The 66 young men who died in battle to protect our freedom

The 66 young men who died in battle to protect our freedom

8 November 2017

ON the war memorial in Downpatrick, there is a list of 66 young local men who were killed in the First World War.

Names are important, especially when they tell you that some unfortunate families lost more than one son. In fact, by my calculations, four Love brothers died as a result of WW1. Three McKinley and three Roberts sons were also lost, as well as two Clydesdale brothers.

The first of the Loves to fall was Sapper Samuel Love, who died on April 8, 1915, as a result of shell and shrapnel wounds. Sergeant John Love, who enlisted in the Royal Irish Rifles, was one of the many heroes who went over the top at the Somme on July 1, 1916, and never came back.

Sergeant George Love, also RIR, was to die on September 30 the same year, at a casualty clearing station, 

possibly also as a result of the Somme offensive, which lasted until November.

We know a little more about Sergeant William Love’s war history. Having enlisted in the RIR right at the outset, he sailed from Southampton to France on August 14, 1914. Almost at 

once, he was to be involved in the bitter fighting as the BEF pushed its way from Mons to the Aisne.

Initially William appears to have had a certain measure of luck, as on October 25, 1914, while in the trenches at Neuve Chapelle, a bullet passed through his knitted cap. Some time later a sniper’s bullet cut through his upper lip and carried away two of his teeth, after which he was sent to Cambridge hospital for treatment.

When pronounced fit, he returned to his unit once more. Having been there from the outset of the war, William must have seen much action until his health finally broke down, and he died on May 13, May 1919, “from effects of a disablement received in France”.

He had given everything. As for his desolate parents, they had amazingly given the war eight of their sons. And it had kept four.

Not all of the 66 fell on the battlefield. First class Stokers William James Gordon and Thomas McCormick both died at sea, the former when his ship was torpedoed in 1914, and the latter in a night collision in the Channel in 1916.

Trooper David Curran, 2nd Australian Light Horse, died of fever on June 16, 1917, while being held as a POW of the Turks near Mosul — coincidentally a name much in the news 100 years on, while Captain William Crymble, Royal Army Medical Corps, died in Alexandria, Egypt, from enteric fever.

The details of two more soldiers speak volumes, even 100 years on. Corporal James McIlroy, who died from wounds received at Gallipoli, was the “only son and main support of an aged father who, with his wife, is in feeble health’. And RSM Cleland, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, died on October 27, 1916, leaving a wife and six children. Her first husband had been killed in the Boer War.

Significantly, two sons of the clergy also made the supreme sacrifice.

2nd Lieutenant William Ernest Anthony Clayton, son of the Rev J Clayton, Methodist minister in Downpatrick, was seriously wounded by a shell fragment on April 13, 1916, and died nine days later.

Captain Robert Gerald McElney, MC, Royal Army Medical Corps, son of the Presbyterian minister in Downpatrick, the Rev Robert McElney, and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, died on March 21, 1918. The RAMC provided the following profile of Captain McElney.

After a distinguished career at Campbell College, Robert won an entrance scholarship to Queen’s University. While there he became a prominent member of the Officer Training Corps. In February 1912, he obtained an award from the Royal Humane Society, for a deed of gallantry near Downpatrick. He was a competent swimmer and held the bronze medal of the Royal Lifesaving Society. He was also a keen horseman.

In April 1913, he gained a commission in the RAMC (SR), undergoing his training at Aldershot that year. He graduated in medicine in July 1915, qualifying MB, BCh., and was was sent to France. Arriving on 28th September, he was attached to the 77th Field Ambulance. 

It was in 1916, for his actions at the Battle of the Somme, that Robert was awarded the Military Cross:

‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He led stretcher parties and worked in the open under heavy fire continuously for thirty-four hours. He set a splendid example of courage and determination.’

One of his superior officers wrote: “The feat that won him the Military Cross was a remarkably fine achievement. He had no fear. His courage and devotion to duty made him very popular, both with officers and men”.

He was killed on March 21, 1918, the opening day of the great German offensive near Bapâume. Letters from his superior officers spoke of his courage and the high order of his professional skill. One closely associated with him for 11 months in the unit wrote: “He had a record of steady and devoted service second to none, and his personal qualities were of such sterling value as to win the love and admiring regard of all.”

Touchingly — and fittingly — when Downpatrick’s War Memorial was dedicated, it was the Rev McElney who read the roll of honour and said the prayers. ‘Greater love…’

Another inion on the war memorial gives stark details about Capt William Mortimer Lanyon, RIR, who ‘entered the Rifles’ trench about midnight on Easter Sunday, and early the following morning — April 5 — while he was standing against the parapet, he was hit in the head by a sniper’s bullet and killed instantly.’

Unsurprisingly, one single day, July 1, 1916 — the first day of the infamous Battle of the Somme — took the heaviest toll on the men from Downpatrick district.

By my reckoning, seven young men fell on that day alone: Joseph Clydesdale (RIR), Robert Ferguson (RIR),  John Killops (RIR), John Love (RIR), William John Peake (MM, RIR), William James Skillen (RIR) and William Tweedie (RIR).

The citation for Corporal Peake’s Military Medal is worthy of note: ‘Awarded the Military Medal for his excellent conduct on 26th & 27th June 1916, when he commanded a blocking party in the German trench, and searched several dug-outs, getting two prisoners. When he returned to the sunken road he displayed great coolness under shell-fire, and successfully led back his own party to our lines independently.’

Yet only four days later, ‘He was reported to have been wounded about twenty yards from the German front line during the advance on 1st July. He was subsequently reported killed in action, and his name is listed on the Thiepval Memorial to the missing.’

We will remember them.

Helen Long is a great-niece of Sapper John Malone, who was killed on the Somme in May 1916.