Honouring Willie McBride, WWI Ulster soldier immortalised in song

Joe McBride lays a wreath for his uncle Willie McBride
Joe McBride lays a wreath for his uncle Willie McBride

The name Willie McBride has become a byword for the tragic slaughter of so many young Ulster soldiers in the carnage of the Great War. Here, News Letter correspondent Quincey Dougan reflects on a recent gathering to honour him.

The South Armagh Branch of the Ancre Somme Association returned home on Sunday from commemorating the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.

It was a long trip with many highlights. However, the most emotional element for the members of our group – which was set up in 2009 to honour the dead of the 36th Ulster Division – was having the opportunity to remember a local soldier who has became iconic when the Great War is discussed across the world.

He was called Willie McBride.

His name is familiar to many people the world over thanks to its use in the song “No Man’s Land” (also often known as “The Green Fields of France”), written in the 1970s by singer-songwriter Eric Bogle.

The lyrics reflect on the grave of Private William McBride, a 19-year-old World War One soldier, killed on the western front in April 22, 1916.

Joseph McBride at the graveside of his uncle Willie McBride

Joseph McBride at the graveside of his uncle Willie McBride

Joe McBride, the nephew of the Ulster soldier whose story is believed to have inspired the song, is a member of our association.

For three years this trip has been planned in order for us to attend with Joe and jointly remember his uncle.

That opportunity came 100 years on from the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.

Nineteen members of our branch gathered at Willie’s graveside at Authille Military Cemetery in the Somme region of France for a short act of remembrance.

It was our absolute privilege and honour to have Pride of the Raven Flute East Belfast participate.

At Joe McBride’s, request the band began the ceremony with a rendition of his favourite tune and one with a resonance to so many at this time, “Here Lies a Soldier”.

As our branch stood to attention, the Ulster Volunteer Prayer was read.

It was followed by a poignant rendition of the first verse of “No Man’s Land” by Rhonda Kennedy. from east Belfast.

A short address on Willie McBride was delivered, then in a heart wrenching moment for us, his nephew Joe laid a wreath for his uncle.

The brief inscription read “A soldier of the UVF, from nephew Joseph”.

The gathering then observed a two minutes silence.

The Pride of the Raven followed with the highly emotional musical combination of “Mansions of the Lord”, “Evening Hymn and Fanfare from Sunset”.

Proceedings ended with the first verse of the National Anthem.

This was a very moving ceremony for our members, and one we will never forget.

On behalf of the South Armagh Ancre Somme we thank everyone who gathered at the graveside on that warm summer evening.

A special thanks goes to Pride of the Raven Flute who went over and above the call of duty to not just attend and perform, but to talk to Joe at length about the music in advance, to treat the occasion with such importance, and to go out of their way to let Joe know their feelings regarding it all in the immediate aftermath and on the way home from France.

The brief address was as follows: “William McBride was the son of Joseph and Lena McBride, Lislea, Keady, County Armagh.

“He attended Temple Presbyterian Church and was a pupil at Crosskeys National School.

“He became an apprentice in the shoe trade, first working in Cootehill, County Cavan, then in Irvinestown, County Fermanagh.

“When Home Rule looked set to be implemented, William joined the ranks of the Ulster Volunteer Force to fight for the future of Ulster and her people.

“Like so many others however, he was to set his anger aside for a greater good, and enlisted into the 9th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

“Just nine months later, on April 22, 1916, William fell on the field of battle.

“In writing to his mother, 2nd Lieutenant John Kelly of the 9th Inniskillings wrote: ‘I need not tell you how much we miss your son, and I am pleased to be able to tell you that I had recommended him to my company commander for bravery in carrying a message under very heavy shell fire on the night of March 10.

“You may rest assured that he died in a manner which will always to be an example to his comrades, doing their duty.’

“In 1976 Eric Bogle penned the words of ‘No Man’s Land’.

“That song has been recorded by hundreds, and has sold millions of copies.

“In its lines Bogle reflects on the short life of William McBride, immortalising his name for all time – a constant reminder for us all of the personal tragedy from the War to end all Wars.”

The address stated that the wreath laid by Joe McBride on Saturday was to honour this famous uncle “he never knew”.