Teen neighbours died side by side in France

Private Samuel Hoy
Private Samuel Hoy

Karen O Rawe, chair of History Hub Ulster, recently sent Roamer a timely reminder of “the first Inniskilling Fusiliers to be killed in action.”

History Hub members, an enthusiastic team of local people focussed on compiling and communicating our shared heritage, have collected a sombre register of soldiers’ names and battle-front details from WWI.

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of a tragic confrontation described in the News Letter on August 31, 1914.

Reporting on the 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers’ ferocious baptism of fire near the small town of Le Cateau in Northern France, the News Letter announced: “The battle on 26th August was of the most severe and desperate character. The troops offered a superb and most stubborn resistance …though with serious losses.”

In the first moments of battle 36 soldiers died, 24 of them from Ulster. Two teenage lads had lived several streets from each other in East Belfast. They died several feet from each other at Le Cateau.

By the end of the battle and a number of subsequent confrontations nearly 8,000 British servicemen were killed, wounded or missing, including the first Inniskilling Fusiliers to die in the Great War.

The fighting was so fierce that heavy field artillery was fired at point-blank range without using gun sights for aiming - they were useless over such short distances. Round after round of shells pounded into the lines. Shrapnel burst the ears and desiccated the bodies of men on both sides, tearing unforgivingly down from hideous eruptions of black smoke.

Le Cateau and its aftermath was carnage, described in Royal Irish Rifleman John Lucy’s autobiography - “It is said by some that through the course of the entire war never were British troops as heavily outnumbered.”

Three weeks earlier the Inniskillings had been on routine guard duty at Dover Castle. At Le Cateau, augmented to active-service strength with reservists, they were in the ferocious front line just two days after arriving in France.

Their position was to the left of the British line, facing overwhelming odds from a buoyant German army.

Trenches as we think of them now did not exist then, and the soldiers had to make do with what cover existed or that could be hastily erected.

The German Army had severely pressed the retreating British and French armies following the battle of Mons on 23rd August. However, General Horace Smith-Dorrien, the Corps Commander, ordered his troops to stand and fight at Le Cateau.

He believed a continued retreat would have led to the complete routing of his forces.

The attack began before dawn with a move by the élite German Jägers to encircle the Inniskillings but the Germans were driven back by fearsome rifle fire.

By the end of the day the Inniskillings had lost 36 men killed, and many more wounded. Nine of those killed were from the greater Belfast area, including two East Belfast teenage neighbours.

Private John McKean Simms was born in Carrickfergus. He came from a large family of 10 brothers and sisters. His father Robert was a cattle dealer and at the outbreak of war the family was living at 58 Portallo Street, Belfast.

A message boy before enlisting at the age of 19, John was posted as missing after the battle, but his body was subsequently recovered. He was buried near where he fell in Esnes Communal Cemetery alongside seven of his comrades. He is commemorated on the Cregagh Presbyterian Church’s Roll of Honour.

A few streets away from John’s home in Belfast, at 82 Newcastle Street off the Newtownards Road, lived

19-year-old Private Samuel Hoy. The eldest son of Samuel and Margaret Hoy, prior to the war he had followed his father’s trade as a carpenter.

Samuel’s body, like the majority of his comrades killed that day, was never recovered. He is commemorated on the La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial to the Missing and on the Westbourne Presbyterian Church Roll Of Honour.

A number of John and Samuel’s brothers-in-arms who died that day were not much older than they were - most were only 20 and 21 years old. The 24 Ulster men who died were:

From Belfast:

Private James Smyth, Louisa Street. Private John Rafferty, Butler Street. Private Samuel Ritchie, Manderson Street. Private William Ruddy, Ardgowan Street. Private William Warnock, Richmond Street. Private James Templeton, Cupar Street. Private William Harvey, Convention Street. Private James Browne, Hillview Street. Private Thomas Donnelly (no address given). L/Corporal Joseph Willey, Christopher Street.

From the rest of Ulster:

Private William Robert Elliott. Holywood, Co. Down. L/Corporal Robert McCorkell, Clonleigh, Co. Donegal. Private Thomas Murray, Antrim. Private Charles O’Donnell, Glendermott, Co. Londonderry. Private Robert Scott, Seapatrick, Co. Down. Private Francis Joseph Quinn, and Sergeant Thomas Wilkinson, both from Cappagh, Co. Tyrone. Corporal George Ayer, Doagh, Co. Antrim. Private Robert Falls, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone. Private James Carr, Downpatrick, Co. Down. Private George Henning, Bessbrook, Co. Armagh. Private William Nixon, Portadown, Co. Armagh.

Michael Nugent, an Associate Member of History Hub Ulster, recently launched a research website for families hoping to find out more about their World War One ancestors at http://ww1researchireland.com

Today’s press cuttings are courtesy of Nigel Henderson at http://www.greatwarbelfastclippings.com and the History Hub is at historyhubulster.co.uk