BALLYMENA 1914-1918

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Lance Corporal Hugh McNeill: Soldier by Land and Sea
Lance Corporal Hugh McNeill, though born in Belfast on 5th January 1881 to parents who cannot now be traced, became a Ballymena man by adoption and eventually made his home at 11, James Street, Harryville. The area has now been redeveloped and the house is no more, but his presence remains, his name appearing on a list of serving soldiers drawn from the congregation of All Saints Church, Ballymena (Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, 5th June 1915).  However, despite coverage of aspects of his military career in contemporary local press, his name is not on the local war memorial and details of his heroic deeds are poorly known.

Hugh had enlisted on 7th July 1899 and must have gone after training to serve aboard HMS Goliath. Goliath was new and it had been planned that on her completion that she would be placed into the reserve, but on the 10th January 1900 it was announced that she would instead serve on the China Station.  Goliath departed for China on 30th May, arriving at the port of Weihaiwei on 18th June, just in time for a role in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion.  McNeill was awarded the China Medal, this indicating that he had actually landed in China and participated in anti-Boxer actions.

Some Crew Members of HMS Goliath

By Photographer not identified. [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The then Royal Marine Light Infantry served aboard ships but had a role in diplomatic protection and this was why McNeill was thrown into the mayhem of the Boxer Rebellion.  The Boxer rebels had in summer 1900 in Peking (Beijing) initiated what is known to westerners as the Siege of the International Legations.  Their lives endangered by the Boxers, an anti-Christian, anti-foreign peasant movement, 900 soldiers, marines, and civilians, largely European, Japanese, and American, and about 2,800 Chinese Christians,  took refuge in the Peking Legation Quarter, the diplomatic enclave. They had survived a 55-day siege by the official Qing (Chinese) Army and Boxer insurgents until the siege was broken by a multinational military force which marched aggressively from the coast of China, defeating the Qing army along the way, and occupying Peking. The New York Sun, for US marines were involved amongst others, resorted to hyperbolic language to claim it "the most exciting episode ever known to civilization". Exaggerated though the claim undoubtedly is, it is nevertheless true that fighting was sufficiently fierce to allow RMLI Captain Halliday, despite him being wounded several times, to lead a successful defence against one band of Boxers who had broken into the British Legation and to earn himself a Victoria Cross.

McNeill was somehow involved in that relief and could truly already say with the song that he was one of those ‘who've been my lads, who've seen my lads’, but like all soldiers, his service soon ended. By 1911, he was stationed at Fort Blockhouse in Gosport and he was discharged from the RMLI on 6th September 1912, having completed twelve years of service. On the following day, he enrolled with the Royal Fleet Reserve.

He returned to Belfast and to civilian life. He was for a time ‘Head Boots’ at the Imperial Hotel, which was located on the corner of Donegall Place and Castle Lane. There too at St Joseph's Roman Catholic Church he married Annie Harland on 12th October 1913. The certificate of marriage says he was a “Navy man” and that he had been living at 56 Canal Street in Saltcoats, Scotland. His father’s name was recorded as Daniel, a tradesman, and Annie, a millworker, was a daughter of Michael Harland, a tradesman of 12 Bute Street in the Jennymount district of Belfast. At some stage after their marriage Hugh and Annie moved to Ballymena.

                                                                                                                                                                           Image courtesy of Irish

Hugh, a former regular and a reservist, was recalled to the colours in 1914. However, at the declaration of the war on 4 August, there was a surplus of some 20 - 30,000 reserves and no place on any warship for them. They were in consequence organised to form two Naval Brigades and a Brigade of Marines for operations on land, Hugh finding himself one of the latter.

The Royal Marine Brigade was moved to Ostend (Oostende) on 27 August 1914, although it returned four days later, and McNeill’s record shows his involvement with these events. The troops subsequently re-embarked for Dunkirk 19th September 1914, some 2,200 men, and they detrained at Antwerp. Antwerp’s outer forts were by then overrun and the Brigade were put the trenches. The 1st & 2nd Royal Naval Brigades embarked from Dover on the 4 October 1914 and joined the Royal Marine Brigade already there.

The whole defence of Antwerp (Anvers) support deployment was, given Britain’s need to have ports from which to support her war in Europe, considered by some essential for strategic reasons, and also to show support of our beleaguered ally Belgium.  It was, however, somewhat of a military debacle.  There is not space here to tell the whole story but something of the chaos of the operation is revealed in that 80% went into action without even basic equipment such as packs, mess tins or water bottles. No khaki uniforms were issued – RN uniforms are clearly seen in the image below. The two Naval Brigades were armed with old Lee Metford rifles of Boer War vintage just three days before embarking.  There were tales of these sailor-soldiers with bullets stuffed in pockets and bayonets sheathed in their gaiters! The Royal Naval Division had no supporting artillery, Field Ambulances or other ancillary units.
Right: RMLI getting supplies at Antwerp – from the Manchester Guardian
(public domain image)

The heroic and tenacious Belgian Army was no match for the much more numerous and better-equipped Germans who were pouring across their border and even with this limited British support their position was soon collapsing. General Deguise, the Belgian commander, concerned that the British Royal Naval Division would be trapped in Antwerp, informed the British government that British withdrawal was urgent.  Deguise sent out the order to withdraw to both the Belgian 2nd Division and the Royal Naval Division. The order successfully reached the Belgian 2nd Division, which set off on a 30-mile march and arrived to rejoin the main Belgian Field Army at Salzaete on 9 October. The order to withdraw was sent from the Royal Naval Division commander, General Paris, by three separate officers, one to each of his three British brigades — Marine, 1st and 2nd Brigades. Three battalions of the Marine Brigade and 2nd Naval Brigade received their order successfully and they began to pull back. However, a mistake was made in the delivery of the message to the 1st Naval Brigade and the rearguard,  McNeill’s Portsmouth Battalion of the Marine Brigade, the Drake Battalion alone getting the message. The other three battalions of the brigade and the Portsmouth Battalion (Marine Brigade) were left with no orders to move and all were unaware of developments until much later.

The three battalions of the British Marine Brigade, the four battalions of the 2nd Naval Brigade and the Drake Battalion from 1st Brigade managed to cross the Schelde (Scheldt) River and reached Zwyndrecht. General Paris, the divisional commander, was incorrectly informed that all three brigades were fully present and so the force continued onward to St. Nicolas, and as there were no trains waiting for them there, they pushed on for a further six miles to entrain at St. Gilles Waes. From dawn on 9 October the first troops arrived at the waiting trains and eventually all the men of the Marine Brigade, 2nd Naval Brigade and the Drake Battalion were sent on their way to Ostend. It was only then that the three battalions of the 1st Brigade and the Marine rearguard Portsmouth Battalion were discovered to be missing.  Prime Minister Asquith despaired and confided to his secret love Venetia Stanley that ‘a battalion of Marines had disappeared and are still unaccounted for.’ (Michael and Eleanor Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p.273.). Such was the chaos in which Private Hugh McNeill found himself.

These ‘forgotten’ units managed to cross the Schelde River on barges – bridges had by then been destroyed - and reached the rendezvous point at Zwyndrecht, but the division had already left to go to the trains at St. Gilles Waes. The brigade commander, Commodore Henderson, followed them and a train was arranged for these new arrivals. However, the Germans were by then attacking Moerbeke further along the railway line and Commodore Henderson made a decision: he decided to march his men across the Dutch frontier, which lay three miles to the north. These 1,400 men were interned in neutral Holland for the rest of the war.

McNeill and the rearguard British battalion of the Marine Brigade, the Portsmouth Battalion, did reach St. Gilles Waes but on hearing there were no trains there they marched on to the next station, picking up stragglers of the 1st Naval Brigade en route. These British troops got on a train at Kemseke, a train which was also packed with refugees. However, near Moerbeke the locomotive was derailed by a German shell, causing panic amongst the civilians. McNeill and his Portsmouth Battalion comrades made an attack against the Germans at the village. In the engagement that followed, there were many casualties on both sides and some marines were captured, but a party of 90 men under Major French, a party that included McNeill, got safely away after a 35-mile forced march to the Belgian village of Eecloo. Major-General A. Paris, C. B., Commanding Royal Naval Division writing to the Secretary of the Admiralty later explained what happened thus: ‘at Moerbeke the line was cut, the engine derailed, and the enemy opened fire. There was considerable confusion. It was dark and the agitation of the refugees made it difficult to pass any orders. However, the battalion behaved admirably, and succeeded in fighting its way through, but with a loss in missing of more than half its number.’ McNeill survived the experience.

Hugh McNeill was serving during part of the chaotic withdrawal, from the 10th September 1914 until the 17th October 1914, with a Royal Naval Air Service’s Armoured Cars unit and ‘served in the armoured motor car in charge of Commander Samson’ (Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, 2 May 1915), the actual car of the famous Commander Charles Rumney Samson RN. This must have been as exciting as it was terrifying.

The remarkable Samson had been appointed Officer Commanding the Eastchurch (Mobile) Squadron, later renamed No. 3 Squadron RNAS. He took the Eastchurch RNAS Squadron to France, where its aircraft supported Allied ground forces along the French and Belgian frontiers. However, since he had too few aircraft for his tasks, Samson had his men patrol on land in the privately owned cars some had brought with them. The first patrol comprised two cars, nine men, and one machine gun. Samson soon acquired two better RNAS cars, a Mercedes and a Rolls-Royce, both properly armoured. Other vehicles, sporting improvised but serviceable armour, followed. Aggressive patrolling by Samson's improvised force in the area between Dunkirk and Antwerp did much to prevent German cavalry divisions from carrying out effective reconnaissance, and with the help of Belgian Post Office employees who used the intact telephone system to report German troop movements, he was able to range deeply into German occupied territory. Closer to Dunkirk, Samson's force assisted Allied units retreating before the Germans by using the mobility and machine guns of his armoured car unit to exploit open flanks, cover retreats, and race German forces to important areas.

During a period of furlough in Ballymena following his wounding, and in the interview with Hugh McNeill that was published in the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph in May 1915 and already referred to, he spoke to confirm what Samson was doing and to speak highly of his courage and daring-do.  He confirmed that it was largely due to Samson and his armoured cars 'that wandering bands of Uhlans (German heavy cavalry) are now seldom seen'. He said that 'on one occasion, whilst on a trip with Commander Samson, about 20 Uhlans were killed outright, and then the armoured motor car retreated, having previously left a number of men in ambush. The Germans, who followed, fell into the trap, and had to retire with heavy losses, whilst the motor car returned and rendered further damage.' On another occasion he said Samson 'surprised a party of 168 Uhlans who were having tea together in a small village. Their meal was suddenly disturbed by the advent of the armoured motor car, which inflicted great loss on the enemy.'  He thought 'the Germans had come greatly to dread Commander Samson and his gallant men'.
On Saturday, 10 October 1914 Antwerp surrendered and the Royal Naval Division returned to England on the 11th.  It had been an unavoidably disorderly and chaotic withdrawal, as was noted in the division’s magazine later: “Many of the bridges had been destroyed; the roads were crowded with thousands of refugees with their cattle and with the few possessions which they were able to rescue piled on carts and hand-barrows, straggling in a frightened mob, making it nearly impossible for troops to maintain their formation; the men of the division had been constantly on the move for nearly a week and were worn out with fatigue and thirst.”

About 900 men had been captured by the Germans and approximately 1400 men of the 1st Naval Brigade had crossed the border into Holland to be interned for the war’s duration. Churchill’s role in the shambles was criticised in some circles, and the Prime Minister, then Herbert Asquith, was told by his son Arthur, then serving with the Royal Naval Division, that Churchill had patched together a force in which three-quarters of the men were, he claimed rather unfairly, ‘a callow crowd of the rawest recruits, most of whom had never fired off a rifle, while none of them had ever handled an entrenching tool’. They had, and in spite of what Arthur Asquith had later told his father, performed magnificently. Churchill and others claimed success. Sir J. D. P. French, Field-Marshal, Commander-in-Chief, wrote to the Secretary of the Admiralty and said, ‘Although the results did not include the actual saving of the fortress, the action of the force under General Paris certainly delayed the enemy for a considerable time, and assisted the Belgian Army to be withdrawn in a condition to enable it to reorganize and refit, and regain its value as a fighting force. The destruction of war material and ammunition - which, but for the intervention of this force, would have proved of great value to the enemy - was thus able to be carried out.
The assistance which the Belgian Army has rendered throughout the subsequent course of the operations on the canal and the Yeser (Yser) river has been a valuable asset to the allied cause, and such help must be regarded as an outcome of the intervention of General Paris's force. I am further of opinion that the moral effect produced on the minds of the Belgian Army by this necessarily desperate attempt to bring them succour, before it was too late, has been of great value to their use and efficiency as a fighting force.’

Even Churchill’s personal visit to Antwerp and his role there for a short time is now seen as more than a vainglorious nonsense. Rickard (Rickard, J, Third Battle of Antwerp, 1-10 October 1914, published 21 Aug 2007) says, ‘Often criticised as a foolhardy gesture, Churchill’s presence in Antwerp probably helped prolong the defence by a crucial couple of days, during which the main British and French armies moved closer to the coast in the last days of the Race to the Sea.’

Hugh McNeill experience of the vicious and fast-moving maelstrom of combat was undeniably traumatic. He saw his friend, Private Deane of London, probably PO/10349 Private C E Deane, RMLI, killed in action on the 4 October 1914, his 'head blown off' by a German shell, he served alongside Samson in bold sorties against the Germans, and Hugh was himself wounded by shrapnel in the left leg and right knee at some point during the withdrawal.

Route of the Withdrawal from Antwerp.

This French language map shows the line of retreat that McNeill and his comrades took. Antwerp (Anvers) is seen on the top right, the forts around it marked by black pyramids. Eecloo is seen in the upper middle and the ports are to the left.  The Yser River, the next defence line, is marked inland of Dunkirk (Dunkerque).
(No copyright - public domain)

The returned Royal Naval Division underwent a lengthy period of re-equipping and training, but the unit remained short of many of the elements that ordinarily made up a Division. Nevertheless, the Division was moved to the Mediterranean in preparation for participation the Gallipoli campaign, 17 February 1915 - 9 January 1916, and the Chatham and Portsmouth Battalions were eventually ordered to disembark and come under orders of 1st Australian Division on arrival. They took over No 2 Section of defences on the western edge of Lone Pine plateau that was held by Australian and New Zealand forces. McNeill’s record does not give any indication of his involvement, his injury and recovery perhaps ruling him out. This seems to be confirmed by the date of the Ballymena interview, May 1915, and the statement contained therein which says he only 'left on Tuesday night for Portsmouth.’ Thereafter he would have faced a period of prolonged training before redeployment to the Western Front.

He was probably in France and Flanders until the final year of the war and then his record shows that in January 1918 he was promoted to Lance Corporal and transferred to HMS "President III”, a shore facility for men serving on Defensively Armed Merchant Ships. Hugh was soon thereafter a member of the gun crew on the defensively armed SS Montebello.   SS Montebello, built by Earle's Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd., Hull in 1911 and owned at the time of her loss by Ellerman's Wilson Line, Ltd., Hull, was a simple British steamer of 4324 tons. The vessel was torpedoed by U-100, captained by Degenhart von Loë, on 21st June 1918 and she sank some 320 miles from Ushant, an island off the French Brittany coast. Hugh McNeill was one of the 41 souls, this including the ship's Master, who were lost. The other naval personnel who perished with him on the merchant navy vessel were PO/14729 Private Victor L Parry, RMLI (RMR B 1491), gunner, and ZP 1126 Signalman William Wilson, RNVR (the latter also acted as a gunner).

Lance-Corporal McNeill was 37 years old when he died and he is commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

Currently in storage at Old Royal Naval College Chapel, Greenwich. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The Royal Naval Division was formed in August 1914, by the personal direction of Mr Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, from Royal Marines and naval Reservists (R.F.R, R.N.R., and R.N.V.R.) not immediately required to man the Fleet. The Division fought throughout the war of 1914-1918, at Antwerp, on Gallipoli, at Salonika and finally from 1916 to 1918 in France and Belgium and suffered the following casualties:-

KILLED:         582 officers             10,797  other ranks
WOUNDED:     1,364 officers             29,528 other ranks.

Owing to the fearful losses suffered in November 1916, several Army Battalions were attached to the Division from time to time.

The following decorations were earned:-
V.C.         5
D.S.O.         42
D.S.C.         17
M.C.         137
D.C.M.         53
C.G.M.         23
D.S.M.         79
M.M.         555
M.S.M.         9

These were the men of whom Sir Winston Churchill wrote:-

"By their conduct in the forefront of the battle, by their character, and by the feats of arms to which they performed, they raised themselves into that glorious company of the seven or eight most famous Divisions of the British Army in the Great War. Their reputation was consistently maintained in spite of losses of so awful a character as to sweep away three or four times over the original personnel. Their memory is established in history and their contribution will be identified and recognized a hundred years hence from among the enormous crowd of splendid efforts which were forthcoming in this terrible period. Deriving as they did their nomenclature, their ceremonial, their traditions, their inspiration from the Royal Navy, they in their turn cast back a new lustre on that mighty parent body of which it will ever be proud and for which it must ever be grateful”.

"Long may the record of their achievements be preserved, and long may their memory be respected by those for whom they fought."

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