NSP Lives of the First World War 05: killed fighting on the first day of the Somme

 

One of the striking features of the Roll of Honour of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland is the large proportion of those who were killed during the First World War who lost their lives on the first day of the battle of the Somme.

The Roll of Honour includes a total of 98 servicemen who died in service. Of these 17 are listed as having been killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme (1st July 1916) and two more are listed as having been killed on 2nd July. In other words 19 out of 98 or just under 20% of all the fatal casualties in the denomination occurred at the start of the battle of the Somme.

Almost all of these men were part of the Ulster Division, mostly serving with the Royal Irish Rifles, eight of them belonging to the 13th Battalion and four of them serving with the 11th Battalion. The two soldiers who were recorded as killed on 2nd July were both members of the 8th Battalion.

The statistics alone indicate the impact the battle of the Somme must have had on the Ulster Division and on those back at home. Of the 19 who were killed five were officers, two were NCOs and the others were private soldiers. Some of the men were quite well-known such as Captain James Samuel Davidson, the son of S.C. Davidson the founder of the Sirocco works in Belfast.

Captain JS Davidson 1916

Captain James Samuel Davidson, 13th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles attached 108th Coy. Machine Gun Corps

Other deaths indicate the devastating effect the battle of the Somme had on families. So at Templepatrick two brothers were killed on the first day of the Somme, James Harper of the 15th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, aged 23, and his younger brother Joseph, aged just 19, serving with the 11th Battalion of the same regiment, both killed at the start of the battle. At Holywood congregation James Dermot Neill was killed on the first day of the Somme, his younger brother Robert Larmour Neill had been killed in action in May of the previous year. Both brothers are remembered on a family memorial in Holywood Church.

Holywood Memorial Lieut R L Neill

Holywood memorial to James Dermot Neill and Robert Larmour Neill

Three Lives Remembered

At the annual service of harvest thanksgiving at Downpatrick on Sunday, 2nd October we also launched a colour leaflet that commemorates the sacrifice of the three members of the congregation who were killed in the First World War. This has been carefully put together by Mary Stewart, the church secretary, and includes pictures of two of the men as well photographs of the various graveyards and memorials in which they are commemorated.

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Of the three who were killed one – Captain Craig Nelson – was a professional soldier from long before the war. Craig Nelson was the grandson of the minister of the church, the Rev S.C. Nelson, and had joined the Royal Irish Rifles and served in the Boer War before transferring to the Indian Army. He was an officer of the 3rd Brahman regiment and attached to the 69th Punjabis when he was killed on the western front on 25th September 1915.

Rifleman John Hayes had joined the 1st battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles at the start of the war and was killed at the battle of the Somme on 31st October 1916. Sergeant Francis McMurray served with the 7th battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and was killed in France on 9th March 1916.

All three men are recorded on the church war memorial, however, the name only of Captain Nelson is inscribed on the town memorial and it seems very strange that the names of the other two were never added since they were both born and lived in Downpatrick before their war service.

At the harvest service two windows were decorated to commemorate those who served in the First World War with memorabilia being provided by members of the congregation and also including the commemorative certificates issued by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the three members who were killed. Most of the men who joined up in the locality would have served in the 36th (Ulster) Division, but in this case of those who died in the congregation one soldier (John Hayes) was with the Ulster Division, one (Craig Nelson) with the 7th (Meerut) Division of the Indian Expeditionary Force and one (Francis McMurray) was with the 16th (Irish) Division.

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John Hayes’s niece Thelma Lowry is a member of the church and she kindly provided the photograph of her uncle for the leaflet and loaned a ceramic poppy which had been part of the notable art installation at the Tower of London in 2014 – Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.

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After the service with the leaflets: Rev Dr David Steers (minister), Mrs Thelma Lowry and Mrs Lorna Thompson (nieces of Private John Hayes), Miss Mary Stewart (church secretary) and Rev Dr John Nelson visiting preacher at the church harvest.

We don’t have a picture of Sergeant McMurray and would be very pleased to hear from anyone who is related to him or who has a picture of him.

The Downpatrick leaflet will also be uploaded to the Faith and Freedom Great War Project which can be seen here:

http://www.faithandfreedom.org.uk/GWindex.htm

Copies of the leaflet are available in the church.

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