Written by his grand-daughter Ruth McCracken, January 2016.
On the evening of 4 October 1915 the 13th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rangers set off in two steamers from Folkestone, Kent to Boulogne, France. Aboard were two brothers from Annsborough, a small village in County Down, Ireland: Rifleman 18241 Richard (Dick) McCracken, age 22, and Rifleman 18242, Dick’s younger brother George (Geordie), age 20.
Humour seemed to be the thing amongst the boys of Annsborough, for at the time of the Great War Dick’s nickname was ‘Baldy’ – because he had a fine head of hair.
By June 1916, the Battalion was based near Thiepval Wood and was preparing for the first day of what would become known as The Battle of the Somme. An operation order issued on 26 June 1916 stated that the Battalion was to attack German trenches on the left bank of the river Ancre and that the attack would be preceded by 5 days of preliminary bombardment before the launch of the Infantry attack. And then:
Prior to the hour of assault, the leading Battalions in the attack will leave their trenches under cover of the bombardment and lie down in front in the formations in which they are about to advance. The line will be marked by a white tape. (WO-95-2506-3_1, page 40)
The order continued to give details of precisely what was to happen in the same matter-of-fact prose.
Sunday 1 July 1916. The initial diary entry for the Battalion indicates that at first all went according to plan:
From 5 to 6.30am, the men had breakfast, with hot tea + a rum ration. They got out over the parapet about 15 minutes before zero time, 7.30am + laid down on the tape, they moved off a couple of minutes before time, so as to get within 150 yards of the German line before the barrage lifted. As soon as they were over the crest of the hill the German machine guns could be heard firing + the action was started. (WO-95-2506-3_1, page 46)
What were the soldiers feeling at this point? Fear at what was to come? Excitement that something was happening at last?
Dick and his colleagues in No. 9 Platoon Company C had perhaps not quite shaken off the events of a few days earlier. On 28 June, the Battalion had left Martinsart at about 10pm and marched to the front, to take over from the 11th Royal Irish Rifles. The diary entry reads:
Just as the last platoon of C Coy was fallen in + going to march off, a large shell struck them fair, and there were 14 R + F killed on the spot, 7 died of wounds later + 32 were wounded […] (WO-95-2506-3_1, page 37)
Dick and one other man were the only ones left standing. Family recollection tells that the way the shell fragments dispersed after the force of the explosion, the men were scattered like ninepins. Geordie was amongst those wounded. At the time all his brother could do was light a cigarette and place it in his mouth, before leaving him (whether to tend to other casualties or continue the march to the front is unclear). Geordie died on 4 July. When his mother Kate received the news of her son’s death, a couple of month’s short of his 21st birthday, the dish she had been holding fell out of her hand.
Back to 1 July. The 13th Battalion’s Commanding Officer, Colonel William Savage, gave a detailed account of events in which it became increasingly obvious that the attack was not going to plan. His covering letter for the report, written on 7 July, explained:
very little, almost no information, was sent in, this was due in the first place to most of the officers becoming casualties and the difficulty of getting men across the fire swept zone of No Man’s Land. (WO-95-2506-3_1, page 71)
His detailed narrative of events as they unfolded shows the chaos and confusion caused by the lack of information and the strain that the infantry was under along the front:
9.20 Getting no news from the front, I thought affairs could not be going according to programme, I tried to get reinforcements from 15th R IR Rifles but they could give none […] I asked 108th Infy Bde for reinforcements but none were forthcoming.
10.20am […] The situation was quite confused and very conflicting reports were coming in. WO-95-2506-3_1, pages 52-53)
Dick, a stretcher-bearer, was wounded in the attack. He was eventually sent to the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol, where we believe he spent a year recovering from his wounds. And on 13 July 1916 he wrote the following letter to his friend back home, Anthony Donnan. In it he recounts the incident in which Geordie was wounded, and what happened to him on the 1 July attack.
13 July 1916
No. 19 Ward
Beaufort War Hospital
It gives me great pleasure in answering your most kind and welcome letter, and for which I cannot thank you enough. also what was enclosed in it.
Well, I am glad your health is improving and I hope it will not be long till I see you. I am coming on in good style and these chaps in this ward says I am a cheery bird. but all the same, old Fritz gave me more than what I bargained for. he has smashed my right shoulder but lucky no bones are broken although bruised. he wounded me in five places also a small one in the right leg below the knee. I am still in bed and will yet for a while I can take my food and thank God its a change from what we got a fortnight before the attack came off.
Antony. its hard luck on poor Geordie I can hardly believe it yet. poor lad he suffered a terrible lot but thank God he is safe now. How I escaped that night I dont know. I was standing along with him ready to go to the trenches when the shell bursted right in the middle of us all killing 24 and wounding over 30 what a sight. legs. heads. arms were scattered in all directions poor Geordie got it in both legs + arms. I thought he would have pulled through. but when I heard he died it affected me. Then I was left with Bob Hamilton to go to the trenches Just the two of us. We reached their at 6 oclock the following morning after a terrible experience. I thought of Geordie the whole time I could not find the heart to speak to anybody. Then the time came for us to go over the top and firmly speaking I have never seen a lot of fellows going into almost certain death than those chaps from Annsborough. The[y] did not [k]no[w] what fear was and truly Annsboro should be proud of them.
Antony it was hell. We had to go up a hill and the Germans was well prepared to meet us for away at their fourth line the[y] had Machine Guns in dozens and the[y] kept blazing away at us. Chaps were falling all around me. some never to rise again. those who were wounded were crawling back to our own lines. and at this point the German artillery was keeping up a terrific fire to keep our reinforcements back. but shells and Bullets didnt stop us for we went on and when I reached the Germans third line. I was bandaging up a wounded comrade when I got my final touch. you know, I got wounded twice to the head before this. but it never seemed to trouble me. I went on doing my work till he knocked me out completely.
When I was hit. I gave a shout like this (Dick is done). Then a chap called Brown came over to me and I mind him saying A[h] poor Dick I asked him for a drink and he gave me one. I lay there, but I dont know how long. after some time I wakened up and I seemed to be quite strong I could feel the blood running down my legs so I says to myself I am not dead yet. So I started crawling and I reached a place called the sunken road. I got Bandaged up but the Germans started to shell this place as we had good covering in it. I dug a whole in the bank with my left hand and I got into it and slept awhile. Then I got wounded again (slightly) in the right leg. at this point I had only about 100 yds to go to our own lines but I dare not face it as the Huns were shelling it very hard. at last I started crawling again and by Gods help I reached our dressing station about 5 oclock. The Docter gave me Rum and I mind nothing more till I wakened up in the 100th field Ambulance. So Antony I had a rough time of it but I am all right now and I expect to see yous all in a few months. Joey and all the boys must have been wounded before me as I could here nothing about them and I was enquiring a lot about them. but I am glad they are not to bad I wish them all a speedy recovery. Your Willie is all right he was to take charge of the Germans prisoners I suppose he will have a lot of souveniers I could have got a lot but when a chap is w[oun]ded he doesn’t care about them. Antony, the Ulster Division has suffered and our Battalion has suffered but the Germans have suffered more. their dead was lying about every where. I hope to relate the whole experience some day sitting in the arm chair. how I long for it. But at the same time I am going to take as long out of this place as I can for I have seen enough of France and our house has paid its share in this awful War. One favour I ask of you try and keep the old woman in good heart dont let her fret. The death of Geordie will knock the heart out of them. Well Antony, I cant say much more tell Mrs. Donnan + all the rest I send them my best respects also Mrs Bryans and them all.
So closing now and again thanking you wishing you the best of health and good luck.
From your old Chum
18241 Dick McCracken
Dick was awarded a certificate signed 23 April 1917 by Major General OS Nugent, Commanding 36th Ulster Division. It reads:
This Certificate is awarded to No18241 Rifleman Richd McCracken, 13th Royal Irish Rifles, for conspicuous gallantry on the 1st July 1916, at Thiepval. Although severely wounded, he continued to render first aid to wounded men, until obliged by weakness to desist.
Dick survived the war. He went on to play inside right and right half for the Belfast football club Linfield and enjoyed a very successful season in 1921/22, scoring twenty goals, including the winner in the Irish Cup Final. He also captained the Ireland national side in two matches played in Norway in May 1922. In 1923 he married Ethel Bryans (whose mother was the Mrs Bryans mentioned at the end of his letter) in the same church where Ethel’s sister Eliza Jane (known as Cissie) had married Dick’s friend Anthony Donnan two years previously. Dick and Ethel had three children and remained together in Annsborough until Dick’s death in 1969.
War diaries of the 13th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, Part 1, WO-95-2506-3_1, The National Archives
British Army WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920 (accessed via Ancestry.co.uk)
UK WWI Service Medal and Award Rolls, 1914-1920 (accessed via Ancestry.co.uk)
Letter written by Richard McCracken while at Beaufort War Hospital (family item)
Recollection of author of a conversation with Jetty McAllen, former resident of Annsborough, of a childhood memory she had aged about 6.
Recollection of stories passed down as re-told to the author by her brothers.
Research done by Dick’s nephew Tom Edgar.
Newspaper article from unspecified paper, possibly the Down Recorder, undated (but from date given in an invite to tender in an ad on the back of the cutting, assume it is 1959) ‘Life on a Mill Pond’