I have researched several soldiers of the Great War but none of them to date was involved in the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. Paradoxically, the first book I read about the First World War was Martin Middlebrook’s The First Day of the Somme and one of the casualties featured in that has always stayed with me.
Of course, one would be struck by the fact that Private William Frederick McFadzean, 14th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, was one of nine men to be awarded the Victoria Cross as a result of their actions on 1st July 1916.
However, the aspect of his story that particularly struck me was a quote from a letter written home on 5th October 1915 whilst Billy was crossing from England to France on the Isle of Man Paddle Steamer, the Empress Queen.
Billy McFadzean was from the Belfast suburb of Cregagh. His father was a Justice of the Peace and the family were Presbyterian. He was an apprentice in a Belfast linen company and he divided his leisure time between the Collegians Rugby Club and he was a member of the 1st Belfast Regiment of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Martin Middlebrook informs that:-
“When recruiting started for the Ulster Division, Billy McFadzean immediately joined the Belfast Young Citizens’ battalion sometimes known as the ‘Chocolate Soldiers’ because most of its men had a commercial background and came from ‘good families’.”
At six foot tall and 13 stone not only did Billy have the physique for rugby, but it propelled him into becoming an expert grenadier – or bomber.
In the early hours of the morning of 1st July 1916 he was with his battalion colleagues in an assembly trench, on the front line edge of Thiepval Wood, with boxes of grenades open in readiness to be distributed to the grenadiers.
German shells were falling in the wood and Middlebrook suggests that perhaps the shock wave of one of those explosions may have been what dislodged a box of grenades onto the floor of the trench. The fall knocked the pins out of two grenades, which would have had disastrous consequences in the narrow, crowded trench, except for the intervention of Private McFadzean. Billy pushed forward, threw his body over the grenades, a moment later they exploded, killing the brave twenty year old. Only one other man in the trench was slightly hurt.
Private McFadzean’s body was subsequently lost in the fierce fighting that followed shortly after and he is remembered on the Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval.
His was the first posthumous Victoria Cross to 36th (Ulster) Division and one of four VCs to that division that day.
The citation, London Gazette, 8th September 1916 reads:-
No. 14/18278 Pte. William Frederick McFadzean, late R. Ir. Rif. For most conspicuous bravery. While in a concentration trench and opening a box of bombs for distribution prior to an attack, the box slipped down into the trench, which was crowded with men, and two of the safety pins fell out. Private McFadzean, instantly realising the danger to his comrades, with heroic courage threw himself on the top of the Bombs. The bombs exploded blowing him to pieces, but only one other man was injured. He well knew his danger, being himself a bomber, but without a moment’s hesitation he gave his life for his comrades.
That aspect of the story of this young man’s life is remarkable in itself, yet the one that hovers in my head every year on this anniversary is the quote from the letter referred to above. It was couched, as Middlebrook said, in the language of the period and the spirit of (many) of the men:-
“You people at home make me proud when you tell me ‘I am the Soldier Boy of the McFadzeans’. I hope to play the game and if I don’t add much lustre to it I will certainly not tarnish it.”
Images: from Middlebrook’s book, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, plus the Victoria Cross and Billy standing on the steps of his family home “Rubicon” are from the website:-
The following website also has more images and detail relating to Billy, the Soldier Boy of the McFadzeans:-
An internet search will also reveal other results.
Source other than those websites: Middlebrook, Martin, The First Day of the Somme, Allen Lane, 1971