The Londonderry man who plucked a poppy from Flanders fields

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When in 1990, local historian Gardiner Mitchell’s book, ‘Three Cheers for The Derrys’ went to print, it was with disbelief that he learned that another veteran of the forgotten 10th Battallion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusilliers had been right under his nose all along.

Now updated edition of the history of the famous Derry battalion contains the story of James Monteith.

The recollections of the veteran are a tale of how that generation were made of stuff that would have the bulk of this generation hiding under their beds.

When Gardiner Mitchell therefore approached James Monteith about his story, the veteran was delighted that a book was being written about his old battalion.

The old soldier began by telling the author that he had spent the past thirty years in a nursing home.

The years, he said, had been long and uncomfortable ones because of illness and he was unable to lie in bed and instead sat, ate and slept in a chair in the room at the same time.

With no close family and few visitors, it was a pitiful end to life.

Gardiner Mitchell believed the reason why no one knew about James Monteith was that at the age of 94, he looked so fresh and too young to have fought in the 1914-18 conflict.

Because he had few people to talk to and no one he felt he wanted to leave them to, James offered his medals to Gardiner on his very first visit to him.

Gardiner explained to James that although he would love to possess his medals, ethically he couldn’t take them and James would have to leave them to someone else.

These were his prized belongings, but he was just so pleased to see someone who was genuinely interested in his memories and knew about his battalion that he recounted his memories with gusto and it just happened to coincide with Remembrance Day.

Gardiner Mitchell asked me to proof read the new and revised edition of ‘Three Cheers For The Derrys.’

A short while later I was in Foyle Street Library sifting through Londonderry Sentinels from November 1933, looking for information on an unrelated matter, when I discovered an item called “A Derryman’s Flanders Poppy”.

The article read: “Mr James Monteith of 36, Strabane Old Road, Londonderry, has in his possession a Flanders poppy which he plucked during the Great War.

“He has its blood-red leaves, now somewhat faded, carefully preserved in a New Testament.”

James Monteith served as a runner with the 10th Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and between July 31 and August 16 (1917?) he was sent from his headquarters with a message to the front line.

It was dusk and James lost his way. He wandered past the front line into ‘No Man’s land’ on the Ypres salient and remained there for seven hours. During that time with shells constantly coming across from the German lines, he covered a wide area striving to get back to the British lines. But, wherever he went he was met with British dead who had lain unburied for days.

Whilst there he picked up the poppy, now a unique souvenir of an occasion so tragic. There must be very few, if any, poppies in existence now which grew on the battlefields of the Great War.

It was not until dawn that James Monteith managed to find his way back to the British lines. Mr Monteith also had in his possession a yellow poppy which he picked up at Cambrai in 1917. Gardiner Mitchell, of course, was delighted with the new information, discovered just in time to be included in the revised edition of ‘Three Cheers For The Derrys.’ The book is based on the recollections of the last surviving veterans and the moving story of the County Londonderry battalion from it’s conception in August 1914 to the end of the war.

It includes battles at the Somme, Messines, Passchendale, Cambrai and St Quentin’s as well as engagements with the 36th Ulster Division.

The new edition is available directly from YES! Publications by calling 02871261941 and from limited retailers, for example Eason’s and by mail order.