by THE DIGGER
William and Sarah McMaster outside their home at Nettlehill Road, Ballymacash, Lisburn with Maisie Richardson (centre). William had been the caretaker of the Ulster Tower at Thiepval, France after it opened in 1921.
An early photograph outside the Ulster Tower, Thiepval, France- Lisburn lady, Maisie Richardson, step-daughter of William McMaster, is pictured on the right.
DURING my childhood days at home, a system of communication existed between our household and several elderly neighbours. A high pitched "Yoo hoo, yoo hoo" or the rapid banging of a stone on the outside wall would be the first indication that either party wished to make contact.
On one of those occasions I was summoned to the hedgerow and spoken to by the elderly lady who handed me an old telescope that had seen better days. It was a gift and I was told it was being passed onto me as a representative of the next generation in order to ensure its preservation.
I was so engrossed in the newly acquired toy that the story being related to me by my elderly neighbour about the background and history was lost.
At that time the story of the telescope having been used to view the countryside around Thiepval from a tower paled into insignificance. My understanding of the place-name "Thiepval" then went no further than the name of the military barracks in Lisburn and it would be many years later I would learn of its true historical significance-
"Was ever a charge in the world like this?
Shall ever a son of Ulster miss
A fame that is wholly and solely his —
A fame of sublimest splendour?"
The opening lines of a poem titled "The Charge of the Ulster Brigade at Thiepval July 1st 1916." penned by Samuel Kennedy Cowan, born in Lisburn in 1850.
Samuel Cowan was a talented poet and he was credited for writing over 1000 Christmas verses for 11 different firms in 1884. He also had a military background- In 1874 the local press informed readers he had been appointed a Captain in the Royal North Down Rifles. In 1886 he was granted the honorary rank of Major and it would be no surprise to find amongst his works a poem dedicated to the brave men who fought in the Great War.
It appeared in the Belfast Newsletter on the 19th July 1916 and was later be set to music and published in song format by Walter Burns and Son, Belfast. It was reprinted in the Newsletter in November 1921.
At this time memorials to the fallen and rolls of honour were being erected in many villages and towns. Locally, the ladies of the Hilden, Glenmore and Lambeg districts formed a guild during the 1st World War and they engaged in a range of activities including collecting funds and sending out parcels to the men at the front.
At the end of the war the Guild had over £60 in hand and it was decided to have bronze plaques bearing the names of those from the area who had fallen in battle.
Subsequently a piece of land at the junction of Low Road and Mill Street, Hilden was given by Messrs. Richardson, Sons and Owden Ltd. The names were unveiled by Mrs A.E. Barbour at a ceremony on 28th October, 1921. A memorial to those who lost their lives, and those who served and survived was also unveiled at Lambeg Parish Church in November 1921 by Mrs. Malcolm Gordon, president of Hilden - Lambeg Women's Workers' Association, 1915 - 1920.
The Parish had 94 parishioners serving in the war and 20 who fell in action.
In a letter to the Editor of the Lisburn Standard in October 1921 from the members of the Royal Ulster Rifles Battalion an appeal was made for subscriptions to enable representatives from each of the battalions of the Ulster Division to attend the forthcoming dedication ceremony of the memorial at Thiepval. It was estimated the cost of sending out a representative would be £25.
The Ulster Tower at Thiepval had been designed in the style of St. Helen's Tower, at Clandeboye, County Down. The memorial had been erected in memory of those men of the 36th (Ulster) Division and other Ulstermen in other forces who laid down their lives in the Great War. It was on the site of the famous advance of the division on the 1st July, 1916. One of the representatives at the unveiling of the Ulster Tower was local man Sergeant Thomas Ward, who had served in 11th Royal Irish Rifles. He had benefited from the appeal for contributions. He was the son of Matthew Ward, a baker from the Longstone Street area and the Ward family suffered the loss of a son Samuel in 1916 after he had been gassed in Belgium.
It was reported that Thomas himself had been wounded in July 1916. Another brother, James, was also known to have served. The Lisburn Standard later reported that Thomas had remarked on his return from the unveiling ceremony that it had been "a very touching and unforgettable ceremony."
After the unveiling the trust of the Memorial was handed over to the Ulster Patriotic Fund. A representative of the fund, Sir Robert Liddell who was present at the ceremony stated "Our duty as Ulstermen is to see that the glorious traditions which were established by those who have gone before are handed down by us is to future generations untarnished so that those who come after us will say - This is our heritage-" The Marquis of Dufferin, in a speech to those present stated "To those who were alive they said thank-you....and to those who were dead they said - we may never see you again but we will ever remember you. We will tell our children how you died, and they will repeat it to their children, and thus your memory will remain green through countless generations..."
Those present at the ceremony took part in a tour of the battlefield. Local press reports stated that "scores of rifles rendered useless by exposure to the weather are still lying about, and there are pieces of shell, spades, picks, steel helmets, bayonets and even articles of clothing." A stark reminder of the realities of war.
A description of the tower in 1921 included the following. "In the upper portion of the tower there is accommodation for a caretaker, who will act as a guide to the battlefield; and from the roof, which is reached by a circular turret staircase, a commanding view of the surrounding country is obtained-"
Several sources make reference to the early caretakers at the Ulster Tower. In Major & Mrs Hoite's Battlefield guide to the Somme there is a reference to a "Sergeant-Major William MacMaster" and his wife who were residing in the tower and were acting as guardians- Gerald Gliddon in his book titled "A Battlefield Companion: Somme 1916" also refers to William McMaster who he confirms was caretaker of the tower in August 1928. Other sources states that a Sergeant Savage was the original caretaker, and William McMaster arrived to take over the post in March 1922.
William McMaster born about 1876, came from the Lambeg area. After the death of his first wife in the early 1900's he married Sarah Elizabeth Grant in March 1907. One of their daughters, Lorna Isabella who spent some of her childhood in France, eventually married and settled there. Many will recall with fondness Maisie Richardson who resided in the Ballymacash area. She was a daughter of Sarah McMaster from her first marriage. Maisie and her husband, William Richardson, the well-known bread server, were stalwarts of St. Mark's Parish Church, Ballymacash. William McMaster and his wife Sarah returned to Northern Ireland and they spent their last days at Ballymacash, Lisburn. William died on 13th January, 1963 and his wife Sarah on 22nd April 1966. They are buried in the family grave at Lambeg Parish Church.
The telescope I had inherited as a child had once been in Thiepval with the McMaster family during their time there as caretakers and guardians of this important piece of our history — The Ulster Tower.
I hope someday to visit the memorial and survey the surrounding countryside at Thiepval with the telescope, as the previous owners did on numerous occasions.
"Lest we forget."
The Digger can be contacted at The Ulster Star office of by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.