Report by Sandra Millsopp
Appropriately for Armistice Day the subject of Bangor Historical Society’s talk on 11 November was Books of Honour commemorating the fallen of two World Wars. Barry Niblock, our speaker, first contacted the society about his project about a year ago and asked for help with his researches. His aim was to commemorate those who died in the World Wars and who had connections with the council areas of North Down and Ards. The society subsequently gave him assistance behind the scenes and this evening was his first opportunity to update members on his progress.
Mr. Niblock started his researches in 2009. He wanted to commemorate all those who had died on active service in the First and Second World Wars or subsequently of wounds sustained then and who were connected with the North Down and Ards areas. He had five goals: an interactive website, two separate First World War Books of Honour for North Down and Ards, and two further books for the same areas for the Second World War. His first task was to collect information on soldiers from the Great War and he hopes to publish these books on 11 November 2011. He is still collecting this information and he encouraged members to help him.
He then explained that Books of Honour had been produced for other areas in Northern Ireland. Some, such as those for Cookstown and Newry and Mourne, had been produced by local councils. Others had been researched by individuals such as the books for Bushmills, Coleraine and Portstewart written by Robert Thompson. There is only an alphabetical list and summary of service details in the Belfast book as over six thousand men had to be commemorated. It was produced by a committee headed by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield under the Journey of Remembering Initiative. This initiative was the brainchild of Paddy Harte, an ex-T.D. who hoped that each county in Ireland would have its own book Although some County books such as Louth have been produced the formats vary. Mr. Niblock hopes to include photographs, a little biographical detail as well as service records and place of burial.
Mr. Niblock then explained how he was conducting his research which is being done on an unpaid and voluntary basis. The local council concerned, will cover the cost of the publications. He noted a group of people who had been particularly helpful. They included our chairman, Bob McKinley, Ian Wilson of the North Down Museum, Carol Walker of the Somme Centre and Archie Pollock of the Royal British Legion. Since his background was in agriculture, not military or social history, he sought advice from experts in these fields, such as the military historian Richard Doherty. His sources of information have been wide ranging and include war memorials, together with churches, schools, workplaces, clubs and other organisations which may have plaques to commemorate the fallen. Local newspapers, the County Down Spectator and the Newtownards Chronicle, have been particularly useful. Databases such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website have also been helpful. Finally he has talked to people who can give information about relatives.
One important decision was on who to include. After some thought and discussion with others he decided on three criteria: those who had lived all their lives in the two council areas, those who had been born there but moved away and finally those who had been born elsewhere, but had moved into the area.
At this stage in his research Mr. Niblock was able to make some statistical observations, although they would not be definitive until his research was complete. As expected more men died in 1916 than in any other year of the war and a large majority of men were under 30 years of age. Most served in the army rather than in the other services and they represented 86 different units. The Royal Irish Rifles had more local members than any other regiment. While the majority of men served in France and Flanders, other areas included Gallipoli, Africa, the Balkans and Burma. Mr. Niblock stressed that these deaths affected family members from several generations, such as parents, siblings and children. For some families the grief was particularly strong as they lost several family members. At least seven local families had lost three brothers, including the Donaldsons, the Hewitts and the Barretts. At least 29 sets of two brothers died, while one father and son are known to have been casualties.
One problem for Mr. Niblock was establishing the exact number of deaths from the two areas. The Bangor War Memorial in Ward Park has 121 names on the main plaque and a further 11 on a smaller additional plaque, making a total of 132 names. Yet the album compiled by the precursor of the Royal British Legion in 1921 contains only 124 names. This book is now in the North Down Museum. The Bangor Branch of the Royal British Legion has two plaques, one with 117 names and the other with 3. From these sources Mr. Niblock was able to reach a total of 139 names. On plaques in local churches and other places he found additional names. He also visited organisations outside the two council areas. Local men might have attended schools in Belfast such as Campbell College. Six men connected with Rockport School were lost, but only five were commemorated on their war memorial, four pupils and a teacher. The name of the man employed as a gardener was not included.
Mr. Niblock was able to obtain photographs of some casualties from local newspapers.
He also consulted the National Archives. Some countries such as Australia have provided free access to service details on their websites, but those for the UK are on pay per view sites and only free to those consulting the actual archives. Mr. Niblock said he felt very privileged to have been able to talk to members of the families of the casualties. They shared valuable information with him and he was shown material including photographs and postcards sent from the front.
One important problem in the research was the question of when the war actually ended.
Most people regard the 11 November 1918 as the end, but this day only marked the cessation of fighting on the western front. On 21 November parliament passed an Act called the Termination of the Present War(Definitions Act) which provided for an order in council to be made specifying the end of the war. Another possible date is the 28 June 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles defined the peace terms imposed on Germany. Finally on 10 August 1921 the order in council was made specifying that the Great War ended on 31 August 1921. These various dates help to explain the varying dates on memorials and the range of names included. Another factor may be the date at which the war memorial was erected. This can range from the Greyabbey and District one of April 1921 to the present one in Newtownards erected in 1934. Sometimes a family had died out or left the district before the memorial was erected and so there might be no one to ensure that the name was included.
Mr. Niblock then shared the stories of some of the casualties with us. Tommy Dowdall was born into humble circumstances in Magherafelt. His father went to Scotland to find work, but died. His mother then married a man from the Ards Peninsula. Tommy enlisted in 1916, but was shot and injured during shooting practice. He was later posted to France where he was injured in the arm. He was sent to hospital in England and later moved to Glasnevin. When he was on sick leave his health became worse. He could not report back for duty at the end of his six weeks leave and was posted as a deserter. He died late in 1919 in Belfast. His mother had reported his illness to the authorities, but she could not produce evidence of this. She worked until 1923 to clear his name. His name was not placed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission roll of honour. Barry Niblock contacted them and they have agreed to add his name. One thing remains for him to do and that is to find his grave and he asked if anyone could help with this search.
Next we were told stories about the sets of brothers who died. The three Ross brothers were from the Ross water company family. Two of them died in the same battle on the same day. The Donaldson brothers from Comber enlisted together. They were killed on the same day: 1 July 1916 and their names are on the Thiepval Memorial to the missing of the Somme. When a family received news that a soldier was missing, there was always the chance that he could have survived or be a prisoner in enemy hands. The three Hewitt brothers were from Bangor. They were the sons of James and Jeanie Hewitt. All three were killed in action. A fourth son became a vicar in England. The Hassan brothers came from the Brunswick Road in Bangor. Captain Henry Hassan was killed when his ship was torpedoed in 1917, while his soldier brother died in 1917 and is commemorated on the Menin Gate at Ypres. Mr. Niblock stressed that there is no hierarchy of death, but the deaths of brothers have an added poignancy. He also reminded us that many of the survivors suffered from terrible injuries as well as mental trauma.
Mr. Niblock concluded his very interesting illustrated talk by urging us to contact him if we had any information. He also said that his website contained more detailed information on the soldiers and this would supplement the brief information in the Books of Honour.