Rector’s Letter – April 2016

The Battle of the Somme 1916 was fought between July and November 1916. The battle was one of the defining events of the First World War. The Somme offensive was planned as the major Allied effort on the Western Front for 1916 but the start of a desperate battle between French and German forces at Verdun meant that the British Army assumed the main role.

After an intense, week-long artillery bombardment of German positions, the infantry began their advance at 7.30am on the clear midsummer’s morning of 1st July 1916. While there were some gains to the south, in the north the attacking troops struggled to overcome formidable defences, many of which had survived a huge artillery barrage. By the end of the first day, some 57,000 troops from the Empire and 2,000 French soldiers had become casualties – more than 19,000 of whom had been killed. The offensive continued over the following months, and men from every part of Britain and across the Empire took part. Both sides committed huge quantities of manpower and munitions to the struggle. When the offensive was halted in November, more than 1,000,000 Commonwealth, French and German soldiers had been wounded, captured, or killed. In 1916 the Somme was part of a number of battles aimed at breaking the stalemate of trench warfare. One preparatory battle to the Somme was at Vimy Ridge (more about that in a moment).

In Ireland the 36th (Ulster) Division and 16th (Irish) Division played a major role in the summer offensive. Here in Donaghadee, many families lost loved ones or had loved ones injured as part of these battles. In this Centenary year we tell just a few of their stories: Billy Murdie, one of our most senior worshipping church members has told me of his recollection of his father. William James Murdie from Donacloney was wounded just before the first Battle of the Somme at Vimy Ridge. Billy’s father suffered terrible wounds to his arm. He was rehabilitated at Belfast City Hospital and started a job in the Post Office as a deliveryman but, around four years after the war ended, his arm began to suffer the effects of his terrible war time injuries and had to be amputated. Unfortunately, blood poisoning set in and he died aged 36 in 1928, leaving his widow with three sons. Billy’s mother did a wonderful job of looking after her young family and working hard to provide for them.

I pondered Billy’s story: war is not just about the terrible event called KIA (Killed in Action). War through bereavement, injury or widowhood, leaves scars on future generations. I have travelled with Billy to the Somme and know he feels a deep affinity to the place his father served – war shapes our lives, decades later and it stands as a reminder of how precious human life and relationships are. Knowing and understanding our history has, I think, shaped Billy into the person he is today. Thank you Billy, for sharing your family’s story with me.

In Donaghadee on 19th October 1896, Andrew and Elizabeth Thompson of Moat Street had a son, John. He, like many young men in the town, enlisted in the British Army. The 13th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles in 108 Brigade of the 36th (Ulster) Division.

In April 1916, Cpl Thompson returned to Donaghadee for some leave then returning to prepare for the Somme Offensive. He was wounded in action on the 1st July 1916. After recovering from his injuries he returned to the frontline but sadly, just over a year Later he was killed on 16 August 1917 at the battle of Langemarck. Initially he was declared missing in action but his death was confirmed in November 1917. In our congregation, Cpl John Thompson’s memory is kept alive by his two nieces May Watterson and Jenny Leishman. Within their family Uncle John’s service and sacrifice is remembered with pride and it comforts them to know that his place of memorial in France is at Tyncote in France, which Jenny has visited.

Robert McCandless from Dromore, enlisted in 10th Royal Irish Rifles from South Belfast. He trained in County Down before going to Seaford, England and then to France on the 4 October 1915 arriving in Boulogne. He was married to Minnie McCandless from Dromore and had four children. Rifleman McCandless, at 6.00am on the 1 Juy 1916, was based in “Speyside” in Thiepval and moved towards Thiepval village when his battalion came under machine gun fire shortly after at 7.10am at Rosscastle. At 7.45am the 10th RIR went over the top and after much bloodshed reached the German lines at 12.30am. The battle was fierce.

Private McCandless was killed in action at “Inverness Street” trench at Theipval Wood and his body remained there until it was re-interned in Serre Road Cemetery Number 2 in 1927 some 11 years later. Poignantly, he is interned with the two soldiers who fell either side of him. Here in Donaghadee, Private Robert McCandless is remembered in our congregation by Gary Robinson.

He was Gary’s maternal great grandfather and Gary and his wife and daughter, Brenda and Sophia, have visited the Somme to see the place Cpl McCandless fell in Theipval Wood and his grave is now in the peaceful cemetery at Beaumont Hamel. Gary has researched his great grandfather’s military career and followed the journey he took from Belfast to the Somme.

Poignantly, Gary showed me the Commemorative Scroll bearing his great grandfather’s name, presented to his family by the nation. His family, as so many did at the time, also received the large ”Death Penny” bearing his name and the inscription “He died for Freedom and Honour”. As we remember the Battle of the Somme, the inscription “He died for Freedom” sums up the conflict of the First World War. It also stands as a reminder of the ultimate conflict which Jesus Christ waged on our behalf. He died for our freedom. In faith, we look forward to when all conflict will end. For Christ indeed is our peace.

Your friend and Rector