Local historian Trevor Temple chronicles the individuals associated with Londonderry who lost their lives in WWI.
McNeill, Trooper Henry George (Harry), 735
Trooper Henry George (Harry) McNeill, 10th Australian Light Horse, was killed in action at Walker’s Ridge, in the Dardanelles, on August 7, 1915.
His remains are interred in Ari Burnu Cemetery, Anzac, Turkey, and his name is commemorated on the Diamond War Memorial.
Early on the morning of August 7, 1915, the men of the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade, the 8th and 10th Light Horse Regiments, in successive waves, made a valiant but futile attempt to seize the Turkish trenches below the hill known as Baby 700.
From 4.30am, when the battle began, Australian soldiers were gunned down as they charged over the top of their trenches towards the Turkish position just 27 metres away. By 4.45am, Walker’s Ridge was covered with hundreds of dead and wounded Australian soldiers.
Trooper McNeill was killed during this action now remembered as ‘The Charge at the Nek,’ and was in the third wave that were sent to attack.
The moments before this charge is recreated in the final freeze frame of Mel Gibson’s film ‘Gallipoli.’
Lynn Macdonald, in her book 1915: The Death of Innocence, alludes to the Gallipoli film when describing the actions of the Australians at the Nek: ‘More than seventy years on, the film Gallipoli told the story of just one of the tragic happenings on the fatal morning of 7 August.
The framework of the plot was fictional and one-sided but in essence and in all its stark reality it was true, and it came to epitomise the whole desperate endeavour – the microcosm of the Australians’ sacrifice on Gallipoli.
‘The attack at Nek should have been a minor operation.
‘It was such a narrow causeway of land to cross, only sixty yards at its widest, and it guarded a hill they called Baby 700, a position so strong that a lone assault could not possibly succeed.
‘But in conjunction with a converging attack by the New Zealanders at Chunuk Bair it stood a good chance of success and if together the Anzacs could pull it off, the summit of the Sari Bair Ridge would be in their hands.
‘Both forces were to attack simultaneously at dawn, and long before then the New Zealanders would have captured Chunuk Bair.
‘But by dawn few of the New Zealanders had managed even to reach the assembly position, those who had were waiting for the others still struggling up the slopes and it would be many hours before the last of them arrived and the assault on Chunuk Bair could begin.
‘But the attack, which was destined to be fruitless and in the circumstances pointless, was nevertheless ordered to proceed.
‘Three separate waves went over the top into the maw of the Turkish rifles and machine-guns. The force was all but annihilated.’
Harry McNeill was born at Queenstown (a seaport later renamed Cobh), County Cork, the third son of John O’Brien McNeill (ex-Sergeant R.I.C.), and Eleanor McNeill.
His parents appear to have moved at a later date to the city of Londonderry, where I discovered them residing at 24, Wesley Street, Park Avenue, and the Presbyterian Working Men’s Institute, Diamond.
Harry McNeill left Derry for Australia in May 1914, at the age of 18, and answered the call to arms when the Great War was declared, enlisting at Perth, the capital of Western Australia.
He was the youngest of three brothers who volunteered. One brother, Gunner Charles Simpson McNeill, who was later awarded the Military Medal in September 1917, was serving in France with the Siege Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery at the time of Harry McNeill’s death.
The other brother, Corporal John Elder McNeill, Royal Army Medical Corps, attached to the 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, became the first Derry soldier to get the Distinguished Conduct Medal in the First World War.
The decoration was instituted in 1862 to be conferred upon non-commissioned officers and men for distinguished conduct in the field. The medal showed on the obverse side a military trophy with the royal arms in the centre; the reverse bore the inscription “For Distinguished Conduct in the Field”. The ribbon consisted of three stripes – red, blue, and red – of equal width.
In the words of the announcement in the London Gazette, Corporal McNeill was awarded the honour ‘for conspicuous gallantry on the night of the 15/16th May, 1915, near Rue du Bois.
He repeatedly went out and brought in wounded under a heavy fire, and showed the greatest bravery and devotion to duty.’
A letter received by a friend in Derry describing the conduct on the occasion in connection with which he won the distinction said: “Corporal McNeill was in our front line throughout the big charge. The men were being simply mown down around him, and he had a terrible busy time.
“He got a slight wound, but this didn’t keep him from doing his work. He went out a number of times under very heavy fire and brought in the wounded.
“An officer said he must have had a charmed life.”
In the course of an address on the ‘Glory of Service’ in St Columb’s Cathedral, Londonderry, on Sunday, August 8, 1915, Major Atkin, of the Army Recruiting Staff, referring to the distinction gained by Corporal McNeill, R.A.M.C., said the honour, which was second only to the Victoria Cross, was earned by Corporal McNeill, who had exposed himself repeatedly to danger in going out and carrying in the wounded under heavy fire.
Corporal John Elder McNeill, who was only 21 years of age at the time, returned home at the end of August 1915 for a brief furlough.
A former assistant to James Glendinning, chemist, Waterloo Place, he went out to France with the Expeditionary Force at the beginning of August 1914, and was through the early battles of Mons, the Marne, and the Aisne, as well as operations afterwards.
For a time he was attached to the Irish Guards, and latterly to the 2nd Inniskillings, and during the furlough spoke in glowing terms of the bravery displayed at all times by officers, non-commissioned officers, and men of those regiments.
“The country should be proud of them”, he said, “and I am sure it is.”
His father, on being congratulated on his son’s D.C.M., said “I am proud that he has done his duty, and has proved himself a worthy representative of the Clan McNeill.”
Shortly after Harry McNeill’s death, Corporal McNeill paid the following moving tribute to his dead brother in a letter to his father:
“I know you must feel greatly our poor Harry’s death. You can be sure he died as a McNeill and a soldier should: at the post of duty.
“In one of his letters to me after he had been in action several times, and, as he said, ‘had seen much of the fighting,’ he expressed a desire to get finished at the Dardanelles in order to get at the Germans.
“He was dismounted in the trenches, having left his horse in Egypt. I know, dear dad, it is a great blow to you, but you will have a feeling of pride in being the father of such a son.
“He proved himself a hero when it came to the test. When we were small I remember you telling us that in time of national danger you expected all of us to respond to our country’s call, and we haven’t failed you, have we?
“We have all made mistakes, but in this matter didn’t we do as you would have us? Charles and I are in France doing our bit, and Harry was faithful unto the end. So even in your grief you must be proud.”
At the morning service in Carlisle Road Presbyterian Church, on Sunday, September 19, 1915, the Reverend John Huey, made reference to the bereaved McNeill family, who belonged to the congregation.
A month ago, he said, they had rejoiced with Mr and Mrs McNeill and their family on account of the high distinction which had been awarded to their second son in France because of his courage and fortitude in helping others in the midst of extreme personal danger.
That day they sorrowed with them in the loss of their third son, who fell in action at the Dardanelles. Such is life, joy and sorrow following each other in rapid succession.
Harry McNeill, whose early death they deeply deplored, was only a short time connected with the congregation.
He was very regular in his attendance each Lord’s Day, and when the Communicants’ Class was formed he became a member, and carefully prepared the work appointed for the class.
At its close, on the profession of his faith in the Lord Jesus, he was received into the full membership of the Church, and commemorated the dying love of his Lord. Almost immediately after he went to Australia, and when the war broke out he volunteered, and after being trained was sent to the Dardanelles, and passed through the terrible experiences of that dreadful battlefield.
He fought for King and country and in defence of them of the homeland, and, fighting, fell.
They sorrowed because of his early death, and deeply sympathised with the bereaved father and mother and sister and brothers, and they prayed that heavenly grace might be given to them.
Two of Harry McNeill’s cousins, Henry and Leslie O’Brien, were both killed in France during the Great War.
Another cousin, Harold O’Brien was wounded. All three belonged to Wellington, New South Wales, Australia.
Morrison, Private William John, 2327
William John Morrison, 1/7th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, was born at Londonderry, enlisted at Salford, Lancashire, and resided at Pendleton, Manchester.
He died at the Battle of Krithia Vineyard, Gallipoli, on August 7, 1915, and his name is recorded on the Helles Memorial, Turkey.
The 1/7th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers embarked on SS Nile at Alexandria between May 1 and 6, 1915, for Gallipoli and disembarked at ‘W’ Beach at Cape Helles, where Allied troops had landed a few days earlier.
The Lancashire Fusilier Brigade was the first part of the division to go into action, temporarily attached to the 29th Division for the Second Battle of Krithia on May 6.
The 1/7th supported an attack by the 1/6th Battalion and the following day moved forward through the captured line, but was forced to retire after two attempts at to take Gurkha Bluff. The battalion was relieved at sundown.
The Lancashire Fusiliers Brigade then reverted to the East Lancashire Division, which later that month was numbered as the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division, when the brigade became the 125th (Lancashire Fusiliers) Brigade.
For the next three weeks there was little actual fighting, and the brigade occupied part of the Redoubt Line.
On June 4 it took part in the Third Battle of Krithia, where the 1/7th moved up from divisional reserve to join the fighting, but was more heavily engaged on June 6 in fending off Turkish counter-attacks. The battalion suffered 179 casualties.
During July the battalion took turns in holding the front and support lines, apart from a brief relief (July 8-13) to the island of Imbros.
On August 4 it moved into the Redoubt Line and on August 7 to the front line at Krithia Road to take part in the Battle of Krithia Vineyard.
Virtually nothing was achieved in any of these attacks, at the cost of heavy casualties.
Two brigades of 42nd Division attacked on the second day of the Krithia Vineyard battle.
The battalion war diary notes that the men were thoroughly worn out, and that out of a strength of 410 NCOs and men, only 139 returned when they were relieved.
Three Distinguished Conduct Medals were awarded to members of the battalion.