1st July 2016
This day is the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme which has come to symbolise the horrors of the First World War and the ultimate sacrifice made by so many for the freedom we enjoy today. The Battle of the Somme lasted from 1 July to 18 November 1916 but it was the heroic action of the 36th Ulster Division on 1st and 2nd July who suffered 5,000 casualties of whom over 2000 died that has long been memorialised. The names of 75 per cent of the Division’s fatalities have no known graves and are recorded on the Thiepval Memorial and the Ulster Memorial Tower in Northern France. Read more: an article in the News Letter. Of the nine Victoria Crosses awarded for service on the first 2 days of the Battle, three went to the Ulster Division, one of them being Private William McFadzean, a Presbyterian.
Millions died in the course of the war which has rightly been described as one of the most deadliest conflicts in history. At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 thousands of men from Ulster volunteered to defend their nation, not least many Ulster Presbyterians from every part of the country. One has only to open the pages of the Presbyterian Roll of Honour produced by the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland just a few years after the war to appreciate the sheer numbers of Presbyterians who served, many of whom were injured or lost their lives.
The Roll contains the names of some 24,000 names but we know that there may be another 2,000 names that were not recorded. If you know of names that are not listed in a congregation or congregations that are not included please let us know so that these names can be added. The Roll included some 41 Presbyterian ministers who served as commissioned army chaplains or who served with the YMCA while others even enlisted within the ranks of the army. Even one of our Presbyterian missionaries, the Rev Frederick O’Neill, a Presbyterian missionary in China served in France with the Chinese Labour Corps composed of 96,000 people who assisted the Allied Forces in France and Belgium from 1917 to 1919. For his work with the Chinese Labour Force, the Rev O’Neill was awarded the Order of the Striped Tiger by the Chinese government. This medal is now held by the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland. One Presbyterian minister, the Dr Neil Gavin lost his life while serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps at the Front.
The Presbyterian Chaplains
Presbyterian chaplains who served during the war provided vital spiritual support to the troops – preaching, administering the sacraments, pastoring and conducting burials. They too were often wounded or killed. The first Presbyterian chaplain to die was from Ulster – the Rev Alexander Stuart who was killed in France in October 1917 just two weeks after his arrival (see the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland website for more information about the Rev Stuart). Other Presbyterian chaplains who died during the war included the Rev William Wilson of Coleraine who, while serving with the YMCA, died in a motor accident in France. Recognition of the chaplains’ bravery and courage is reflected in the number of honours bestowed on them. These included thee Rev Hugh Craig Meeke, Ballylinney congregation, who was awarded the DSO and 5 others received the Military Cross – the Rev Andrew Gibson, Hill Street Lurgan congregation, the Rev John Edmond Hamilton, Helen’s Bay congregation, the Rev William Holmes Hutchison, Cullybackey congregation, the Rev James Gilbert Paton of Malone Belfast congregation, and the Rev John Jackson Wright, Ballyshannon congregation.
Leadership of the Chaplaincy Department was provided by another Ulsterman, the Rev Dr John M Simms who was appointed Principal Chaplain of the British Expeditionary Force. He and his secretary reorganised the Chaplaincy Department and thereby placing the spiritual welfare of soldiers on a more satisfactory footing. Described later on as ‘A man of rare sagacity and wide experience who for over 30 years has shared the fortunes of our Army in many a campaign ...’ Dr Simms was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath and was the first chaplain to be awarded the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG).
Three of the First World War chaplains later became Moderators of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church in Ireland – the Rev Dr Simms, the Rev Dr Gilbert Paton and the Rev Dr Andrew Gibson.
The Support for the War from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland supported the war and did much to encourage recruitment into the British army. While recruitment was successful in urban areas the Committee for Social Services of the church deplored the fact that the same support was not realised in rural areas.
The Aftermath of the War
The deaths of so many fathers often left families destitute and as a result there was an marked increase in the number of applications to the Presbyterian Orphan Society for assistance. This is described in more detail in ‘Putting Children First - the Story of 100 Years of the Orphan Society’, published by the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland (2016).
A lasting memorial to those who died was marked by the decision of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to erect the Presbyterian War Memorial Hostel at the corner of Howard Street and Brunswick Street which was opened in 1926 to provide accommodation for young people at work or at university or college.
M'Crea Magee College and the Great War
This cutting from the Belfast Telegraph shows the bronze tablet War Memorial erected in the Examination Hall in M’Crea College in memory of the students who fell in the Great War. It was unveiled by the Rev Dr J M Simms, Moderator of the General Assembly who himself had been Principal Chaplain of the British Expeditionary Force during the 1st World War.
- Daniel Kerr, 14th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment died at Gallipoli in 1915 aged 23. The son of Mr and Mrs S J Kerr, Craignamaddy, Bushmills, he was a student for the Presbyterian ministry and was a member of Croaghmore Presbyterian Church.
- Samuel McCullagh Linden, 90th Heavy Artillery, Royal Garrison Artillery, the son of Robert Linden, Royal Irish Constabulary, and Eliza Baird. He had studied theology at Trinity College Dublin. His parents were in Londonderry at the time of the war. He married Florence Elizabeth Neill at Templemore, Londondery in April 1916. He was killed in action at Vlamertinghe on 31 July 1917, the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres. He is commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial.
- James F D McCay, 15th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, the son of the Rev James McCay of 1st Castlederg and Jeanie Gailey, born 11 January 1892. He was a member of 1st Castlederg Presbyterian Church.
- Hugh Alexander Small, son of Alexander Small and Meta Kennedy Milliken of Keady, born 28 March 1891. He died 11 July 1916 at Trones Wood. He is commemorated on the war memorial in 2nd Keady Presbyterian Church.
- Rev Alexander Stuart, the son of the Rev J C Stuart, Clare, died near Cambrai on 24 October 1917 aged 24. Interred in Ruyaulcourt Military Cemetery.
- Alexander Hunter Witherow, son of Alexander and Margaret Witherow, Claudy 17th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, died 3 July 1916 aged 21. Commemorated on the war memorial in Banagher Presbyterian Church.
- John Thomas Witherow, brother of Alexander Hunter Witherow, died 5 August 1917 aged 26. Commemorated on the war memorial in Banagher Presbyterian Church.
Sources for further reading and information
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland Roll of Honour 1914-19 published by the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland (available on the PHSI website)
‘Sacrificial Service’ by the Rev Dr Victor Dobbin, former Chaplain General , in the Presbyterian Herald, November 2014
‘Chaplaincy in the First World War’ by the Rev Dr Victor Dobbin, former Chaplain General, in the Bulletin of the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland
‘For Valour – Ulster VCs of the Great War’, Ulster- Scots Community Network
‘In this Sign Conquer – Chaplains of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in the Great War’ produced by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland
‘Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross’ by Richard Doherty and Richard Truesdale (Dublin 200)
‘Chinese Labour Corps’ by Mark O’Neill (2014)
Soldiers’ wills – see soldierswills.nationalarchives.ie – for wills of many soldiers who fought in the First World War.
See the Presbyterian Roll of Honour web page for more information.