Town honours heroes of the Somme

Unveiling the memorial to Lieut Geoffrey Shillington-Cather in Portadown on Friday.
Unveiling the memorial to Lieut Geoffrey Shillington-Cather in Portadown on Friday.

Portadown paid fitting and heartfelt tributes on Friday to the heroes of The Somme to mark the 100th anniversary to the bleakest day in the history of the British Army.

July 1, 1916 – the blood-drenched first day of the unspeakable slaughter – is marked in the annals of warfare as the worst ever.

And Portadown looked back over the century on Friday, both at home and in the notorious battle fields of Northern France.

It began at the town’s War Memorial, which bears the names of 326 killed during World War One – 196 from the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and 104 victims of The Somme. The event was a joint effort of the Portadown Orange District, the Royal British Legion and the Royal Irish Fusiliers Old Comrades Association.

It began at 7.28am when the ‘over-the-top’ charge was re-enacted, the whistles blew, and tributes were paid to the brave young men who advanced into a hell of machine gun fire which slaughtered thousands that day in a battle that lasted until mid-November.

The most poignant act was the unveiling of a memorial to Lieutenant Geoffrey Shillington-Cather VC – a cousin of the Shillington family of Portadown – who gained one of four Victoria Crosses in the heat of the Somme, having rescued a number of colleagues before dying in battle.

The ceremony was conducted by The Earl of Caledon, Lord Lieutenant of County Armagh, and a Somme Commemorative bench was unveiled by Padre Charles McCartney. Colonel Arthur Reid, President of the RIF Old Comrades Association also took part in the ceremony.

It was particularly poignant that the posthumous VC recipient had saved the life of a local Sergeant Neill – and his descendants, four of his grandchildren, were at the ceremony, with Sergeant Neill having survived the war.

The RIF spotlight then switched to France when several members of the ABC Borough Council attended the service at the Ulster Tower at the Somme – special guests included the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and First Minister Arlene Foster.

Council members Jonny Buckley, Arnold Hatch, Jim Speers, Philip Moutray and Seamus Doyle were among the local representatives, with Mr Buckley singled out by Prince Charles for a chat. The councillor explained that he was there to honour the actions of his great-grandfather Pte Samuel Buckley who survived the Great War, and great-great-grandfather Pte Robert Warden who perished in the terrible first day.

Said Mr Buckley, “We chatted for two or three minutes and he was deeply interested in our family history of which we are exceptionally proud. It was a wonderful conversation which I’ll never forget.”

He added that the Ulster Tower service was very moving and “It was a fitting tribute to the thousands who gave their lives during The Somme in particular and the war in general.”

Also visiting The Somme to mark the centenary were members of the Portadown Somme Association, led by their chairman Tom Irwin and distinguished local historian Richard Edgar whose history books on the dead of WW1 from Portadown and Lurgan are masterpieces.

Tom laid a cross on the grave of his grandfather Joseph, a soldier in the Black Watch who died later on in the war, and Richard did likewise on the grave of John Wilkinson from Knocknamuckley – there were 48 in the Friends group and they also attended the Menin Gate service.