Twenty-five years of touring the First World War battlefields of Europe – followed by four years of assiduous writing – culminate this weekend for former primary school principal Ronnie Harkness.
The Portadown man is publishing his historical book ‘Where the Brave Will Live Forever’.
The 320-page tome records the history of all the major battles and cemeteries in the European theatre of conflict from 1914-18, It records battles from from the Somme where so many Portadown soldiers perished in 1916, to Fromelles (Pheasant Wood), the mass grave discovered only in 2010. Just five years ago, 250 of The Fallen (mainly Australian and British) were discovered, and each was given an individual grave.
In between, Mr Harkness has been to them all – the Thiepval Memorial, Acre, Arras, Vimy Ridge, Messines, Passchendaele, Wimereux… And he has become one of the leading Northern Ireland experts on the battle sites and the cemeteries where so many paid the supreme sacrifice in what was supposed to be the war to end all wars.
An ex-principal of Annaghmore, Drumgor and Bocombra Primary School, his thirst for WW1 knowledge was prompted by the pupils circa 1991, the 75th anniversary of The Somme. He said, “I was on a school trip some 25 years ago and sadly I’d never heard of The Somme Tyne Cot, Passchendaele or any others.”
But he has more than caught up since then
“The children kept throwing questions at me, and I simply didn’t have a clue how to answer them. So when I got home, I started reading them up and it developed into a great passion of mine. I’ve been across at least 30 times since then.”
As well as building up an encyclopaedic knowledge, he concentrated on Portadown with many local heroes profiled. And having been a council member at Craigavon – and with the approach of the centenary of the outbreak of WW1 - he admitted the hobby had become a fanaticism.
For example, he loves the story of Wimereux being the resting place of Lt Col John McCrae, author of ‘In Flanders Field’. And a relative of Ronnie’s wife Lesley, Pte F.W. Beaumont (Northumberland Fusiliers), is also buried there. Stories abound about Portadown heroes, with so many buried at Beaumont, close to the Ulster Tower, and so many names on the Thiepval Monument – there are so many gems in ‘Where the Brave Will Live Forever’.
The book (£10) is available from Ronnie at 71 Breagh Lodge, Portadown – phone 38334652 or 07879436566 - or from the Royal British Legion shop, Thomas Street, on Saturday morning.