In this centenary year the Waterside branch of the Royal British Legion (RBL) has produced a new medal to commemorate those from the Ulster and Irish Divisions, who lost their lives in the First World War.
Branch officer Terence McKeegan told the Sentinel the medal was specifically designed to be inclusive of those from both sides of the Home Rule controversy, who despite their pre-partition domestic differences, found common cause in the war.
The new pin’s based on the famous ‘Last Post’ memorial - in the grounds of Glendermott Church of Ireland - which is dedicated to the memory of the volunteers of the 1st North Derry Battalion of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).
Seventy-seven locals are commemorated by the solemn bugler, which is sculpted from limestone hewn from the Wicklow mountains in the aftermath of the conflict.
Men such as RJ Brown, from the Glebe, who survived bleakest Belgium for four whole years before, his lungs crushingly gave up to the mustard gas only after he’d returned home to Altnagelvin.
Terence explained: “He was 19, he was from the Glebe at Glendermott. That’s out opposite the old cemetery. He enlisted on September 15, in 1914, and then he was discharged in May 1918. Three months before the armistice, he came back. In August.
“He’d been wounded three times. That was the photograph that was sent back to the family (see picture). If you’re looking at the bugler, looking in the Church gate, his headstone is in to the right hand side.
“He was wounded. He got wounded three times, but they reckon, you know, the mustard gas, was the final thing that would have....”
The inscription on the bugler’s pedestal reads ‘Erected by the officers, men and friends 1st North Derry Battalion UVF, to the memory of their comrades from the battalion who fell in action in the great war, 1914-1919’ and is dedicated to the likes of RJ Brown, who succumbed either on the continent or shortly upon their return.
It was similar sentiments, which inspired people like the North American humanitarian, Moina Michael, and the pioneering legionnaires of the United Kingdom to institutionalise the poppy as a symbol for those who had died, around about the same time as the bugler memorial was being created.
Ms Michael had in turn been inspired by the Scots-Canadian soldier surgeon, John McCrae’s famous war poem, ‘In Flanders Fields,’ which the Waterside branch is including, alongside historical detail about the ‘Last Post’ memorial, with the new pins.
Like Volunteer Brown, McCrae’s lungs were also ruined by the war. He died of pneumonia in Boulogne in 1918.
A century later and the annual poppy appeal continues to address the welfare needs of those ex-servicemen and women and their families, who find themselves in need of support.
“Because of it being the centenary year we decided on this badge,” explains Terence. “It was the Waterside poppy team that designed the badge with the help of a local fellah, ‘G Badges.’
“Whenever we came up with an idea he would do the artwork and give us samples.”
He said the local branch hoped the badge would epitomise the spirit of rapprochement and joint heritage, which has been exemplified increasingly by joint initiatives involving civic leaders from Londonderry, Belfast, London and Dublin, over recent years.
“We wanted to incorporate and involve the Irish Divisions as well as the Ulster Divisions. There only was one Ulster Division, the 36th, but you had the 10th, the 16th, and the 18th, you know, of the Irish Divisions.
“The symbol for the Irish Divisions, was the Shamrock, then the Ulster Division, the Red Hand, and then we also put the poppy in it for the act of remembrance.”
A final detail is the epitaph taken from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, which will be familiar to Sentinel readers and anyone who has visited the war graves of Messines: ‘Their name liveth for ever more.’
Terence says that whilst there may have been local political differences between the UVF and the National Volunteers prior to their mobilisation, they were as one during the war.
“The UVF back then were against Home Rule and the Irish Divisions were for Home Rule but between the two of them they joined together and any man that actually enlisted - if he wasn’t able to get into the Ulster Division - he was then put into the Irish Division.”
He added: “We spent months going through different designs to come up with that and to make it inclusive and acceptable to both the people in the Republic and the people in the North because the First World War wasn’t about religion and it wasn’t about anything other than men that went out to fight and the badge is about honouring all the men and women who fought, you know, no matter where they come from, the Irish Division or the Ulster Division. They all had the same goal. They all wanted the one thing.”
The badge was officially launched last week in the RBL in Bond’s Street by the Mayor Martin Reilly and Dr Angela Garvey, Lord-Lieutenant for the County Borough of Londonderry.
As ever the proceeds of the pin sales will be used to help with the welfare needs of those serving ex-servicemen and women of WW2, the Malay and Aden emergencies, the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland, amongst other operations.
And the £25k or so on average that’s lifted in collections each year by the Waterside Branch - all of that stays in Northern Ireland.
“We do our bit locally within the Waterside. We would usually raise around £25k a year,” Mr McKeegan told the paper.
Does this make a difference?
“It does. But it takes a lot, you know. We have our welfare team within the Waterside and that team could maybe be doing 80 visits a month.
“It’s just checking that they’re okay, that everything’s fine, if they need anything, if they’re hospitalised, whether they’re serving or ex-serving, that they get hospital visits, stuff like that there as well,” Terence said.
In fact, the help provided by the local RBL is invaluable to the often elderly recipients.
Local volunteers provide a one-stop shop and advice service for ex-service personnel, who, like most people, find the hoop-jumping, box-ticking requirements of some local services a challenge when they’re trying to access services and equipment they’re entitled to.
“The way that the welfare scheme goes. If someone’s out there and they have a need for, for example, a mobility scooter or some mobility item, what the welfare and
the poppy appeal will do is try to source it from local government.
“If it’s there and they are entitled to it. They have a team that takes them from start to finish. If they take them through the process and the department says, no, you’re not entitled to it, but we know the person has a need, whether a physio report or whatever says this person has a need for a chair or something to do with their bed for sleeping or whatever, if the government can’t fund it, the legions steps in to fund it.
“At the end of the day, there’s a lot of bureaucracy, you know.
“It’s no good some gentleman, that needs some sort of device, it’s no good them having to wait two or three years for it, if the need’s there for it, they need it right away.
“So, the legion steps in and they get it there and then. You’re not going on a six month waiting list or a year waiting list,” Mr McKeegan said.
The new badges will be on sale throughout the Londonderry area between now and Remembrance day.