Draperstown hero of Great War

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ONE OF the very few to survive the First World War’s infamous Battle of the Somme, new research has uncovered the heroic exploits of Draperstown hero Michael Gallagher.

Father of well known healer Danny Gallagher, Michael entered the theatre of war in 1915. Despite his dad’s service papers not surviving the London blitz in 1940, Danny doggedly researched his father’s glorious history as a front line soldier during the First World War.

During four years as a front line soldier, Private Michael Gallagher, who was born in Desertmartin in July 1888, saw some dreadful trench warfare, suffered gassings at the hands of the Germans and won several medals including the 1915 Star Medal plus the British War and Victory Medals.

Private Gallagher began his military career in the 6th R Irish which went to France in December 1915. Earlier they had received reinforcements of about 250 men from the Guernsey Militia to boost their strength. They joined the 47th Brigade in the 16th (Irish) Division.

The 6th (Service) Battalion, which was raised in Clonmel in September 1914, spent most of the war serving on the Western Front in France and Belgium.

In 1916 between April 27 and 29, the 16th (Irish) Division of which Michael was part, suffered a German gas attack on the Hulluck Front.

The Machine Gun Corps was born in May 1915. Initially it was formed by transferring the Machine Gun Sections from the Brigades Infantry Battalions and forming them into a Brigade Machine Company.

These new Companies took their number from the Brigade they served and the 47th Machine Gun Company was formed on April 28 1916.

A military researcher told Michael’s son Danny, who lives in Maghera: “Michael was in all probability a founding member.”

The Machine Gun Corps was affectionately known as the Suicide Club due to their heavy casualty rate.

Michael was serving on the front line at the Battles of the Somme on September 3 to 6 1916, the Battle of Guillemont and September 9, 1916 at the Battle of Ginchy.

In 1917, Private Gallagher was at the Battle of Messines between June 7 and June 9 and involved in the Capture of Wytschaete on June 9.

He was also involved in the Battle of Ypres and between July 31 and August 2 was at the Battle of Pilckem Ridge while between August 16 and 18 he fought at the Battle of Langermarck. He took part also at the attack north of Bullecourt on November 20.

By April 1917 apart from the three Brigade Machine Companies each Division now had an additional Machine Company. Then on March 9 1918 the Machine Gun Companies were reorganised into Battalions, this new Battalion took its number from the Division it serviced in this the 16th Machine Gun Battalion.

At this point the 6th (Service) Battalion was disbanded on February 9 1918 however Michael had already joined the Machine Gun Corps.

In 1918 he was involved in the German Spring Offensive (Der Kaiserschlacht - or King’s Battle) between March 21 and April 3. He took part in the Battle of St Quentin between March 21 and 23 and the Battle of Rosieres between March 26 and 27.

Having made peace with the Russians the German High Command moved about 1 million men from the Eastern front to the Western front. They wanted to deliver a knockout blow and win the war outright before the Americans could arrive in large enough numbers to influence the outcome of the war.

To this end on March 21 1918 the German army threw everything at the Western front and attacked in huge force. The point of attack was the part of the line where the 16th (Irish) Division held hands with the 66th Division.

During this attack, the 16th (Irish) Division was all but destroyed. Between March 21 and April 3 the Division suffered 7,149 casualties. On April 3 only 1,300 men answered the roll call - that’s little more than an infantry Battalion.

The Division was then pulled out of the line and the work of reorganising and refitting began. The Division was reorganised into four Battalions and six training staffs. The Division was then moved to Samer where it was employed in training the newly arriving American troops in the art of trench warfare.

On May 8, 1918 what remained of the 16th Machine Gun Battalion was transferred to the Machine Gun Corps Depot at Camiers. There it was broken up and the personnel reposted to Infantry Battalions.

It is thought Private Gallagher may have been selected for the MGC because of his knowledge of guns.

Another military researcher told Michael’s son Danny: “He would have seen a great deal of action - especially in 1918 which was a significant time for the Corps. They were expected to remain behind to the last to cover the withdrawal of the infantry and artillery which was the cause of a huge number of casualties and prisoners-of-war.

“When the final advance began again (8/8/1918) the machine gunners were always in the lead, getting out in front to cover the infantry units going forward. By the end of the war they had suffered over 16,000 men killed.

“Your father was fortunate to survive unscathed,” he said.

Danny told the Mid Ulster Mail he was very proud of his father. When Michael, who was from Draperstown, returned from the war he got married to Brigid McKenna from Lisnamuck and had nine children. He died aged 59.

Danny said: “When I think of what he went through. He was extremely lucky. When we were young and he was alive he never got any appreciation. He suffered a leg injury during the war but he was able to go back to the trenches. But he was gassed and everything.”

Danny said his father never spoke about his time during the Great War. “There’s been wars everyday since that and that was supposed to be the War to End All Wars but there was no war as horrible as that. They were in the trenches up their knees in muck,” said Danny, adding that his father was a hard working labourer all this life.