several years later in the Cregagh area by a charity set up in the name of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who served as Commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front in France and Belgium from 1915 to 1918.

Not surprisingly, Nigel wants to keep a few surprises about the tour up his sleeve for his passengers, particularly in relation to the Cregagh Colony and its original residents, whose descendants still have links with the area.

But Nigel will tell his group how, in the middle of the Colony, the Cregagh War Memorial, in the form of a Celtic cross, was unveiled in November 1929.

He says: "One of the wreaths that was laid that day was from the Boys' Brigade. The boy who laid it was Robert Haldane, from Templemore Street, who was wearing three service medals awarded to his father, Rifleman Robert Haldane, from the 8th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, who was killed in action on the second day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916."

The last stop on Nigel's tour will be at Strandtown Hall on the Belmont Road, where an ornate war memorial still stands on a wall at what is now the headquarters of the Ulster Unionist Party.

Nigel has uncovered a previously unknown detail about the origins of the hall, but he's saving that for his tour. What he will say, however, is that the Strandtown memorial is one of the few in Northern Ireland that lists the names of two female fatalities who are buried close to each other in the City Cemetery in Belfast.

They were Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses Ida Martin and Gertrude Annie Taylor, who both died as a result of illnesses, and their names are also listed on a memorial at Belmont Presbyterian Church.

But Nigel said only one of them - Gertrude Annie Taylor - is recognised by the Commonwealth War Graves as a war fatality, because she worked in a military hospital in London, while Ida Martin was a nurse in the UVF hospital in Belfast, which wasn't under the direct control of the War Office.

Time considerations won't allow Nigel to visit all the memorials he would have liked to include on his itinerary, particularly one at St John's Presbyterian Church on the Ormeau Road.

"But who knows, that might just be included in an expanded re-run of the tour next year," said an Eastside Arts Festival source.

The Memorials of the Great War bus tour is part of the Eastside Arts Festival, which runs from August 2 to 12. For further details, go to: Nigel Henderson's book, Ulster War Memorials: A Personal Selection, is published by History Hub Ulster, priced £15 (including P&P). See for more details

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