Hugh McNeill – Veteran of the Boxer Rebellion dies in Great War 

Hugh McNeill - bannerThis article commemorates the memory of Lance-Corporal Hugh McNeill of the Royal Marine Light Infantry who died on 21st June 1918, 100 years ago today. 

Hugh McNeillAccording to naval records, Hugh McNeill was born in Belfast on 5th January 1881.  Hugh enlisted on 7th July 1899 and served in the crushing of the Boxer Rebellion (10th June to 31st December 1900) in China, for which he was awarded the China War Medal (1900).  He subsequently served on HMS Goliath.  In 1911, he was stationed at Fort Blockhouse in Gosport and he was discharged on 6th September 1912, having completed twelve years of service.  On the following day, he enrolled with the Royal Fleet Reserve.

He settled in Belfast and was Head Boots at the Imperial Hotel, which was located on the corner of Donegall Place and Castle Lane.  When Hugh married Annie Harland on 12th October 1913 at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Belfast, he was recorded as being a “Navy man” and was living at 56 Canal Street in Saltcoats, Scotland.  His father’s name was recorded as Daniel (Tradesman) and Annie, a millworker, was a daughter of Michael Harland (Tradesman) of 12 Bute Street in the Jennymount district of Belfast.  

Hugh McNeill - Imperial Hotel

At some stage after their marriage Hugh and Annie moved to Ballymena and were living at 11 James Street when Hugh was recalled from the Royal Fleet Reserve.  His name is included on the list of 78 men from All Saints’ Roman Catholic Church serving with His Majesty’s forces that was published in the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph on 5th June 1915. 

Hugh McNeill - RND

As there were insufficient ships to accommodate all the naval personnel recalled from the reserves and men enlisting with the navy, Winston Churchill, First Sea Lord, instituted a new naval force called the Royal Naval Division, which would fight as infantry in land campaigns.  Hugh McNeill served with the Portsmouth Battalion of the Royal Marine Brigade of this new force at Ostend and Antwerp between 26th August 1914 and 1st September 1914.  He was wounded in the left leg and right knee by a splinter from a German shell and, during the withdrawal from Antwerp, the train on which he was travelling was knocked off the rails and surrounded by Germans.  In the engagement that followed, there were many casualties on both sides and several marines were captured but a party of 90 men under Major French got safely away after a 35-mile forced march to the Belgian village of Ecloo.

Hugh McNeill - RNASHugh McNeill then served with a Royal Naval Air Service’s Armoured Cars unit under Commander Charles Rumney Samson RN between 10th September 1914 and 17th October 1914 before returning to the Royal Naval Division.  Following a period of furlough, an interview with Hugh McNeill was published in the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph in May 1915 in which he spoke highly of the “pluck and daring” of Commander Samson, particularly in engagements with roving units of Uhlans (Light Cavalry, with a Polish military heritage), saying that, “the Germans had come to greatly dread and fear Commander Samson and his gallant men”.

In January 1918, Hugh McNeill was promoted to Lance-Corporal and transferred to HMS President III – this was not a ship but a shore establishment for men serving on Defensively Armed Merchant Ships. Hugh was a member of the gun crew on SS Montebello when she was torpedoed by U-100 on 21st June 1918 and sank 320 miles from Ushant, an island off the coast of Brittany, with the loss of 41 lives.  Lance-Corporal McNeill, who is commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, was 37 years old when he died. He was awarded the British War Medal, the Victory Medal and the 1914 Star, the latter being issued to his widow on 1st July 1920.

Nigel Henderson, History Hub Ulster Member

Acknowledgements and Sources:

Michael Nugent (ww1researchireland.com), John Hoy (Ballymena & The Great War, snake43.webs.com/), Richard Graham, Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, Royal Navy & Royal Marines War Graves Roll and Royal Naval Division Casualties of the Great War.

Great War Trophy Guns in Northern Ireland

Trophy Guns Northerrn Ireland bannerAs early as February 1915, local newspapers reported that 150 artillery pieces captured from the Germans were in London and that they would be presented to districts, “which had done good work in the cause”, after the war. However, during the period of the war some war trophy guns were displayed in locations in the north of Ireland – two machine guns captured by the Ulster Division were sent to Londonderry (November 1916) and Portadown (July 1917) and a field gun was on temporary display in Belfast in 1916.

In December 1918, five captured guns were presented by Brigadier General George William Hacket Pain to the City of Belfast. In accepting the guns, which were placed in front of the Queen Victoria Memorial at Belfast City Hall, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sir James Johnston, said, “they would be cherished as mementoes of the great world war” and finished his speech with “The guns would remind many generations to come of the great victories achieved by our gallant soldiers”.  From as early as 1924, there were no guns on display at the Queen Victoria Memorial during the various Somme and Armistice Day commemorations held in front of Belfast City Hall.

Trophy Guns Northern Ireland

As had been intimated in 1915, the captured guns were distributed to locations across the United Kingdom, although guns were generally not delivered to locations in Northern Ireland until 1923 due to the civil disturbances in the opening years of that decade. Documents at the National Archives in Kew record that 72 trophy guns were allocated to Northern Ireland. Whilst most went to urban or rural councils, trophy guns were also on display at Queen’s University in Belfast, Campbell College in Belfast and Portora Royal School in Enniskillen.

Trophy Guns Northerrn Ireland Enemy Gun Letter

However, it is clear from newspaper reports that the trophy guns were not always welcomed or wanted. Also, some public representatives were dissatisfied with the trophies that they did receive and some councils either did not put them on display or removed the guns from display with unseemly haste. Some members of the public also questioned the desirability of having trophy guns on display, as demonstrated by a letter “Enemy Guns” published in the Northern Whig on 6th July 1925. 

In April 1923, the Belfast News-Letter reported that the War Office was sending four eight-and-a-half ton guns to Enniskillen and that the council was asking for the number to be increased to six guns. One of the guns was subsequently sent to Portora Royal School, which had already received one trophy gun directly from the War Office. Trophy Guns Northerrn Ireland EnniskillenIn March 1925, the Northern Whig reported that Enniskillen Urban Council had removed the German gun from the Diamond and the same newspaper reported, in December 1926, that the two guns outside the gaol were, “to be placed at the rear of the old gaol (out of the public view)”.  In September 1927, the Belfast News-Letter reported (see inset) that Sir Basil Brooke had written to Enniskillen Urban Council requesting the guns for Colebrooke House and Brookeborough. The Colebrooke House gun has been on display at Enniskillen Castle since February 1976.

Trophy Guns Northerrn Ireland Portrush

In March 1924, the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph reported that Mr George McMullan expressed the opinion at a meeting of Portrush Urban District Council that, “the German trophy should not be exhibited. I would rather it were thrown into the sea”. Mr Christie, Chairman of the council, replied that, “the gun might have been captured by Portrush men”.

Bangor received two war trophy guns – a howitzer/mortar was placed next to the coast at Kingsland and the deck gun from the German submarine U-19 was placed in Ward Park. This submarine was notorious at an international and local level, having sunk RMS Lusitania and landed Sir Roger Casement in County Kerry in advance of the Easter Rising in Dublin. This gun was dedicated to Commander Edward Barry Stewart Bingham VC and is one of only three Great War trophy guns that remain on public display. Trophy Guns Northerrn Ireland BangorOn 2nd October 1935, the Belfast News-Letter reported that Bangor Borough Council had decided to sell the Kingsland trophy gun for scrap, a decision which incurred the wrath of the Bangor Branch of the British Legion, which submitted a letter of complaint. The council subsequently reversed its decision.

One of the smallest villages to be awarded a trophy gun was Balnamore, three miles west of Ballymoney. In March 1920, the Ballymena Observer reported that Mr James Young JP of the Braidwater Spinning Mills had written to Ballymoney Rural Council congratulating the council on “obtaining a captured German gun in recognition of the splendid response to the call for voluntary enlistment for national service”. In his letter, Mr Young went on to say, “before leaving Balnamore, his company desired to erect a memorial to commemorate their unbounded admiration for the men of Balnamore who went willingly overseas to stem the German invasion, and also to perpetuate for all time their names in the district.”

Trophy Guns Northerrn Ireland Balnamore

Their proposal was to erect a suitable platform for the captured German gun on the triangle in front of Balnamore post office, with the names carved on the sides. The gun was delivered to the village in October 1923 and, in September 1933, Hale, Martin & Company (who had taken over the spinning mill) handed over the memorial platform and the gun into the council’s care and keeping.

In nearby Ballymoney, there was uproar at the Urban District Council regarding the gun that was delivered to the town in June 1923.

Trophy Guns Northerrn Ireland BallymoneyThe Northern Whig and the Belfast News-Letter both reported on discussions in the council chamber concerning the gun. Mr Robert McAfee expressed the opinion that “the town Ballymoney was deserving a better trophy. lt is 32 years ago since it was manufactured, and I question whether it was in the late war at all. It is like a piece of down pipe of spouting set on two wheels”. The field gun was placed on a pedestal in the small green at the Town Hall.

Trophy Guns Northerrn Ireland OmaghIn Omagh, there was opposition from Nationalist councillors on the urban council to the trophy gun that was to be sent to the town by the War Office. In March 1923, Mr Orr spoke in favour of receiving the guns, saying that, “this was a matter above party or politics, as the men of their local regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, of which they were proud, belonged both to the Orange and Green flag”. Two months later, the Mid-Ulster Mail reported on the ongoing wrangle between rival councillors. Mr McLaughlin said, “the council should never have considered the question of taking the gun at all, as the feeling of the majority of the members was totally against”

Trophy Guns Northerrn Ireland Omagh

Meanwhile, the British Legion in Omagh had secured a German machine gun (reported as having been captured by the 9th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers). The Londonderry Sentinel reported on the ceremony in which the machine gun was placed outside the premises of the Omagh Branch of the British Legion. Following representations from a local solicitor and councillor, Captain William Henderson Fyffe MC, a German gun that had been captured by the 5th Inniskillings in Northern France in the closing days of the war was secured for the Omagh Loyalist Association and this gun was placed outside the Protestant Hall in Omagh in October 1923.

Trophy Guns Northern Ireland BallymenaIn October 1923, the Ballymena Observer reported that the German guns sent by the War Office to Ballymena had not received a fulsome welcome by Ballymena Urban District Council. The Clerk said the guns they had received – one howitzer and one Maxim – were not suited to the importance of the town. They had been promised two field guns and a machine gun but had only received one field gun and a machine gun. The Chairman remarked, “if we are to have war trophies for the Memorial Park let them be something presentable.  Other towns of much less importance than Ballymena have been able to secure something better than derelict German machine gun for their Parks”. One of the councillors, Mr Craig, went further saying, “What do we want with them, a lot of German rubbish?”.

Trophy Guns Northern Ireland CarrickfergusCarrickfergus Urban District Council had requested two field guns and two trench mortars. However, the War Office offered a heavy field gun, a field gun and a machine gun but sent two heavy guns. These guns lay in the London Midland & Scotland Railway Company’s yard in Carrickfergus until 1929. Although they were never put on public display, the council spent £40 cleaning and painting the guns. In November 1929, the LMS Railway notified the council that the guns had to be removed within two weeks, prompting the council to send an ultimatum to the War Office stating that, “unless Carrick is relieved of its cannons they would be sold as scrap”. On 3rd December 1929, the Northern Whig reported that the council had accepted a tender of £12 [approximately £700 today] from O & T Gallagher of Corporation Street in Belfast.

Trophy Guns Northern Ireland DungannonIn Dungannon, the trophy gun was pulled into position outside the British Legion’s new club premises for the Armistice Day commemoration in 1923. Six years later, due to bus traffic, the gun was moved from Market Square to a position overlooking the ex-Servicemen’s houses on Empire Avenue. In late 1937, Dungannon Urban Council considered a proposal to sell the gun for scrap, but this met with opposition from the British Legion and ex-Servicemen, who decorated the gun with a Union flag and a notice declaring “Not for Sale Lest We Forget”. There is still a German field gun on display in the park on Black Lane, the site of Dickson’s Mill. The information panel at the site records that the gun had been purchased by the Dickson family at an auction of military artillery in the south of England in 1920.

There are, to the best of my knowledge, only three trophy guns from the Great War still on display in Northern Ireland.

Trophy Guns Northern Ireland Surviving Trophy GunsA list of the locations in Northern Ireland that received trophy guns is contained in this spreadsheet which, where possible, details the fate of the guns.

Written by History Hub Ulster member Nigel Henderson.

*The below article from the Larne Times (25th May 1940) demonstrates that many were sold for scrap as part of the war effort during the second world war.

Trophy Guns Northern Ireland Disposal Articl

Missing Names Project – Ballymena and District

You are encouraged to come forward with names currently missing from Ballymena and District War Memorial.

Mid and East Antrim citizens have been encouraged to take part in a consultation aimed at ensuring all local people who lost their lives during the First World War are remembered on Ballymena and District’s War Memorial.

Earlier this year Mid and East Antrim Borough Council agreed the addition of verified missing names of the Fallen on the monument in Memorial Park, Ballymena.

In 2013 it was discovered that some local soldiers who died in The Great War were not honoured on the Memorial.

Research undertaken by WW1 Research Ireland has found that up to 172 names could be missing.

Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Councillor Paul Reid, said: “I would encourage local people and those from further afield to check if their forebear is on the published list of missing names and, if not, for them to share their information during the consultation period which has just opened. We would wish to ensure as best we can that all those who made the ultimate sacrifice from Ballymena and district are now remembered side by side on the Memorial with the existing names of those who lost their lives. This includes any relevant local women who served in clerical or nursing roles.”

Ballymena and District War Memorial was unveiled in 1924 after a fundraising effort raised just over £1,000.

It is unknown how the 495 names were gathered by the then War Memorial Committee in the early 1920s but through professional research, using agreed criteria, it has emerged that some of those who were killed in action or subsequently died of wounds have been overlooked until now.  

A public call for anyone who believes that their relative should be included for verification has been made by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council.

Council’s Museum and Heritage Service at Mid-Antrim Museum is conducting the consultation facilitated by History Hub UIster.  

The consultation will be conducted through History Hub Ulster – please click here.

Primarily the criteria requires that the proposed person was born and/or enlisted in Ballymena or District, or was born in Ballymena or District and enlisted elsewhere including Dominion Forces.  

Other criteria requirements are that the proposed person was killed in action or subsequently died of wounds before August 1921, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cut-off date for First World War Fallen.  

A current database of the existing names on Ballymena War Memorial and verified names collated through ongoing research is also available to view on the page. 

Members of the public who have no access to the internet, or who would prefer to submit their information in person, are welcome to call into The Braid, Ballymena, on either Thursday 26 or Saturday 28 October. Mid-Antrim Museum staff will be available between 10am – 1pm on both days in the museum atrium to accept submissions. 

Files containing the list of existing names on the War Memorial and verified names recently collected through research will be available to view.  The 1924 Ballymena Rural District Council boundary map will also be available.

The online consultation opened on Monday 25 September and will close on Friday 10 November 2017. All names supplied, either online or in person, will be verified prior to inclusion in the final list of names missing from the War Memorial.  Members of the public who submit names for consideration will be advised accordingly.

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council have undertaken to have the engraving of verified names completed on Ballymena’s War Memorial in time for the national Centenary of the Armistice on 11 November 2018.  An application is being prepared to the War Memorials Trust in London to support this initiative.

Click here for more information.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Midland Railway War Memorial

In the aftermath of the Great War, many commercial organisations and companies produced war memorials and Rolls of Honour to commemorate the part played by their employees.  The railway companies were no exception – the Great Northern Railway Company installed identical memorial plaques in Belfast and Dublin, the Belfast & County Railway Company installed a plaque in the Queen’s Quay terminus and the Midland Railway Company (Northern Counties Committee) installed an obelisk memorial in the concourse in the York Road Railway Station.

At 12:15 on Thursday 24th November 1921, the Midland Railway Company War Memorial was unveiled and dedicated – the following words being inscribed underneath the company emblem on the front face of the base of the memorial:

In honour of the members of the staff

who volunteered and served in His

Majesty’s Forces during the

Great War 1914-19.

Erected by the Midland Railway Company

Northern Counties Committee.

In an opening address, Major John A Torrens DL, Chairman of the Northern Counties Committee of the Midland Railway Company, paid a moving tribute to the men whose heroism was being remembered.  The Reverend W H Smyth MA, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, read from Psalm 47, which begins, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” and the Right Reverend W J Lowe DD, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, led the gathering in prayer before the memorial was unveiled by Major-General Nugent CB DSO who also gave a stirring address before the formal dedication of the memorial by the Dean of Belfast, the Very Reverend T G G Collins BD.

During the ceremony, Major Torrens laid a wreath on behalf of the company and other wreaths were laid after the ceremony concluded.  A large number of ex-Servicemen employed by the company attended the ceremony, many wearing their service medals, as can be seen in the newspaper picture (Belfast Telegraph, 25th November 1921).

The front face of the obelisk bears a brass plaque listing the names of the 58 men who died (an additional name, Thomas Brown, being added at a later date) and the names of the 290 who served and came home are listed on brass plaques on the other three faces of the obelisk.

Company records relating to employees who served are held at the Public Records Officer for Northern Ireland (Reference: T3899/1) and the file contains information that is not available in online or print resources. 

The file includes an eight-page document listing, by work location, the names of the men who had enlisted and details their railway job – this document formed the basis for the 1914 Roll of Honour.  

Benjamin Anderson was killed in action on 1st July 1916, aged 26, whilst serving with 9th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, although his death was not confirmed until the spring of 1917.  Benjamin was born on 4th December 1888 to James Anderson and Margaret Pinkerton and he married Annie McDowell on 28th October 1907 in St Anne’s Parish Church.  At the time of Benjamin’s death, they had four daughters under the age of nine and Annie and the children later returned to her parents’ home at 113 Mountcollyer Road in Belfast.

Each month a report detailing the numbers of men on active service (adjusted to show fatality numbers and the number of men discharged) was produced and accompanied by a Supplementary Lists of the names men who had enlisted since the previous report.

James McGuigan had initially joined a reserve battalion of the Connaught Rangers but was deployed to the 8th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in France.  As with Benjamin Anderson, James McGuigan died during the 1916 Battles of the Somme, being killed in action with the 16th Irish Division on 9th September 1916 during the Battle of Ginchy.  James Joseph McGuigan was born at Albert Street in Belfast on 4th June 1879 to Patrick McGuigan and Catherine Ahern and he married Mary Drain at the Roman Catholic Chapel in Randalstown on 29 December 1906.  James and Sarah were living at Drumsough in Sharvogues in 1911 and they had seven children, the first child (Peter) being born in May 1907 and the last child (Lizzie) being born in March 1915.

The committee also produced regular listings of men who had been discharged from the services, some of whom were re-engaged by the company.

Charles Esdale, a porter at Kilrea, was born at Portrush on 2nd July 1883 to Samuel Esdale and Jane O’Neill and was working as a farm labourer when he enlisted in the army on 21st November 1903.  Having completed his seven years of regular service, Charles was working for the railway when he married Margaret Leighton at Agherton Parish Church in Portstewart on 16 November 1911.  Charles and Margaret had two daughters when Charles was recalled from the army reserve on the second day of the war, being deployed to 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in France on 23rd August 1914.  He was discharged on 5th October 1915, aged 33, due to wounds that had necessitated the amputation of his right arm.  He received the Silver War Badge (number 387914) which was to be worn on civilian clothing to show that the wearer had “done his bit” for the war effort.  Whilst the entry for Charles Esdale in the Silver War Badge Register provides important information, it just records that he was discharged due to wounds – the Midland Railway Company records provide an insight on the severity of the wounds.

Charles Esdale, who had been receiving 16 shillings per week in 1914, was re-employed as a Ticket Collector at Antrim at 18 shillings per week.  [Note: 1 shilling in 1916 would be approximately £4.70 today, a weekly pay rate of £85.]

History Hub Ulster was recently contacted by Harry Bleakley, a relative of one of the men named on the war memorial, who feels that the memorial should be re-located to a location where it is accessible to the public – the proposed Belfast Transport Hub would be an ideal location.  Robert Trevor Bleakley was born on 29th June 1883 in Malvern Street in Belfast to Robert Bleakley and Mary Jane McIntyre.  His father was a Sea Captain and his mother, who had been widowed by 1901, was the Caretaker at the Gresham Life Assurance building on Royal Avenue.  Robert Bleakley junior was a boilermaker with Harland & Wolff in Southampton when he married Alice Louisa Knight on 29th January 1910 but was working as a boilermaker with the Midland Railway Company when he enlisted with 9th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, being Killed in Action on 25th December 1916 at the age of 33.  He is buried in the St. Quentin Cabaret Military Cemetery in Belgium and is commemorated on the Roll of Honour for Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church (which was destroyed in the German Air Raids in 1941) and on the War Memorial plaque in the Church of the Holy Evangelists in Carnmoney.  Robert Bleakley’s army will records his beneficiary as his wife, Mrs Alice Bleakley of 88 Argyle Street in Belfast.

 

A plaque recording the names of the eight employees who laid down their lives in the Second World War was added to the memorial, which is now situated in the NIR Yard on York Road and a service of remembrance is held every November.  The 1914 Roll of Honour is on display at the Somme Museum in Conlig.

Author: Nigel Henderson, Member of History Hub Ulster.

Acknowledgements:

Images from the Midland Railway Company documents reproduced by permission of the Public Records Office for Northern Ireland.

Newspaper picture of Robert Bleakley was published in the Larne Times & Weekly Telegraph in January 1917 (courtesy of Great War Ulster Newspaper Archive, www.greatwarbelfastclippings.com)

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Shankill Messines 100 – 10th June 2017

Please come along to support SHANKILL MESSINES 100 at Townsend Street Presbyterian Church on Sat 10th June.

10:30am Re-dedication of Shankill Road Mission Memorial
10:45am Presentation: Shankill Messines 100 by History Hub Ulster member Nigel Henderson

All day:
– Exhibition: Shankill Messines 100
– Exhibition: Poetry from the Streets
– Exhibition: Castleton Lanterns
– Exhibition: Argyle Business Centre’s new Titanic Themed training hotel

Lecture By Kate Adie on Women in the First World War

On Tuesday 6 September from 1pm-2pm the former BBC Chief News Correspondent Kate Adie will be visiting the Ulster Museum to give a FREE lecture on “Women and the Legacy of the First World War”. When the First World War broke out, and a generation of men went off to fight, women emerged from the shadows of their domestic lives. Becoming a visible force in public life, they began to take up essential roles – from transport to policing, munitions to sport, entertainment and even politics. The talk will chart the move towards equal rights with men that began a century ago and consider what these women achieved for future generations. Places can be booked online at http://nmni.com/um/What-s-on/Talks—Lectures/Lecture-by-Kate-Adie-on-Women—WW1.

 

Adie Lecture Poster

 

The lost lives of the Battle of the Somme

Belfast City Council event with History Hub Ulster member Nigel Henderson.

The lost lives of the Battle of the Somme

Date: 21 Jun 2016

Time: 6.30pm – 9pm
Venue: Banqueting Hall, Belfast City Hall

Over 200,000 Irishmen fought in the Great War, and it’s estimated that up to 25,000 – 30,000 Irish soldiers from the Irish Divisions and others in British based Divisions died between 1914 and 1918. The most iconic Battle involving Irish soldiers was the Battle of the Somme, which began on 1 July 1916.

Nigel Henderson and Philip Orr will deliver a presentation on some of those who lost their lives, focussing on the impact that this had on communities in Belfast. The presentation will also include poetry written in Ulster and in France during the period of the Battle of the Somme.

The presentation will be followed by a dramatised reading of the Halfway House, which looks at two women who met in 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, hearing of the experiences of their fathers who were on different sides in 1916.

Light refreshments will be served at 6.30pm.

Booking is essential, email goodrelations@belfastcity.gov.uk or call 028 90270 663 to register.

http://www.belfastcity.gov.uk/events/Event-61893.aspx

Kabosh presents The Box, a new play by Carlo Gébler

Kabosh presents The Box, a new play by Carlo Gébler, which brings to life the archive of Olive Swanzy, a nurse from Newry who served during WW1.

The BoxDuring her time serving in the war Olive kept a series of autograph books which the soldiers in her care contributed to with drawings, sketches, cartoons, stories and poems describing their experiences of and feelings about the war. Along with these contributions Olive also kept a record of her own experiences through a wealth of beautiful watercolours which document her time at war and her love of her native Newry. Together they form an incredible picture of real people during extraordinary times. This fascinating archive was left undisturbed in an attic in Olive’s former home in Rostrevor for decades until it was recently rescued from being destroyed and it’s worth and relevance realised.

Kabosh, in partnership with Creative Centenaries, will bring this incredible archive and its stories to life in a multi-artform theatre production.

Taking place at the Ulster Museum every Saturday and Sunday, 12pm and 3pm, from June 5th to 19th 2016 this will coincide with original items from the archive being on display as part of the Creative Centenaries exhibition running from June 3rd to September 18th.

The Box is written by Carlo Gébler, directed by Paula McFetridge, designed by Elle Kent and features local actors; Gerard Jordan and the award winning Abigail McGibbon.

Venue – Ulster Museum Dates – 5th to 19th June 2016

Days – Saturdays and Sundays Times – 12pm and 3pm

Durations – 45 minutes

Tickets – £5 – available online at www.nmni.com by phone on 028 9044 0000 or in person at the Museum

Kabosh Artistic Director, Paula McFetridge says, ‘To uncover an archive like that of Olive Swanzy’s is a once in a lifetime find. To have someone share that with you is emotionally affirming. To be able to create theatre that tells the story of an incredible woman in extraordinary circumstances is an absolute pleasure. The Box gives an insight into the lives of real men and women whose lives were changed utterly’

Playwright of The Box, Carlo Gébler says ‘The Box is a short play about two veterans of the First World War, both Irish, Jeremiah, a British Army soldier and Olive, a nurse. The play explores the unexpected ways both were touched and crushed by the conflict, and the common cause they make post-war to help each other to manage their trauma. Theirs is the solidarity of the maimed: it is far from perfect but in the aftermath of a war, when it is the only kind going, each must take what the other has to offer and make do with that because there is nothing else available. As any veteran will tell you, in the absence of what you want, you take what you are given.’

Never mind the trenches! Experiences of British sailors during the First World War by Simon Smith

The ongoing commemoration of the Great War reveals just how much this episode of our history continues to interest and influence our understanding of the past. However, the Great War continues to be studied primarily as a land-based conflict despite the Royal Navy’s crucial role. Ask someone about Jutland and they will probably look perplexed. Much remains to be done to put the navy back into the public memory of the war, and my own research is working towards this. It considers the personal experience of British sailors during the war as expressed in their diaries, particularly the collection held by the National Museum Royal Navy Portsmouth.[1]

This blog will give a brief insight into my findings so far.

The poignant image of the Great War is of young men rushing to the colours full of patriotic fervour. Surprisingly, little research has been done on sailors’ displays of war enthusiasm. This is especially interesting as many sailors were not volunteers: the navy was a career in those days where men joined at a young age.[2] Yet sailors’ diaries reveal excitement and celebrations amongst seamen when war was declared. Ships left port cheered by other vessels, and men proudly recorded their first encounters with German ships.[3] Further, diaries repeatedly refer to the “long awaited scrap” with the enemy.[4] When they did meet, British sailors boasted of the Germans’ poor gunnery in comparison to their own and clearly there was a distinct belief in the Royal Navy’s superiority, which reflects the latent imperialistic sentiment in British society at the time.[5] Yet, not all were caught up with war fever; Walter Dennis recorded that he knew of a number of sailors who were relieved to get posted overseas away from any real action.[6]

However, prolonged warfare, understandably, had a noticeable effect upon sailors. Despite the distancing effect of technology, sailors remained part of the killing machine which some enthusiastically embraced, becoming numb to the brutalities of war. [7] Interestingly few historians have considered this. One sailor – known as Wood – recorded shelling Turkish forts at Gallipoli as “amusing”.[8] This is further demonstrated by the practice of collecting war souvenirs. Seamen often served in support of the army which allowed them ready access to items such as helmets, rifles and bullets.[9] The impact of curios has been widely considered amongst soldiers but, again, sailors have so far been overlooked.[10] Their obvious engagement in this practice suggests a desire for immediacy, which was not an option for soldiers. It would be interesting to compare the diaries of artillerymen serving at the front, and see whether they encountered similar experiences.[11]

Yet, despite sailors’ interaction with killing, not all became numb to the brutalities. Witnessing the sinking of ships or even hearing about losses was traumatic. For example Walter Dennis recorded being ‘rather concerned’ as to the fate of one of his friends lost at sea.[12] Sailors were acutely aware that if their ships were sunk then death was likely, which made moments such as these particularly sobering. It is not surprising that some succumbed to psychological stresses, or in their words had ‘a tile loose’.[13] Sailors had to develop their own coping mechanisms to deal with the stress of everyday life; these were similar to those developed by soldiers, such as humour. Reflecting on battles many became flippant about the dangers experienced. One diarist, Henry Welch, recalled: ‘One shell burst on the water’s edge… Ye gods! it was lovely – only a trifle further and there would have been a few gaps among us.’[14] Coping with pressure was essential.

It is clear that personal histories of the Great War continue to find a receptive audience as more people become interested in their own history. The opportunity is there for the navy to make up lost ground. The NMRNP’s on-going project, Hear My Story, is a step in the right direction and forms a new twentieth century exhibition collating personal memories and public interaction. [15] Another interesting project is the AHRC funded Gateways project which provides centres to encourage public interest through organised lectures and study days.[16] These projects show that there was much more to the Great War than mud, blood and the trenches. It is time to put the navy back in the picture and, as the diaries of Dennis, Fletcher, Welch and Wood show, each diary tells its own unique story, and there are many more to be uncovered.

Simon Smith read History at the University of Portsmouth followed by an MA in The History of War, Culture and Society. He is currently doing a PhD on Sailors and the Royal Navy c.1870-1939 as part of the University of Portsmouth’s Port Towns and Urban Cultures project.

Originally published for the NACBS here:  http://www.nacbs.org/blog/never-mind-the-trenches-experiences-of-british-sailors-during-the-first-world-war-by-simon-smith/

[1]The NMRNP holds approximately 200 diaries in its collection. Other comprehensive diary collections include the Imperial War Museum which has just re-opened with a new WW1 exhibition.
[2]For more information see Christopher McKee, Sober Men and True: Sailor Lives in the Royal Navy, 1900-1945, (London: Harvard University Press, 2002) and Brian Lavery, Able Seamen: the lower deck of the Royal Navy, 1850-1939, (London: Conway, 2011).
[3]RNM 1984/467: Diary of Wood.
[4]RNM 1980/115: Diary of Edwin Fletcher; RNM 1984/467: Diary of Wood; RNM 1980/82: Diary of W Dawson; Diary of Walter Dennis.
[5]RNM 1984/467: Diary of Wood.
[6]Diary of Walter Dennis. Diary digitized by McMaster University, Ontario Canada and available at http://pw20c.mcmaster.ca.
[7]See Edgar Jones, “The Psychology of Killing: The Combat Experience of British Soldiers during the First World War”, Journal of Contemporary History, 41, 2, (2006), 233; Joanna Bourke, An intimate history of killing: face to face killing in twentieth-century warfare, (London: Granta Books, 1999), 7.
[8]RNM 1984/467: Diary of Wood.
[9]Diary of Walter Dennis; RNM 1984/467: Diary of Wood.
[10]See Jones, “Psychology”, and Bourke, An intimate history, for further information of the study of soldiers.
[11]The Imperial War Museum does hold artillerymen’s diaries but these have not yet been considered.
[12]Diary of Walter Dennis.
[13]Diary of Walter Dennis.
[14]DOC: Diary of Henry Welch.
[15]See http://www.nmrn.org.uk/explore/hms-hear-my-story for further information on this project.
[16]The Arts and Humanities Research Council – see www.kent.ac.uk/ww1 for further information on this project.