Forgotten hero

Email:

lisa.gregg@thechronicle.uk.com

A SEARCH for the identity of an officer killed in the Great War has uncovered a remarkable act of valour carried out by one of his enlisted men.

Macosquin-born Private John Douthart was shot while carrying his gravely wounded Officer off a battlefield that caused greater casualties to Ulster soldiers than the Somme.

The heroic tale was unearthed by author Michael Nugent while hunting for the name of the ‘unknown Captain’ who occupied a war grave in Northern France.

But having verified his identity as Captain John Harvey (to the satisfaction of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Ministry of Defence) and having informed the Captain's grateful relatives in Belfast, he's turned his attention to his Orderly interred in the plot beside him.

Michael is appealing to people around the North Coast for more information about the life of Private Douthart.

“For one thing the great nieces of Captain Harvey are very keen to meet any of his relatives,” he told the Chronicle.

“He performed an act of extraordinary bravery in carrying a fatally injured officer before he himself was killed.”

Michael Nugent has since written a book on the great battle during which events leading to both deaths took place.

Titled ‘A Long Week in March’, it charts the course of the 1918 German Spring Offensive which he suggests was the 36th (Ulster) Division's finest hour.

“What intrigued me was that for many people in Northern Ireland the Great War is the Somme, yet here was a battle that resulted in greater casualties,” said the author.

“The Ulster Division withdrew 105 miles in a week, which was a massive distance in a war when success was judged in yards gained.

“But it certainly wasn't a defeat. The Division came close to breaking, but through the heroism of officers, NCO’s and men, they managed to hold it together.”

The soldiers on the front line sustained a five-hour bombardment during which 1,160,000 artillery rounds were fired - that's around 65 rounds per second.

When the infantry attack came amid thick fog, the British line was surrounded and cut off before anyone knew what was happening.

The battalions of the Division fought heroically against vastly superior numbers. On 22nd March, the 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers fought valiantly to the last man against well trained Prussian Guards.

On 24th March the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles had an option to withdraw but discounted it.

“They fought till their ammunition ran out, then charged the enemy with fixed bayonets,” said Michael.

By that stage, units and men were scattered all over the place. But then, in a scene more reminiscent of a medieval battle, the Cavalry, quite literally, arrived.

“They rode in and cut the enemy down with their sabres. There's no doubt the Cavalry saved the day.

“It gave the division time to reorganise and retreat in a more organised fashion.”

It was some time during all this chaos that Douthart died performing an act of valour that deserves to be recognised, according to Michael.

But the author only learned of the incident because he was trying find out who lay in the unknown Captain's grave.

Michael succeeded in linking it to Captain John Harvey (known to his friends as Jack) from the Cregagh Road, Belfast who was shot through the stomach during the retreat.

But in researching Harvey's death, he also learned about the last few minutes in the life of Private Douthart.

The tale is best told in a letter from Harvey's friend Lt William Patterson MC, sent to Jack's brother.

He describes retreating from a village, whose name he can't remember, beginning with the words: “I am going to tell you everything in detail just as it happened and as I would wish to be told about my own brother.”

Lt Patterson continued: “We did not get further than 100 yards when Jack was hit by a sniper through the stomach and through the wrist.

“I bandaged him up then his orderly endeavoured to carry him on his back and we got him about thirty yards when he was hit again through the stomach and he was just too ill to carry on the back. Then the orderly got killed.

“I stopped with Jack until the Boche were into the village, his last words were You had better go now. Tell Mother.”

Michael has no doubt the orderly whose death Lt Patterson witnessed was Private Douthart.

He was born in Macosquin in 1894, the eldest son of bootmaker Samuel Douthart who was married to Elizabeth, nee Dunlop.

The 1901 census has the family living in Killowen Street, Coleraine but by 1911 they'd moved to Ballycastle.

John enlisted in the 12th (Reserve) Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1915 and, when posted to the 9th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was given the job of orderly or batman to Captain Harvey

Both died outside the village of Brouchy in France on Saturday March 23, 1918.

Michael met Captain Harvey's great nieces last week. The family are immensely proud of their fallen relative and had kept his memory alive for over a century without ever knowing where his body lay.

They are now looking forward to a graveside re-dedication service in March this year, made possible by the author's research.

That's one of the reasons why Michael is eager to trace any surviving relatives of the man who tried to save him.

“He had three younger brothers and a sister Mary. The last we know of them is they were living in Ballycastle and there may still be some descendants living there.

“The graves are right beside each other and the re-dedication would be a great opportunity to pay their respects.”

Michael Nugent's book: ‘A Long Week in March’, The 36th (Ulster) Division in the German Spring Offensive, March 1918 is available online and at branches of Easons and Watersones. The author will be signing copies in Waterstones, Coleraine on a date yet to be arranged.

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