ON THE edge of County Antrim, close to the lapping waters of the North Channel at Islandmagee, stands a small war memorial dating back to the First World War.
Located on a small hill overlooking the sea, the memorial commemorates two young men from Belfast and is the only public war memorial on Islandmagee.
Nowadays thousands of people pass and pause at their memorial each year, as tourists make their way to and from the Gobbins Cliff Path. This tourist season around 30,000 visitors have, as part of the guided tours there, been told of the story of the two men and how they joined up; Billy Edwards and Walter Newell both lost their lives in the First World War, one in France and the other in Palestine.
The memorial was erected in 1917 and the story behind it, and their connection to Islandmagee, is an intriguing one, the full details of which many who pass by will be unaware of.
Both Edwards and Newell were members of the Belfast Naturalist Field Society and are believed to have been introduced to Islandmagee through the Society, which often visited the area to explore the flora, fauna, geology and archaeology so abundantly available there.
There also appear to have been a group of them who came to the area in the summers to camp out, fish and generally enjoy the landscape.
In September 1912 a number of them were staying at the Gobbins Farm.
This is part of a deeper story that surrounds the little memorial.
For on September 28, 1912, ten young men went from the Gobbins Farm the few miles to the Parochial Hall in Whitehead to sign their names to the Ulster Covenant.
The Covenant was devised by unionists to pledge their opposition to Home Rule for Ireland, and to having a Dublin parliament governing over them as was proposed by the Third Home Rule Bill. Unionist concerns surrounded being a religious minority in an Irish parliament which they believed would be dominated by the majority Roman Catholic Church and church laws.
They in turn were reverting back to a Scottish religious tradition of Covenants, which originated in the 16th century and sought to establish the contractual relationship between government (or governor) and people as well as between faith and the monarch. The 1912 Covenant, drawn up by Liberal Unionist Thomas Sinclair was intended to serve as as a binding contract of loyalty to each other and to their community in the tradition of earlier covenants.
The Ulster Solemn League and Covenant was signed by 471,717 men and women, not only in Ulster but by Ulstermen and women across the British Isles and beyond.
Around 575 signatures were collected from residents of the popular seaside town of Whitehead, which had many middle class unionist families. The only venue in the town was the Parochial Hall, with a small scattering of others signing at nearby venues such as Kilroot Orange Hall and Magheramorne Presbyterian Church.
The group from the Gobbins Farm who went to sign were headed on the sheet by Billy Edwards, suggesting that he was a leader among the group.
He was followed by Brown Sproule Campbell, Nugent Crawford, Robert Thompson, Ennes McWilliam, Walter Newell, Robert Ross, Charles Thompson, Herbert H. Allen and James P. Wood.
All gave their address as “The Gobbins Farm, Islandmagee”.
We know little about the others on the list apart from Edwards and Newell.
Walter Newell was a close friend of Edwards, and his family owned the firm of H. A. Newell which had premises on Royal Avenue.
Walter and two other brothers were killed in the war. One of them, Company Quartermaster-Sergeant George F. Newell, was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force in North Belfast and a former member of the Boy’s Brigade in St. James’s Church. He was killed in August 1917. David Newell was a private in the public schools battalion of the Royal Fusiliers and died in 1916.
Walter was a Lance Corporal in the Black Watch, which recruited in Belfast and surrounding area at that time, and was killed in July 1915 at the age of 26.
A letter to his father from the commanding officer detailed that “He was out in charge of a patrol last night when they were attacked a superior number of Germans, your son being severely wounded, and passing away before he could brought down to the dressing station. It was while engaged on important and daring piece of work that Lance-Corporal Newell and his friend, Lance-Corporal Willis, were both mortally wounded – it is only men of special courage and resource that are chosen for the work in which they were engaged, and your son had always proved particularly plucky.”
The weight of the loss the First World War brought to the Newell family is hard to imagine: four Newell boys went off to war, but only one came home.
The memorial at the Gobbins is mentioned in the News Letter in August 1917 as having been recently erected.
The memorial stated that it was erected “To the memory of Lance-Corporal Walter Newell, 6th Battalion Black Watch, who fell in action in France, 10th July 1915. Erected by his friends, with whom he spent many happy days at the Gobbins Farm.”
Billy Edwards was to join the fallen at the end of 1917 and his name is on the panel below that of his friend.
Edwards was a higher profile figure and details appear in respect of him in Stephen Walker’s excellent book “Ireland’s Call”, published in 2015 and looking at Irish sportsmen in service in the First World War.
Edwards, who was 30 when he was killed, was a keen rugby player, an accomplished water polo player and a strong sea swimmer.
He was educated at Thanet College in Kent, Coleraine Academical Institution and Campbell College.
On August 16, 1913, he made history by becoming the first man to swim across Belfast Lough, swimming from Whitehead to Bangor in four hours. Walter Newell was among those who spent time in the water with him to support him.
His father was a partner in Maguire and Edwards, furniture makers of Upper Arthur Street in Belfast and Billy (William Victor) attended Queens University in Belfast, where he qualified as an accountant.
He was a rugby player for Malone Rugby Club and also an Irish rugby international.
Home Rule was clearly something he felt strongly about and in addition to signing the Covenant he also joined the Ulster Volunteer Force, which was effectively a unionist army, and established in January 1913. Despite being opposed to the Liberal government policy of Home Rule, the Ulster Volunteers had a strong sense of loyalty to the UK and the British Empire, which resulted in many of them volunteering for war service, most through the ranks of the 36th (Ulster) Division.
In September 1914 Edwards lost little time in volunteering for army service in the Great War and joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers, seeing service and almost being killed at Ginchy.
After a period back in Dublin for medical treatment and recuperation, Captain Edwards was sent to Salonika and then Palestine with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He was killed on December 28 while in charge of a company defending Jerusalem and he is buried in the Commonwealth Cemetery there.
What became of the other eight men who signed the Covenant with Edwards and Newell would require much more detailed research.
Did they all join the Ulster Volunteers after they were formed in January 1913? Did they all join up during the war?
And were they among the friends with whom Newell and Edwards “spent many happy days at the Gobbins Farm” who helped to erect their memorial?
Some of the answers may be lost to history.
But one thing is for sure.
Set on the edge of County Antrim, a small memorial is a reminder of a poignant time in our past, when unionists prepared for the worst over Home Rule in Ireland, but ended up serving – and in many cases dying – in a different war and for a different cause.