My Family at War – Part 2: Hammie Neill

5/4732 Sergeant Hamilton Neill

Sergeant Hammie Neill

Sergeant Hammie Neill

Hamilton Neill—known throughout his life as ‘Hammie’—was the younger brother of my great-grandfather William Neill. He served with The Royal Irish Rifles in the Militia, the Special Reserve, and the Regular Army for a little over 30 years and saw operational service during the South Africa War, the First World War, and the 1920 Iraqi revolt. The final six years of his service were spent in India attached to the 2nd Battalion, Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway Regiment.

Hammie Neill was born on 5 September 1884 at Ballymacateer, County Down—you can read more about the family in the essay about William Neill. Like his brother, he worked as a weaver and it is known that in 1901 he was working for William Liddell & Company in Donaghcloney.[1]

Hammie Neill's Attestation in 1901

Hammie Neill’s Attestation in 1901

He enlisted into the Militia on 3 September 1901, just prior to his 17th birthday (he declared himself to be a year older), for a six-year engagement with the 5th Battalion (Royal South Down Militia), The Royal Irish Rifles.[2] He was allocated the regimental number 3209, and he served with ‘B’ Company.

Three months after his enlistment Hammie Neill was mobilised for service in the South Africa War. The 2nd Battalion had been mobilised for service in South Africa in October 1899 and the 5th Battalion was mobilised early in 1901; it embarked for the Cape on 5th April.[3] The men of the 5th Battalion were engaged largely in line of communication security duties, although the Battalion also formed a mounted infantry company that was used on raiding and ‘driving’ operations.

SS Avondale Castle

SS Avondale Castle

Hammie Neill was embodied for service on 3 January 1902 and embarked for South Africa on 13 February on the SS Dilwara[4] from Southampton. Unfortunately, nothing is known of exactly where he served with the 5th Battalion. At the end of the war, just over a year after its arrival in South Africa, the 5th Battalion was sent home and Hammie Neill returned on the SS Avondale Castle,[5] which left for England on 30 June 1902 and arrived Southampton on 23 July. For his service in South Africa he was awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal, with clasps ‘ORANGE FREE STATE’, ‘CAPE COLONY’, and ‘1902’. He was paid the South African War gratuity of £5, and this period of 203 days counted towards his pensionable service.

On his arrival home he returned to work as a weaver. He was exempt from annual training with the Militia in 1903 but attended in each of the following years until his engagement ended on 2 September 1907, when Private Neill was duly discharged.

Whether missing the life as a part-time soldier or needing more money, Hammie Neill reenlisted two years later. By then the Army, in particular the volunteer forces, had undergone reorganisation—the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act, 1907 had reformed the Militia as the Special Reserve in 1908.[6] Hammie enlisted into the new Special Reserve on 23 September 1909 at Waringstown and rejoined the 5th Battalion;[6] he was allocated the regimental number 5/4732.

On 10 June 1911 Hammie married Sarah Watson at Shankill Parish Church in Lurgan. Sarah also worked in the linen industry; she was a veiner—a decorator of handkerchiefs with a form of drawn thread work. The family lived at 114 Victoria Street, Lurgan, with Sarah’s parents. Like the rest of the family, Hammie and Sarah signed the Ulster Covenant and the Declaration on 28 September 1912 (there is more about this in the essay about William Neill). Hammie and Sarah had one child, a daughter, Masie, who was born on 6 February 1913.

Every year prior to the First World War Hammie duly attended annual training at Ballykinler—the final training period took place from 8 June to 4 July 1914. War was declared on 4 August and he was mobilised two days later on 6 August; on 29 August he was promoted to Corporal. After a period of training and the issue of equipment, he departed for France in early November with a reinforcement draft destined for the 2nd Battalion.[8]

At the outbreak of war the 2nd Battalion had been based at Tidworth in 7th Brigade, 3rd Division, one of the five divisions allocated to the British Expeditionary Force. The Battalion landed at Rouen on 14 August 1914 and took part in the early actions of the war, culminating in the First Battle of Ypres in October and November. By 14 November it was in reserve near Hooge east of Ypres and had been reduced to a fighting strength of 130 all ranks. Over the next few days officers and men were sent to reinforce other battalions in the Brigade so that by 18 November the Battalion was only 40 strong. Having been relieved on the night of 19 November, this remnant of the Battalion marched 14 miles to the west of Ypres to Westoutre, where it was joined by the reinforcements on 21 November—three officers and 463 NCOs and men, including Corporal Hammie Neill.

His first stint in the trenches soon followed on 30 November near Kemmel; the first casualties from the new men occurred the next day when Rifleman James Patton[9] was killed and two others were wounded. For the next six months, the battalions of 7th Brigade rotated through the trenches at Kemmel, Vierstraat and St Eloi and the billets in Locre, Westoutre and La Clytte—no major actions were conducted during this period but there was a steady trickle of casualties suffered every day when the Battalion was in the trenches.

In June 1915 Hammie Neill experienced his first major action of this war—the attack on Bellewaarde Spur. On 4 June 1915 7th Brigade was relieved by 85th Brigade and moved to a bivouac area near Poperinghe. This period of ‘rest’ was short-lived and on 9 June the Battalion moved into the trenches at Hooge. In preparation for the attack, the Battalion was relieved on 11 June, although a significant number of men—B Company, some men of C Company and an attached machine gun team—had to wait until dark the following night before they could move out of the trenches.

The German position on Bellewaarde Spur (see map) was a strong salient into the British line, between the Menin Road and the Roulers railway. It was known as Bellewaarde Spur after the Bellewaarde Lake, which lay south of the shallow ridge. The aim of the attack was to capture this area of higher ground to straighten the British line and it was to be carried out by 9th Brigade, which would attack from Y Wood south-west of the spur. 7th Brigade, including 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, was to be in reserve west of Cambridge Road and would move forward to occupy and consolidate the captured German first line trenches.

Bellewaarde Spur

Bellewaarde Spur

The 2nd Battalion’s war diary records:

June 15th

The Battalion paraded at 5.30 p.m. and marched to the assembly trenches between WITTEPOORT FARM and Railway to support 9th Infantry Brigade in an attack on BELLWAARDE SPUR. Strength:- 21 officers, 630 other ranks.

June 16th

The bombardment, by our artillery, commenced at 2.50 A.M., lasting until 4.15 A.M., when the 9th Infantry Brigade assaulted, carrying the first three lines of German trenches. The 2nd R. Irish Rifles supported the left – ‘C’ Company followed by ‘D’ Company on Right, ‘A’ Coy followed by ‘B’ Company on Left with orders to consolidate the first German line.

‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies, carried away by their keenness, pushed through to the 3rd line, closing up with the assaulting troops under Captain E.C. FARRAN & Lieutenant C.H.H. EALES. These companies were then re-organised and withdrawn in perfect order to the first line, which they put in a state of defence. ‘A’ Company, under 2nd Lieut. W.E. Andrews was similarly engaged on the left.

Owing to heavy artillery fire which soon developed, ‘B’ Company was unable to follow ‘A’ Coy quickly. They were formed up on CAMBRIDGE Road 250 yards behind, preparatory to making another effort to get through, when they were unfortunately shelled by enfilade fire causing 30 or 40 casualties. The remainder of the Company was then withdrawn and kept in battalion support for the remainder of the day.

During the day, from early morning to nightfall, the Battalion was subjected to a terrific artillery bombardment. The Non-commissioned Officers and men of all companies distinguished themselves by their discipline, coolness and steadiness under most trying circumstances.

At no time during the day could it be said that they were in any way shaken by their ordeal. For instance, at 3.30 pm, after hours of bombardment, ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies with very short notice were called upon to attack. It possessed just as much spirit and dash as their early morning attack. Both of these attacks were gallantly led by Captain E.C. FARRAN, who was wounded and became missing and 2nd Lieut. C.H.H. EALES, who was uninjured.

‘A’ Company consolidated and held, in a most determined manner, the left flank of the German trenches, and handed them over intact to the Royal Scots who relieved them at midnight.

2nd Lieut. Andrews, who commanded this portion of the line, deserves the highest praise for the able way in which this difficult operation was carried out. The Battalion was relieved at 1.29 A.M. having acquitted itself in a manner which has called forth praise from the Corps Commander.[10]

The attack cost the Battalion 13 officers and nearly 300 other ranks killed and wounded. Among the wounded was Corporal Hammie Neill, who was shot in the left shoulder. He was evacuated through the medical system and left France for hospital in the United Kingdom on 17 June. (Read more about the Battle of Bellewaarde).

While in hospital he was held on the strength of the Depot and on 12 August, having been treated and found fit for general service, he joined the 5th (Extra Reserve) Battalion at Holywood.[11] Here he was appointed Lance Sergeant on 30 December 1915. His conduct when at the 5th (Extra Reserve) Battalion was not all that it should have been and he was deprived of his appointment as Lance Sergeant on 19 February 1916 for ‘misconduct’. From 13 to 24 March he attended a course of instruction at the ‘Bombing School’—the Irish Command Grenade School at Elm Park House, Dublin.[12] Later, his conduct again fell short of that expected of an NCO of his experience and on 5 May he was tried by Regimental Court Martial[13] accused of ‘when on active service, neglect to the prejudice of good order and military discipline’—the detail of his ‘neglect’ is not known. He was found guilty and reduced in seniority, his rank of Corporal now being dated 29 April 1916. His offence cannot have been too serious because he was reinstated as a paid Lance Sergeant the following day, 6 May.

Hammie Neill returned to France on 2 August 1916 and rejoined the 2nd Battalion.

In October 1915 7th Brigade had transferred to 25th Division and a week later 2nd Royal Irish Rifles transferred to 74th Brigade in that Division. When Hammie rejoined—in a draft of 29 men on 5 August—the Battalion was in billets in Bertrancourt. On 8 August he was back in the trenches, this time at Auchonvillers, opposite the German positions at Beaumont-Hamel; this was less than two miles from Hamel, where his brother William had taken part in the attack on 1 July. Later that month the 25th Division moved south of the River Ancre and took part in the Battle of the Ancre Heights, although 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers was in reserve throughout.

By early November the Battalion was back in Belgium, this time near Ploegsteert Wood. It would spend the winter and spring of 1917 here. Hammie Neill’s experience over the next two years was typical of the infantry man’s lot—periods of trench life holding the line interspersed with major actions. The 2nd Battalion suffered a considerable number of casualties over this period but Hammie Neill manage to survive unscathed. He was promoted to Sergeant on 1 June 1917 a few days before the attack at Messines. That was the first of a series of actions fought by the 2nd Battalion:

7 June 1917 – The Battle of Messines. The Battalion captured all of its objectives, at a cost of 16 killed in action—nine died of wounds the following day—and a further 216 were wounded. Following the attack, the Battalion was withdrawn from the line on 11 June, having sustained a further 24 casualties.

10 August 1917 – The Capture of Westhoek during the Third Battle of Ypres. The attack by 2nd Royal Irish Rifles was a success but, again, at terrible cost. The war diary records that Battalion had gone into the line on 5 August with a strength of 15 officers and 479 other ranks; its strength when it came out of the line on 11 August, which included some men who were wounded but able to remain at duty, was ten officers and 148 other ranks.

Shells falling on Messines

Shells falling on Messines

(On 13 November 1917 2nd Royal Irish Rifles was transferred to 108th Brigade in 36th (Ulster) Division, where Hammie Neill joined his brother, William, who was serving with the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, and where the Battalion absorbed 7th Royal Irish Rifles, which had joined the Ulster Division from 16th (Irish) Division a month earlier.)

22/23 November 1917 – The Battle of Cambrai. Initially in reserve, the Battalion took part in the unsuccessful attack at Moeuvres on 23 November. Casualties were relatively light—127 officers and men were killed, wounded and missing.

(When the infantry of the BEF was reorganised in February 1918, the 2nd Battalion moved to 107th Brigade, where it joined the 1st Battalion and 15th Royal Irish Rifles. It remained in 107th Brigade until the war ended.)

21-28 March 1918 – The withdrawal from St Quentin during the German spring offensive—the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle). In this period the Battalion suffered 715 officers and men killed, wounded and captured.

After spending the summer of 1918 in the line north-west of Bailleul, Sergeant Hammie Neill was posted home to the Depot on 12 September 1918 at the end of his period of engagement but, in accordance with The Military Service Act, 1916 (Session 2), which allowed for the continuation in service of time-expired men, he was re-enlisted and, for his troubles, awarded a £15 bounty.

He was at the Depot when the war ended and he decided to remain in the Army; he was discharged from his wartime engagement on 10 February 1919 and enlisted into the Regular Army for service with The Royal Irish Rifles. He joined the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion at Rugeley in Staffordshire on 30 May and rejoined the 2nd Battalion on 30 June 1919, when it was reformed at Thetford.[14]

Medal Index Card for Sergeant Hammie Neill

Medal Index Card for Sergeant Hammie Neill

Operations by the Allies against the Central Powers had been fought in Mesopotamia, largely between troops of the Indian Army and troops of the Ottoman Empire, between November 1914 and November 1918. At the end of the war the Ottoman Empire was partitioned and Britain was granted the mandate over Mesopotamia. A British Army garrison was established in various parts of the country—the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Irish Rifles sailed for Mesopotamia on 18 September 1919 to join the garrison. Sergeant Hammie Neill arrived with the Battalion on 15 October and was based initially near Baghdad. The Battalion had been joined by the wives and families of the married men and in the early part of 1920 they all moved to Kerind, in the Persian hills to the east of Mesopotamia, where the climate was much kinder.

All was not well, however, and from the early summer in 1920 a revolt spread throughout much of Mesopotamia that resulted in some brutal fighting. The 2nd Royal Irish Rifles was deployed to the fertile region along the Euphrates near Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad while the families awaited evacuation to India. The Battalion was part of the column that marched south from Hillah to relive Rumaitha. It then took part in the defence of Hillah and later was engaged in another relief operation at Kufah. These operations drew to a close in October, and in February 1921 the Battalion, now the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Ulster Rifles, moved into Hinaidi Cantonment, near Baghdad. For his service in Iraq he was awarded the General Service Medal 1918-62, with clasp ‘IRAQ’.

In May 1921 the Battalion moved to Egypt. Little is known about Hammie Neill’s time in Egypt other than he  qualified as a rifle and bayonet instructor on a course of instruction at Zeitoun Camp, near Cairo between 1 July 1921 and 20 August 1921, and was attached to the 2nd Battalion, The Highland Light Infantry from 28 November 1923 until he returned to the United Kingdom on 15 January 1924 to take up an appointment as Provost Sergeant at the Depot at Victoria Barracks, Belfast.

When this period of duty ended he sailed for India and rejoined the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Ulster Rifles, now at Wellington in Madras (now Tamil Nadu), on 19 February 1927.

On 16 November 1927 Sergeant Hammie Neill  was transferred to the non-departmental section of the Indian Unattached List—those men detached for duty with the Indian Auxiliary and Territorial Forces—and posted as a Staff Sergeant Instructor to the 2nd Battalion, Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway Regiment, based at Ajmer Cantonment in Rajasthan.[15]

The cap badge of the Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway Regiment

The cap badge of the Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway Regiment

The Regiment comprised two battalions—the 1st Battalion had its headquarters at Lower Parel in Bombay (Mumbai)—and it was manned by part-time, paid, volunteers, who were all European and Anglo-Indian, and most of whom were employees of the railway. The Adjutant, Quartermaster and the Staff Sergeant Instructors were attached from the British Army battalions throughout India. These railway battalions were responsible for the security of key points and stations when mobilised.

Staff Sergeant Instructor Hammie Neill spent the final six years of his military service in Rajasthan with this battalion of the Auxiliary Force. He re-enlisted on 2 February 1931 in order to complete 21 years’ service but sought to be discharged at his own request sometime in 1933. He had been awarded the Regular Army Long Service & Good Conduct Medal on 25 April 1933[16] and on 27 December he left India. He was discharged from the Army on 9 January 1934.

His final testimonial by Major A H M Campion,[17] commanding 2nd Battalion, Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway Regiment, read:

A good type of man whose 14 years service in the Army has shown him to be honest, self reliant and trustworthy. He has acted as Provost Sergeant at his Depot and for the past 6 years has been a Staff Sergeant Instructor with the Indian Auxiliary Force where in a position of responsibility and trust he has given every satisfaction.’

Hammie Neill lived subsequently in Northern Ireland. His last years were spent at 14 Cliftonville Street, Belfast, where he died on 27 August 1959, aged 74.

His medals, earned in over 30 years’ service are:

Queen’s South Africa Medal, with clasps ‘ORANGE FREE STATE’, ‘CAPE COLONY’, and ‘1902’; 1914 Star, with clasp ‘5TH AUG.-22ND NOV. 1914’; British War Medal 1914-20; Victory Medal; General Service Medal 1918-62, with clasp ‘IRAQ’; Army Long Service & Good Conduct Medal, GVR.

Ian Boyle, Simplon Postcards, for the image of the SS Avondale Castle.
Imperial War Museum for the photograph of Messines.
Liddell International for the image of the Donaghcloney Mill.
Martin Harrison for the image of the Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway Regiment Badge.

The Ulster Covenant Public Record Office Northern Ireland
The National Archives. Public Record Office. WO 95/1415/1, WO 95/2247/1, & WO 95/2502/4. War Diary, 2nd Battalion, The Royal Irish Rifles.
Jackson, D. (1940). India’s Army. London: Sampson Low.

1. (Back) The company was established in 1866 and became the largest Irish linen jacquard weaving company in Ireland. It is still in operation producing the highest quality linen and cotton products.
2. (Back) The Royal Irish Rifles had been formed in 1881 as a consequence of the Cardwell Reforms, which restructured the British Army. The 83rd (County of Dublin) Regiment of Foot and the 86th (Royal County Down) Regiment of Foot amalgamated to become, respectively, the 1st and 2nd Battalions, The Royal Irish Rifles. The reforms also aligned militia units with the county regiments. In this case the Royal North Down (Rifles) Militia became the 3rd Battalion (Royal North Down Militia), with its headquarters at Newtownards; the Antrim (Queen’s Royal Rifles) Militia became the 4th Battalion (Royal Antrim Militia), with its headquarters at Belfast; the Royal South Down Militia became the 5th Battalion (Royal South Down Militia), with its headquarters at Downpatrick; and the Louth (Rifles) Militia became the 6th Battalion (Louth Militia), with its headquarters at Dundalk.
3. (Back) The 2nd Battalion arrived at the Cape in November 1899. It did not enjoy success in its early engagements—in its first action at Stromberg in December it suffered over 250 casualties and the following April a large part of the battalion was captured at Reddersburg. For the rest of the war it was engaged largely in ‘blockhouse’ duties, although it formed two companies of mounted infantry that performed well in raiding operations. It was reinforced later by men of the Militia from the 5th Battalion. Most of these men returned to the 5th Battalion after its arrival in South Africa.
4. (Back) The SS Dilwara was a passenger cargo vessel built in 1892 on the Clyde. It was operated by the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd.
5. (Back) The SS Avondale Castle was a passenger cargo vessel built in 1897 on the Clyde by Fairfield Govan and was owned and operated by the Union Castle Mail Steam Ship Company from 1900.
6. (Back) The Act had resulted in only one change to the make-up of The Royal Irish Rifles—the disbandment of the 6th Battalion (Louth Militia).
7. (Back) You can read more about the Special Reserve here.
8. (Back) For an excellent history of the 2nd Battalion see: Taylor, J W. (September 2005). The 2nd Royal Irish Rifles in the Great War. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
9. (Back) 6612 Rifleman James Patton was also a soldier of the Special Reserve. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres.
10. (Back) The National Archives. Public Record Office. WO 95/1415/1. War Diary, 2nd Battalion, The Royal Irish Rifles.
Captain Edmond Chomley Lambert Farran was killed in action on 16 June 1915. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres.
Lieutenant Charles Herbert Harberton Eales, Indian Army, attached Royal Irish Rifles, was awarded the Military Cross (London Gazette. (14 January 1916). Issue 29438, p 587.)
Lieutenant Colonel C H H Eales MC was killed whilst on duty in command of the Mahe garrison in the Seychelles on 5 March 1941 during the Second World War. He is commemorated on the Brookwood Memorial.
Captain William Ernest Andrews was killed in action on 2 August 1915 by shellfire, which also killed Lieutenant Arthur Augustus Raymond, Lance Corporal Joseph William Tatam and Private John Kearney. Two other officers and two soldiers were wounded. He was buried at Lankhof Chateau but his grave was destroyed in later fighting and he is commemorated on a memorial in White House Cemetery, St Jean-les-Ypres. The others are commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres.
11. (Back) The 5th Battalion had become the 5th (Extra Reserve) Battalion when it mobilised at Downpatrick on 4 August 1914. In May 1915 it had moved to Holywood.
12. (Back) The area occupied by the ‘Bombing School’ is now a golf course, where some of the practice trenches can still be seen.
13. (Back) The regimental court martial was used to try other ranks who were charged with lesser offences. It was limited in its powers of punishment and records were not sent to the Judge Advocate General’s Office; often the only record of proceedings is that contained in the soldier’s record.
14. (Back) In August 1920 when the British Army replaced regimental numbers with army-wide personal numbers, Hammie Neill was renumbered as 7006111.
15. (Back) The Rajputana-Malwa Volunteer Rifle Corps was raised on 2 August 1882 and associated with the Rajputana-Malwa State Railway. In 1887 it amalgamated with the the Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway Volunteer Rifle Corps (which had been raised on 3 August 1877 and amalgamated with the Ghadeshi Volunteer Rifle Corps in 1886) to become that Corps’ 2nd Battalion. In April 1917 the two battalions became 1/17th and 2/17th Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway Battalion, India Defence Force. In 1920 the Auxiliary Force Act, 1920 created the new, all-volunteer Auxiliary Force and they became the 1st and 2nd Battalions, Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway Regiment, Auxiliary Force, India.
16. (Back) India Army Order No. 216, dated 25 April 1933.
17. (Back) Major Arthur Havard Montriou Campion was born on 13 April 1887 in Dera Ghazi Khan, Bengal, India. He was a civil engineer by profession and served before the First World War as a Lieutenant in the 1/17th Bombay, Baroda & Central India Railway Volunteer Rifle Corps. During the war he served with 111th Railway Company, Corps of Royal Engineers in France and on the staff of the Assistant Director of Railway Construction. After the war he returned to India and continued to serve with the 2nd Battalion, Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway Regiment.

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