Derry’s own band of brothers

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On September 17, 1918, Archibald Sinclair, of 4, Hawthorn Terrace, desperately scribbled a letter to the British Army War Office in London. The letter requested the transfer home from the battlefields of France of his son, Richard.

Meanwhile, Richard Sinclair was stationed in France with the 5th Service Battalion. Like hundreds of thousands of soldiers drawn from across Europe, he endured the privations and desolation of the trenches. The previous Christmas, Richard had written a touching message to his wife, Mary Ann, on a small scrap of paper: “Just this Christmas six years ago, How I remember the time when the Reverend Cox made me happy, By making your name mine.”

As Archibald Sinclair made his impassioned written plea, simultaneously a communication was in transit from the Infantry Record Office in Dublin. It would bear grim news and plunge the household into another bout of grief.

Archibald read the matter-of-fact military telegram: “Sir, it is my painful duty to inform you that a report has been received from the War Office notifying the death of Corporal A. Andy Sinclair, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, which occurred whilst serving with the Expeditionary Force, France on the 13th September, 1918.”

Andy Sinclair, the youngest of a family of five brothers and two sisters, would be Archibald’s fourth son to perish on the battlefields of the Great War.

Private Hugh Sinclair was the first to die on April 22, 1915, the toxic fumes of a German shell burst eviscerating his lungs.

Five months later, Private Thomas Sinclair died under devastating German counterpunches at the Battle of Loos.

Two years later, on August 10, 1917, Sergeant John (Johnny) Sinclair was killed in the merciless battle of Messines. His body was never found.

Nearby, during the same battle, Andy Sinclair exhibited valour in the field under withering mahinegun fire, targeted from reinforced German pillboxes. He was awarded the military medal for gallantry. Andy would see another year of action and witness relentless slaughter.

It was now imperative for Andy that Richard be transferred from the ravaged landscapes of France and Belgium. He had been dispatched in 1917 from Egypt to France with the 5th Service Battalion.

Andy’s final letter home to h

is sister Mary was dated September 2, 1918 and arrived at Hawthorne Terrace, solemn in tone.

“I say it is a shame sending Dick (Richard) out again, as it is as little as they would do for us now, as to let one of us stop at home, after all we have suffered, but I think the Army is like most of the people these times, the more one does for them, the more they ask you to do, but you can take my word for it, that in the future I am going to do as little as possible for them, but dear sister, don’t you worry too much for I am sure Dick (Richard) will be able to take care of himself all right, so be easy in your mind. I remain your loving brother Andy xxxxxxxxxx.”

Andy’s words to his sister were tragically prophetic - one of the brothers would return home to maintain the Sinclair lineage. But it wouldn’t be him. Just 11 days after writing this letter, Andy died from wounds he sustained under a relentless barrage.

In October, a despairing Archibald Sinclair took some solace from a straightforward response to his plea to the War Office.

“With reference to your letter dated 17th Sept. 1918 concerning the soldier named below (Richard), I am directed to inform you that instructions have been issued for his temporary transfer to home service.”

For Richard Sinclair, the torture of not being able to reconcile his survival with the deaths of his four brothers dominated his life.

“It was something that was never talked about in the family,” son Billy said.

His father would never mention the fate of Billy’s uncles and the paralysing effect on his family. Dick Sinclair wouldn’t attend Armistice Services.

The four Sinclair brothers met their fate in battles across the Western Front that saw men go to their death like cattle.

John and Andy Sinclair were part of the advance on Messines Ridge. Sappers burrowed deep into the ground at 19 points and tunnelled thousands of yards underneath no-man’s land.

They planted 21 massive mines beneath German trenches and artillery emplacements. An estimated one million pounds of high explosive was primed and left there awaiting the detonation order.

On June 2, 1917, the man commanding John and Andy, General Plumer, remarked: “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.”

Along the strategic ridge, unknowing Germans were about to be blasted into smithereens.

Andy and John were among 100,000 men creeping into position on June 3.

In the early hours of June 7, the command was given to detonate the mines.

The series of explosions were reported to be heard 300 miles away, up to 10,000 German soldiers were vapourised, the ridge effectively quarried. Remaining German troops were dazed by the magnitude of what erupted beneath them.

Andy and John Sinclair rose from their trenches under cover of a massive barrage of every gun available.

The infantry advanced through the plumes of smoke and dust and, within minutes, the entire German front line was in British hands. Three hours later, the whole of the Messines Ridge was taken. But not without cost.

Sergeant John Sinclair was killed in a German trench. His brother Andy - honoured for gallantry during the offensive - would survive, but just for another year. John Sinclair was a fatality among the 16,000 casualties on the British side.

Private Thomas Sinclair would perish during the struggle for the French town of Loos on September 28, 1915. Loos was a town positioned along the Ypres salient.

Hugh Sinclair, of the 48th Canadian Highlanders, had suffocated in a plume of toxic fumes in the Spring of the same year under a ferocious German assault.

In a tragic irony, Andy Sinclair died from his wounds on September 13, 1918, the very day that German ruler Kaiser Willhelm made a peace offer in a speech to the Krupp works.

Two months later, “the war to end all wars” came to an end after four years and three months of pointless struggle.

Some 37-and-a-half million men perished in trenches and open ground between the opposing forces.

A generation of young men was lost forever.