Chapter 4 - Ballymena at War 1914-1918 ... In far off lands

FEW of the original volunteers from Ballymena district who rushed to join the colours in the early days of August 1914 would have imagined themselves fighting anyone else but the Germans.

This eager vanguard of a later surge of recruits to the British army were, in the main, directed towards the service battalions of the Irish regiments to be formed into the 10th (Irish) Division of Kitchener’s ‘new army.’

From the columns of the Observer’s by now well-established ‘Items about our local soldiers’ column, it would seem that most of these men were badged to the 6th Btn. of the Royal Irish Rifles.

This formation was to serve far from home for its entire existence, with its baptism of fire coming in the midst of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, more often referred to as the Dardanelles in contemporary accounts.

However, they were not the first locals to encounter the famed ‘Johnny Turk’ on this hot and sometimes pestilential peninsula, the securing of which was of strategic importance to British war aims.

A surprising number of local men, serving with the regular 1st Btn. Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, were among the first to land on the invasion beaches. They were part of what was to become known as the ‘Incomparable’ 29th Division which was formed in early 1915 by combining various units that had been acting as garrisons about the British Empire.

Under the command of Major General Aylmer Hunter-Weston, the division fought throughout the Battle of Gallipoli, including the original landing at Cape Helles. From 1916 to the end of the war the division fought on the Western Front in France.

The 29th Division served on the Gallipoli peninsula for the duration of the ill-fated campaign. It made the first landings as part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in April 1915 and was among the last to leave in January 1916.

News of local casualties in the Galipoli theatre began to arrive home in June of 1915. And for one local woman, notification of an injury to her husband was becoming a regular occurrence. In the bureaucratic language of the time, Mrs. Rose Ann Moore ‘received initimation that’:-

“her husband, the well-known Ballymena footballer, has been wounded whilst serving with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. Private Willie Moore, who belongs to the 1st Inniskillings was wounded in France about Christmas and after a short furlough returned to active service.”

Willie had been wounded on May 7, during the gruelling Second Battle of Krithia. On this occasion the Inniskillings were among the units attacking Turkish positions at Fig Tree Spur. Despite many acts of bravery, no progress was made against the determined defenders.

His wound must have been of a minor nature but it should not be assumed that he was over-endowed with luck. Just a month later, Mrs. Moore was in receipt of another message from the war Office,

“ Pte. W. Moore has been wounded again at the front with his old regiment, the 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He was invalided home last December suffering from frostbite and on rejoining his regiment afterwards went to the Dardanelles, where he was wounded on May 7th and was sent to a hospital in Cairo. He again went to the front after he had recovered from that injury. He has now been wounded for the third time.” Ballymena Observer, August 20 1915

The wound inflicted on Hugh Reynolds, another Ballymena man serving with the 1st Inniskillings, was obviously more serious. He was evacuated to England for treatment and in a letter to his mother contended that was the first ‘Ballymena man to return to England from the Dardanelles theatre of war.’

More than one year later, Reynolds was discharged from the army as a result of his wounds. The Observer recorded:-

Private Hugh Reynolds, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, son of Mr. Wm. John Reynolds of Adair’s Court, Ballymena was recently the recipient of a card signed by Lt. General A. Hunter Weston, of the 29th Division, congratulating him on the following act of bravery performed while on active service:- “On the 29th April 1915, Pte. Reynolds carried Captain Riding on his back through heavy shell and rifle fire when retiring to a position as the Turks were advancing. Captain Riding would have been left to the mercy of the Turks. Reynolds carried him on his back about 700 yards across open plain and then was assisted to carry him down to the boat.” At that time he received a card from Sir Ian Hamilton recommending him for bravery on the field. Pte. Reynolds holds a long service medal and has two brothers with the colours, James and William John who are both in the R. Innis. Fus. His father was recently discharged from the Royal Irish Regiment on account of ill-health. Ballymena Observer, November 17, 1916

Sometimes the speed with which relatives received information about their relatives was incredibly fast. The father of Private Adam McAteer, of Waring Street, Ballymena, was notified by the War Office on 22nd May 1915 that his son was ‘missing’. A regular soldier with the 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Pte. McAteer had seen service in India during the immediate pre-war period.

A swift consultation with the excellent records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission shows that young McAteer had sadly been killed on that day. His record shows:-

McATEER, Adam Pte. ‘D’coy. 1st Btn. R.Innis.F. Missing/KIA 22nd May 1915 Service No. 10187. Aged 21, born Cullybackey, enlisted Glasgow. Son of Archibald and Jane McAteer, 26 Waring Street, Ballymena. Comm. on Helles Memorial, Gallipoli.and 1st Ballymena Pres. Church

The 29th Division was finally evacuated from Gallipoli in early January 1916 and moved to Egypt before being sent to France in March in preparation for the offensive on the Somme. ‘The total casualties of the 29th Division in the Great War were in the region of 94,000. The Gallipoli campaign alone accounted for 34,000. Of the Division’s 27 VCs, no less than 12 were won at the Dardanelles.

The 10th (Irish) Division at Gallipoli

The 6th (Service) Battalion Royal Irish Rifles might well be described as a truly ‘mixed bag’ of Irishmen. Its ranks were drawn from all creeds and classes, both north and south with one unifying characteristic, they were amongst the first to volunteer for service in the heady days of August 1914.

One of the first to join was Harry Hamilton, a fact proudly recorded by the Observer when news of his wounding arrived in the town.

“The first Ulster Volunteer from Ballymena to enlist has been wounded. Mrs. Mary Hamilton, Springwell Street, received the information from the War Office that her

husband, Corporal Harry Hamilton of the 6th Btn. Royal Irish Rifles has been dangerously wounded below the right ear. Corporal Hamilton, who prior to the outbreak of war was employed as a sawyer by Messrs. J. Coleman and Co., Ballymena listed for the Irish Rifles on August 10th, 1914. He was a member of the Harryville Unionist Club and was connected with the Orange Order being attached to the Dunfane Lodge.”

In most cases, men with similar religious and political afilliations to the eager Mr. Hamilton waited for the green – or should that be Orange - light from Ulster Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson before enlisting. Harry and a number of equally adventurous Ballymena men, from both sides of the community, seem to have lacked the patience for the political waiting game.

The 6th Rifles were attached to 29th Brigade of the 10th (Irish) Division which had been formed in Dublin in the last ten days of August, 1914, the other battalions in the Brigade being the 5th Royal Irish, the 5th Connaught Rangers, and the 6th Leinster Regiment.

In September it moved to Fermoy for a month’s training, returning to Dublin, to the Royal Barracks, in October. Four months were passed in the city. The 10th Division, being intended for early service overseas, was on the whole better treated in the matter of equipment than the other Irish Divisions, the 16th and the 36th (Ulster), then in training in the country.

At the end of April it was transferred to New Park Camp, in Hacked Park, Basingstoke. There training became intensive, musketry being carried out at Aldershot. On May 28th H.M. the King, and on June 1st Lord Kitchener, reviewed the Division and on July 6th the 6th Royal Irish Rifles left Basingstoke for embarkation at Liverpool, its destination being in the first place Alexandria, and then the Gallipoli Peninsula.

On the afternoon of August 5th the 29th Brigade sailed from Mudros, the 6th Royal Irish Rifles being in the Partridge with Brigade Headquarters and the 72nd Field Company, Royal Engineers. By midnight the Battalion had disembarked, by means of lighters, at Watson’s Pier, Anzac Cove, and moved into bivouacs in Shrapnel Gulley.

Just a few days later, on August 9th, the untried troops were ordered to attack Turkish positions known as “L” Ridge

The historian of the battalion, the ever industrious Cyril Falls, recounted:-

“In this, its first action, the men of the battalion went forward with great dash in face of heavy fire, beneath a sun already blazing hot, across steadily rising ground. Almost all was won, but not the position upon the desired “L” Ridge. Two hundred and fifty yards short of it, the battalion was driven to ground and dug itself in. There it remained all night.

Its position was dangerous, the left flank being in air, and the men suffered agonies from thirst. During the night the tired men managed to scrape out a shallow trench, but it was a poor defence against what followed. At 4.30 a.m. on the morning of the 10th came a tremendous Turkish counter-attack, delivered by fresh troops. It was preceded by a bombardment which caused very heavy casualties. Then the Turks came on, wave upon wave, with the utmost bravery, heedless of the heavy loss caused by our fire. Fierce fighting developed all along the line, and both battalions of the 29th Brigade stood their position well. But the losses increased, especially those of officers. With wild courage, the Turkish infantry came forward again and again to the assault. The battalion clung to its position for an hour and a half. It is possible that the same men with six months’ experience of war would never have left it. But for raw troops the test was too high. Not, however, till almost all the officers were casualties did the line break, and then the troops were rallied by the three or four who survived, and took up a line 800 yards behind the old position.

In a very short period the Battalion had had 3 officers and 42 other ranks killed, 18 officers and 274 other ranks wounded, and 38 other ranks missing. These figures represent a much higher proportion than is realized till it is explained that all battalions of the 28th Brigade had embarked at Mudros at a strength of 25 officers and 750 other ranks, so as to have some trained reinforcements at hand.

The counter-attack had had dangerous moments, but it was finally checked, largely by the fire of the ships’ guns, though we had lost what ground we had held on Chunuk Bair. When the Battalion was relieved next day and moved to rest in a gorge north of Bauchop’s Hill, it was not 300 strong.”

Cpl. John Buchanan of Ballymena was among the dead in this action. He is named on the Helles Memorial.

Thankfully, the town was spared further fatalities from its sons serving with the 6th Rifles in the Gallpoli operation, but by the late summer of 1915, the Observer’s columns carried numerous articles on local men who had been wounded during the ill-fated campaign.

Brothers Sandy and Samuel Watson had been among the first to volunteer from Ballymena:-

Intimation has been received by his parents residing at Garfield Place, Ballymena, that their son Private Alexander Watson of the 6th RIR has been wounded at the Dardanelles.

Private Watson joined the colours at the outbreak of the war and proceeded to the front about six months ago. The news to hand states that he has received a bullet wound in the ankle. A brother, Pte Samuel Watson is also serving with the 6th RIR at the Dardanelles.

In a cheerful letter home to his parents from a military hospital in Malta, Sandy explained how he had been hit.

“Just a few lines to let you know that I am wounded and in hospital. Johnny Turk got me all right with a shrapnel bullet in the left leg, just above the ankle. I am being treated here all right and hope to be quite well soon. My brother Sam was all right, the last time I saw him and as for Johnny Turtle (Springwell Street), I heard he was wounded in the hand.”

The heat and generally insanitary conditions which typified the British experience on the Gallipoli Peninsula meant that disease was often as great a threat as Turkish bullets or shells.

One local man who suffered, like thousands of others, from the soul-destroying and physically draining illness of dysentery was Private John Wallace. One can only surmise that John had left the town with at least the hope of medals and martial glory when he enlisted in Kitchener’s new army. Any such dreams were short-lived amidst the strench of decaying bodies, human waste and swarms of flies which plagued all soldiers engaged in the Gallipoli campaign. The Observer reported:-

“Mrs. Wallace, Galgorm Street, Ballymena, has received intimation that her son Rfn. John Wallace of the 6th Btn. Royal Irish Rifles, was wounded at the Dardanelles on 15th August and is at present in the King George Hospital in London in a rather critical condition suffering from dysentery. Private Wallace, who was was formerly employed at Eaton’s Bookstall at Ballymena Ralway Station, joined on the outbreak of war.” Ballymena Observer, September 24, 1915.

There is a widespread misconception that the public back home were shielded from the bloody face of battle. The reality is quite different and published accounts from soldiers did not dodge the issue of life, death and the often random nature in which the grim reaper operated.

Private John Erwin from Ballymena, who was serving with the 5th Royal Irish Fusiliers at Gallipoli had good reason to count himself lucky.

“The relatives of Private John Erwin, 5th Btn. Royal Irish Fusiliers of Kinhilt Street, Ballymena, and formerly of Ballymena Post Office staff, have received inimation that he was wounded at the Dardanelles. The news is contained in a letter from Private Erwin himself, in which he says the bullet passed through some letters he had in his pocket and slightly injured his arm, subsequently entering the throat of a fellow soldier, killing him instantaneously.”

Death and injury from enemy action was just part of the communal experience of local soldiers, who, brought up in Irish climatic conditions, found the extremes of weather in their far off theatre of war to be testing.

Lance corporal Samuel Law was only 19 when he found himself with the 6th Royal Irish Rifles at Gallipoli and then Salonika. A keen member of the Church Lads’ Brigade which imbued its members with patriotic spirit, he was a willing recruit to Kitchener’s army at the outbreak of war.

In February 1916, he told of his experiences in a letter sent home to his family and then published in the Ballymena Observer.

The paper reported:-

‘…He was attached to the (censored) and sent to Dublin to complete his training. Subsequently, he was ordered to the Dardanelles. Many and varied were the experiences he had there with the wily Turk.

On one occasion, his Division (10th (Irish) Division) had to go without food for two days, as it was difficult owing to the desperate way in which the Turks harassed them for the commiseriat to keep in touch.

From the Dardanelles, the battalion was sent to Serbia (actually the ill-fated Salonika expedition) to reinforce the French and stem the tide which was sweeping the Serbians from their native land. Many were the hairbreadth escapes he came through.

At times he thought his Division was lost, but they rallied and dealt some fine knock-out blows to the Bulgarian-German troops (Bulgaria had joined Germany, Austria and Turkey against the Allies).

Times without number they attacked and hoped to carry the day but at last the order came to withdraw and his Division had to bear the brunt of covering the main army when retreating to Salonika. At length, when all was clear, they were ordered to run for it:

“You should have seen us go,” he writes. “ Leaping to the parapet of our trenches we took to our beaters for the hills, which we reached in safety. Then, under cover, we prepared to make ourselves comfortable and enjoy a well-earned rest after our long spell in the trenches.”

“Our rest camp,” he says, “is christened ‘Devil’s Hollow’. I haven’t seen any white women for months on end. One seems to be in the heart of Africa. It is most depressing at times. One doesn’t realise the exhilarating joy which comes from seeing a white woman in these desolate and wild hills.

“More woman nurses are badly needed. I think they would only be too glad to make haste and offer their services and come out to cheer us and make our lot a little brighter. You haven’t seen our Division mentioned much in the papers in the fighting in and around Serbia but I may tell you they were a credit to the (censored), for the way in which they carried the burden of the last few days before leaving Salonika.”

Young Law has so far come through without a scratch. He was a member of St. Patrick’s Church. He was also a member of Harryville Unionist Club.’

Stafford Macartney used a healthy dose of humour to get his message across to the folks back home. And remember, his words must be read in the context of the time. Political correctness was not a high priority for the average serviceman. Sadly, it has been impossible to establish in which branch of the forces which the ironic Mr. Macartney saw service but his letter is well worth reading:-

Letter to the Editor

A call from Mesopotamia

Dear Editor - There are a good many of the boys out here from the north of Ireland, and we were wondering if you could spare a few lines in one of your columns, asking the people of Ballymena if there is any lady or gentleman that has got, or could get a melodeon or mouth organ for us.

It certainly would be highly appreciated in this beautiful country of sunshine, sandflies and mosquitoes.

Now a few words about the world renowned sandflies; give honour where honour is due, for the boys idolise them absolutely, and I must spell the word FLIES with capitals.

It’s best to leave them alone - but they won’t let you alone and when they make a frontal attack on you it’s worse than a shower of Turks charging a lone commissary wagon for a little chow-chow!

Then you parade in front of the medical adviser and tell him that some poisonous reptile stung you; then he takes your temperature, pulse, heart-beat, asks you if you are regular and whether you are eating regular. You tell him ‘Yes’.

After that, you trot on down to the dispensary where you see the native doc from Bombay with a smile all over his face and half way down his back with a big glass of sparkling medicine awaiting you. He tells you it is ‘Whiskey-Ka-Hai’. Of course, you’re soon cured.

Well Mr. Weir, I hope you will excuse my spelling for I was educated at Harryville University and many a good lick the principal gave me across the bare legs, bless his dear heart.

Yours, faithfully

Stafford Macartney, Rockfield, Ballyloughan.

Ballymena Observer, October 19. 1917

A more bitter edge to the coin is very evident in a letter from Mesopotamia by a Lance Corporal Martin to his friend, Mr. McNabney, a grocer in Ballymena. In it, he recounts some of the lesser known aspects of war in the Middle East.

“Very few people in the old country know the real truth about Mesopotamia. Troops who have been in France in the early stages of the war say that those in France are having a picnic compared to the troops out here.

“One does not wonder at old Adam eating the forbidden fruit. Can one? I myself would eat it if I thought they would drive me out of the garden (of Eden, which was supposedly located in Mesopotamia) and send me to ‘Blighty’ again. No hesitation whatsoever.

“The Arabs are the cleverest thieves in the world and they do all their looting under the most difficult and daring circumstances. A few nights ago three of the blighters entered a tent in which were a few stores and a Tommy fast asleep.

“Just as they were in the act of taking a kit bag from the tent, Wilson awoke and as they saw him moving under his mosquito net, one of them immediately rushed at him with a knife and cut him right open and his chums found him dead next morning.

“The Arabs, however, did not escape as they were captured by the sentry and hanged the following day. An Indian sentry tells us that while on duty one night, he saw a few sheep coming up behind him , and amongst them he noticed one whose manner was rather peculiar and slightly different from the others.

“Naturally, his suspicions were aroused and he fied two rounds at this sheep, and on examination he found that he had not a sheep but an Arab in sheep’s clothing. On many occasions they have crawled up behind the sentries and put them ‘out of time’. I am on guard pretty often now. We managed to one in the mortuary a few nights ago and wound several since and no doubt we are having exciting times. You ought to see their knives.”

Ballymena Observer, October 27, 1916

In years to come, many of these men who served in far off lands would suffer from recurring bouts of malaria and their language was punctuated with strange words with their origins in Arabic or various Indian dialects.

To some extent they were the ‘forgotten front’ soldiers of World War One which most people nowadays link, inextricably, with the carnage of France and Flanders.