Belfast Telegraph

Richard Doherty: At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them

This year's Belfast Orangefest commemorates seven battles in the First World War: Gallipoli, Loos, Jutland, the Somme, Vimy, Messines and Ypres. Military historian Richard Doherty recalls some of the Ulster officers and men who served - and fell - in those engagements

With the centenary of the Armistice in November, Orangefest in Belfast this year will recall Ulster's involvement in a series of First World War battles and will commemorate all those who died in those battles, as well as those who served.

The battles being marked include several on the Western Front, Gallipoli and the naval Battle of Jutland. Ypres, Loos, the Somme, Messines and Vimy are the Western Front battles being remembered.

However, there were five battles of Ypres, four of the Somme (although the first Somme clash was a Franco-German battle) and three of Messines. So there is very broad scope for remembrance.

The first battle of Ypres occurred at the end of the war of movement as autumn became winter in 1914. With the opposing armies trying to outflank each other, 1st Irish Guards in 4 Guards Brigade deployed in what would forever be known as "the Salient". The "Micks" were ordered into action late on October 21. In the days that followed, the battalion was reduced to a shadow of itself.

Among the dead was 28-year-old Pte John James Ormsby, from Dungannon, killed on Sunday, November 1. Private Ormsby had joined the Irish Guards as a teenager, completed his regular engagement and followed his father and uncle into the Royal Irish Constabulary. Recalled to the Colours in 1914, his return to the Irish Guards was brief. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial.

When his brother's wife gave birth to a boy, some months later, the infant was named John James Ormsby for his late kinsman. The younger Ormsby would serve in the Second World War, and survive.

Among those to distinguish themselves at First Ypres, Captain Harold Alexander would end the war as an acting brigadier general, with every gallantry award save the Victoria Cross. Alexander would go on to become Field Marshal The Earl Alexander of Tunis.

Lieutenant James Kenneth McGregor Greer, of Ballymoney, would earn the Military Cross, before being killed in October 1916. Buried in St Sever Cemetery in Rouen, he is also commemorated on a family headstone in St Patrick's Church in Ballymoney.

The Irish Guards fought at Loos in 1915, while in far-off Gallipoli soldiers of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers took part in the British Army's first assault landing in over a century. Sergeant James Somers, from Belturbet in Co Cavan, earned the Victoria Cross for his gallantry on the night of July 1-2, 1915. Under intense pressure from Turkish attackers and cut off in a forward sap, Somers led reinforcements in a determined attack on the Turkish positions, capturing part of their trench.

The largest maritime clash of the war was at Jutland on May 31 and June 1, 1916. Four VCs were awarded for that action, including one to Edward Barry Stuart Bingham, of Bangor, Co Down, commander of a destroyer division that included his own ship, HMS Nestor.

While racing to launch a torpedo attack on the German battleships, Bingham's ships encountered a flotilla of German destroyers, but Nestor fought through with one other ship to make the attack on the major enemy vessels. However, the German battleship guns sank HMS Nestor and Bingham was rescued from the sea by German sailors. It was believed that he was dead and he was awarded a "posthumous" VC, one of four that day. Some time passed before it was realised that he had survived.

A month after Bingham's action, 36th (Ulster) Division was in action on the Somme on July 1. Before Zero Hour, Lurgan-born Private William McFadzean, 14th Royal Irish Rifles, earned the Division's first VC, when he threw himself on a box of primed grenades to save his comrades. Then, Captain Eric Bell, 9th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, earned the second VC as he advanced through German positions, inspiring his men and tackling enemy strongpoints until he was killed.

The only Ulsterman to survive to receive his VC was Private Robert Quigg, 12th Rifles, who went out into no man's land on July 2 no fewer than seven times to search for Sir Harry Macnaghten, his platoon officer.

Although unsuccessful in that quest, Quigg brought back a wounded man each time. He had already taken part in three assaults on July 1.

Lieutenant George Shillington Cather, 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, was his battalion's adjutant. At the end of the first day, only 80 men survived uninjured. Cather set himself the task of recovering the wounded and brought in three injured men.

Next morning, ignoring artillery and machine-gun fire, he resumed his task and rescued another man, took water to others and arranged for their rescue.

Tragically, in mid-morning, as he moved from one wounded soldier to another with water, he was killed.

In September and also on the Somme, 31-year-old Private Thomas Hughes, from Co Monaghan, serving in 6th Connaught Rangers of 16th (Irish) Division, at Guillemont earned one of two VCs to his division that day. Wounded in the initial attack, he returned to his battalion after receiving treatment. Attacking a German machine-gun position alone, he overcame the gun team to seize the position even though he had received two further wounds. Hughes survived the war.

The 1917 battle of Messines is well-known for the success achieved by 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions. Although a posthumous VC was recommended for Captain Henry Gallaugher of 11th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, a Donegal man, no award was made.

However, a VC had been earned at Messines on April 12, 1915 by a soldier of 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers. Private Robert Morrow was described as "A quiet undemonstrative boy from D Company ...", but under a heavy artillery bombardment he went to the assistance of his comrades, bringing back a man who had been buried by debris and then returning again and again.

The 23-year-old from Newmills, near Dungannon, showed no fear. The regimental history describes the occasion as "one of those moments on the Western Front when the individual seemed to reassert himself triumphantly in the face of all the horrors of mass warfare".

Sadly, Morrow did not live to learn that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross. He was killed in the Ypres Salient on April 26, four weeks before his award was announced.

There were other Ulster VCs, such as Hugh Colvin, Cheshire Regiment, James Emerson and James Duffy, Inniskillings, Annesley West, North Irish Horse, George Wheeler, Gurkhas, James Crichton, Auckland Regiment, John Sinton, Indian Army Medical Services, and Edmund De Wind, Royal Irish Rifles.

Not one would have claimed to be a hero, but each would have asserted that he had done his duty and supported his comrades.

Richard Doherty is the author of The Sons of Ulster: Ulstermen at War from the Somme to Korea (Belfast: Appletree Press, 2009) and (with David Truesdale) Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000)

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