The Road to Military Distinction

On 1st July,1989, the Ulster Memorial Tower at Thiepval in France, the second Helen’s Tower, was re-dedicated under the auspices of the Farset Project by HRH Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester. Hundreds of pilgrims from Ulster made the journey, among them veterans of the 36th (Ulster) Division and public representatives from throughout Norhern Ireland. We were delighted that Her Royal Highness continued to be associated with our work by consenting to become the first Honorary President of The Somme Association. As founding Chairman of this Association, I have travelled to France every year since to remember the ordinary soldiers from throughout Ireland who fought and died there.

The Road to Military Distinction and often fame is paved with incidents of the highest drama and moments of great danger. Born of an Ulster Irish family, Bernard Law Montgomery’s journey to command and acclaim began, and his courage and nerve noted, in the battle field in Northern France near the village of Meteren on 13th October 1914. Yet his subsequent survival came down to an act of extreme bravery by an ordinary soldier doing an extraordinary thing. As he advanced on Meteren, in an act of courage for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, his life was saved by an ordinary soldier of his platoon.

Montgomery was shot by a German sniper, the bullet hitting him in his back and exiting from the front, passing as it did so through his right lung. He collapsed bleeding profusely on open ground. Under fire, a soldier ran up to him and began putting a field dressing on his wound. The soldier was immediately shot through the head by the sniper and collapsed on top of him. The sniper continued to fire at him and Montgomery received a second wound in the left knee, but the soldier received many bullets intended for him and thus saved his life. That soldier was to remain unknown, but Montgomery was rescued and went on to become perhaps the most famous of British Generals in the Second World War.

Another ordinary soldier who served with No. 1 section, Divisional Ammunition Column, of the 36th (Ulster) Division Royal Field Artillery was Lieutenant Denis Wheatley. He served during a severe winter near the then peaceful St. Quentin when the ferocious onslaught began on the 21st March 1918, which became known in France as the 2nd Battle of the Somme. Orders came to move back to a village called Aubigny, where Wheatley and his men had the narrowest of escapes. When they were almost there, they met an infantry officer who asked him where on earth they were going and being told the Germans were in Aubigny, Wheatley had the following conversation:

“And where is the front line?

You’ve come through it.

I can’t have come through it.

Didn’t you see the chaps digging about a mile back? That’s the front line.

But there were no trenches.

There were no trenches because this is no-mans land and I’m on a reconnaissance mission

For goodness sake turn your people round while you’ve got the chance or you’ll be massacred.”

Wheatley discovered twenty years later that there were two villages called Aubigny in the area and that he had chosen the wrong one. The other was five miles to the rear and much safer. But such an experience, humorous as it may appear today, was to make of Wheatley a Master of the Occult, as his famous books testify, for it was at the Somme that he felt threatened by a spiritual force of overwhelming evil. Such also were the experiences of other writers, notably CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, of whom we have written before.

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