When I was a child I was fascinated by the big penny which was propped on the mantelpiece in my grandparents' bungalow. They told me about its significance; how these pennies were given to the families of solders killed in the war.
As I grew up I learnt more about the war and wore a poppy on Remembrance Day but didn’t really have much interest in the details. Later after I became a teacher and married Paul I was asked to go on a school trip to visit the war graves in Flanders. It was 1994 - we were living in Norfolk at that stage and I was teaching in Costessey High School in Norwich. Granda had died 8 years earlier but Granny was still alive. I found the details of the location of Uncle James’s grave with the help of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. And so on the trip I visited the small graveyard in Dadizele, Belgium and used the map to find James Ferguson's grave among the identical headstones each planted up with colourful flowers. It was peaceful there even with the coachload of schoolchildren who accompanied me; they were quiet and respectful. My teacher friend took some photographs which I showed to Granny when I visited later that summer. She was a little tearful and said that Granda would have been so pleased I’d visited. He’d never forgotten his younger brother who died with so many others in World War 1.
That was over 24 years ago and now the ‘Big Penny’ has been passed on to me. Inspired by the story of James Ferguson, I've been doing some family history research this year and I have found out a bit more about him. For a start he wasn't called James at home but 'Jim' like my dad who was named after him. He was the youngest of 7 children and lived in Ballyronan, growing up in the same house as I did. His father started off working for a local landowner but earned enough money to buy his own farm, and then eventually buying a second one nearby. He was clearly an ambitious man but it appears he was rather hard on his family. He quarrelled with his eldest son, John, who emigrated to Canada, followed by two more sisters Sarah and Minnie. Jim's mother died when he was 12 and by 14 he was working on the farms with his 18 year old brother, Sandy (Alexander), who is my grandfather. This information is on the 1911 census. I suspect the family weren't very happy. All of the girls had married and left home by 1915 leaving just Jim and Sandy with their father. When the war started, young men in Northern Ireland were encouraged to join up. So Jim entered active service with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers on the 25th September when he was just 18.
I haven't found out much about Jim's experiences during the war as there are no individual records or photographs of him. I do know that he returned home on leave at one point and went to Saltersland Church in his uniform as Granny says she remembers this. His battalion was part of the 36th Ulster Division and were one of the few divisions to make significant gains on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. They attacked between Ancre and Theipval against a position known as Schwaben Redoubt. It was apparently the only division to have achieved its objectives on the opening day of the battle. Their attack was described by war correspondent Philip Gibbs as 'one of the finest displays of human courage in the world.' but in two days of fighting 5,500 officers and enlisted men were killed, wounded or missing.
When he joined he was in the 10th Battalion and the men were known as 'The Derrys'. But in February 1918 the British Army on the Western front was reorganised and the 10th Battalion and 11th Battalion were absorbed into the 1st and 2nd Battalions. The War Diary of the 2nd Battalion is available so perhaps it gives us some insight into what the soldiers were doing though there is little detail about the horror as it is very factual. However, it stops in January 1918 before the 10th Battalion were absorbed so it is unlikely that Jim was involved in the action or the football match described below.
He was killed in the Hundred Days Offensive which ended the First World War. The images below from the Imperial War Museum show the troops of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 36th (Ulster) Division which included James's Battalion, advancing from Ravelsburg Ridge to the outskirts of Neuve Eglise on the 1st September 1918. According to the Cookstown War Dead, the 2nd Battalion had marched to fresh billets, skirting Courtrai to St. Anne where they were accommodated in and around a convent. Jim was killed in action on Sunday 29th September 1918 along with 19 other men from the battalion.
He died in fighting near Dadizele which was in German controlled territory for much of the First World War until it was reached by the 36th Ulster Division and taken by the 9th Scottish Division on the 29th September. At the time he was buried in the local graveyard or on the battlefield. However after the war in 1920 his body was moved with many others to Dadizele New British Cemetery. The reference is 111.E. 13. Back in Northern Ireland John Ferguson was mourning the loss of his youngest son. In 1920 he paid for an inscription to be added to his son's grave: 'Safe in the Arms of Jesus'.
In 1921 he also erected a new gravestone for his wife Margaret and in memory or his son James at Salterland Church. He would be buried there himself. in 1928. His son Sandy went on to live a long and happier life than his father, farming with his son who he called Jim in Ballyronan.
This is the grave on the 22nd September 2018. My cousin Doreen, Private James Ferguson's great-niece put these poppies on the grave 100 years since he died, aged 21, just a couple of months before the end of WW1.
I'm not one for glorifying war but tomorrow I'll go along to the memorial parade in Chester and think about this young man who died with so many others in this terrible war.