Stranger spends four years ensuring forgotten Co Down private is remembered

A ceremony took place in memory of Private James Wilson at Barlin Cemetery on August 18, 2019
A ceremony took place in memory of Private James Wilson at Barlin Cemetery on August 18, 2019

A Northern Ireland man has dedicated four years of his life to tracing the story of a soldier killed during World War One – a man whose existence he only became aware of through a headstone which neighbours his father’s grave.

Little was known about Private James Wilson other than a short inscription on a gravestone in Cargycreevy Cemetery near Ballynahinch.

Philip Bell with some of the material he has accumulated relating to Private James Wilson

Philip Bell with some of the material he has accumulated relating to Private James Wilson

However Philip Bell, a 45-year-old father-of-two from the same townland as Private Wilson, kickstarted a series of events which culminated in a ceremony in northern France taking place to remember the once forgotten soldier who died on the Western Front.

Philip, a former part time soldier with the RIR who has spent the last four years bringing the soldier’s story to life, said: “James Wilson’s story for me started in the cemetery at Cargycreevy Presbyterian Church beside where I live and where my father is buried.

“I just noticed on the grave this wee bit of an inscription on the headstone that James was killed in action in France on August 21, 1917 and interred in Barlin Cemetery.

“It stood out. You’ve this preconception in your head that the First World War, in our narrative, was July 1916, the Battle of the Somme.

The Wilson family plot in Cargycreevy Cemetry

The Wilson family plot in Cargycreevy Cemetry

“I took this wee bit of information about Barlin Cemetery and started from there. Barlin is nowhere near the Somme. It’s up near Lens.

“I also learnt that James Wilson was Canadian. He’d emigrated to Canada at some point and was fighting for the Canadians.”

James had lived at Stubby Hill within the townland of Ballykeel Lougherne before he had moved to Calgary, Alberta.

Philip, who works for Ordnance Survey and is a part time farmer, said: “The intrigue for me was the fact he went to Canada. There’s a whole generation of Irishmen who went to Canada. For some reason James fell through the sands of time. The Battle of Hill 70 where he died was a largely forgotten one until very recently. It fell between the more well-documented Battle of Vimy Ridge and the Battle of Passchendaele.”

As we spoke about James Wilson, Philip was able to illustrate the soldier’s story with a large folder of documents and photographs he has accumulated.

He said: “There’s four years of work in that folder and it’s still ongoing. I do it all in my spare time.

“There’s nobody out of my family who ever fought in the war. I never had any personal connection to the war.”

He added: “Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get a single photo of James Wilson. It’s a real travesty. According to his personal effects, the only thing he had with him was his Bible, nothing else.”

Most recently Philip has been able to locate James’ war medals and get his name added to the war memorial in Hillsborough.

He said: “Last November I met an extended family member Rita Shannon who had in her possession the medals of James Wilson. This included his Memorial Cross which would have been sent to his mother Ann after the war as well as his British War Medal and Victory Medal.

“Also in their possession were the medals of James’ brother John who also fought in France with the 8th Battalion and survived the war then returning to Stubby Hill until his death in 1955.”

He continued: “The addition of his name to the war memorial in Hillsborough which was very poignant, on the 100th anniversary of the ending of the First World War (on November 18, 2018).”

Another new development in Private Wilson’s story occurred earlier this year at his grave in Barlin Cemetery.

Philip said: “Baillies Mills Accordion Band whose origins are from the area where the Wilson family lived before James emigrated to Canada were attending engagements at the Menin Gate in Belgium and at Thiepval in France.

“A member of the band, Richard McLaughlin, who lives close to Stubby Hill and had read the story about James in the paper wanted to lay a wreath at the grave in Barlin.

“A service of remembrance was conducted at Barlin Communal Cemetery on Sunday, August 18 at 11am by the Rev Canon Robert Howard from Annahilt Church of the Ascension.

“Also in attendance were my mother Isobel and brother Richard as well as local residents including James Crawford. This to me again was very poignant and fitting that local people conducted and attended the service.”

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 is 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, then 33, 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.

It was during these actions that James was badly wounded by a shrapnel bomb impacting his face, left leg, arm and side.

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 do not 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.

He said: “What I find so fascinating about James is that he was well too aware of what was going on at the front. The Somme was battering on. He was in the middle of Canada and he still enlisted, he wasn’t conscripted.”

Having spent four years researching the story of Private James Wilson, Philip offered his help to anyone else trying to trace WWI Canadian soldiers who left the north of Ireland.

He said: “If anyone is looking help in trying to find out more on a family member who may have fought or did fight with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in WWI that I would be more than happy to transfer my knowledge.”

He commented: “The British couldn’t have done without the Commonwealth countries. To me they helped win the war.”

On the same day and in the same battle that Private Wilson died, another soldier originally from Kilkeel earned the Victoria Cross.

Philip said: “These are two men from the same area who both went to Canada. One died while the other – Company Sergeant Major Robert Hill Hanna of the 29th (Vancouver) Battalion – got a VC. He went back to Vancouver and lived his life. James was all but forgotten.”

He added: “When I return to France every summer I go to Barlin to remember James and to Hill 70 to remember the 1877 soldiers who died at the battle and where they are remembered. This is reflected in the 1877 maples that have been etched into the amphitheatre floor and the six walkways around the obelisk named after the six VC winners, one of which was CSM Robert Hill Hanna.

“Through James it has not only allowed me to pay respects to a local soldier who died in the First World War but he has given me a window into a better understanding the First World War and the huge sacrifices that were made.

“I want to pass this on to future generations so we never forget.”