KEVIN GORDON: Irish soldiers remembered by town

Planting a tree at Seaford cemetery
Planting a tree at Seaford cemetery

On Tuesday morning I went to Seaford Cemetery where a small crowd gathered in the drizzle to commemorate and remember the soldiers from Ireland and the commonwealth who died whilst they were billeted at Seaford in the Great War.

The event was established many years ago by the late Seaford historian Pat Berry.

People gathered around the Cross of Sacrifice at the cemetery containing 273 commonwealth war graves, one of the largest in Sussex.

The Reverend Paul Owen of St Leonard’s Church gave a clear and moving service alongside Ken Jupp of the local Royal British Region.

During the First World War Seaford was home to thousands of troops based at two massive camps. There were three main groups of ‘Empire’ soldiers; the Irish, West Indians and Canadians. On Tuesday wreaths were laid on their behalf by their respective veterans associations. Heidi Watkins of Newhaven bugled a pitch perfect ‘Last Post’ before the two minutes’ silence.

In the Great War some of the first soldiers to arrive in Seaford were the newly raised 36th (Ulster) Division who arrived in July 1915 after travelling by train from Belfast to Dublin, the ferry to Holyhead and then via Crewe to Seaford Station. They then marched the short distance to Chyngton Camp, also known as the South Camp.

The political situation in Ireland at the time was fragile and most of the men had been recruited from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). They were already trained as a military force. A part of the South Camp covered St Wilfrid’s School in Sutton Avenue. Tents were pitched on the playing fields and the school gym was the Officers Mess.

Soon after they arrived on July 12 the Ulstermen celebrated ‘Orange Day’. Seaford residents noticed many of the troops walking around wearing orange sashes and decorations and by the evening a parade had been arranged with bands, banners and flags.

Many local people turned up to watch what must have been a unique Orange Day Parade, one of the few to be held on English soil. (Although there have been some Orange Parades in in north-west few can have comprised of so many actual Ulstermen).

At 6.30 men gathered at the YMCA hut, Arundel Road, many wearing the insignia of the Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland. Inside the hut hymns were sung and there were rousing loyalist speeches. One of the speakers declared by the next Orange Day (1916) the Germans would receive a just thrashing, the war would be over and the men would all be at home on Irish soil. (How wrong he was to be!)

The great Lord Kitchener came to Seaford to inspect the troops on 20 July 1915 and said he was relieved to see a Division ready for the front at a moment’s notice.

The Ulstermen, many visiting England for the first time, seemed to enjoy their stay in summer Seaford. Many reported when high up on the Downs they could hear the guns of France. The men attended church services at St Leonard’s. On one occasion, the vicar, seeing his pews full of troops, decided not to ask for a collection, however at the end of the service, the offertory box was so stuffed with coins it had fallen off the wall and broken!

Three soldiers of the Ulster Division died in Seaford and are buried at the cemetery.

One of them was 36 year old Thomas Pollock of Dromore, County Down, who drowned on 18 July whilst trying to rescue 19 year old driver Robert Wilson of the Royal Army Service Corps (attached to the Ulster Division).

The two were swimming near the Buckle Inn. Wilson got into difficulties. Pollock, a married man with several children, drowned whilst bravely trying to rescue his colleague. The funeral, with full military honours, was to be the first of many to take part at the cemetery and iwas reported widely in the press and that the family of the deceased and a large amount of local people were present.

There was also at least one wedding. Corporal Gordon of the Royal Irish Rifles married Miss Mary Adair at the Congregational Church, Clinton Place. Mary travelled from Winnipeg, Canada, for the ceremony.