Remembrance Day has special meaning for Airdrie resident Ray McClean, whose uncle, Houston Clements, served with the Royal Irish Rifles during the First World War at the Somme, Passchendaele and Ypres.
McClean – a self-professed history buff – has researched the role of Irish troops in the Great War and made a number of visits to battlefields, cemeteries and memorials in Europe. His mother encouraged him to learn about history.
“From an early age my mother would remind me of the sacrifice my uncle Houston made in World War I,” he said. “My mom was one of seven sisters and two brothers. He was sort of the baby of the family. The other brother survived.
“You have to understand where you’ve come from to understand where you’re going to go and what sacrifices they made.”
According to McClean, his uncle Houston joined up in June 1915 at the tender age of 15. He lost his life Oct. 2, 1918, just weeks before the war ended.
“He went missing in action and the certificate said he was 19 but my Aunt Isabelle said he was 18,” McClean said. “These young guys all joined up with the belief that they were doing (something important) for the Empire.”
McClean said his uncle was just one of many young men to sign up to serve the sprawling British Empire, including in Ireland, England, Australia, India and Canada.
According to McClean, conscription in 1914 was limited to men ages 19 to 41. The minimum age was lowered to 18 by 1916 and a restriction against married men joining up was lifted in May 1916. McClean said his uncle had no problem joining up at age 15, despite the minimum age requirement.
“They knew how old he was – they didn’t care. They hadn’t made their quotas,” he said. “You see these guys and they don’t look older than 14 or 15 when they’re standing next to mature soldiers.”
McClean said his research showed all of Irish society wanted to do its part to help.
“Wearing a uniform of some kind (whether in the forces or as a male or female police officer, postal worker or bus conductor) was an obvious way of contributing (to the war effort),” he said. “Everybody was affected – it’s a small country.”
The First World War saw the advent of a number of new warfare tactics and military equipment, including the rolling barrage and lethal gas attacks.
“Before going into battle, every soldier had to ensure his will was in order,” McClean said. “This was because the Germans developed something that was key – the machine gun. Although primitive and prone to mechanical problems like rapid overheating, each gun had the equivalent firepower of 80 rifles. That’s 80 bullets to every one British bullet.”
Clements was not the only of McClean’s uncles to serve with Irish troops in the First World War. His uncle Bob McGookin also served but was captured and held as a prisoner of war by the Germans.
“Like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder victims, when telling something he’d experienced, he was reliving it,” McClean said.
Visiting a number of the Great War museums and memorials in Europe has been an important experience for McClean. He has visited the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium – a memorial to Commonwealth soldiers whose resting place is not known and site of a daily Last Post service – and located Clements’ name on the memorial.
“We visited some of the German cemeteries and guess what? They were just as young as our guys,” he said.