Much has already been written about the First World War and perhaps even more is still to be written on this the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict. What follows is an attempt at looking at the situation in a very local context.

Fraser Agnew (right) showing Teddy Colligan, Curator of the Ulster Tower at Thiepval, part of a gas shell found when excavating trenches in Thiepval Wood. INNT 37-506CON
Fraser Agnew (right) showing Teddy Colligan, Curator of the Ulster Tower at Thiepval, part of a gas shell found when excavating trenches in Thiepval Wood. INNT 37-506CON
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Newtownabbey councillor and military historian Fraser Agnew looks at the key role played by local men in the First World War:

Most of the volunteers from County Antrim were in the 11th and 12th Royal Irish Rifles. Those from the Newtownabbey area would have been in the 12th Rifles. Standing alongside the Royal Irish Fusiliers on the Western Front in 1916, they occupied a line of trenches around 1,000 yards long. They stretched from the position known as the William Redan or fort close to the river Ancre to the Mary Redan close to the Newfoundland Park as we know it today.

Tom McKinney (left) with John McIlwaine. Mr McKinney, from Ballycraigy, died in 1916 from injuries he sustained at the Battle of the Somme. INNT 37-518CON

Tom McKinney (left) with John McIlwaine. Mr McKinney, from Ballycraigy, died in 1916 from injuries he sustained at the Battle of the Somme. INNT 37-518CON

The northern offensive was aimed at destroying the three lines of German trenches along with the mill which was providing protection for Beaucourt Railway Station. Beacourt was the main German communication and supply centre in the Thiepval area. Part of the advance was through a 70-yard wide ravine and up steep sloping sides about twenty feet deep.

The machine guns at Beaucourt had to be silenced or at least kept occupied. The Germans had constructed a well connected system of tunnels, using some dating back to medieval times.

At zero hour the 9th Fusiliers swept through the first line of German trenches. One Platoon even made its way through to Beaucourt Station but not one returned. On the left of the Fusiliers the 12th Rifles charged forward. The German fortifications that formed a salient into No-Man’s land had only been partially destroyed. The Rifles were beaten back at a heavy cost. One or two made it through to Beaucourt and suffered the same fate as the Fusiliers.

Despite bravely regrouping twice, the operation was doomed to failure. The bombardment had not been a great success. The wire was still intact in many places and the German dug-outs had not been destroyed and there was of course the problem of negotiating the ravine.

It was close to a massacre, with two Battalions almost wiped out in the space of two hours. The Commanding Officer of the 12th Rifles, Lt.G. Bull in a report prepared in the immediate aftermath of the Ancre offensive provides a powerful first hand insight into the horror of war and the bravery of his soldiers.

The report confirms the actions of soldiers Quigg and Cather that resulted in the awarding of Victoria Crosses to both. And there is also mention of two soldiers from the Newtownabbey area.

James Benison was 22 years old and lived on School Road in Monkstown before he enlisted in Whiteabbey. He had joined the UVF and was a member of Cloughfern Purple Star L.O.L. 1831. He was a member of No. 8 Platoon that was split into three for operational reasons.

Under a barrage of smoke, they commenced the advance behind Benison carrying a Lewis Gun. The Armagh-born Benison made brave attempts at moving his unit forward but they were pinned down through heavy machine gun fire. The brave Benison was shot dead and most of his Platoon became casualties.

Sergeant Benison has no known grave and is remembered on the massive British Memorial to the missing at Thiepval along with some 75,000 others.

The Ancre British Cemetery has some 2,500 graves and over half of them are unknown soldiers. It is safe to say that many of the unknown are members of the 9th Fusiliers and the 11th and 12th Rifles. The cemetery records would confirm that many of those known are from County Antrim and members of the 11th and 12th Rifles.

Lieutenant William McCluggage was 23 years old. He graduated from Queen’s University as a Civil Engineer. He played rugby for Queen’s and Knock. He came from Ballyboley.

McCluggage was on the extreme left of the advance next to the Canadians of the 29th Division. Prior to the ‘Big Push’ he had been involved in wire cutting and raiding attacks behind enemy lines. His wire cutting activities were relatively successful in that he managed to open a gap in the wire leading to the enemy lines. However there were a couple of machine guns either side of the gap as well as a German bombing party.

Having taken the first line with many casualties, McCluggage rallied his men for an attack on the second German line but he was killed in the attempt by the murderous German machine gun fire. He is buried in the nearby Serre Road Cemetery with lots of other soldiers from County Antrim.

The 12th Battalion had around 800 men at zero hour. According to Lt.G. Bull, in a period of less than two hours the Battalion was reduced to 46 men.

Lieutenant Lawford Burne Campbell also lost his life in this area. The Mossley Mill owner’s son knew many of the soldiers personally, having been involved in their training at Mossley Mill. He has no known grave but is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial and at the family burial plot in the Carnmoney Parish Church Cemetery. He lived at Fortwilliam.

One who never joined an Irish Regiment was Thomas George McKinney. He was brought up in Sentry Hill near Glengormley and educated at RBAI. He was opposed to Home Rule and had signed the Ulster Covenant. McKinney joined the Royal Fusiliers in London and at the Somme he was hit by a piece of shrapnel. He was removed from the front line and died in hospital on the 19th July 1916.

They exchanged lives in towns such as Ballyclare for the flood plains of Flanders and life in damp and rodent-infested trenches. Some were farm labourers; others were labourers and joiners on building sites and from the mills there were millwrights and joiners. There were boilermakers from the shipyard and professional people like architects and accountants.

Some were little more than boys. Three of those from the Newtownabbey area who lost their lives were just sixteen years old. Others were sons of the Manse and politicians. Eighty Orangemen from the Cloughfern District joined up. One won a Military Medal and five never came back. In Ballyclare 30 members of the Young Temperance True Blues L.O.L. 957 joined and six never returned.