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.