The people of Ballymoney were eager to discover how their friends, family and neighbours were coping at the Front and the former weekly newspaper “The Ballymoney Free Press” obliged with local stories every week.
Two brothers, Ross and Hugh Carton, regularly wrote home and their letters were often reported. The brothers gave vivid accounts of “cutting up the Germans” and always included a note of thanks for the latest gifts – cigarettes from old friends at Stevenson’s Pork Store or socks from the Ballymoney Soldiers’ Help Association.
Occasionally, their letters included personal experiences which revealed the terror of battle. A graphic account of a German attack was given by Ross Carton in November 1914:
“The Germans came up in crowds again and pushed us back once more. It was terrible to see their advance. They came in columns four abreast, with the columns at intervals of about ten yards. Our shells simply ripped through them but still they came on. Their losses must have been appalling. They were simply driven to their death.”
Hugh Carton also used his position to encourage others to enlist and help with the fight:
“If all the chaps who are at home could get one glimpse of the wasting and pillaging which has been committed by these Huns, K. Of K’s [Kitchener of Khartoum] army would be a success right away. The army we’ve got here has done well – magnificently. The only thing that delays complete victory is our lack of numbers…It is only a matter of time, not a very long time either, I believe, when Herr Germans’ ‘trespassing’ will be heavily punished, when they shall be made to know their masters.”
The “Local Jottings” column also kept readers up to date with Ballymoney men who had recently enlisted or were in training. Every few weeks there would be a few lines on the adventures of well known locals, such as Kenneth Greer. Greer was the son of a local solicitor and refused two officer’s commissions as he believed it would get him to the Front quicker if he enlisted as a Private.
His ambition was to join the Royal Irish Horse but, unfortunately, he had never been on horseback! Over a weekend, he was given brief lessons from two family friends, Hugh McCurdy Hamilton and John Gault. He miraculously passed the examination the following Tuesday.
Within days, the newspapers reported that Greer was at the Front. A talented soldier and leader of men, he was quickly promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. As the war progressed, both Hugh Carton and Kenneth Greer served together in the Irish Guards.
On 15 September 1916, Lieutenant Greer was seriously wounded. As Sergeant Carton went to his aid, he passed him his revolver and told him to take command of the men. Later that day, Hugh Carton was killed. Kenneth Greer died of his wounds three weeks later.
In October 1914, news reached Ballymoney of the heroic death of the first local casualty, Corporal R. Lynas.
“Corporal Lynas stuck to his machine gun, and his comrade stuck to him…At last, a shell burst right overhead, and his friend was killed instantly. The next moment Corporal Lynas went down. He was wounded in his chest, on his arms, and his leg. But he got up and crawled on his hands and knees to his gun, and got it into position again….And Lynas was heard continually muttering: ‘I won’t leave the gun. They killed my pal. Damned if I will give in!’ ”
However, weeks later, the mourning Lynas family were overjoyed to receive a postcard from a hospital in France to say that their son had survived. These events set an unfortunate precedence - in the years ahead, many heartbroken families in this district hopelessly waited for a postcard from a missing loved one, which never arrived.
Even so, occasionally, another miracle did happen and the newspapers were delighted to tell the story.
After finishing at the Model School, young Joe McKinney left to see the world. Nothing was heard of him until his father received word that he had been seen in the trenches.
During the Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914, Private Charles O’Neill bumped into his old friend Joe and, as the shells and gun fire thundered around them, they managed a hurried conversation. Unfortunately, Charles O’Neill was then taken prisoner, but not before he was able to write home with news about meeting his pal.
In expectation, the McKinney family waited for a letter of their own, but none arrived. Everyone thought the worst. Then, in 1923, a word from Joe unexpectedly appeared at his father’s home in Charlotte Street – he was safe, had a job and was living in England…clearly Joe wasn’t a man for writing letters!
Some soldiers had other reasons for not writing letters. Bombardier Samuel Kirgin was anxious about worrying his family with stories of the horror and carnage of war. He overcame his reluctance when he faced a return to the trenches after a serious leg injury.
“In your last letter you asked me to let you know something of what I have come through…I had made up my mind to keep it from you until I returned. However, seeing that I am going into the firing line once again, I will let you know a little.
“I left Ballymoney on 6th August and arrived in France on 15th. [At the Battle of Mons, 23 August] the Germans appeared to be in overwhelming numbers against us. It was murder but our retreat was a very good move…I joined the No.1 Siege Battery R.G.A. and fought around Aisne, Antwerp, Dixmunde, and Ypres. We had a horrible time. I would not like to mention all.
“Well, I was 57 days there when I was hit by a ‘coal box’ [high explosive German artillery shell]. The shell hit burst about 30 yards from my detachment, killing the officer, a sergeant and a gunner, while I was wounded in the right leg by a piece of shrapnel, which hit the gun wheel first, afterwards going into my leg. When it struck the wheel it broke the axle, so I escaped luckily from more serious damage. I was removed to a farm until night set in, when I was conveyed to hospital. It was three days before I got my wound dressed by a doctor.”
With reports from the Front reaching the newspaper every week, keeping morale high at home was important and gestures of support often came in unusual circumstances.
In December 1914, some residents became upset by the implication they lived at the unpatriotic address of ‘Oldenburgh Terrace’. After refusing several alternative names, the tenants eventually agreed to ‘Eden Terrace’ and the landlord quickly had the corrections in place before he faced any further accusation of sympathies for the ’Hun’.
The exhibition “In Time of War – Ballymoney 1914” runs at Ballymoney Museum from 1 August – 27 September 2014. Opening hours are 9am-5pm Monday-Thursday & Saturday, Friday 9am-4.30pm.
Admission is free. For further information, please contact Ballymoney Museum, Ballymoney Town Hall, Town Head Street, Tel: 028 7266 0230 or Email: email@example.com.