Willowfield Parish Church

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We were delighted by the number and variety of objects which were brought forward at our roadshow at Willowfield Parish Church last month. These objects and the stories they carry with them have the power to surprise and to fascinate. Perhaps none more so than the very first object I saw.

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Pony-tail belonging to a member of the Chinese Labour Corps

Brought in to us by Catherine Floyd, this pony-tail was acquired by Catherine’s grandfather, David Watters. A pre-war member of the East Belfast UVF and signatory to the Ulster Covenant, David had enlisted as a Private in the 36th (Ulster) Division in 1914, serving with the 8th Royal Irish Rifles. He was eventually promoted to the rank of Sergeant. In 1919, David Watters was transferred to the Labour Corps. 

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Following an agreement between the Chinese and British governments in 1916, thousands of Chinese workers were recruited to fill the labour shortage left by the war’s mounting death toll. In total, 140,000 Chinese labourers served on the Western Front during the First World War, the majority of them in the British Chinese Labour Corps. They were tasked with carrying out essential work behind the frontline, including loading and unloading ships, transporting supplies and munitions and repairing roads and railways. After the War, they were charged with clearing mines and recovering and burying bodies. David Watters served as an officer in the Chinese Labour Corps from 1919 until he returned home to Belfast in 1920 with an injured hip. Catherine speculates that the pony-tail which David kept as a souvenir of his time in the Labour Corps had been cut from the head of its owner as a punishment for stealing, or a similar offence.

One of the stories we heard at Willowfield revealed that some of the most brutal scarrings of young bodies and minds took place not on the Western Front, but much closer to home. Pictured here in uniform with his Father, David and his Grandfather, Hugh, Cyril Hugh Mack joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers in 1916 as a Second-Lieutenant. He was only 18.

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Cyril Mack with his father and grandfather.

His first posting did not take him overseas. Instead, Cyril was sent to Dublin, and he is pictured here with other members of his Regiment at a barricade on O’Connell Street at Easter, 1916.

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Cyril’s Battalion was sent to Dublin to put-down the Easter Rising of 1916

It is said that the young Cyril found his experiences in Dublin in 1916 profoundly harrowing and that he was deeply traumatised by having had to shoot and kill a fellow country-man. He went on to serve in Turkey, winning a victory medal and was transferred to the 1st/123rd Outrams Rifles in the British Indian Army. According to his family, the only physical evidence of Cyril’s involvement in the War was a dent in his forehead, which had been caused by a bullet ricocheting off his tin helmet. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Cyril re-enlisted and was stationed at the Officer Training Corps in Omagh. He died in 1963, and is buried in Roselawn Cemetery.

Perhaps the most touching of all the objects I saw and story I heard at the roadshow is also the most unassuming. This embroidered postcard is one of several which were brought to us by William Hunter. They had been sent by his Father, also William Hunter, to his mother, while he had been serving in France with the Royal Ambulance Medical Corps (RAMC).

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An embroidered postcard sent from William Hunter to his wife in Belfast.

Each of the postcards had had the written message carefully removed from the back. William explained that his mother, a modest woman, had thought that the romantic messages ought to be kept private, so he has never seen them. That these messages were so treasured, I think, reveals the intensely personal impact of this global war. William Hunter Senior was discharged in 1917 after he was caught up in a gas attack. He survived the war but would go on to die of lung cancer, aggravated by his war-time injuries.

These objects represent only a small sample of those we saw at Willowfield, and they can help us to unlock the human story of East Belfast’s Great War in ways which numbers and dates alone cannot. And it is this human story which connects us so meaningfully to events one hundred years ago. Keep following us on Facebook and Twitter for more information on further roadshows coming up soon. If you or anyone you know has a medal, a photograph, a diary (or a pony-tail!) stashed away, or a story to tell, please get in touch. We look forward to hearing from you.