WWI armistice centenary a cause for quiet remembrance in Derry

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The 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I will be marked by many acts of quiet remembrance in nationalist Derry on Sunday.

On this, the last centenary of a disaster in which tens of millions died pointlessly, avowed republicans will be among those acknowledging the bravery of their forebears who fought in WWI.

For many ‘Remembrance Day’ will be observed with a certain ambivalence, partly due to the false promises of ‘Home Rule’ made to the Irish Divisions and broken once their participation in the slaughter of 1914-18 had been secured.

Misgiving over the behaviour of British armed forces on the streets of Derry in the decades after the world wars is undoubtedly another source of mixed emotion. On Sunday Rosemount man, Derek McCauley, will remember his late father Michael ‘Mack’ McCauley who survived both WWI and WWII with honour.

But speaking to the ‘Journal’ this week he said he had always been unimpressed by the way his father was treated by the authorities when he eventually laid down arms to rear a family in Derry.

‘Mack’, originally from Foyle Road, fought in both world wars and was also involved in republican activism during the inter-war period.

After serving in WWI, enlisting as an 18-years-old in 1914, ‘Mack’ threw himself into the anti-partionist movement when the Redmondite promise of Home Rule was revealed as a chimera.

“The three of them [Mack and his brothers Hubert and James] got involved and they ended up in Kilmainham gaol. I’ve his medal from the Tan War,” explains Derek.

Notwithstanding his republicanism ‘Mack’ again enlisted in the British Army when WWII broke out in 1939.

As Derek says, he saw it as a different fight to that which had been going on in Ireland.

“He was in Dunkirk. While he was in France his eldest son, aged 12, died of Leukemia. He had to come home for a fortnight and watch his eldest son dying. That ripped the heart out of him,” said Derek, who has always felt disgusted by the way in which his father was treated by both the RUC and the British Legion after he left the army.

“I was 11 at the time - it was a dark winter’s night and there was a knock on the door. There were two policemen looking for his ‘residence permit.’ He had fought two world wars but yet they were holding this over his head. He was in the British Legion at the time and he went to them for help and they wouldn’t do anything for him and he threw back the badge to the British Legion.”

Michael Gillespie, from Lisfannon Park, is another nationalist who, on Sunday, will contemplate the fate of his late uncle-in-law, Patrick Smith, killed in action, May 1918.

Originally from St. Patrick’s Street in the old Bogside, Patrick died on May 4, 1918, not long after going ‘over the top’ in France.

Little detail is known of what happened to Michael’s mother’s brother-in-law but whatever it was, it deserved mention in a despatch by ‘The Butcher of the Somme,’ Field Marshall Douglas Haig.

The despatch, which mentions Patrick’s “gallant service,” was acknowledged by the Secretary for War, Winston Churchill, in a letter to the late Royal Inniskilling Fusilier’s family. He was also awarded both the 14-15 Star and the Victory Medal and is buried in the Chambieres French National Cemetery near Metz.

Michael, who when the conflict erupted in the Bogside in the late 1960s, used to use a WWI gas mask bag when manning a first aid post in Rossville Street, will remember Patrick on Sunday.

“The story we were told was that he went into the trenches and was there for the whole of that winter of 1917/18. He died and was buried in one of the German cemeteries, I think, and then after the war they reinterred all the Allied soldiers into the Chambieres National Cemetery and that’s where he is. The story at the time was that he was there that whole winter and very few people lived that long,” says Michael.

Derek, meanwhile, will be thinking of his father this Sunday but has little time for all the cant about ‘glorious sacrifice’ that is regurgitated around this time of year.

“All this stuff about McClean not wearing a poppy,” he says. “When you’ve a thing like that [his father’s treatment] with a man that fought in two world wars. When people tried to shove the poppy down my throat, I said to them how many of you had a father who fought in two world wars.”