While researching the military history of a great uncle, GEOFF SIMMONS stumbled across the remarkable story of a young soldier from England, his teenage Derry bride, his role on the battlefields of the First World War, his execution for alleged desertion and eventual pardon.
My visit to the cemetery in Belgium took place on a glorious day in the middle of October. The gravestone I was looking for included the inscription: ‘Robert Hope served as 23726 Private J Hepple’.
The plot is located in a peaceful little cemetery, a few miles to the north west of Ypres. He’s in the front row, looking east towards what would have been the German front line and the village of Boezinge. That’s where the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, another Inniskilling Fusilier, was killed the same month.
All around are fields full of turnips and cabbages - to this day still throwing up the shells and bullets that tore up the district almost one hundred years ago.
I was researching the military history of my Great Uncle, Captain Alan Lendrum, and one particular episode which intrigued me. At the height of the First World War, he was courtmartialed for refusing to take charge of the execution of a soldier who had allegedly deserted. Apparently, this man was known to him and his family and my great uncle did not believe he should have been ordered to undertake such a task. I liked that. He was already hero enough for making it through the war alive and receiving his decorations; but the fact that he had stood up for what he thought was right, at considerable cost, made me admire him even more. But who exactly was the condemned man? I had to find out.
It soon became clear that it can only have been one person - a soldier called ‘James Hepple’, whose real name was Robert Hope, executed on July 5, 1917. His crime was, for whatever reason, to go absent without leave for eleven weeks. At his trial, seemingly no account was taken of a previously unblemished record.
But how did he know my Great Uncle? My visit to Belgium revealed an inscription on the bottom of James Hepple’s headstone - one provided by next-of-kin. It read simply: ‘Of Waterside, Derry’. This was the first clue I had as to a ‘homeplace’ and the existence of someone who cared enough about him to ensure that a record of where he lived (maybe even briefly) was preserved on his grave.
Not every grave carries such a message, it cost three pence per letter and a fair bit of effort. You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t care. I contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and they told me that it had been placed by a ‘Mrs Hope’ with an address at 9, Moehan’s (Meehan’s) Row, Waterside.
It’s easy enough to get hold of a marriage certificate and very soon I found that Robert Hope had married Rosina McGilloway, of Sugarhouse Lane, on August 6, 1915, in Long Tower Church, Derry. His place of residence was recorded as Ebrington Barracks and his father’s profession was listed as ‘shipyard’.
Shortly afterwards, seeking more information, I posted a query on ‘The Great War Forum’ and this led to a response from someone whose friend remarked that he had ‘just attended the funeral in Derry of a relative of one of the shot-at-dawn guys’. He gave me the name McGilloway and, for the first time, the suggestion that Robert originally hailed from Sunderland and used the name Hepple/Heppel because it was his grandmother’s maiden name.
Rosina had met and married Robert Hope in a whirlwind. He signed-up for the Inniskillings on June 7, 1915, so would only have arrived in Derry that summer. She was sixteen when they married at Long Tower Church. He went off to fight in November and, perhaps, they never saw each other again.
Yet, to have placed an inscription on his grave suggests Rosina carried thoughts of him all her life. She could easily have decided to forget this painful chapter of her life. She chose instead to leave an everlasting reminder of their young love and of Robert’s connection with her home town of Derry.
Why Robert chose to enlist under an alias is a mystery. Shipbuilding would have been a protected industry during the war and, as such, Robert would not have been conscripted. However, he chose to fight - perhaps against his family’s wishes. He was, after all, only a boy of 19.
Also, why join an Irish regiment? With recruitment becoming increasingly difficult due to the political situation in its traditional Irish hunting ground, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers turned to the north east of England, an area with a big Irish population. Robert became a ‘Geordie Skin’. For a young working-class boy, very likely facing a future hammering rivets into sheets of iron all day long, such an opportunity may have promised untold adventures. I’m not sure if my Great Uncle Alan knew Robert Hope but his cousin Charles Lendrum was a big man in the 1st Inniskillings at Ebrington, serving with Robert in Gallipoli, Egypt and the Somme. Perhaps, Alan knew Robert was one of Charles’ boys and, already uneasy about what he’d been asked to do, used this as his excuse not to take charge of the execution. This theory fits with a scribbled note in Alan’s file in the National Archives relating to his courtmartial which says he ‘point blank refused to carry out the order before he found out he knew Private Heppel’.
Last summer, I visited Derry. Ninety seven years on from Robert and Rosina’s wedding day, I found myself standing in the Long Tower Church. I could feel shivers down my spine. As I approached the alter, I looked to my left and was directly in line with a picture on the wall. It was one of a series of ‘Stations of the Cross’ portraits, entitled ‘Our Lord, the Condemned Man’. Given what I was thinking about at the time, it was profoundly moving. I later tried to find Meehan’s Row. It is long-demolished but there’s a Meehans Terrace and I ended up having a chat with the last surviving resident of the old street.
Back in Belgium, the Friends of Flanders Museum organisation heard about this story and on Saturday, July 6 next, will hold a ‘Remembrance for Robert’ in Ypres.
The confusion and half-truth that has swirled around him can finally be put to an end and in its place, perhaps, some finer thoughts of Robert and Rosina and their young love.