Maiden City Great War Roll of Honour Part 21

editorial image

Local historian Trevor Temple chronicles the individuals associated with Londonderry who lost their lives in WWI.

Gilliland, Captain Valentine Knox

Captain Valentine Knox Gilliland, 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, was the younger son of George Knox Gilliland, D.L., Brook Hall, Londonderry, and Frances Jane Gilliland.

He was killed in action at Hill 60, Ypres, on May 8, 1915, aged 25, and his name is inscribed on St Columb’s Cathedral (Church of Ireland) Memorial to the men connected with that cathedral who died during the 1914-18 War, and on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Belgium.

His name is also commemorated on the Diamond War Memorial.

Val Gilliland was educated at Foyle College. Later, he became a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a member of the Officers’ Training Corps, receiving a commission in the Reserve of Officers on leaving the University.

At the outbreak of the Great War he was posted to the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, stationed in Dublin, and was one of the first officers to benefit by the War Office order permitting the promotion of second-lieutenants in the Special Reserve to the rank of captain.

He proceeded to the Front on January 18, 1915, two days after receiving his captaincy, to join the 1st Battalion of his regiment. In the U.V.F. he had commanded a company in the 5th Battalion of the Donegal Regiment.

Val Gilliland was slightly wounded in April 1915, which was noted in the later published War Diaries of Major Gerald Burgoyne: “April 21: About 3 p.m. Gilliland turned up at my dug-out with his face bound up.

“We’d both been using a periscope in his trench this morning and the trench isn’t 80 yards from the enemy who are holding the edge of a wood at this point. They took no notice of our periscope then, but later when I’d left him they put a bullet in a sand-bag alongside it and when he removed it along the trench and looked through it again a bullet hit the top glass with such force that the fragments of the top glass smashed the lower glass and splashed into Gilliland’s face cutting his nose and chin about, but nothing serious of course...”

Val Gilliland’s brother was Captain Frank Gilliland, M.A., who later became a President of Londonderry Chamber of Commerce. Around the beginning of November 1916, it was reported in the Londonderry Sentinel that Sub-Lieutenant, Frank Gilliland, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, recently promoted to the rank of lieutenant, had been in command for some time of an armed vessel employed in the auxiliary patrol, stationed since the beginning of 1916 in Mediterranean waters. Lieutenant Gilliland had previously held a commission in the 11th Inniskillings.

A week before the death of Captain Val Gilliland news reached Londonderry of the death of his cousin, Lieutenant William M. M. Gilliland, 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who was killed in action at the Dardanelles on April 30, 1915.

On the very day that Captain Val Gilliland’s mother received the news of her son’s death she also received a letter from him dated May 8, 1915, in which he mentioned that the battalion was going into action.

A few months prior to his death, Val Gilliland wrote a couple of letters describing some of his initial experiences at the Front, which are of interest as showing what was allowed to pass by the Censor.

In a letter dated Tuesday, February 2, 1915, he said: “We got back to billets last night about 9.30 p.m. I went up to the trenches on Saturday night. A shell had struck the trench and knocked a good deal of it in, but had done no harm fortunately, so we spent most of the night building it up.

“Sunday was quite quiet, some rifle fire, but nothing else. On Sunday night my platoon moved out of the trenches into the dugouts, which are about 200 yards in rear of the fire trenches. They are holes dug in the ground to hold about six men, and roofed over.

“We were quite all right there till about 3.30, when they started to shell us. They put about eight shells all round us, four of them being those very big shells called ‘Jack Johnstons.’ One lit behind my dugout and stunned some men. We were relieved about 7.30 p.m. Rifle fire is all right, but the shells are not too pleasant. We go up again on Friday night. We get letters in trenches every night. Parcels take about a week. Electric pocket torches are very handy.”

Writing on Thursday, February 4, 1915, Gilliland said: “In billets” – “We go up to trenches tomorrow night. Captain Burgoyne, my company commander, is going home on eight days’ leave, so I have to take charge in his absence. General feeling here seems to be that there will be a general advance by us along whole line in about six weeks.

“We can see Ypres from here, about ten miles to the N.E. I had a very good bath today in the convent for one franc. Part of it is turned into a hospital, chiefly for frostbite and sore feet.

“There is very little to do in billets, the roads being two inches deep in mud and full of troops and transport. There are several knolls round this village, but one can’t see much.

“The country is flat towards the sea. Troops are billeted in the church, and they hold services there too. This village (No.1) is about six miles from the firing line. We march up to another village (No.2), two miles from the trenches. One company is in reserve in No.2 and the other three in firing line and supports.

“Two subalterns who came out before we went sick in a week’s time. One is comparatively safe in the trenches except from shell fire. Getting in and out of the trenches is the worst, as there are always a number of stray bullets about.

“Needless to say, I have not seen a live German yet, or even the top of his head.”

A memorial service was held on Tuesday, May 25, 1915, in Holy Trinity Church, Culmore, by the rector, the Reverend W. H. N. Brennan, assisted by the Reverend J. Hunter Gregg, in memory of Captain Valentine Knox Gilliland. There was a large congregation of the relatives and friends of the dead officer, and the Culmore branch of the Ulster Volunteer Force, with whom Val Gilliland had served as a captain prior to joining the army on August 4, 1914. The chancel was hung with violet draperies, and a laurel wreath, entwined with the regimental badge, lay on a pall covered by the Union Flag beside the sword of the dead officer.

Val Gilliland’s name was among a list of Great War dead, associated with Foyle College, Londonderry, read aloud during that College’s annual prize giving ceremony, held on Thursday, December 19, 1918.

The following month, a memorial to Captain Val Gilliland was unveiled in Culmore Parish Church on Sunday, January 5, 1919. It took the form of a mural tablet of classic design, composed of Pentelikon and statuary marble on a background of fossil grey marble, fluted pilasters and carved capitals. The principal feature of the design was an oval inscription plate surrounded by a laurel wreath, with the following inscription engraved in lead letters: “To the dear memory of Valentine Knox Gilliland, Captain, Reserve of Officers, youngest son of George Knox Gilliland, of Brook Hall, and Frances Jane, his wife, killed in action at Hill 60, Ypres, May 8, 1915, aged 25 years, while attached to 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles.”

After the Reverend R. Duggan, rector of the parish, had read the prayer of dedication the tablet was unveiled by Lieutenant Frank Gilliland, R.N.V.R., brother of Val. In the course of his sermon the rector alluded to the career of Captain Gilliland. The regimental crest and a sword were also introduced into the design, which was prepared by Mr Oliver Sheppard, R.H.A., and executed by Messrs. Harrison, Brunswick Street, Dublin.

Val Gilliland’s mother, Frances Jane Gilliland, was well known for her devotion to the work of various local charitable and philanthropic organisations. Her father was Joseph Cooke, one of the pioneers in Londonderry’s shipping development, and who was also associated with the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway and with the group of lines, which his enterprise helped to carry into West Donegal. Frances Jane Gilliland died on October 30, 1921, having been in poor health for a considerable time.

Val Gilliland’s father, George Knox Gilliland, was strongly associated with the firm of Messrs. Samuel Gilliland and Sons, Ltd., millers and bread and biscuit manufacturers, Rock Mills, which was established by his father Mr Samuel Gilliland.

The mills were built as flour and maize mills in 1846, and had the distinction of being the first northern Irish mills to establish the system of milling known as the roller-milling process, the introduction of which in 1882 completely revolutionised the system of flour-milling by substituting steel rollers as ‘grinders’ instead of old ‘mill-stones.’

It was, however, probably more in connection with his identification with the affairs of the Harbour Trust that George K. Gilliland was best remembered. He was senior Commissioner, and, having filled the chair on former occasions, occupied that position at the time of his death in May 1914.

He was also an experienced agriculturist, and his knowledge in this connection, particularly in regard to the rearing of cattle, thoroughly qualified him for the seat he occupied on the Advisory Committee of the Irish Department of Agriculture.

He was a director of Londonderry Gaslight Company and a Governor of the Young and Gwyn Trust. He was also a member of the British and Irish Millowners’ Association.

An ardent sportsman for forty years, he was a member of the Derry Hunt Club, and acted for two years along with Mr RL Moore, Molenan, as joint master. He was also one of the original members of Derry Polo Club, frequently acting as timekeeper, and was an enthusiastic yachtsman.

He was a devoted member of the Church of Ireland, and in politics was an ardent unionist. He took a prominent part in the business of the North West Agricultural Society, and for a long series of years gave valuable services in the capacity of hon. treasurer.

He was one of the city Deputy Lieutenants, a Grand Juror, and a magistrate, and served as County Sheriff for both Donegal and County Londonderry. George Knox Gilliland’s brother, Robert K. Gilliland, who died in London on Saturday, April 28, 1934, was for a long number of years a member of the Londonderry Harbour Board, which he joined in 1915, and the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce. He was also for a time a member of the Londonderry Corporation, and honorary secretary of the Londonderry Millers’ Association. In his earlier years he was a noted polo player, and was also significantly associated with the old Derry Hunt. He was in addition one of the senior members of the Northern Counties Club, having been elected in 1881.

R. K. Gilliland was a staunch unionist. His wife (a daughter of Mr S. Hignett, of Liverpool, a name prominently associated with the tobacco industry) was also a notable worker in the unionist cause, being at one time Grand Mistress of the Derry Women’s Orange Order and Deputy Grand Mistress for Ireland.