|2nd Lieu. James Alexander Donnelly, 59th Squadron R.F.C.|
The life of the soldier is a well known one to many within the ranks of “York”, the Lodge having been formed within the York Fencible Regiment in 1796.
Formed in the City of York in 1792, and sent to Ulster to counter the possibility of French invasion, the Regiment found it was to be another threat, that of revolution, that would have its members fight and die in Saintfield, Co. Down, after an ambush of United Irishmen during the 1798 rebellion.
In that battle, which pitched the mainly Anglican soldiers against mainly Presbyterian rebels, both sides fought for their ideals, seeking freedom, prosperity and justice.
Over a hundred years later in 1914, the Lodge formed from that Regiment thrived in Belfast. Its members now came from all Protestant denominations, having been reconciled that their dreams of a better Ulster and Ireland were fulfilled by Union and Empire, and many had still come through the ranks of His Majesty’s armed forces and fought in conflicts across the globe.
Filled with that martial spirit, and with loyalty to their King, Country and Constitution, they had signed the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant, and pledged their lives to defend their land from “Home Rule” which many of their ancestral Brethren had fought both for and against a century before. But it was not to be on an Ulster battlefield, but far off France and Belgium that would see “York” men fight again.
On the declaration of war, many members of the Lodge were already in the armed forces and found themselves on the way to France. Many more volunteered, but these men were not naive, and neither were those members of the Lodge who were left behind. In the Christmas 1914 minutes the Worshipful Master, Bro Edward Leathem, referred to “the sorrow in many homes caused by the present disastrous war”, and the Deputy Master, Bro Joseph Davison (future Sir Joseph, Grand Master of Ireland and NI Senator) wished to honour “the members of our institution who had so nobly responded to the Call of Empire”.
By August of the next year, since the departure of the 36th Ulster Division from Belfast in July, over 20 members of the Lodge were on active service. The range of those members in service was broad and represented all manner of life in Belfast.
Claude Arthur Leonard Walker, who joined the Public School Corps in September 1914, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 2nd Batt. Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers after a cadetship in Sandhurst, was just 21 when he died at the Somme. He was the son of the Lodge Chaplain, Bro Rev Dr Walker of St. Matthew’s, Shankill.
50 year old, Captain James Gregg O.B.E., was a Army Veterinary Surgeon, who spent much of his war service in the United States of America, acquiring “War Horses” and Mules for use at the front.
25 year old Edward Brown, was a Lieutenant in the Royal Irish Rifles, having being a member of the South Antrim Regiment U.V.F. In peacetime, he played Hockey for Lisnagarvey and formed 11th Belfast (later 1st Derriaghy) Scout Group. He took command of his company when his Captain was incapacitated on 7 June 1917. He was killed in action at Westhoek, near Ypres on 7 August 1917.
Well before the slaughter of the Somme, brethren of “York” were well aware of the horrors of this war as the following extract from the minutes in September 1915 shows:
“Bro Edward Bradshaw mentioned that he had a Candidate to propose on Certificate, but as there were some difficulties to overcome and as the Brother was the only known surviving member of his Lodge (a Military Lodge) and being also the secretary [of that Lodge] it would be necessary to make some enquiries as to the proper course to take.”
With the treasonous “Easter Rising” still in the memory and the country being under “Martial Law” due to ongoing disturbances, the decision was already made that the “Twelfth” in 1916 in Belfast would not take place, and members still at home were being urged to sign up as Special Constables for the preservation of public order. This cancellation of the “Twelfth”, (made really on practical grounds), took on a far greater significance when news of the true scale of the calamity that had befallen Ulstermen on the 1st July 1916 became apparent. Many businesses and places of worship had acts of remembrance, in the form of moments of silence for fallen soldiers, called for by Bro Sir Crawford McCullagh, the Lord Mayor; the first such acts that had been recorded for such a purpose.
The threat posed by the possibility of Home Rule was a betrayal of the fallen which would be met by “the binding of the Ulster Covenanters more closely together” stated Bro Leathem in an address at Clifton Street Orange Hall, Belfast, in July 1916, recorded in the Newsletter. However this threat did not deter more Lodge members from joining their fellows to face the immediate threat at hand. The Lodge supported the war effort in other ways as well: contributing to the U.V.F. Patriotic Fund, which supported soldiers at home and in France; sending Christmas gifts to serving members; supporting Lodge brethren who were prisoners of war; and investing substantial Lodge funds in War Bonds.
In January 1917 James Alexander Donnelly, Lay Chaplain of the Lodge, left a comfortable life and family to become Sergeant Instructor in the Royal Flying Corps. He received his commission in August 1917, becoming a 2nd Lieutenant. He died of wounds received 31 March 1918, at the Somme. He was the last member of the RFC to die as it became the Royal Air Force the very next day. His death was a large blow to the Lodge, and a service was held the next Sunday at St Barnabas Church in his memory.
For “York” in was the final years of the War that would take the greatest toll. In addition to those already mentioned, the following also made the supreme sacrifice:
CSM James Scott, promoted for bravery with British Expeditionary Force in France, September 1916, killed in action, 22 January 1917, at Messines.
Henry Norman MacBride, Royal Garrison Artillery, died of illness while serving, 28 December 1917
Lance Corporal Robert Crawford, Royal Irish Rifles, killed in action 10 April 1918, aged 24.
William Harper, in action in October 1916, returned from service in February 1919, and died later that year from the complications of Gas poisoning at war.
Others lucky enough to survive came home to a changed Ulster and a changed World. The General Election of 1918 with an enlarged franchise, which included Women for the first time, and lead eventually to partition in Ireland, brought new challenges and opportunities, none of which would have been possible without their service.
Many of their sons and brothers, went on to serve in the Second World War, Korea, and other conflicts around the world, and at home in the B-Specials, RUC and UDR, defending their homeland and way of life, and preserving freedom for others.
In their memory, in this the centenary year of the Battle of the Somme, Royal York L.O.L. 145 hosts reenactors dressed as soldiers of that time, including Lodge members and members of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry Association.