Antrim sent its fair share of young men to serve their country in World War One. Many, sadly, did not return. But due to bureaucracy and a lack of money, a permanent memorial was never built in the town. Now, former Antrim Guardian reporter Alvin 'Alfie' McCaig hopes that his forthcoming book dedicated to the local men who fought and died in the Great War, will be a...
Lasting legacy to Antrim's fallen
by Clare Weir email@example.com (4th June 2015 Antrim Guardian page 12)
A FORMER Antrim Guardian reporter is hoping that his forthcoming book about the men from Antrim who served in World War One will act as a permanent memorial to the fallen from the town.
Unlike some of the outlying towns and villages in the borough, there is no inscribed war memorial in Antrim, a fact which was discussed at one of a number of talks as part of the Libraries NI and Living Legacies 1914-18 event, which took place recently in Antrim Library.
The event was aimed at those interested in finding out more about WWl and gave local people the opportunity to explore their ancestors and to record and preserve their stories and memorabilia.
Researchers from Living Legacies were on hand with scanning equipment to help people digitally record personal legacies and reminders from the Great War for the benefit of future generations.
Dr Johanne Devlin Trew from the University of Ulster began the proceedings, followed by Tom Thorpe of the Western Front Association, Antrim and Down Branch, who delivered a presentation entitled, Exploring WWl through the WFA.
Archaeologist Dr Colm Donnelly of Queen's University discussed Exploring WWl through Archaeology.
The final speaker was Mr McCaig, now a BBC NI sports journalist and a keen member of Antrim Historical Society, who gave a presentation about local boy soldiers who joined up and who is currently putting the finishing touched to a book about the town's involvement in the conflict.
He said that around 250,000 underage teenagers went to fight in the Great War.
One of those was 'Budgie' McCabe, related to the family of butchers in Antrim, and another was Robert McCormick, from Kiln Entry, off Church Street.
Mr McCaig explained how so many boys slipped through the procedural cracks.
"The age to join up was 19-35," he said.
"Some joined the 9th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. They trained at Shane's Castle. People at the Antrim recruiting office across the road from where the library now stands - would have known who a lot of these boys were and would have known they were not old enough." During his presentation Mr McCaig discussed a well-known painting by JP Beadle, 'Battle of the Somme, the Attack of the Ulster Division', which hangs in Belfast City Hall and which features the South Antrim Volunteers.
"Most men joined the army straight from the UVF, which was very strong in Antrim," he said.
He said that Killead 'came out very strongly' for the war and that the Dungonnell UVF company provided the building blocks for the local war effort.
"Most underage soldiers gave their age as 19 and three months, which was the spoof age," he revealed.
As buglers and drummers in bands were allowed to join up early, many were 'very naughty' and joined up that way, he said.
One of the men who went to war as a teenager was Lance Corporal Jackson, who it is said killed or wounded ten Germans, who were standing on a parapet firing at the Royal Irish Rifles, earning him the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal.
Mr McCaig pointed to the fact that many local areas are named after some of the bloodiest battles, like Bourlon Road, named for the Battle of Cambrai, and Menin Road, the notorious route between Ypres and Menin.
Indeed, as was pointed out by Mr McCaig and corroborated by some members of the audience, many of the houses were 'soldiers' cottages', built for ex-servicemen coming home from war.
One of the local heroes of the conflict was Albert Whiteside, described by Mr McCaig as a 'star soldier', a son of Samuel Whiteside, a grocer on High Street.
Whiteside was said to have been underage when he joined the UVF, but went on to become a Sergeant in the South Antrims and was injured on July 1 1916.
He rose to become a Company Sergeant Major, the highest rank for a Non-commissioned Officer, and later applied for a commission and became a Second Lieutenant with the 14th Royal Irish Rifles, or the YCVs.
He was killed fighting in Cambrai, with a colleague reporting how he saw both of Whiteside's legs blown off after a shell dropped on him.
Still conscious, he urged his men to 'go on and not worry about him'.
The witness said he passed by later and said: "There was not the slightest question he was dead. I knew him well, I had heard him sing at a YMCA concert a little while before."
Albert Whiteside was only 20 years old and tragically, after making enquiries, his father Samuel received a letter to inform him that his son was dead - 11 months after his death.
"This was very typical of the anguish that families went through," said Mr McCaig.
In 1921, the grocer was walking home from First Antrim Presbyterian church and was knocked down and killed.
Mr McCaig said that at his inquest, Whiteside was described as 'never having been the same' after the death of his only son.
"Albert would have taken over the business, and by 1923 the grocers disappeared, that finished the business."
There are many more tragic stories, like that of George Green of Loanends, who died exactly a month before the Armistice, and Hugh James Thompson, a private killed at Gallipoli in 1915, one of the first to join Kitchener's Army.
Mr McCaig said that at the start of the war many joined English and Scottish regiments, like Albert Grainger from Summerhill, who fought with the Black Watch.
But it wasn't just underage men who perished - John Cooley was a Catholic from Dungonnell who joined the Leinster Regiment of the 16th Irish Division and who was 49 when he died.
He is said to have been born in Killead and had fought at Gallipoli.
Mr McCaig said that countless men, many of them mill workers, joined up from the Millview, Abbeyview and Raceview areas in Muckamore, among them Corporal Charles Crookes, who was killed in action in April 1918.
Willie Allen, son of Jack Allen, joined up in 1914 and was badly injured, losing the power in his arm for the rest of his life.
Mr McCaig said that many of the men who were damaged by war were unable to work in the jobs that they had done previously.
Willie had worked in the mill, but because of his injury became a lollipop man at Kirk's Corner in Antrim town centre.
Mr McCaig said that he decided to write his book after attending his first night at Antrim Historical Society.
"I said, let's do a talk on the anniversary of World War I, and then someone called my bluff
and said 'why don't you do it?'.
"As I went on, I realised it was more than just a talk."
He said that newspapers from the time were 'fantastic', adding:
"They are very very detailed and have reams of stuff."
Mr McCaig has also spoken to families, gone through service records and has even sent a researcher to the National Archive in Kew.
Answering questions from Ulster Unionist councillor and Antrim British Legion
Chairman Paul Michael, he agreed that Antrim town has no collective history of the First World War and that there was a 'sense of shame' in the town at the time, that there was no permanent memorial.
He said that in 1919, a meeting at the Protestant Hall was organised to decide how to remember the men of Antrim.
"It was decided that instead of an obelisk or statue, a memorial would be placed in the foyer at the new Technical School for Antrim for everyone to see," he said.
However due to red tape and a lack of money, the project never came to fruition.
"In 1924, the war guns were brought to town, lots of towns had German guns which
had been captured, and it was said at the time that it was basically a disgrace that there was no memorial, that it got jammed.
"Local churches had a roll of honour, the Protestant Hall had a list of men that were born and reared in the town, but it was seen as a slight on the town that they never had names on a war memorial."
Now Mr McCaig said that he hopes that his book can act as, or help inspire, a lasting war memorial in Antrim.
Abstract taken from Antrim Guardian dated 4th June 2015