Local historian Trevor Temple chronicles the individuals associated with Londonderry who lost their lives in WWI.
Gilfillan, Private John (Jack), 9916
Jack Gilfillan, ‘D’ Company, 3rd Battalion Toronto Regiment, 1st Infantry Brigade, 1st Canadian Division, was born on April 12, 1890.
He was the son of James and Isabella (Isa) Gilfillan, 16, Collon Terrace, and a member of the Congregational Church, Great James Street, Londonderry. His name is commemorated on the Diamond War Memorial.
The 3rd Canadian Battalion was formed in September, 1914, at Valcartier, Quebec, from drafts from three Toronto units, the 2nd Regiment, Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, the 10th Royal Grenadiers and the Governor-General’s Bodyguard. Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Rennie was placed in command.
It at once became a unit of the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade under command of Brigadier-General M.S. Mercer, then Lieutenant-Colonel.
The battalion organised and trained at Valcartier Camp before sailing for England from Quebec City on board the SS Tunisian, in September, 1914. They arrived in England in October, with a strength of 42 officers and 1123 men.
As part of the 1st Canadian Division they trained on Salisbury Plain during the winter.
In February 1915, the 1st Canadian Division crossed to France. On February 11, the 3rd Battalion landed at St. Nazaire and, after a train journey, went into it’s first billets at Merris, fifteen miles west of Armentieres.
A few days later it received its baptism into trench warfare, holding the line before Armentieres, and, on March 4, went into the line on its own for the first time, a little further south at Fleurbaix. Toward the end of March the division was relieved and moved south to take part in an attack on the Aubers Ridge, but this attack was cancelled, and the division marched up to the neighbourhood of Cassel, in the rear of the Ypres Salient, taking over in the middle of April the French trenches from Langemarck to Zonnebeke, northwest of Ypres, and thus forming the extreme left of the British Army.
In April 1915, the infantry units of the 1st Canadian Division included the First, Second, and Third Canadian Brigades.
On April 22, the 2nd and 3rd Brigades were holding the line, the 2nd on the right, the 3rd on the left with the 1st Brigade in reserve about Vlamertinghe.
In the afternoon the Germans launched the first gas attack of the war against the French and to a lesser extent against the Canadian left. The attack entirely broke the French, exposing the Canadian left flank which bent but held.
The 2nd and 3rd Battalions were rushed up in support, arriving at midnight, and were attached to the Third Brigade at Shell-trap Farm. The former at once went into the line on the exposed left flank.
During the following morning ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies of the 3rd Battalion were placed under command of Major Kirkpatrick and moved forward to fill in a gap on the right of the 2nd Battalion between Kitchener’s Wood and the village of St. Julien.
Throughout the day and night this flank held in spite of German attacks, but the following day it was pushed back, ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies being obliterated in a vain attempt to stem the tide.
All this occurred under heavy artillery fire and without artillery support, for the line had not been expected to hold and most artillery had been withdrawn. Meanwhile, many British battalions were being rushed up and, about April 27, the line was stabilized and the Division relieved, the 3rd Battalion being the last to be withdrawn. After several days in support, the division left the Salient and moved south.
This was the battalion’s first battle. It is known as the Second Battle of Ypres and the Canadian part of it as St. Julien sometimes Langemarck.
The last letter Jack Gilfillan’s mother received from her son bore the postmark of April 22, 1915, and he died within the next few days in action at Second Ypres.
Jack Gilfillan’s death was witnessed by a Lance Corporal Templeton, who, writing home to his parents in Castlederg from a prisoner of war encampment in Germany, stated that Private Gilfillan was killed by machine gun fire in the course of a charge by the Canadians, and it was believed that he was afterwards buried by the Germans. A letter from a Sergeant Curlew corroborated this statement.
Private Gilfillan went to Canada a few years before the war began, and was a clerk to Mr J. J. Cooke, barrister, Toronto, and resided at 15, Doel Avenue. He volunteered on the outbreak of war, and after training at Valcartier Camp, crossed to England with the first Canadian contingent. His name is recorded on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Belgium.
On the receipt of official news of the fate of Private John Gilfillan, his brother, James Gilfillan, who was then engaged in important Government work, immediately joined up, being first attached to the Lovat Scouts and afterwards transferring to the Cameron Highlanders.
He took part in numerous battles, was promoted from private to corporal on the field, and won the Military Medal around 1917 for heroism.
Sinclair, Private Hugh, 27404
Hugh Sinclair, 15th Canadian Infantry Battalion (48th Highlanders of Canada), was born at Glasgow, Scotland, on July 23, 1892.
He resided in Derry for fifteen years and in Canada for five years, and died at Ypres, on April 22, 1915, poisoned by the fumes from the asphyxiating bombs discharged by the Germans. He was the son of Archibald and Julia Dawson Sinclair, and brother of Julia Sinclair, 4, Hawthorn Terrace, Londonderry.
He was a member of Claremont Presbyterian Church, and his name is commemorated on the Diamond War Memorial.
Hugh Sinclair’s remains are interred in Poperinghe Old Military Cemetery, West Vlaanderen, Belgium. Poperinghe was in the hands of the British for most of the Great War, and, although it was fairly close to Ypres, it was just out of range of almost all enemy guns. It became a base for Casualty Clearing Stations and later Field Ambulances.
The 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders of Canada), CEF, was an infantry battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Great War. The battalion was authorised on September 1, 1914, embarked for Britain on September 26, and arrived in France on February 15, 1915. The battalion fought as part of the 3rd Infantry Brigade, 1st Canadian Division, in France and Flanders throughout the War.
On April 22, 1915, part of the German Fourth Army attacked the northern shoulder of the Ypres Salient, a strategically vital position defended by British, Canadian, French and Belgian forces.
There, for the first time on the Western Front, the German Army employed chlorine gas, a lethal chemical agent. Lacking any protection against the suffocating chlorine, French troops defending the sector between the Yser Canal and Poelkapelle were overrun and forced to withdraw towards Ypres. As British and Canadian reinforcements fought to secure the break in the Allied line, German forces launched a second gas attack on the morning of April 24.
The gas cloud was concentrated against positions defended by the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigades of the 1st Canadian Division along the northern slope of Gravenstafel Ridge near the Stroombeek. Numbers 1, 3, and 4 Companies of the 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders of Canada), engulfed by the heaviest concentration of gas and artillery fire, were devastated by the German assault.
Elements of these companies, as well as the Battalion’s forward headquarters and support position near the Steenakker windmill continued to fight for several more hours until finally being overrun, captured, or forced to withdraw that morning.
A number of survivors was able to retire to a key secondary defensive position known as Locality C. At the same time, the Battalion’s No. 2 Company was heavily engaged in the defence of St Julien, about one mile west of this site.
Although the Germans later succeeded in capturing St. Julien and Locality C, they failed either to reach Ypres or to eliminate the salient surrounding the town which had been the main objective of the Fourth Army offensive. The Allied forces suffered very high casualties defending Ypres in April and May of 1915.
The defence of the salient resulted in the 1st Canadian Division incurring approximately 6,000 casualties. During the gas attack of 24 April, the 15th Battalion sustained 647 casualties, more than any other Canadian battalion.
A telegram to Hugh Sinclair’s father from the officer in charge of the Canadian records stated that death was caused by suffocation. Hugh Sinclair had come over to Salisbury Plain with the First Canadian Contingent, and on the day he left for the Front in March 1915, his mother died.
Deery, Private Michael, 3455
Michael Deery, 2nd Battalion Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers, died on Saturday, April 24, 1915.
He was the husband of Mrs Maggie Deery, 4, Howard Place, Londonderry, and his name is commemorated on the Diamond War Memorial.
Michael Deery went to the Front in December 1914, but was subsequently invalided home, suffering from frostbite, the effects of which so devastated his system that his energy became exhausted and he passed away.
His funeral took place on Tuesday, April 27, 1915, from 109, St Columb’s Wells, Derry. The Band and a detachment of the 3rd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers attended the funeral, and the cortege was very large. At the graveside the firing party discharged three volleys and the trumpeters sounded ‘The Last Post.’
Lecky, Private George Alfred, 16573
George Alfred Lecky, 7th Battalion Canadian Infantry (British Columbia Regiment), was born on September 21, 1884, and died on April 24, 1915.
He was a farmer by occupation, a Freeman of Londonderry, and a brother of Henry Lecky, The Farm, Londonderry.
He was also a brother of Private F. W. Lecky, Canadian Expeditionary Force, who was wounded on the leg and knee by shrapnel in Flanders in 1915. George Alfred Lecky’s name is inscribed on St Columb’s Cathedral (Church of Ireland) Memorial to the men connected to that cathedral who died during the 1914-18 War.
His name is also recorded on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Belgium, and commemorated on the Diamond War Memorial.
The 7th Battalion (1st British Columbia), CEF, was a battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force that saw service in the First World War. It was created on September 2, 1914, with recruits from British Columbia.
The battalion set off for England on board the Virginian berthed in Quebec. They arrived in England on October 14, 1914, with a strength of 49 officers and 1083 men. The battalion became part of the 1st Canadian Division, 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade.
The 7th Battalion’s first major action of the Great War was at Ypres at the Battle of Saint Julien. The Regiment was in brigade reserve on 22 April 1915 when poison chlorine gas was unleashed to the left and north of the Canadian positions near Ypres.
The 7th Battalion was fallen in and they marched up the Gravenstafel Ridge where they remained until midnight. At midnight they were moved to a new position in the hollow ground North of Saint Julian at Keerselaere. They began to dig in at the foot of a ridge, occupying old artillery dugouts. The fighting for Saint Julien was fierce.
Private George Lecky volunteered shortly after the outbreak of the Great War, and crossed with the first Canadian contingent.