Extended family of VC hero meet descendants of soldier he saved at Somme

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It took 100 years and 46 days – but on Monday afternoon the extended family of a Battle of the Somme Victoria Cross hero met the Tandragee descendants of one of the four soldiers he saved from ‘no-man’s-land’ in the sheer hell of the most notorious battle in the history of the British Army.

Lieutenant Geoffrey Shillington Cather was one of four VCs of the Somme – sadly his award was posthumous. Among those whom he saved on the first day (July 1, 1916) was Private Sam Neill from Tandragee. Geoffrey was killed by a sniper the following day when he continued his rescue attempts.

His citation says it all - ‘For most conspicuous bravery. From 7pm till midnight (on July 1, 1916) he searched ‘No Man’s Land,’ and brought in three wounded men.

‘Next morning at 8am, he continued his search, brought in another wounded man, and gave water to others, arranging for their rescue later. Finally, at 10.30am, he took out water to another man, and was proceeding further on when he was himself killed. All this was carried out in full view of the enemy and under direct machine gun fire and intermittent artillery fire. He set a splendid example of courage and self-sacrifice.’

The lieutenant’s mother was Mabel Shillington, one of the famous and respected Portadown family, and his father was Robert Cather from Coleraine. They moved to England where Geoffrey was educated at the legendary Rugby Public School. He revered his Ulster roots and joined the 9th Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers (RIF) to fight in World War One.

It was a proud family tradition. His uncle, Major David Shillington, served in the RIF in France, and a cousin, Captain Tom Shillington, also served in the Fusiliers – he died at Passchendaele in 1917. Geoffrey spent most of his summer holidays in Portadown.

In the intervening 100 years, generations of the Shillington and Cather families knew nothing of the identity of the soldiers whose lives Geoffrey saved – until the days just after the centenary.

Portadown Royal British Legion President, Major Philip Morrison, on a visit to the RIF Museum in Armagh, had his photograph taken with the two VCs held there. One is Geoffrey’s and the other was won by Private Robert Morrow of Newmills, County Tyrone. He was in the 1st Battalion of the RIF and won his award at Messines in 1915 – he was later killed and his VC, too, was posthumous.

Major Morrison by chance showed the photograph to Peter Neill, a grandson of Sam Neill, who told him that his grandfather had been rescued by the Lieutenant - and that set the wheels in motion.

Members of the Neill family were guests of honour on July 1, 2016, when a memorial to Lieutenant Shillington-Carter was unveiled at Portadown’s War Memorial. But the RBL officers were unable to contact the Shillingtons.

But thanks to a report in the Portadown Times that week, Monday’s meeting was set up. Local historian, staunch Portadown man and retired photographer Jim Lyttle is a friend of the Shillingtons. He had taken pictures of them in recent visits to the town - to Shillington’s (now Haldane Fisher) in Castle Street and at Thomas Street Methodist Church. Jim sent them copies of the newspaper.

Descendant cousins of the Lieutenant were delighted. Anthony Shillington (England), Eve Parkhill (Bangor) and Kenneth Wheeler set up Tuesday’s event, which was attended by the third generation of the Neills, by Caroline Corvan, Curator of the RIF Museum, by Major Philip Morrison and by Colonel Arthur Reid, {President of the RIF Old Comrades Association).

It began with a reception at the RBL headquarters in Thomas Street, followed by an Act of Remembrance at the War Memorial.