A challenge to find out more about the history of World War I by researching stories of ‘local heroes’ has connected Dungannon teenagers with memories of a Castlecaulfield man who fought and died in the Great War.
The moving story they revealed with their research earned Cadet Corporals Sarah Boyd (16) and Hollie Burton (15), enthusiastic members of Dungannon Open Detachment Army Cadet Force, first place in the Province-wide competition.
They chose as their ‘local hero’ William Henry Bennett (known as ‘Harry’) who was born in 1890, the son of William and Annie Bennett. He grew up in Glasslough, County Monaghan and Castlecaulfield in County Tyrone. After a short spell in the Royal Irish Constabulary he emigrated to Canada in March 1913, taking up an appointment as relief clerk with the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Just a few months later however, Harry enlisted in the 5th Regiment of Royal Highlanders of Canada. The reason is unknown, but may be evidence of political tensions in Europe. At the outbreak of war he immediately transferred to the 13th Battalion of the 5th Regiment of Royal Highlanders of Canada, and embarked for service on the Western Front, via England. A Private before the war, Harry swiftly gained promotion to Sergeant.
Harry was injured by a rifle shot at Ypres and was sent to recover in hospital in Cardiff, from where he wrote to his father, describing the incident,
“Our battalion of the Canadians went into the trenches on Wednesday night, 21st April, relieving the first battalion, who had taken them over from a French regiment a few days previously,” he wrote. “These trenches were in poor condition, and we at once got to work to get them made a little safer. Eighty yards separated us from the German trenches, and the intervening space was strewn with German dead. At dawn we knocked off, and stood to arms. Throughout the day everything was quiet, but at 5pm we were subject to a terrible bombardment, which continued without cessation for several hours. Fortunately they failed to hit the section of trench held by my platoon, and at 8pm not a man had been wounded; but just when it became dark the evil news filtered through. Groups of Turcos filed through our lines on their way to the rear, and the news soon spread that they had to retire as they had been submitted to heavy shell fire and that sulphuric bombs had been used.
“We knew we were in for a hot time because at that particular point the line formation resembled a giant horseshoe, so that when the Germans poured through the breach they were right behind us. So fierce was the shell fire that we did not expect reinforcements, and we knew we were expected to hang on and we did it.
In 1916, fully recovered, Harry – now Lieutenant - married Miss Ida Kathleen Millen in Bangor before rejoining his Regiment on active service.
Just a year later, on August 15, 1917, Acting Captain Bennett was killed in action by shell fire at Lens. He was buried at Mazingarbe Cemetery in Northern France.
After researching the local hero, Sarah Boyd said: “We knew from the outset that Harry had been killed in action, but somehow, after finding out all about him, his death still felt like a shock and a genuine loss. Because we were able to read some of Harry’s own words, we felt like we really knew him.
“Our work made us think of the human cost behind all the statistics we had read in the history books.”
Hollie agreed, saying: “We had learnt about World War 1 in history classes and at Cadets, but following the story of one individual gives a totally different perspective and it really encouraged us to think more deeply about the nature and true cost of war.”