Vol. 9 No. 2 - 2009
lthough many Lurgan men served in the Royal Irish Fusiliers in 1914-18, some were members of the Royal Irish Rifles. One of these was my great-uncle, James Powell.
Little is known about James before the war, but when he enlisted, he and his wife Anne (née McKinnley), had four children (Evelyn, Lily, James and Eileen). Baby Joseph was born in 1914 after James had gone to war. They were living at 10 Robert Street. At the outbreak of war, James joined the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, one of the regular units of the British army.
Such battalions stood at around 500 strong in peacetime. In war, they were roughly doubled in number either by Army Reserve men who were former soldiers, or those of the Special Reserve who had undergone annual military training. So James was probably a reservist. In his story of the battalion, John Lucy wrote how, ‘Our reservists came streaming in to make up our war strength; cheerful, careless fellows of all types, some in bowler hats and smart suitings, others in descending scale down to the garb of tramps’.
The battalion was among the first of the British Expeditionary Force to arrive in France, early on 14 August 1914, as part of 7th Brigade of the 3rd Division. By 23 August they were at Harmignes and facing enemy artillery fire. In their first twelve months on the Western Front, over 500 of the battalion’s men were killed.
James Powell survived the first year of war. In early September 1915, he was reported to be at home ‘recovering from the effects of wounds received in action’. Yet a week later, the Lurgan Mail reported that James’ wife had been in touch and pointed out that although her husband had been home, he ‘has so far escaped injury by the Hun’.
James was soon in action when he returned from leave. On 25 September 1915, the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles attacked in the Bellewaerde area, specifically Hooge, as part of an operation to support a major Allied attempt to advance at Loos. The battalion lost sixty-three men killed that day. A soldier from West Belfast, Robert Coates, described the battle in a letter to his mother. He said that the initial attack was accompanied by a ‘wild Irish yell’. The battalion then ‘had to hold the trenches all day and it was something awful.’
Among the dead was James Powell. News of his death took about a fortnight to reach home. The news was uncharacteristically detailed. The Lurgan Mail reported:
Sergeant Powell was wounded in the advance at Hooge… and was carried back to one of the trenches by two of his comrades. Finding that the wound was not so serious as it seemed at first sight, he had it bound up, and determined to be avenged on the enemy, he again entered into the engagement, and after getting ample revenge had the misfortune to be shot through the head and died in a few minutes.
In 2000, his nephew, the late Wolsey Gracey, added to this story when he told me of an account he had heard years before from a man who served with James. Apparently, James had been shot when he looked out of a trench to assess the ground ahead, having advanced as far as he could.
The tragedy was only just beginning for James’ widow, Anne. Her daughter, Evelyn, soon died of encephalitis. Anne’s granddaughter, Maureen, describes the loss of a further child:
Anne herself was so distraught at James’ death that she suffered horrific nightmares which involved screaming and running around whilst still asleep. It was during one of these nightmares that Joseph who slept in the bed with Anne, was pushed out of the bed and died from the injuries he received.
Unable to live in Lurgan surrounded by so many memories, Anne emigrated to Australia (initially, Casino in New South Wales) in 1926 with her three surviving children. She never remarried, and her granddaughter says that her one photograph of James never left her side.
James Powell is buried in a small cemetery just outside Ypres, at Boezinge. Curiously, he is also recorded on the Menin Gate, which honours those with no known grave. So it is possible that his body was found some time after the war, after the gate was inscribed.
I first visited his grave in 1987, and then in 2001. When I took my father there in 2007, I thought that we were possibly the only family members to have visited. However, I have since made contact with some of James’ descendents in Australia, who emailed me after finding a brief reference to our shared relative in an internet article about an appearance I made on the BBC’s ‘My Family at War’ series last year. I learnt that James’ daughter, Eileen, had visited the grave in the late 1990s, with her son, John Mordike, a former officer in the Australian army, and now an accomplished military historian. I hope that some of us, from either side of the globe, can be at the grave on 25 September 2015 to mark the centenary of James Powell’s death.
Dr Richard S. Grayson is Senior Lecturer in British and Irish Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War (Continuum, August 2009). His grandfather, Edward Grayson, grew up at Kinnego House and served in the RFC/RAF in 1918, before settling in England with his wife, James Powell’s sister, Maud.