Roamer: Three brothers fought in same WWI campaign... only one came home

William George McSparron
William George McSparron

Belfast’s City Council describes this Sunday’s annual Act of Remembrance solemnly and succinctly - “for all those who died in the First and Second World Wars, and subsequent conflicts around the world”.

Belfast’s City Council describes this Sunday’s annual Act of Remembrance solemnly and succinctly - “for all those who died in the First and Second World Wars, and subsequent conflicts around the world”.

Poignantly and profoundly, the council advises that the 11am gathering at the Cenotaph is “suitable for everyone.”

It is also suitable for every day, because every day on the calendar is for someone, somewhere in Ulster, a date bequeathed with memories of a loved one lost in war; of a wartime homecoming or departure; or of sad or happier times during conflict near and far.

“As this year is the centenary of the Gallipoli landings and the Gallipoli campaign,” began Ballymoney-reader Donald Eakin’s recent letter, “I thought you might be interested in my three great uncles who served in Gallipoli but never met on the Peninsula.”

There are probably many, but some of the most pertinent dates on Donald’s calendar of remembrance are in August.

Between August 6 and 9, 1915 his 24-year-old great uncle William George McSparron was killed at Gallipoli.

Almost exactly a year later on August 5, 1916 his 26-year-old great uncle Archibald Joseph McSparron, not long recovered from his Gallipoli wounds, was killed in the Battle of the Somme.

Donald’s third great uncle Matthew John McSparron landed on Gallipoli on August 7, 1915, around the time of William’s death and just over a week before Archibald landed there too. Matthew John was the only one of the three who came home to parents George and Jane McSparron of Straid, Straidarron, Co Londonderry.

The Gallipoli Campaign, also known as the Dardanelles or the Battle of Gallipoli, took place on the Gallipoli peninsula (in modern Turkey) between April 1915 and January 1916.

Hundreds of thousands of troops were killed and wounded – some say up to half a million – fighting for eight cruel months on a tiny, blood-soaked patch of land.

British, French, Indian, New Zealand, Australian and Canadian forces battled against the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire before the allies were eventually forced to withdraw.

“When we were children, my brothers and sisters used to visit my grandfather, James, or Granda Mac to us,” Donald Eakin’s letter continued.

Farmer James had no running water or electricity back in the 1950s “so at night we would read, play board games, or simply chat,” Donald added, “and it was during these discussions that my grandfather told us about his two brothers who were killed in the First World War.”

Granda Mac stored a box under his bed containing their “medals, letters, death pennies (memorial medallions), death certificates, a war diary and pocket Bible…we were forbidden to touch this box. My grandfather never forgot,” Donald recalled in his letter.

Everything in his box was “a piece of history” brought to life by Granda Mac’s stories.

“Without this we would not have known anything about his dead brothers,” Donald admitted.

When their grandfather died the contents of his box were divided amongst his grandchildren.

“I fortunately received the pocket Bible of William George which has just passed 100 years old,” Donald’s letter continued, applauding a summer exhibition about Gallipoli that was held in St Columbs Cathedral which featured his three great uncles amongst many other local soldiers.

“It was wonderful to see all the memorabilia together again,” Donald added.

“What really is required is a museum where the memorabilia would be together on a permanent basis.”

Archibald Joseph and William George both have known graves, and detailed records which Donald was able to get from the Australian War Archives, as they were both in the Australian Army.

Mathew John was in the Enniskillens and later the Machine Gun Corps.

“There are very few of his records surviving as some…were destroyed by German bombs dropped on London during the Second World War and we must assume that his were amongst those,” Donald concluded, sharing a short summary and a photo of each of his great uncle’s history.

Archibald Joseph emigrated to Australia circa 1912, worked as a train shunter on the News South Wales Railway, and enlisted on February 18, 1915 in the 18th Battalion Australian Imperial Force.

At Gallipoli he was shot and wounded in his right arm.

He was transferred to hospital in London, took a month’s recuperation at home in Straid, and with the Gallipoli Campaign ended he was transferred to France in 1916.

Known as Mac to his comrades, Archibald Joseph was badly wounded when a shell exploded close behind him during heavy fighting at Poziers on the Somme.

Mac was evacuated to Purchervillers, where he died on August 5,1916 and was interred nearby.

William George also emigrated to Australia around 1912, became a chauffeur, enlisted with the 2nd Battalion of Australia’s Imperial Force, and landed in Gallipoli at Anzac Cove on April 25, 1915.

He was reported missing at Brown’s Dip between 6 and 9 August 1915. His body was found and he was buried nearby. In 1923 he was interred at Lone Pine Cemetery.

Matthew John of the 6th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers transferred to the Machine Gun Corps and landed at Gallipoli on August 7, 1915 with the 10th Irish Division.

He survived WWI to become branch manager of a bank in Longford, where he died in 1980.

One returned, two didn’t – of many, many millions being remembered on Sunday, and Monday, and Tuesday……