THE STORY OF MESSINES
It was on the Kemmel Road that men from the 16th Irish and 36th Ulster Divisions marched together on their way into the Battle of Mesen/Messines Ridge, on 7th June 1917.
With the Home Rule Crisis and the Easter Rising still burning in the hearts and minds of the men they put aside their differences to fight for freedom. During the battle there was one particularly powerful story of brotherhood that illustrated that all these political woes could be put aside for the sake of saving a fellow man.
HERO OF MESSINES RIDGE 1917
THE STORY OF PRIVATE JOHN MEEKE & MAJOR WILLIAM REDMOND
BROTHERS IN ARMS
23-year-old Private John Meeke was a stretcher-bearer with the 36th (Ulster) Division, 11th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (Donegal & Fermanagh). Before enlisting, he lived with his parents on the Montgomery estate, Benvarden, near Ballymoney, Co. Antrim.
Major William Redmond was a Nationalist MP and an officer of the 6th Battalion Royal Irish Regiment (Derry National Volunteers) part of the 16th (Irish) Division. His brother John was leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
Back home in Ireland, their fellow countrymen lived as bitter enemies, but on the battlefields of World War 1, Ulster Protestants and Irish Catholics fought side by side.
WOUNDED IN BATTLE
When the attack started at Messines, Belgium, on 7 June 1917, the 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division advanced together into the fierce battle. Major Redmond led his Battalion (6th Royal Irish Regiment (the Derry National Volunteers)) into battle and into no-man's-land that separated the opposing lines of trenches.
Major Redmond was 56 years old and had begged his superiors for the opportunity to play an active role in the advance. As they reached their objective, the major was seriously wounded by enemy fire.
Some distance away, John Meeke was searching the battlefield for the wounded when he saw Major Redmond fall. Using battlefield debris and shell holes as cover, John braved the heavy machine gun fire and artillery and struggled to the Major's side.
As he bandaged Major Redmond's wounds the two men came under continued fire. John knew the importance of the officer to whom he was tending, and Major Redmond, conscious throughout, would have known he was in the care of a young Ulsterman.
As he finished bandaging, John Meeke himself was wounded on his left side. Major Redmond saw the young Private bleeding profusely and ordered him to retreat to the safety of the British lines. John refused, openly disobeying his senior officer.
Moments later, John was hit again. A second time Major Redmond gave him an order to save himself. Once more, he refused.
Not far away, other soldiers watched as John struggled to save the Major. James O' Connell was advancing through the battlefield with the 16th (Irish) Division when he saw the stricken men. He whispered a silent prayer for each of them. Years later, he often described the events to his family, recalling the shock when he and his friends realised it was the great William Redmond lying injured.
Under a constant barrage of fire, the men were eventually rescued by a patrol from the 36th (Ulster) Division escorting German prisoners back to the British lines. Major Redmond was carried to the safety of a Field Dressing Station. Unfortunately, at 56 years old, and weakened by his time in the appalling conditions of the trenches, he was not strong enough to survive his injuries. Despite the efforts of the field surgeons, he died several hours later and is buried in the grounds of a convent at Locre/Loker, Belgium.
Private John Meeke insisted on returning to the battlefield to search for more casualties until he too was taken to the Field Dressing Station for treatment. For his remarkable act of bravery, John Meeke was awarded the Military Medal.
MAJOR WILLIAM REDMOND & HOME RULE
The death of Major William Redmond was mourned throughout Britain and Ireland, even by those who opposed his belief in Irish Nationalism. He had pursued his political ambition with a dedication that on three occasions led to his arrest. He served as an MP at Westminster for 34 years, representing Wexford, North Fermanagh and East Clare.
His brother John, also an Irish Nationalist MP, had split his countrymen when he called on them join the British army in the fight against Germany. Although over 50 years old, William needed no encouragement and was one of the first to enlist, joining the 6th Royal Irish Regiment of the 16th (Irish) Division (the Derry National Volunteers).
At a recruitment rally in Cork, November 1914, Willie Redmond said,
" When it comes to the question, as it may come, of asking young Irishmen to go abroad and fight this battle, when I am personally convinced that the battle of Ireland is to be fought where many Irishmen now are, in Flanders and France, old as I am, and grey are my hairs, I will say ‘Don't go, but come with me'".
By late 1916, William Redmond was suffering from the strains of trench life and his health had deteriorated. Despite his persistent objections, he was posted to Locre, Belgium, the divisional headquarters. He was deeply unhappy at this and often remarked that he would "give anything to go up and do my bit."
While fighting in France, Redmond still retained his seat in parliament for East Clare. During a brief visit to Westminster in March 1917, he gave his most famous speech, challenging parliament to finally resolve the Irish question:
"Why must it be that, when British soldiers and Irish soldiers are dying side by side, this eternal quarrel should go on?"
FIGHT FOR HOME RULE
William Redmond's eagerness to fight was largely driven by his views on Home Rule - self-government of Ireland, by Irish MPs, from a Parliament in Dublin, rather than London. In September 1914, the Home Rule Bill had received Royal Assent, although it was suspended for the duration of the war. Redmond strongly believed that if Irishmen fought loyally for the British army, Home Rule would be a certainty.
In reality, many historians believe the war made Home Rule almost impossible to achieve. As more and more Ulster Protestants were killed and wounded in the name of " The British Empire", it became less likely that the grieving Loyalist community would submit to Home Rule and government from Dublin. In contrast, the more Irish Nationalists that were killed, the less likely they would be to settle for anything else.
As a result, the political turmoil which was to follow World War 1 would prolong the misery of Ireland for many years to come.
The magnitude of Redmond's reputation as a politician can be judged by the response to his tragic death. His family received messages of sympathy from governments, dignitaries and prominent clergymen from across the world. Protestant Ulstermen from the 36th (Ulster) Division mourned with their fellow soldiers in the 16th (Irish) division.
William Redmond was buried in the garden of a convent at Locre. His grave survived untouched during the intense fighting of the final months of the war. Unlike other war dead, his body was not exhumed and reburied. Instead it remained in the care of the nuns until the 1950's. Today his grave is cared for by the people of Locre.
The Battle of Messines was, and still is, a battle that presented great hope for reconciliation between the two traditions in Ireland. The thinking was then as it is now, that if Irishmen can fight and die together, surely they could live together. In December 1916, Willie Redmond, Nationalist MP, wrote to his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:
"There are a great many Irishmen today who feel that out of this war we should try to build up a new Ireland. The trouble is, men are so timid about meeting each other half way. It would be a fine memorial to the men who have died so splendidly, if we could, over their graves build a bridge between north and south.
I have been an extreme Nationalist all my life and if others as extreme, perhaps on the other side will only come half way, then I believe, impossible as it may seem, we should be able to satisfy the Irish sentiment and the Imperial sentiment at one and the same time" Redmond knew only too well the probability that one of those graves would be his own.
John Meeke's Fate
John Meeke was born on 13th April 1894 in Co. Antrim. At the outbreak of the War he joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers along with his brother, Samuel.
As mentioned, during the Battle of Messines John cared for the injured Willie Redmond, and was wounded twice himself. John would have been aged 23 at the time. For his bravery he was awarded the Military Medal.
As the War came to an end in October 1918 John was severely wounded in the leg by an explosive bullet. He then had to endure 8 painful operations.
Following the War, John returned home to Benvarden where he worked as a gardener.
On 17th May 1922 he married Kathleen Craig. Shortly there after, he developed tuberculosis and tragically died on 7th Dec 1923.
He was aged 29.
No headstone was erected for John because he died after the cut-off point for commemorations of August 1921.
John is buried in Derrykeighan Burial Ground, near Ballymoney, next to his brother; who had also died shortly after his return home - Samuel was very ill after spending 10 months in a German prisoner of war camp.