Light­ing a per­ma­nent can­dle of re­mem­brance

The Intelligencer (Belleville) - - OPINION - ANNE EL­SPETH REC­TOR

On De­cem­ber 12, 2015 I wrote of my great un­cle’s posts amid the muddy mounds of Ypres. Born to a coal- min­ing fam­ily, my granny An­nie’s beloved brother was; “Deep in trenches near Zille­beke; Hugh’s bat­tal­ion was south­east of Ypres” hav­ing “en­joyed “hot soup, dry shirts and socks, and warm wa­ter for feet wash­ing... tea or rum... two or three times per night,” sleep­ing in warm Canada huts be­fore march­ing to trenches 3 and 38 to re­lieve the Black Watch.

On De­cem­ber 12, 1915, as they sank an­other shaft be­neath ar­tillery, pri­vate Hugh Gille­spie S/ 4812 was killed in ac­tion; the re­sult of “mas­sive bom­bard­ment and shelling.”

Re­count­ing bat­tle­field diaries, I ex­plained Hugh died in mor­tar fire. Mum replied from mem­o­ries her mother An­nie, im­parted years ago, “Oh yes, he had his head blown off,” her par­ents awak­en­ing to “a sound my fa­ther likened to that of a whip crack­ing across a ta­ble. He got up, looked around and could find noth­ing amiss.” By morn­ing An­nie found her brother’s photo; “the glass frame cracked di­ag­o­nally across the shoul­der line,” an omen por­tend­ing death. Hugh had died in bat­tle – his wife wid­owed with four chil­dren. Such a young life, so vi­o­lently lost in Bel­gium’s soil; this Antrim lad now lay where pop­pies blow in Flan­ders fields, amid mov­ing mu­sic of the Last Post... played evenings at Menin’s Memo­rial Gates.”

“100 years to the day he died cousin Ron” stood “at Hugh Gille­spie’s grave­side; his mem­ory alive in Aus­tralians, Cana­di­ans, English and Scots, but also, kind Bel­gians.” What read­ers didn’t know was my Aus­tralian cousin Ron had vis­ited Bal­ly­mena’s

War Memo­rial to sol­diers in Ul­ster, and was crest­fallen to find his grand­fa­ther’s name – our Hugh — wasn’t among them. Yet Hugh’s “stark white head­stone, grave I. J. 16,” was “neatly tended within Rail­way Dugouts Burial Grounds at Ieper, West- Vlaan­deren, south­east of Ypres, on the Komenseweg to Ar­men­tieres road.”

We be­gan pres­sur­ing Hugh’s birth­place for his in­clu­sion.

Hop­ing Hugh Gille­spie’s name could be added to this memo­rial to the fallen – and of­fer­ing to con­trib­ute, I made a proper nui­sance of my­self with Antrim civic au­thor­i­ties. I then marked the cen­te­nary of my great un­cle’s death by writ­ing an ar­ti­cle which – to my sur­prise — was pub­lished by the Brus­sels Times; an im­pres­sive mag­a­zine dis­trib­uted to em­bassies and of­fi­cials through­out this Euro­pean capi­tol. In it, I made the case for how thought­fully the place my un­cle had fallen yet re­mem­bered him, con­trast­ing it with the place he was born. And then we waited, years.

This Septem­ber an in­vi­ta­tion ar­rived from Mid & East Antrim, North­ern Ire­land. Not only was I and my fam­ily in­vited to a reded­i­ca­tion of Bal­ly­mena’s War Memo­rial for Antrim’s fallen ( a trip heart­break­ingly im­pos­si­ble since I can’t sit and am al­ler­gic to ev­ery­thing in­side an air­plane), but the let­ter cred­ited our fam­ily’s ap­proach and com­pelling case for Hugh Gille­spie as en­sur­ing he... and 171 other miss­ing sol­ders, would now be added to Bal­ly­mena’s War Memo­rial.

To re­al­ize our fam­ily’s en­treaties of re­mem­brance had suc­ceeded in such a touch­ing, tan­gi­ble way up­lifted us, and we com­mended the com­mu­nity for their con­struc­tive, com­pas­sion­ate re­sponse. More­over, to re­al­ize our pleas pointed in a di­rec­tion Mid & East Antrim politi­cians would em­brace and fol­low; en­sur­ing the in­clu­sion of so many other sol­diers, pro­vided con­crete recog­ni­tion of the fallen in a most mean­ing­ful way. Even more than right­ing an his­tor­i­cal omis­sion, it lights a per­ma­nent can­dle of re­mem­brance for th­ese Antrim souls of old. And Hugh’s Aus­tralian grand­son, Ron, was there to see it.

It took us five years, but 172 sol­diers are now re­mem­bered for gen­er­a­tions more; a vic­tory that hon­ours those self­less souls who sac­ri­ficed their all for us.

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