Somme 100th anniversary: Conspicuous bravery, loyally celebrated

Billy McFadzean: a 20-year-old rifleman who was among the 2,000 men of the 36th (Ulster) Division to die on the first day

Billy McFadzean: a 20-year-old rifleman who was among the 2,000 men of the 36th (Ulster) Division to die on the first day

 

There is no more famous Ulster casualty on the first day of the Somme than Billy McFadzean, a 20-year-old rifleman who was among the 2,000 men of the 36th (Ulster) Division to die.

One of four 36th men awarded a Victoria Cross that day, Pte McFadzean was posthumously honoured for a suicidal act of courage that saved the lives of comrades.

The men of the 14th Royal Irish Rifles, drawn mostly from the Young Citizen Volunteers of Belfast, had assembled in the trenches of Thiepval Wood for the coming assault. The air was rent with artillery exchanges. The noise was deafening.

Pte McFadzean stood on the lip of the trench, ready to distribute hand grenades. The pins had been loosened to allow for quick detonation. To his horror, the grenades fell out of their box and two pins were dislodged, primes to explode within seven seconds. In that terrifying moment, he dived on them and was blown to pieces, thus shielding his colleagues from the full blast. Pte McFadzean has no grave; his name is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.

Knew the danger

The s sacrifice has been an inspiration for generations of loyalists. His family home in Cregagh, Belfast, is frequently visited, as is Thiepval Wood.

In Belfast, Billy McFadzean T-shirts, mugs and death scrolls still sell. His image marks gable walls. There is a well-known loyalist song, The Ballad of Billy McFadzean: “So let us remember that brave Ulster soldier/ The VC he won the young life that he gave/ For duty demanding his courage outstanding/ Private Billy McFadzean of the UVF”.

All of this makes Nigel McFadzean, the private’s closest living relative, uncomfortable. His grandfather was Billy’s brother.

McFadzean, who lives in Ballynahinch, Co Down, says those who misappropriate his great- uncle’s memory in the name of paramilitarism misunderstand that the VC winner was “fighting the war to end all wars”, not to perpetuate conflict at home.

Many of the 14th Royal Irish Rifles who died on the Somme were Catholics, which is often forgotten: “Many have projected on to Billy McFadzean aspirations they aspire to for themselves,” his ancestor says.

Some veer towards hero worship: “You could easily say it was the paramilitaries – people of a unionist bend who don’t have much of an education or have had very poor parenting. For them Billy represents the ultimate unionist.”

During a visit to the Somme, a group of Liverpool loyalists, wearing Pte McFadzean T-shirts, looking “like a busload of Johnny Adairs”, learned McFadzean was a relative: “Honestly, I felt like I was in a boy band.”

However, the tragedy behind his death has been obscured. His family spent decades trying to find his grave.

Public grieving

McFadzean liked being the centre of attention. He was a “guy you’d like to go on holidays with, the guy you’d like to go to a party with, but he was a bit of a lad”.

Ballynahinch’s war memorial still omits the names of some of its Catholic war dead. Involved in a campaign to renovate it, McFadzean wants to fill in the names lost to history.

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