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Soldier story: Willie Redmond and John Meeke

They were an odd couple of the war; John Meeke and Willie Redmond - one an Ulster Unionist and the other an impassioned Irish Nationalist.

But their names were aligned in the history books of the Great War as a symbol of unity of their two very different divisions.

John Meeke was a 23-year-old private in the 11th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who were part of the 36th Ulster Division.

Willie Redmond was an officer in the 6th Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, who were part of the 16th Irish Division.

Willie was also a nationalist MP at Westminster and his brother was John Redmond - the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who famously called for Irishmen to enlist for the war believing that Home Rule would definitely be introduced.

Meeke was from Benvarden in Co Antrim and a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force who thought that by signing up for the war they were guaranteeing there would be no Home Rule.

However, their hugely different views ended up side by side in the war. This was particularly poignant in the Messines Ridge in Belgium on June 7, 1917 when the unionists and republicans marched together into battle.

Redmond and Meeke forged a bond that highlighted and demonstrated the relationships and the unity that came out of the heat of battle.

One observer of studies of the war said: "It was all about humanity."

Meeke was a stretcher-bearer - while Willie led his men into No Man's Land.

During the advance, Willie was mowed down by enemy fire and lay seriously wounded.

Meeke, searching for injured soldiers saw him fall to the ground and reached him with the stretcher-bearer - dodging bullets to make it to his side.

He bandaged Willie's wounds but as he did so he was hit on his left side.

Willie told Meeke to pull back to British lines but his orders were disobeyed. Meeke was hit again and for a second time refused to save himself.

The two men were then rescued by comrades but Willie died several hours later. Meeke returned to hunt for more casualties - and was eventually persuaded to go for treatment to his own injuries.

Meeke was awarded the Military Medal for his heroism but he was seriously injured by another bullet just before the Armistice in 1918.

He later returned to Co Antrim where he worked as a gardener. He died from tuberculosis in December 1923 aged 28.

For many who study the Great War and the Battle of Messines, Willie Redmond and John Meeke's roles are just as crucial to the understanding of the conflict and Ireland's contribution to it as the Somme.

Belfast Telegraph