Lighting a permanent candle of remembrance
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.