Dismounted by Stephen Potts
Though still I hear the bullets.
1916 Horseless, behind Ypres machine guns.
1918 In London, wounded, when peace bells rung.
Creating the Centena
I have two clear memories of my grandfather, from the same visit to his home on Londonderry’s Creggan estate, in 1969, when I was 11. It was a modest house, but the only one I had ever been in that had a piano.
Then in his 70s, he retained a soldier’s ramrod stance, and a policeman’s watchful eyes. An Ulster
reticence closed his lips.
In the back yard I asked him what he had done in the war, meaning the Second: he looked young enough to me to have served, (and in a way he did, with the RUC, patrolling the wartime wharves). But to him “the war” was always the First, the Great War, even if self-evidently it was not the War to End All Wars.
“I punched the holes in doughnuts,” he said, eyes twinkling as he mimed the action. And that was it.
Not long afterwards I stood beside him on the grassy slope overlooking the city centre and the old city walls, watching the Battle of the Bogside. Sirens wailed as police vans and ambulances sped back and forth, and smoke rose into the summer sky. He said nothing at all.
He seemed like a man from another era, as my research for this project later confirmed. He was born in Queen Victoria’s reign, to a father who worked on the Titanic. Rather than follow him into the shipyard, he joined the pre-war cavalry in 1912, the year of Titanic’s demise.
When the opportunity to join this project arose, I jumped at it, and knew immediately I wanted to tell a little of his story in my centena. But to tell a story to others you first have to know it yourself.
He had — still has — a large family, with eight children, and many grandchildren and great grand-children. Relatives searched archives in public libraries and supplied family stories, photos of the man and his medals, and their own genealogical research.
I was also assisted by Enniskillen’s Public Library, the Public Record Office Northern Ireland, David Sacker, historical researcher of the Machine Gun Corps, and Nigel Henderson of History Hub Ulster, who located a clipping in the Belfast Evening Telegraph of 1916 which none of the family had seen. It is a photograph of my grandfather, his two brothers and his father, all of whom were serv-ing (in France, Flanders, Gallipoli and Ireland). All survived the war, though they accumulated their share of wounds.
The jigsaw of his life still has many missing pieces, but it is now possible to discern an overall im-age. And it is this I tried to get across.
I am struck by the kind of irony which is possible only with hindsight. He joined the peacetime cav-alry as an escape from industrial Belfast. But the pressures of war forced him off his horse and be-hind that most industrial of weapons — a machine gun.
He never rode again.
About the Author
With special thanks
This centena was researched with the help of Enniskillen’s Public Library, the Public Record Office Northern Ireland, David Sacker, historical researcher of the Machine Gun Corps, and Nigel Henderson of History Hub Ulster
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