History Hub Ulster is a research group based in Belfast with on-going projects all over Northern Ireland, many relating to both world wars.
The organisation’s chair, Gavin Bamford, alerted Roamer to yesterday’s centenary of the death of Belfast-born Lance-Corporal Hugh McNeill, who perished when his ship was torpedoed by a First World War U-Boat.
History Hub researcher Nigel Henderson’s account of the Lance-Corporal’s military career is yet another lesser-told story of courage and heroism in war shown by folk from both sides of our local community.
According to naval records, Hugh was born in Belfast on January 5th 1881.
He enlisted on July 7th 1899 and served in the crushing of the Boxer Rebellion (June 10th to December 31st 1900) in China, for which he was awarded the China War Medal.
The rebels, known as Boxers because of their distinctive style of Chinese martial arts, wanted to rid China of Western control and of the hated Christian missionaries.
Hundreds of diplomats and their families, as well as thousands of Chinese Christian converts, were held under siege and cut off from the outside world.
In an unprecedented alliance, the foreign powers, among them the USA, Japan, Great Britain, France and Germany, sent a relief force to quell the rebellion.
It’s thought that up to 100,000 or more people died in the conflict, although estimates on casualties have varied widely. Most of those killed were civilians, including thousands of Chinese Christians and approximately 200 to 250 foreign nationals (mostly Christian missionaries). Some estimates cite about 3,000 military personnel killed in combat, the great bulk of them being Boxers and other Chinese fighters.
After the Rebellion Hugh served on HMS Goliath, and in 1911 returned to Britain and was stationed at Fort Blockhouse in Gosport, Hampshire.
He was discharged on September 6th 1912, having completed 12 years of service.
On the following day he enrolled with the Royal Fleet Reserve and settled in Belfast where he had a job as Head Boots (cleaning, polishing and caring for guests’ footwear) at the Imperial Hotel, located on the corner of Donegall Place and Castle Lane.
When Hugh married Annie Harland on 12 October 1913 at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Belfast, he was recorded as being a ‘Navy man’.
On the marriage documentation his tradesman-father’s name was given as Daniel and his wife Annie, a millworker, was recorded as the daughter of Michael Harland, also a tradesman, of 12 Bute Street in the Jennymount district of Belfast.
At some stage after their marriage Hugh and Annie moved to Ballymena and were living at 11 James Street when Hugh was recalled from the Royal Fleet Reserve. His name is included on the list of 78 men from All Saints’ Roman Catholic Church serving with His Majesty’s forces that was published in the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph on June 5th 1915.
As there were insufficient ships to accommodate all the naval personnel recalled from the reserves and men enlisting with the navy, Winston Churchill, the First Sea Lord, instituted a new naval force called the Royal Naval Division, which would fight as infantry in land campaigns.
Hugh McNeill served with the Portsmouth Battalion of the Royal Marine Brigade of this new force at Ostend and Antwerp between August 26th and September 1st 1914.
He was wounded in the left leg and right knee by a splinter from a German shell and, during the withdrawal from Antwerp, the train on which he was travelling was knocked off the rails and surrounded by Germans.
In the engagement that followed there were many casualties on both sides and several marines were captured but a party of 90 men under Major French got safely away after a 35 mile forced march to the Belgian village of Ecloo.
Hugh McNeill then served with a Royal Naval Air Service Armoured Cars unit under Commander Charles Rumney Samson RN between September 10th and October 17th 1914 before returning to the Royal Naval Division.
Following a period of furlough, an interview with Hugh McNeill was published in the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph in May 1915 in which he spoke highly of the pluck and daring of Commander Samson, particularly in engagements with roving units of Uhlans (Light Cavalry, with a Polish military heritage) saying that the Germans had come to greatly dread and fear Commander Samson and his gallant men.
In January 1918, Hugh McNeill was promoted to Lance-Corporal and transferred to HMS President III – this was not a ship but a shore establishment for men serving on defensively armed Merchant Ships.
Hugh was a member of the gun crew on 4,320-ton SS Montebello when she was torpedoed by U-100 on June 21st 1918 and sank 320 miles from Ushant, an island off the coast of Brittany, with the loss of 41 lives.
Lance-Corporal McNeill, who is commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, was 37 years old when he died. He was awarded the British War Medal, the Victory Medal and the 1914 Star, the latter being issued to his widow on July 1st 1920.
The acknowledgements and sources used by History Hub researcher Nigel Henderson in his account were: Michael Nugent (ww1researchireland.com), John Hoy (Ballymena and The Great War, http://snake43.webs.com/), Richard Graham, Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, Royal Navy and Royal Marines War Graves Roll and Royal Naval Division Casualties of the Great War.
See also historyhubulster.co.uk.