Three men pay tribute to soldier

The grave of Major JFW Charley
The grave of Major JFW Charley

IT was a moving moment for three former Dunmurry men who, after 30 years working to locate a young soldier’s grave from 113 years ago, finally paid tribute to him by unfurling a flag and laying a wreath.

Desmond Armstrong, who now lives in South Africa, along with brother Rod and cousin Reg Aulds, who all grew up in Dunmurry, travelled to the grave site of Dunmurry-born soldier Major JFW Charley (killed during the Boer War in 1899).

Desmond and Reg Armstrong along with Reg Aulds at Major Charley's grave

Desmond and Reg Armstrong along with Reg Aulds at Major Charley's grave

They held a short ceremony where Rod gave a poignant rendition of the song ‘Dunmurry Mill’ a beautiful banner that represents an amalgam of the old Irish Regiments was unfurled and a wreath of Inniskilling insert was laid by Reg at the Military Cemetery and Garden of Remembrance Clouston south of the Tugela River near the village of Colenso.

It was part of the Battlefields Tour that they participated in (October 5-7) which gave them a unique opportunity to pay tribute to the fallen.

Major John Francis Charley was second in command of the 27th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers when he was killed in the battle of Colenso 113 years ago on December 15. He was born in 1857, the second son of John Stouppe of Woodbourne House in Dunmurry.

Desmond, emmigrated to South Africa in 1972 and is now regarded as a specialist in Irish/South African history. Over the past 30 years he conducted numerous Tours of the Battlefields in South Africa as well as contributing to Radio and Television programmes in South Africa and Northern Ireland.

His organisation, Emerald Africa, promotes historical cultural and heritage tours from Ireland to South Africa. He has two tours planned for 2013 one in South Africa in May to and the other in Northern Ireland. His brother Rod, an ex-Royal Navy sub mariner who spent more than 20 years in South Africa devotes a lot of his time assisting Emerald Africa with their Touring Programmes.

Their cousin Reg, who now lives in Scotland, was on his first visit to South Africa and while there had met cousins he had never met before. The children of his father’s brother Frank left Northern Ireland in 1948. Desmond did a bit of detective work and the meeting took place in a small town deep in the South African Free State Province.

Desmond spoke of the main motivation for the trip: “From a very early age I was regaled with stories of the epic struggles of the Zulu and Anglo Boer Wars by my Great Aunt,” he said. “My Great Aunt Mary-Ann lived in a beautiful long, low whitewashed, thatched cottage with a red door near Dromore and she would sit me on her knee and illuminate the fascinating adventures of my forefathers who had participated in these African Wars.

“In fact, I can attribute my enduring love of history to these early childhood experiences. This fascination was one of the strong motivating forces in deciding to relocate to South Africa in the early 70s.”

Desmond spoke of the reasons why he tracked down Major Charley’s grave.

“When we were young lads - Desmond, Reg and Rod - we together with our friends spent glorious days playing in one of our favourite haunts – the ‘Backwoods,’” he said.

“This magical forest was in fact the old wood and glen that formed part of the Charley Estate (Seymour Hill) on the southern edge of Dunmurry Village. The main Derriaghy river flowed through this wonderland of luxuriant trees, creepers and bamboo thickets. For those old enough to remember, in the late 50s early 60s most young boys were living out the fantasy of being Davy Crockett and the Lone Ranger, it all became a vivid reality in Charley’s ‘Backwoods’ We were, even as teenagers, aware of the old military traditions of the Charley family who had resided in the Dunmurry area for more than 200 hundred years.

“It was only in the late 1980s, whilst visiting battlefields and Military Cemeteries of General Bullers Natal Campaign (1899-1900), that I discovered the last resting place of Major JFW Charley – this got me curious. Could this Major of the Royal Inniskillings be a Charley from the Dunmurry families? “Subsequent research proved that yes indeed he was one and the same. It was at this time that the idea began to form in my mind, that perhaps one day a few Dunmurry men would be able to pay their respects to a fellow villager, albeit one from another century. It was a wonderful and moving moment when on the 5th October 2012 that the dream was finally realised.”

Desmond continued, “Over more than three decades I have visited the battlefields, Military Cemeteries and Gardens of Remembrance in South Africa and it is almost always the case that these sites are in remote, although beautiful African settings. I have long considered the reality that very few, if any, of the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives or sweethearts of these fallen soldiers ever had the opportunity to visit their last resting place. These soldiers were mostly young men from the same Ulster/Ireland of my youth and their loss to their families at that time would have been a severe and sorrowful experience.”