An almost forgotten infantryman from Co Down who was killed in the First World War is being remembered 100 years on, thanks to the efforts of former part-time soldier Philip Bell.
Mr Bell was visiting his father Robert’s grave at Cargycreevy Presbyterian Church outside Lisburn in 2014 when he came across an inscription on a nearby headstone that sparked his curiosity and set him on a quest to find out more about a fallen soldier, Private James Wilson.
“It was just pure coincidence and curiosity,” Mr Bell explained. “I was at my father’s grave and close by there was this headstone with details of the Wilson family on it, and at the bottom it said ‘James Wilson, killed in action in France on 21st August 1917’.
“It said he was interred at Barlin Cemetery, and that was the key to it for me. If I’d started searching using his name that would have taken me into British Army records and Irish Regiments and that would’ve taken me entirely the wrong way. But once I was able to search records for Barlin Cemetery through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission I was able to get James’ number and find out more about him.”
After completing two years of painstaking research using census records, military archives, medical reports and old Ordnance Survey maps, Philip is keen to publicise the story of Private Wilson, who died fighting for King and country.
James Wilson was born at Stubby Hill in the townland of Ballykeel Lougherne, between Lisburn and Ballynahinch, in October 1882.
The son of Joseph and Ann Wilson, it’s thought he emigrated to Canada when aged in his late teens to work as a farmer.
Philip found that despite being aware of the horrors of the First World War, James bravely enlisted with the Central Alberta-based 187th Canadian Expeditionary Force in September 1916.
After undergoing training in England, he was sent to France to fight with the soldiers of the 31st (Alberta) Battalion.
Private Wilson arrived at the front at the start of May 1917 and was involved in the Canadian victory at the Battle of Hill 70 and the subsequent push for the German-held town of Lens.
According to medical records, Private Wilson sustained shrapnel injuries to his face, arm, leg and side during the battle.
The 34-year-old was taken from the front to Barlin, but later died from his injuries on 21 August 1917.
While the wartime documents don’t detail Private Wilson’s specific role on the day he was fatally injured, Philip believes he may have been a stretcher bearer, or part of a company that was sent in to support troops who were sustaining heavy losses.
The 43-year-old civil servant, who himself served with the Royal Irish Regiment, commented: “What I find so fascinating about James is that he would have heard all about the horrors at the Somme and all the other atrocities of the first couple of years of the war. He was away in the middle of Canada, so what moved him to enlist to serve in the war?”
Philip, who lives about half a mile from the now derelict Wilson family home, hasn’t been able to source a photograph of James, who it’s thought has no living relatives. But using the wealth of information he’s uncovered, he’s planning to write a pamphlet or short book about the fallen soldier, which he hopes may be of interest to local people.
“I just feel he should be remembered. The more I delved into the research I just thought ‘there is a guy who is not remembered on any memorials here. He’s remembered in the Book of Remembrance in Ottawa and I just think he should be remembered here, where he’s from’.”
To mark the 100th anniversary of James Wilson’s death, Philip laid a wreath on the family plot at Cargycreevy Presbyterian Church.
He and his brother Richard then travelled to France to lay a wreath on James’ grave at Barlin Cemetery.
During their visit they also attended a ceremony at the Battle of Hill 70 Memorial Park, held to commemorate the centenary of the important Canadian victory and remember those who fought and died in the bloody battle.
“I think it’s important that James Wilson is remembered, even 100 years on,” Philip added.
“He gave his life for something significant - not just in terms of the war, but for Canada as they came out of the Great War as a nation.
“In Northern Ireland we are big into commemorating our war dead of both World Wars, which is the right and honourable thing to do. But I feel there is a forgotten generation of young men who left these shores all those years ago in search of a better life. Their fate was the same as the young men who were recruited into the 10th, 16th and 36th Divisions, yet their names don’t appear on our local memorials.
“I think it’s only right that James Wilson’s sacrifice is remembered.”