The Nesbitt brothers and their kin in the Great War

Raymond’s great uncle was John James Nesbitt, who came from St Johnston, one of eight children born to Alexander and Elizabeth Nesbitt.

Wednesday, 19th November 2014, 4:00 pm
Robert William Nesbitt

Prior to enlisting, John James Nesbitt was a farm labourer.

He was a Quarter Master Sergeant in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps. His Regimental number was 571.

Born on December 17, 1880, he was the eldest son of Alexander and Elizabeth then living in Treanta in the Parish of Taughboyne County Donegal.

John James Nesbitt

“In his teens John James fell in love with a young servant girl, Hannah O’Donnell, who came from a townland outside Ballybofey called Glasaghmore,” Raymond said of his great uncle’s choice of bride.

“Hannah was a Catholic and a union of marriage was completely out of the question due to the religious and political turmoil in Ireland at that time. We cannot say for certain but many of the family believe John James and Hannah boarded a ferry for Fleetwood in Merseyside from Londonderry in November 1897.

“On December 13, 1897, John James enlisted in the army at Seaforth Barracks, Liverpool and the couple were married in St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church in the Everton district of Liverpool on December 22, 1898.

“John James was to serve in the Boer War in South Africa, where he was injured, sustaining a gunshot wound to his leg,” said Raymond, continuing: “He was later to serve in Malta and Egypt where his sons, Alexander and Douglas, were born. On return to England his other children, Reginald, Grace and Annie were born.

James McLaughlin

“Promotion to Quarter Master Sergeant was to follow on August 31, 1912,” he said.

“The outbreak of the Great War saw Hannah come back to Londonderry to raise their children and the family set up home at 13 Harding Street just off Abercorn Road in the Cityside. John James left for France on August 12, 1914 as part of the British Expeditionary Force and was soon despatch to fight in the Battle of the Marne. He was killed in action on September 16, 1914 at Viel-Arcy near Ainse. He sustained gunshot wounds to his left arm, left and right legs, stomach and head. He was initially buried in a mass grave at the Chateau at Verneuil, which is quite a distance from where he was killed. Later the grave was opened and the dead were reburied again a grave in the Vendresse British Cemetery, Ainse, France.”

“Another great uncle, Alex Nesbitt, the brother of John James, who was born on November 28, 1888, was the third son of Alexander and Elizabeth and a member of Carson’s UVF Donegal Btn. Later to become 14478 Sergeant Alex Nesbitt, 9th Btn. Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. His courageous action at Dadizeele near the Somme were to earn him an MM and a DCM,” said Raymond.

“Alex survived the war and passed away August 20, 1970,” he said.

The Citation reads: ‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the Dadizeele section on 30th September 1918. When the party on the right were driven back, he rushed forward a section and occupied a post within fifty yards of a machine gun. He then assaulted the machine-gun crew, killing two of the crew and driving the remainder away. The post commanded a hill which the enemy attempted to occupy, but were driven back by his fire and he held on for the rest of the day. ( 16.1.19 )’

The association with the Great War and the Nesbitt family does not end there, as Raymond explains: “Robert William Nesbitt, the fifth son of Alexander and Elizabeth, was born on July 30, 1898, and like his brother Alex was a UVF member and later 14718 Pte. 10th Btn. Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

“The regiment was posted to the town of Achen in north west France. The division suffered tremendous casualties and were driven back. Robert suffered gas poisioning and was taken to a field hospital. His condition was poorly. Before he left for war a Roman Catholic neighbour back home had given him a St Christopher for good luck.

“A priest at the field hospital found the medal in his pocket and thinking he was a catholic gave him the last rites. This story has been handed down through the generations and held quite amusement for Bob, as he was known, as he was later to be involved at a high level in the Loyal Orders in County Tyrone. He died in Omagh on October 22, 1976,” said Raymond.

“Also connecting the Great War to my family is James McLaughlin, who was married to Martha Nesbitt, a sister of the three Nesbitt brothers who were my great uncles. James was born on March 4, 1885, at St Johnston County Donegal.

“It was after the war that James married Martha, and I have also discovered James was also a UVF and was a member of the 3rd Btn Donegal Regiment. It was later, as 14711 Pte. 10th Btn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, that James suffered from gas poisoning, but survived the war and died on December 17, 1967. The war medals and mess card are among those currently on display in the WWI exhibition in St Columb’s Cathedral.

“His brother, 6844 Sgt Alexander McLaughlin, of the 1st Btn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers died at the Somme from gas poisioning on August 9, 1916,” said Raymond.

He revealed that the Nesbitt brothers were also to lose two cousins in battle.

“Their Aunt, who was my great-great aunt, Isabella Nesbitt, from St Johnston, married John Mason and they lived in Bishop Street, Londonderry after their marriage. I can trace the family to this address until the Census of 1911. Sometime after this, the family moved to live in Greenock, in or around 1912, as the whole family signed the Ulster Covenant in Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland.

“Isabella’s eldest son, Thomas Mason, 14889 Pte 9th Btn Royal Inniskilling Fusilers, was killed in action at The Somme on March 29, 1918, aged 36. His body was never recovered. His brother James Mason, 25663 Pte 8th Btn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was killed in action at Ypres on August 10, 1917. He is buried in Whitehouse Cemetery.

I am very proud of my family history and I know the stories above only include the First World War, but John James’s sons enlisted in the Second World War and I have researched their war records as well. The youngest fellow Reggie was discharged in 1940 and died of TB. The eldest boy, Alex was in the RAF and I don’t know a lot about him as they all moved to Liverpool after the First World War, but Alex was a squadron leader. I have not been able to learn much about the middle son, but I am continuing to research their stories.”