BALLYMENA 1914-1918

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Major-General James Barnett Wilson, Knowehead, Broughshane

Major-General James Barnett Wilson, CB, CMG, was one of Broughshane’s distinguished sons, a doctor and soldier of renown.

James Barnett Wilson was born at Knowehead, Broughshane on the 17th June 1862, the eldest son of William Orr Wilson and his wife, nee Barnett. He attended school at Royal Belfast Academical Institution and then transferred to Queen’s College, Belfast, now Queen’s University Belfast, to study medicine.  He graduated with his MD from the Royal University of Ireland in 1883 and then opted for further study at Edinburgh University.  He graduated there in 1886 and almost immediately joined the Army as a surgeon on the 30th January, 1886. He saw service on the North West Frontier in India with the Malakand Field Force (Malakand & Buner Campaign), 1897-98, taking part in the capture of the Tanga Pass; he was awarded the Frontier medal with a clasp. He later took part in the campaigns in South Africa in 1901-1902, being involved in the operations in Cape Colony, Orange River Colony and the Transvaal; he was awarded the Queen’s medal with five clasps for his efforts there.  He served in Egypt from 1904-1909 and was principal medical officer in Jamaica from 1912-14. He was to serve in France and Flanders throughout World War 1 and it was while there that he was made a colonel in the promotion list of 1st March 1915. He was mentioned in dispatches three times – London Gazette 1st January 1916, 15th June 1916 and 24th December 1917.

Barnett Wilson was between 1914-1917 successively ADMS, Assistant Director Medical Services, of the 1st Cavalry Division, the 27th Division and the 56th Division, and from 1917-1918 he was DDMS, Deputy Director Medical Services, to the 18th Army Corps. He became DDMS of the Aldershot Command on the 21st February 1918 and then in March 1920 took on the same role in the Southern Command in India.

Wilson received his CMG in 1916, his CB in 1918 and also acquired a French Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) and a Belgian Ordre de la Couronne (Order of the Crown). He won his promotion to Major-General in May 1918 and remained in the RAMC until retirement in 1921. Thereafter, he returned to Knowehead, Broughshane and settled into the life of a country gentleman.  A countryman and an excellent shot, he was a keen member of the North of Ireland Gun-Dog Society and he was President of the Mid-Antrim Anglers’ Association.  He was, as one would expect, Chairman of Broughshane Branch of the British Legion.  He also played an active role in the life of First Broughshane Presbyterian Church.

Headstone of James Barnett Wilson's Father, Kirkinriola Cemetery
Barnett Wilson was in many ways a modest man and always said, as he told a relative in a personal letter, that his family was ordinary middleclass’ and had no pedigree to speak of’. He knew relatively little about them, too.  He knew his grandfather William Wilson had been a woollen draper in Ballymena after 1830 and that his father had also worked there; the shop had been long sold.

All else he knew of the Wilsons was largely hearsay, though he had confidence in its accuracy. Grandfather William Wilson claimed descent from one of three brothers who had come to Ireland from the Scottish Borders with William of Orange. He thought the original family name might have been Wolffson and that it may have had a Danish Viking origin.

Wilson is a common Scottish surname in Ulster and especially so in County Antrim, and Wilson’s family genealogy reveals the close ties between his family and others of similar stock in the area. His grandmother was Killen, a well-known family who owned land at Glenville, Glenwherry (also Glenwhirry).  He believed them to be have been mainly businessmen, parsons and doctors. One of that family, according to James Kenny in his little book ‘As the Crow Flies over Rough Terrain’, was Edward Bryce, born Edward Bruce in Airth in 1569, and a Church of Scotland minister after 1595 serving in the Parish of Drymen, Stirlingshire after 1602. Following opposition to the appointment of a particular moderator, he left his post in 1607 and was, falsely accused of adultery, forced to flee Scotland by the Archbishop and Presbytery of Glasgow. He became a minister in what is now Ballycarry, Co. Antrim, Ireland’s oldest Presbyterian church, after 1619, but was deposed in 1636 by the Bishop of Down for his opposition to the Canons. He died before anything could be done to him and he is buried in Ballycarry, his headstone adorned with the Royal Arms of Scotland.

Barnett Wilson, though his grandmother’s sister, was also linked to the Orr family of Newgrove, Broughshane. That family, having no children of their own, had William Orr Wilson, as their godson and he inherited Newgrove when they passed away. Indeed, Newgrove was the family home of the Wilsons until the purchase of Knowehead House some years later.  That family too had an interesting pedigree.  It was linked to William Orr, hanged as a United Irishman.

Orr was born in 1766, at Farranshane, County of Antrim, his father a well-heeled farmer and bleach-green owner. He received a good education and he was locally well-known. He apparently stood six feet two inches high, unusual for this time, and was always impeccably dressed, his trademark a green necktie, which he wore "even in his last confinement." He was undoubtedly active in the Irish Volunteers and then joined the United Irishmen. He contributed several articles to their newspaper, the Northern Star, thereby making himself a target for the Crown.

The Society of United Irishmen members were the original Irish republicans who would rebel in 1798 and who had a huge following among Ulster Presbyterians. The government wanted to make examples of individuals to deter rebellion and in 1797 Orr was convicted at Carrickfergus on the false charge of having administered a treasonable oath to a serving soldier. This had recently been deemed a capital charge by George III's legislation. The only witness against him, Hugh Wheatly of the Fife Fencibles, was of bad character and perjured himself, and several members of the jury were drunk when they brought in their verdict. The United Irishmen knew from their own personnel that Orr had not administered the oath, and there was apparently also the evidence of another eye-witness for the defence, Jamie Hope. The man who genuinely had administered the oath in question was a member of the Society, William McKeever, and he subsequently fled to America. Orr, nevertheless, was condemned to die, his execution indeed expedited in unsettled times. Many saw it as ‘judicial murder’ and ‘Remember Orr’ became a cry of local United Irishmen. In a speech prior to the verdict being given Orr allegedly said: "I trust that all my virtuous countrymen will bear me in their kind remembrance, and continue true and faithful to each other, as I have been to all of them." Just 31 years old, he was hanged on the 14th October 1797, most of the inhabitants leaving town on the day of execution to show their opposition. The "Wake of William Orr," by William Drennan, was one of the most popular revolutionary ballads of the period.

Orr of Newgrove was also arrested, sentenced to deportation and then pardoned. He escaped from custody before being pardoned and fled India, returning later with a fortune. His son took a commission in the British Army, a possible reaction to attacks upon Presbyterians during the 1798 Rebellion, and to the Act of Union, 1801. The former turned Presbyterians forever against their Roman Catholic brethren, the later gave them hope of a better future. He was a major in Wellington’s army at Waterloo, 1815. Another Orr later commanded the 18th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles.

Barnett Wilson was also related via the Killens to the Gilliland family who could trace their genealogy back to the highlands of Scotland, notably to William "Willy" Gilliland, a Covenanter who had fought against the forces of Charles II in 1696 and who had, defeated, subsequently fled Scotland to hide out in the wilds of the Antrim Plateau around Glenwherry. (This is the same area where, between 1682 and 1685, the Rev Alexander Peden, one of the most famous Covenanter ministers, took refuge around a small farmstead called "Misty Burn”. This site on the Douglas Road, now marked by a basalt memorial stone, is not far from St Patrick’s Slemish and is adjacent to the "Wee Collin” refuge of Gilliland.) He enjoyed the protection of the local people but his hideout was eventually located by soldiers. He evaded them. He later took revenge for the killing of his dog and the theft of his horse by killing a soldier in Carrickfergus. He took back his horse and led the troops on a 30 mile chase that ended when he escaped them amid the rocky uplands around Skerry (Newtowncrommelin).  He was, however, eventually caught, tried and thrown into prison. Later, he too was pardoned, Presbyterianism having acquired official acceptance in Scotland, and the Government gave him a grant of land. William subsequently married a Scottish girl by the name of Elizabeth and they had at least one child. This John Gilliland was born in Londonderry, Ireland in 1689 during the siege of the city by forces of James II of England.

The Round Hole

This natural feature was the 'church' of the local Covenanters before they had a building in which to worship.

The terraces on which the audience stood can just about be seen on the right of the photograph.

James Barnett Wilson took the Barnett part of his name from his mother’s family surname.  She was the daughter of a ship owner and distiller with business links to Carrickfergus and Belfast. That family had their roots in Co Down.

Lieutenant Colonel Barnett Wilson, then Senior Medical Officer at Shorncliffe Camp, wrote an interesting letter detailing aspects of his life in that role on 23 December 1914.  He explained the serious nature of the appointment by saying that his hospital was tasked to care of for the 20, 000 men of the 12th Division and that it acted as the central hub of a network that also included 40 Red Cross Hospitals scattered around England.  Patients arrived directly from Folkestone or via Southampton.  He had to arrange payment for all with the Paymaster and was handicapped in so doing by female Red Cross types who insisted on sending him copious notes on scalloped and scented paper when the Paymaster wanted only a list of names with dates of admission and discharge.’ He found himself, a consequence of trying to placate both, cursed by both the Paymaster and the Red Cross.

He also, amusingly, tells of events that give insight into attitudes, problems and expectations at that time - of a solicitor who says his son, driver of a Red Cross motor in France, has had his Thermos flask and some sandwiches go missing and demands that ‘I find them at once and return them’, of someone who wastes his time by asking if he can fly a Red Cross flag over a hospital on the Isle of Thanet! He also related how one lady wanted him to arrange a ship to bring home directly to Folkestone her wounded son. He intended to tell her the letter should have been sent to Winston Churchill ‘from whom I have not as yet taken over the Navy’.  Somebody else said the convalescent Belgian soldier Wilson sent him had got drunk and come home late for tea and was ‘giving trouble’. He wanted an armed escort for him. Meanwhile another Belgian had died and someone expected him to make full choral arrangements for the funeral and bring over the Bishop of Louvain’. He couldn’t get time to answer any of them before the GOC had summoned him to complain about the camp being knee-deep in mud and demanding he billet 5,000 more men in Folkestone.

James Barnett Wilson had married Kathleen (Katie) Dorothea Aird in the 1890s, probably on the 8th December 1896. She was the daughter of Royal Navy Captain David Aird, and the couple had four children. Dorothy was born on the 12th October 1897, John Barnett Wilson, ‘Jack’, later Lieutenant Colonel, Royal Engineers (see below), was born on the 9th February 1899, Patrick Aird Barnett Wilson was born on the 6th July 1901 (see below), and Dennis Aird Orr Wilson, later Colonel, RAMC, on the 1st October 1904. The last listed died tragically. The Times of 29th November, 1951 announced that Colonel Dennis Aird Orr Wilson, late R.A.M.C., commanding the 29 British Military Hospital in Hanover, was found dead on a railway track near Hanover on 28th November.
John Barnett Wilson, Lt-Colonel, RE, Born 9th Feb 1899, Died 10th July 1964


COLONEL DENNIS AIRD ORR WILSON - As announced in The Times of 29th November, 1951, Colonel Dennis Aird Orr Wilson, late R.A.M.C., commanding the 29 British Military Hospital in Hanover, was found dead on a railway track near Hanover on 28th November.  The son of the late Major-General James Barnett Wilson, late R.A.M.C., retired, C.B., C.M.G., M.D.; he was born 1st October, 1905, and took the M.B., Belfast, in 1929. He took the D.P.H., Wales, in 1927.

Commissioned Lieutenant, R.A.M.C., 30th July, 1929, he was promoted Captain 30th January, 1933, Major 30th July; 1939, Lieut.-Colonel 1st August, 1946, and Colonel 22nd August, 1951.

He was Adjutant, later D.A.D.M.S. 53 (Welch) Division, T.A., 1st June, 1936, to 9th May, 1939.

He served in France from September, 1939, to May, 1940, and in North Africa and in Italy from March, 1943, to February, 1944.  Mentioned in des­patches.

He was awarded the 1939/45, Africa and Italy Stars, the War Medal and was created Officer Legion of Merit (U.S.A.).                                                       J. G. F.

James Barnett Wilson died on the 1st April 1936 at his residence, Knowehead, Broughshane, near Ballymena and his remains were laid to rest in Kirkinriola Cemetery, Bally Road, Ballymena.

ajor General James Barnett Wilson, Kirkinriola Cemetery, Ballymena

James Barnett Wilson
Major General RAMC,
Died 1st April 1936, aged 73 years.
Also Kathleen Dorothea Wilson, wife of the above, died 25th March 1946, aged 83 years.

(CB is ‘Companion’ rank of the Order of Bath, and is an award given in either a civil or military category  for service of the highest calibre. CMG  is ‘Companion’ rank of the Order of St Michael and St George and is an award given in recognition of service overseas or in connection with foreign or Commonwealth affairs).

Obituary from Royal Medical Benevolent Fund, page 768, April 11, 1936, The British Medical Journal
Obituary from the Ballymena Observer
Barnett Wilson Letters -
The Northern Leaders of '98, (No. I.), William Orr, author Francis Joseph Biggar, Maunsel & Co. Ltd., Dublin, 1906.
A Compendium of Irish Biography, by Alfred Webb, M H Gill & Son, Dublin, 1878
As the crow flies over rough terrain: Incorporating the diary 1827/1828 and more ..., 1988 by James G Kenny