Private John Meeke Commeration
Route:7:15pm Assembling at Entry way linking The Old Filing Station7:30pm Pipe to lead to The Old Churchyard (20 to 30 yards)The Almost Forgotten Hero of Messines RidgeThe brave soldiers who served ‘King and Country’ during The Great War were rightly lauded as heroes.Sadly however, in the corner of Derrykeighan Old Churchyard, one such hero – Private John Meeke – lay forgotten in an unmarked grave for almost 80 years.The story of his amazing courage had seemingly been lost forever.It wasn’t until 1999 that a local historian rediscovered the account of Meeke’s valour at the Battle of Messines and published it in a book entitled ‘Ballymoney Heroes’.Shortly thereafter, sufficient funds were raised by public subscription to purchase a headstone for his grave. It was erected on 11th November 2004. Finally – after almost 90 years – this brave young soldier from Benvarden was appropriately honoured and remembered.Private John Meeke MM: 36th Ulster DivisionThe third of ten children, John Meeke was born on 13th April 1894 in Ballyhunsley (County Antrim). His family subsequently moved to the Montgomery Family Estate in Benvarden, where they lived and worked.Whilst there, John became a member of the local Orange Lodge (Benvarden Temperance True Blues LOL 1001) and enrolled with Sir Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).In his early 20s, he joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (36th Ulster Division) as a stretcher-bearer.Major William Redmond MP: ‘The Grand Old Man’ of the 16th Irish DivisionIn addition to being a senior officer in the 16th Irish Division, William Redmond (known popularly as ‘Willie’) was also the Irish Nationalist MP for East Clare.He was deeply respected by both his own men and the soldiers of the 36th Ulster Division.At that time, Major Redmond’s brother (John Redmond) was the formidable leader of Irish Nationalism and a major player in the campaign to impose Home Rule upon Ulster.The Battle of Messines: 7th June 1917The 36th Ulster Division and 16th Irish Division advanced together and fought alongside one another at the Battle of Messines.On that day, as Major William Redmond (56 years old) led his troops into battle – the 16th Irish Division and 36th Ulster Division came under heavy fire.Major Redmond was badly wounded and fell to the ground.He was spotted by John Meeke.Using battlefield debris and shell holes as cover, Private Meeke slowly made his way over to the Major’s side.As he ministered to Redmond’s wounds, Meeke himself was badly injured. Seeing this, the dying Major ordered John to save himself and retreat back to the British lines. Meeke refused.Moments later, John received another wound. Once again, Redmond ordered him to save his own life and flee back to the safety of the British lines. For the second time, he refused.Eventually, Meeke and the Major were rescued by a detachment from the 36th Ulster Division.They carried Redmond to the Field Dressing Station so that he could receive treatment. Sadly he died several hours later, despite the best efforts of medical staff.Major William Redmond MP was buried in the garden of a convent at Locre, Belgium. At his request, the Funeral Guard of Honour was comprised of soldiers from both the 16th Irish Division and 36th Ulster Division. The men of the Ulster Division donated £ 100 to his Memorial Fund. His grave was looked after by local nuns up until the 1950s, after which it was cared for by the people of Locre.Despite the fact that Private Meeke was badly injured, he insisted on returning to the battlefield and rescuing other wounded troops. He did this for a while until he too had to be taken to the Field Dressing Station for treatment.In 1917, the story of Meeke and the Major became one of the most famous and talked-about acts of heroism arising out of the First World War.In recognition for his bravery, Private Meeke was awarded the Military Medal (MM).Major Redmond’s SalvationAs he lay dying in the Field Dressing Station, Redmond spoke with one of the Chaplains.He was intrigued to discover that the Chaplain (Rev John Redmond, a Church of Ireland clergyman) had the exact same name as his own brother (John Redmond, the leader of Irish Nationalism).Realising that the end was near, and knowing that he would soon have to stand before God – Major Redmond told the Chaplain that he ‘hoped’ that God would pardon his sins ‘for the sake of his own sufferings’.The faithful Church of Ireland clergyman gently responded, informing him that God would indeed pardon his sins – but not because of his own sufferings. Rather, He would forgive them ‘for the sake of Another Man’s sufferings’ – i.e. those of the Lord Jesus Christ.Did Major Redmond heed the Chaplain’s advice and receive Christ before he died? We trust that he did.John Meeke’s Life After the Battle of MessinesPrivate John Meeke continued to serve in The Great War until, in October 1918, he was severely wounded by an explosive bullet. After enduring a total of eight painful operations on his leg, it was clear that – for him – the war was over.Upon returning to Benvarden, John worked as a Gardener on the Montgomery Family Estate.On 17th May 1922, he married Kathleen Craig at Derrykeighan Parish Church, Dervock. They had two daughters.Less than 19 months later, he died of tuberculosis on 7th December 1923 – aged 29.In January 1928, four years after John’s death, his wife Kathleen died of the exact same illness. Like her husband, she too was 29 years old when she died.Their two orphaned daughters were raised in England and eventually lost touch with the rest of the family. As a result, John’s grandchildren grew up on the Mainland – completely unaware of their grandfather’s heroic conduct at the Battle of Messines. In 2014, that situation was happily rectified when a local man made contact with Meeke’s descendants and told them the amazing story of their esteemed ancestor.Shortly thereafter, John’s English relatives made the journey to North Antrim, where they were reunited with their long lost family. Whilst there, they visited Benvarden Orange Hall and John Meeke’s grave.Annual Commemoration to Honour Private John Meeke MMEach year, on or around the anniversary of the Battle of Messines (7th June), a short ‘Service & Act of Remembrance’ is held at Private Meeke’s graveside, during which poppy wreaths are laid.The ‘Annual John Meeke Commemoration’, as it is popularly known, is mainly organised by Bro Frankie Cunningham of Dervock LOL 534 and normally conducted by our own Lodge Chaplain, Bro Sam Stirling.