Lodge Life: Orangeman’s notable act of WWI bravery recalled

Private John Meeke came to the aid of Major Willie Redmond during the Battle of Messines a century ago
Private John Meeke came to the aid of Major Willie Redmond during the Battle of Messines a century ago

The remarkable story of a Co Antrim Orangeman, who came to the aid of an Irish nationalist MP on the battlefield during the First World War, will be recalled this weekend.

One hundred years on from the Battle of Messines, the selfless act by Private John Meeke who tended to the injured Major Willie Redmond is the subject of a drama production and exhibition, held at Benvarden Orange hall, near Ballymoney.

Major Willie Redmond died from his wounds, despite Private John Meeke's bravery

Major Willie Redmond died from his wounds, despite Private John Meeke's bravery

Prior to Saturday’s performance, a commemorative service will also be held at Mr Meeke’s graveside at Derrykeighan in north Antrim tomorrow evening.

Private Meeke was a member of Benvarden LOL 1001 and served with the 2nd Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers during World War One.

At the Battle of Messines in June 1917 Meeke was working as a stretcher bearer and attending to the wounded in no-man’s-land when he saw Major Willie Redmond, an Irish Nationalist MP, fall during an attack on the German lines. As he bandaged the major’s wounds he was under continued fire.

Redmond twice ordered him to retreat to safety, but both times Meeke refused. Redmond was eventually carried to a field dressing station, where he died.

Despite having been wounded himself, Meeke insisted on returning to search for more casualties, until he too was taken for treatment.

For his bravery, the young soldier was awarded the Military Medal. He survived the war and died in 1923 of tuberculosis.

A steel silhouette depicting Meeke’s attempt to save his fellow soldier’s life was erected close to Messines last week, and was visited by dignitaries at official commemorations yesterday.

Steven Philips, deputy master of Benvarden lodge, said members were extremely proud to have an association with the war hero.

“John Meeke was a very brave soldier and a man who showed great compassion,” he said.

“He will always be remembered and rightly so by Benvarden. We remember him for what he tried to do.

“The fact he received the military medal for [his actions] means the hierarchy of the British Army recognised the selfless act of bravery.”

As well as the short service of remembrance at Meeke’s graveside, Mr Philips said the lodge was delighted to facilitate the fictional play, What If, focusing on the relatively short but fascinating relationship between the young unionist private and Home Rule MP.

“If John Meeke had have been successful and Redmond had survived, what would the Irish attitude have then been to northern Orangemen? What would the repercussions have been for Ireland and Ulster?

“Was it a discussion between two men or between an officer and a soldier?” he added.

The drama production has been created in partnership with Building Communities Resource Centre and Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council.

Mr Philips confirmed relatives of Mr Meeke were travelling over from England to be in attendance.

A detailed exhibition focusing on the First World War will also be available.

The public event at Benvarden Orange hall takes place on Saturday, commencing at 2.30pm.