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Reserve Forces & Cadets Association
Northern Ireland



02 January 2019

An old, blurred snapshot of a kilted World War 1 soldier has proved the starting point for a fascinating journey into the past by local Cadets who unravelled a story of courage and service.

As part of a Northern Ireland wide history project, members of the Larne Squadron  Air Cadet Corps were challenged to find out more about the history of World War I by researching stories of ‘Local Heroes’.  To give them some inspiration, their Detachment Staff Sergeant came up with a photo of his Great Great Grandfather, Private Hugh Gillen, in WW1 uniform and Larne teenagers Jayden Martlew, Catherine Hill and Aaron Thompson were immediately caught up in a journey into the past.

Hugh, they discovered, was born in July 1899, in the James Street area of Harryville in Ballymena, the son of Arthur and Susan Gillen. Hugh attended a tiny local school with just a handful of students and one teacher.  Late in 1916 he joined the 6th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Corps and was almost immediately whisked away to serve on the frontline, taking party in the 1917 Battle of Arras at which a total of 160,000 British soldiers died in action.

Despite the dangers, Hugh showed immense courage in the heat of that battle and, risking his own life, went over the top of the trenches to rescue wounded comrades who were under heavy fire from the Germans and, in doing so, was severely wounded himself.  That gallantry earned Hugh the Military Medal, but Hugh made little of the achievement and, following his discharge in 1919 and his return to ‘Blighty’, did not speak of his experiences or what he had witnessed. That modesty continued and throughout his later life Hugh was respected as a humble as well as an extremely brave man, until his death in his home town of Ballymena in 1970.

Jayden Martlew says, “Although he was exceptionally courageous, Hugh apparently used to dismiss praise by telling people he had only done what others would have done in the same circumstances.  We felt that Hugh’s humility is as much to be admired as his bravery.  He must have been an amazing man.”

Catherine Hill adds, “Looking at the personal history of an individual reminds you that, behind the statistics, facts and figures, were ordinary people whose lives were torn apart by war.  Hugh was lucky to make it home alive and well, but his reticence about his experiences speaks volumes about the awful things he must have witnessed in the trenches.”

Aaron Thompson, says, “When he went to war Hugh was just a few years older than we are, which made his story very powerful and relevant to us. I, for one, can’t imagine having to serve in such a terrible conflict at a time when your adult life is only just beginning. This project gave a whole new dimension to history lessons and it has been an interesting challenge for us – a bit less adventurous than the majority of Cadet exercises, but one that we will always value and remember.”