The location of Malta between the coast of North Africa and Italy made it a key strategic position, for Malta not only provided the Royal Navy with deep water anchorage but it was also a staging post for troopships transporting men and materials to Gallipoli, Salonica and Egypt. However, for many Ulstermen, their connection with the island was medical and, for some, Malta was their final resting place in death. For some Ulsterwomen, Malta was the place where they provided medical care to men wounded in battle or suffering from illnesses arising from the battlefields.
During the Great War, Malta was described as the Nurse of the Mediterranean. In 1914, Malta had five military or naval hospitals but this rose to 27 hospitals and camps during the war. The first wave of war casualties to be treated in Malta (600 casualties from the Gallipoli landings) arrived on 4th May 1915 and approximately 136,000 men from the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force and the Salonika Expeditionary Force were treated in Malta up to February 1919.
One Ulsterwoman who served in Malta was Dr. Elizabeth Gould Bell of College Gardens who left Belfast in July 1916 to take charge of a ward in a Malta Hospital. Elizabeth was married to Dr. Hugh Fisher (but widowed by 1911) and her father, Joseph Bell, had been Clerk of the Newry Union, a position her brother also held. She was the first female student to study Medicine and Surgery at Queen’s College Belfast and she received her degree from the Royal University in Ireland in 1893.
Before the war, Dr. Bell was a keen advocate of the extension of the franchise to women, being a member of the Irish Women’s Suffragette Society in Belfast and treated suffragette prisoners in Crumlin Road Gaol. She later devoted herself to the medical welfare of women and children. Her only son, Hugo Bell Fisher, was studying medicine when he received a commission with the Royal Munster Fusiliers in 1915 and he joined his unit in France on 23rd November 1916. He was wounded and captured during the Battle of Passchendaele and died on 23rd November 1917. He is buried in Harlebeke New British Cemetery in Belgium and is commemorated on the War Memorial in Fisherwick Presbyterian Church.
Based on the information held by Commonwealth War Graves Commission, supplemented with details from Soldiers Died in the Great War, 68 Irishmen who died in the Great War are buried in Malta and seventeen were Ulstermen:
Private (T4/061442) Hugh McCann of Crossgar died on 31st July 1915 whilst serving with 42nd (East Lancashire) Divisional Train, Army Service Corps and is buried in Addolorata Cemetery
Trooper (11/959) Hugh Adair of Belfast and Bangor died on 3rd October 1915 whilst serving with the Wellington Mounted Rifles and is buried in Pieta Military Cemetery
Private (9949) Francis Eccles of Drumglass died on 3rd August 1915 whilst serving with 1st Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and is buried in Addolorata Cemetery
Private (11407) Patrick Murphy of Derrygullen died on 27th August 1915 whilst serving with 5th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and is buried in Addolorata Cemetery
Lance Corporal (9236) Edward Boyle of Maguires Bridge died on 19th May 1915 whilst serving with 1st Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and is buried in Pembroke Military Cemetery
Private (11609) George Atkinson of Donegal died on 5th December 1915 whilst serving with 1st Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and is buried in Pieta Military Cemetery
Private (11824) James Hutchinson of Armagh died on 4th September 1915 whilst serving with 6th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and is buried in Pieta Military Cemetery
Private (G/1458) James Duffey of Londonderry died on 6th November 1916 whilst serving with 2nd Garrison Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers and is buried in Addolorata Cemetery
Private (17909) Samuel Clayton of Portadown died on 2nd October 1915 whilst serving with 6th Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers and is buried in Pieta Military Cemetery
Corporal (2643686) William Dawson of Belfast died on 18th September 1917 whilst serving with 6th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles and is buried in Pieta Military Cemetery
Rifleman (8937) Henry Alexander McClune of Belfast died on 27th September 1915 whilst serving with 6th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles and is buried in Pieta Military Cemetery
Rifleman (8502) David Reid of Blaris died on 11th October 1914 whilst serving with 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles and is buried in Pieta Military Cemetery
Private (PLY/15918) William John McCabe of Belfast died on 29th March 1919 whilst serving with the Royal Marine Light Infantry on HMS “Foresight” and is buried in Malta (Capuccini) Naval Cemetery
Engineer Sub-Lieutenant W C White of Belfast died on 15th June 1918 whilst serving with the Royal Naval Reserve on HMS “Snaefell” and is buried in Malta (Capuccini) Naval Cemetery
Stoker 1st Class (K/14000) Robert Cairns of Belfast died on 27th April 1916 whilst serving with the Royal Navy on HMS “Russell” and is buried in Malta (Capuccini) Naval Cemetery
Leading Stoker (300050) John Moon of Belfast died on 16th May 1918 whilst serving with the Royal Navy on HMS “Egmont” and is buried in Malta (Capuccini) Naval Cemetery
Private (23685) Samuel Easton of Doagh died on 25th January 1916 whilst serving with 4th Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment and is buried in Pieta Military Cemetery
Three of the Ulstermen buried in Malta were associated with Belfast congregations of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
was born in Bangor on 11th October 1893, being the third son of Hugh and Mary Adair. His father was a farmer but Mary was a widow by 1901, at which time the family was living in Southwell Road, Bangor. Hugh Adair emigrated to New Zealand in 1912 and was working as a Station Hand in Makauri when he enlisted with the 9th Squadron of the Wellington Mounted Rifles in December 1914. Trooper Adair left New Zealand in February 1915, arriving in Egypt in March 1915 and, in August 1915, his unit was located at ANZAC Cove on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Hugh’s only sister, Ruby, served as a nurse with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Army Nursing Service in Alexandria.
Hugh Adair was transferred to a hospital on Malta on 10th September 1915 suffering from gastritis and he subsequently died of enteric fever on 3rd October 1915 and is buried in Pieta Military Cemetery. On 20th November 1915, the Newtownards Chronicle report on his death recorded that he had been wounded after a couple of months at Gallipoli. Unlike most military gravestones in Malta, which lie canted and contain three names, Hugh Adair has a personal memorial that was erected by his aunt, his sister and his brothers. His name is also commemorated on the Rolls of Honour for First Holywood Presbyterian Church and Cooke Centenary Presbyterian Church in East Belfast.
was born in Belfast on 23rd April 1893, being the fifth child of Robert (a factory mechanic) and Ellen Cairns, who were living in Greenmount Street, Belfast in 1901. Robert Cairns served on HMS Russell, a Duncan-class battleship, which was detached from the Grand Fleet on 6th November 1915 and despatched to reinforce the British naval squadron in the Dardanelles. HMS Russell participated in the evacuation of Cape Helles from 7th to 9th January 1916 and she was the last battleship of the British Dardanelles Squadron to leave the area.
After the conclusion of the Dardanelles campaign, HMS Russell stayed on in the Mediterranean and was steaming off Malta early on the morning of 27th April 1916 when she struck two sea mines that had been laid by the German submarine U-73. A fire broke out in the aft part of the ship and the order to abandon ship was passed. After an explosion near the aft gun turret, she took on a dangerous list but sank slowly, allowing most of the crew to escape. A total of 27 officers and 98 ratings were lost, including Robert Cairns who was buried in the Malta (Capuccini) Naval Cemetery. Robert Cairns’ name is commemorated on the Roll of Honour for Great Victoria Street Presbyterian Church in South Belfast.
Leading Stoker John Moon
was born in Dungannon, County Tyrone, on 16th September 1878 and married Rachel Reid on 27th December 1904 and his wife, a linen weaver, was living at 44 Ruth Street in 1911. John was a labourer when he joined the Royal Navy on 4th March 1902 for a 12-year period.
He extended his service in March 1914 and was serving on HMS Vivid 2 when the Great War started. From 1st November 1917, he served on HMS Egmont, a Base Ship in Malta and died of a fractured spine on 16th May 1918 following an accident onboard HMS Mimosa.
He was buried in the Malta (Capuccini) Naval Cemetery and his name is commemorated on the Roll of Honour for Newington Presbyterian Church in North Belfast.
Research by Nigel Henderson, History Hub Ulster Member