14577 Sergeant William Neill DCM
It was the stories about my great-grandfather, William Neill, that led me to write Blacker’s Boys. I had been told that he had earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal at Ypres and I embarked on an attempt to separate family myth from fact. I have largely succeeded, with one exception—William Neill believed that he had been awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Conduct Medal but no record of that exists. During his post-war service with the Ulster Special Constabulary he wore a rosette on his ribbon bar, his obituary and his gravestone both state that he had a Bar, and my father’s memory of him was that his Bar was a source of great family pride. It is evident, however, that this second award was never made. Nevertheless, it must have been commonly agreed that he was entitled to it. He served in the USC alongside other former officers and soldiers of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers and it is hard to believe that a man of his considerable good reputation decided to award it to himself. How he came to believe that he had been awarded that Bar is now lost to history.
William Neill was born on 1 June 1876 at Tullyherron, a townland in Donaghcloney parish near Waringstown. He left school at 14 and began work with his father and siblings in a local mill. The mills were the biggest employer in Lurgan; you can read more about linen in Northern Ireland here and about Lurgan here. On 27 August 1897, he married Emily Matthews, of Anne Street, Lurgan, at Shankill Parish Church. They lived at Taylor’s Court. In the census of 1901 he described himself as a ‘yardhand’—for a period around this time he worked at the Lurgan Gas Light & Chemical Company at William Street. In 1911 he left Lurgan Gas Light—according to a letter of reference ‘to take a better job’—and went back to work in one of the town’s linen mills as a damask weaver, a highly skilled worker in this huge and important industry. In 1911 he, Emily, and their four young daughters were living at 28 James Street. He and Emily would have one more child in 1913 and adopt another in 1922.
The political issue of the day was Home Rule—self-government exercised by an Irish Parliament in Dublin. There was considerable opposition in the northern, and largely Protestant, province of Ulster to any measure that would see an end to the Union and a shift in the balance of power and economic priorities away from Belfast. The signing of the Solemn League and Covenant, a pledge to ‘defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland’, was to become the focus of public opposition to the Home Rule Bill and 28 September was to be ‘Ulster Day’, when the Covenant would be signed across the province.
When the day came 237,368 men put their names to the Covenant, and 234,046 women signed the accompanying Declaration. Among them were the men and women of the Neill family, including William Neill, who signed at Lurgan Town Hall and Emily, who, with a number of other ladies from James Street, signed at Shankill Parochial Hall.
William Neil also joined the Ulster Volunteer Force. Moves to arm a Unionist militia had begun as early as 1910 and by January 1913 the Ulster Unionist Council decided that the volunteers for such activities should be united into one body known as the Ulster Volunteer Force. The organisation of the force progressed quickly. Ulster was divided into fourteen divisions: the nine counties, Londonderry, and the four parliamentary constituencies of Belfast. Each of these was organised into a number of regiments and battalions—County Armagh, central to this story, raised five battalions. In addition to these, supporting units were formed to provide communications, transport, and medical facilities. Two units of light cavalry were raised—the Ballymena and Enniskillen Horse. William Neill joined ‘B’ Platoon in the 5th (Lurgan) Battalion.
The Home Rule Bill was passed on 25 May 1914. Fortunately, the day passed peacefully, as did the following 12 July when the Orange Order held its annual parades. But all was not well. Ireland was tense, and the men of the Ulster Volunteers paraded openly over the north of Ireland. Guns were landed for the Irish Volunteers—the nationalist counter to the Ulster Volunteer Force—on 26 July and the shooting of Irish nationalists by the British Army in Dublin that day inflamed the population. To many, war in Ireland seemed certain. Only the outbreak of war in Europe saved the situation.
It was evident that the Ulster Volunteer Force had the potential to become a formidable fighting force. After some discussion with Kitchener, Sir Edward Carson promised a division and on 3 September, at a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council in Belfast, in a long and emotive speech Carson appealed to the men of the Ulster Volunteer Force: “Go and help to save your country and to save your Empire; go and win honour for Ulster and for Ireland.” For those members of the Ulster Volunteer Force responding to Carson’s call in Lurgan, recruiting began on 15 September. The official recruiting age was between nineteen and thirty-five (raised from thirty in late August) and William Neill, at thirty-seven years old, was over age. He was among the first to volunteer, however, and was duly attested.
He enlisted into Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers) and on Monday 21 September travelled with his friends and colleagues to Clandeboye near Newtownards, where the 2nd Brigade of the new Ulster Division was to be based (see the newspaper article in the photo gallery below).
It was at Clandeboye that he was given the regimental number 14577. On 2 October, the County Armagh battalion was named the 9th (Service) Battalion, Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers) (County Armagh). His service follows that of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, with which he served for the duration of the war. He landed in France on 4 October 1915, initially as a Corporal in ‘C’ Company. Prior to the attack at Hamel on 1 July 1916 he joined the Battalion Transport and he became the Transport Sergeant on 24 August 1916. He served as the Transport Sergeant for the rest of the war—during the period holding the line at Messines from the autumn of 1916 through to the attack there in June 1917; at the Battle of Langemarck on 16 August 1916, when the Battalion Transport Officer, Lieutenant James Stronge, was killed; at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917; during the retreat from St Quentin in March 1918 and during the next phase of the German offensive at Ypres in April 1918; and in the Advance to Victory.
The death of James Stronge was a notable episode in William Neill’s life, an episode which would be talked about in the family for years to come. James Matthew Stronge was born on 10 January 1891 at Tynan Abbey, County Armagh, the son and heir of the 5th Baronet, Sir James Stronge. His family were staunch Unionists and Stronge was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force. He enlisted into the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers on 14 September 1914 and was commissioned on 12 October. He was promoted to Lieutenant on 1 May 1915 and he served as the Battalion’s Transport Officer until he was killed in action at the Battle of Langemarck on 16 August 1917, aged 26. At the time of his death he had been married for a little over one month.
It is not known precisely where and when he was mortally wounded or killed but it was almost certainly on the route from Wieltje to the Battalion’s position, along Roeselarestraat, an old clinker brick road that was now a muddy, shell-torn lane, laid in part with corduroy track. It is known that Sergeant Neill called for volunteers to help him find Lieutenant Stronge—it may be surmised that he was actually present when he was mortally wounded or that knew that he had been badly wounded somewhere on the route to the Battalion’s forward position at Pommern Redoubt. It is not known whether he was dead when he was found but his body was brought to the rear by William Neill and four men. He was buried in Brandhoek New Military Cemetery Number 3. William Neill subsequently wrote to the Stronge family and described the events of that day, their son’s death and where he had been buried. In thanks, the family wrote back, sent him a silver framed photograph of James Stronge and invited him to visit. After the war William Neill visited Tynan Abbey on a number of occasions, at least once with my father.
Sergeant William Neill was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in June 1918. His citation does not indicate a specific act of gallantry:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He has been with the battalion since its formation, and has rendered very valuable service as transport sergeant. His unfailing cheerfulness, coolness under fire and zealousness have been most marked.
The Battalion’s final actions involved the crossing of the Lys in October 1918 and its final day in action was 26 October. When the war ended the Battalion moved to Mouscron, where it remained until it was disbanded in June 1919. William Neill left Belgium in January 1919 for demobilisation and was at home in time to attend the ‘Welcome Home Banquet’ held at Portadown Town Hall on 30 January, at which the guests of honour were the prisoners of war repatriated in November and December 1918. He was transferred to the Class Z Reserve on 16 March 1919. In addition to the Distinguished Conduct Medal, he was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal 1914-20 and the Victory Medal.
When the Ulster Battlefield Memorial Tower was opened and dedicated on Saturday 19 November 1921, Sergeant William Neill DCM planted the tree on behalf of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers. It is not often that one can identify relatives in news reels from this period, but this clip from British Pathé of the dedication of the Ulster Battlefield Memorial Tower, shows William Neill DCM in the final few seconds.
As if those who had suffered on the Western front had not had enough to contend with, they returned to Ireland at the dawn of a new era in Irish politics and conflict. Voting in the 1918 general election began on 14 December and the result was a shock to many. Sinn Féin candidates were elected in seventy-three constituencies. The Irish Unionist Party secured twenty-two seats, largely limited to Ulster, and the Irish Parliamentary Party won only six seats. After the election the Sinn Féin MPs chose to boycott the Westminster Parliament and formed the revolutionary parliament—Dáil Éireann. On the same day two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary guarding quarry explosives were ambushed and killed at Soloheadbeg in Tipperary by members of the Irish Volunteers. Thus began the Anglo-Irish War that would ultimately result in the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922 and the partition of Ireland.
The response by Unionists to the attacks of the Irish Republican Army in 1920 and 1921 was to form local militias across Ulster, based loosely on the pre-war Ulster Volunteer Force and manned by many former soldiers. In an effort to regulate these and to bolster the efforts of the police, the government agreed to the creation of the Ulster Special Constabulary as a reserve element of the Royal Irish Constabulary. This was achieved using existing legislation—the Special Constables (Ireland) Act, 1832. The Ulster Special Constabulary was divided into several categories, the most well known of which was the part-time ‘B’ Specials’. There was also, however, a uniformed, regular cadre, the ‘A’ category. About half of the ‘A’ Specials’ were assigned to duty in police barracks and acted as uniformed police, with the other half being formed into motorized platoons.
Among those who joined the ‘A’ Specials was William Neill, who joined on 16 May 1922. He was allocated the number 7295 and was initially appointed as a platoon Sergeant. He was promoted to Head Constable at the end of the year and served in that capacity with 39th Platoon in Armagh. The ‘A’ and ‘C’ Specials (the latter were a non-uniformed reserve) were disbanded in March 1926 and on 17 April 1926, William Neill left the Ulster Special Constabulary. This was a difficult time but he found work with Lurgan Urban Council as a road construction foreman and his references from the officers of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Ulster Special Constabulary are testament to his reputation.
At some time in this period the family moved to 40 Gilford Road, Lurgan and William Neill embraced the Elim Pentecostal Church; he became a lay-preacher. On Sunday 20 February 1955, as the family were waiting for a bus to take them to church, he felt unwell and decided not to go with them. He died at 9.30pm that night from a heart attack. He was 78 years old. He was buried at Lurgan New Cemetery on 23 February 1955.
Many of the images in the gallery include more detailed information. Thanks are due to my cousin, Gillian, for the images of William Neill’s medals and badges, the newspaper extracts and the photographs of him and his wife in later life.
1. (Back) He was the sixth of the seven children of Gilbert Neill (born 1837), my great-great-grandfather, and Ellen Thompson (born 1833), who were married on 2 September 1864 in Magheralin Parish Church (The Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Magheralin). The other children were: Annie (born 1863), Thomas George (born 3 November 1865), Joseph (born 28 October 1867), Elizabeth Jane (born 21 August 1870), Moses (born 28 April 1873), and Hamilton (born 5 September 1884). William Neill was my father’s maternal grandfather.
2. (Back) Almost every member of my family in the generations up to my mother’s and father’s worked in the linen mills. On my father’s side they worked in the Lurgan area and on my mother’s side they worked in the mills in Hydepark, Mallusk in County Antrim.
3. (Back) The Church of Christ the Redeemer, Lurgan. This is the largest, non-cathedral Church of Ireland church in Ireland.
4. (Back) Elizabeth (known as Cissie) (born 12 August 1900), Olive (born 28 September 1902), Annie, my grandmother, (born 26 November 1907) and Marie (known as Miriam) (born 16 August 1910). A fifth child, Joseph (known as Joey), had been born on 22 September 1898 but had died on 20 March 1901. They would have one more child, May (Mary) (born 30 July 1913) and adopt another, Teddy (born 18 December 1922).
5. (Back) The Covenant was largely the work of James Craig MP, and was based on the Scottish Covenant of 1580/1581 and its successor covenants. Men signed the Covenant while women signed the accompanying Declaration.
Being convinced in our consciousness that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship and perilous to the unity of the Empire; we, whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V, humbly relying on the God who our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn covenant throughout this our time of threatened calamity to stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognise its authority. In such confidence that God will defend the right we hereto subscribe our names. And further, we individually declare that we have not already signed this Covenant.
We, whose names are underwritten, women of Ulster, and loyal subjects of our gracious King, being firmly persuaded that Home Rule would be disastrous to our Country, desire to associate ourselves with the men of Ulster in their uncompromising opposition to the Home Rule Bill now before Parliament, whereby it is proposed to drive Ulster out of her cherished place in the Constitution of the United Kingdom, and to place her under the domination and control of a Parliament in Ireland. Praying that from this calamity God will save Ireland, we hereto subscribe our names.
6. (Back) The signatories of the Ulster Covenant may be found on the PRONI website.
7. (Back) When the battalions of 36th (Ulster) Division were named the County Armagh Battalion in 2nd Brigade was initially titled: 9th (Service) Battalion, Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers) (County Armagh Volunteers). The suffix ‘…Volunteers’ was used for all of the battalions of the Ulster Division. The use of this suffix appeared once in the London Gazette—on 27 October 1914; the Gazette that appointed the first officers to the battalions of the Division—and never in the Army List. By November 1914 the word ‘Volunteers’ had been dropped from all of the battalion titles.
8. (Back) Lieutenant Stronge’s death meant that the title was inherited by Sir Walter Lockhart Stronge (6th Baronet), his father’s cousin, in 1928. The title passed then to the brother of the 6th Baronet in 1933 and in 1939 to the 8th Baronet, the Rt Hon Sir Charles Norman Lockhart Stronge. The 8th Baronet was born on 23 July 1884. A former officer in the Ulster Volunteer Force, Sir Norman Stronge had served as an officer in the 10th (Service) Battalion, The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (Derry), with which he earned an MC and Croix de Guerre (Belgium) and was twice Mentioned in Despatches. By February 1918 he was Adjutant of that battalion and subsequently of the 15th (Service) Battalion, The Royal Irish Rifles (North Belfast). He was wounded during the crossing of the Lys on 20 October 1918. He joined the Ulster Special Constabulary in 1921 as the Commandant of Coleraine District. He married in 1921 and moved to Tynan Abbey in 1939 when he succeeded to the Baronetcy. Elected MP for mid-Armagh from 1938 he became Speaker at Stormont in 1945 and served in that position until 1969. He became a Privy Councillor (Northern Ireland) 1946. He also served as HM Lieutenant County Armagh (1939), as a JP in County Londonderry and County Armagh, as High Sheriff of County Londonderry and as Honorary Colonel of the 5th Battalion, The Royal Irish Fusiliers (Princess Victoria’s) from 1949-63. He was also President of the Northern Ireland Council of the Royal British Legion and Sovereign Grand Master of the Black Institution. He was made a Knight of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and a Commander of the Order of Leopold (Belgium), the latter in 1946. His son and heir was James Matthew Stronge. Born 21 June 1932, he was commissioned into the Grenadier Guards. On the resignation of his father, he was elected MP for mid-Armagh in 1969 and served until 1973. He was also a JP for County Armagh and a Reserve Constable in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. At 9.45pm on 21 January 1981 the family home, Tynan Abbey, was attacked by the Provisional IRA. 86 year-old Sir Norman Stronge and his 48 year-old son were both murdered in the library of the grand house, and the building, which had stood for 230 years, was destroyed by fire-bombs. Although fired upon by a patrol of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the gunmen escaped. At the joint funeral Sir Norman’s coffin was borne by men of the 5th Battalion, The Royal Irish Rangers, and that of James Stronge by men of the RUC Reserve. They were buried in the family plot where Sir Norman’s wife had been laid to rest the previous year. The shell of Tynan Abbey stood empty until it was finally demolished in early 1999.
9. (Back) Award published in London Gazette 3 June 1918. Issue 30716, p 6481. Citation published in London Gazette 21 October 1918. Issue 30961, p 12361.
10. (Back) This ceremony is described in Blacker’s Boys Appendix 3; a revised and updated account will be the subject of a subsequent essay.