BANGOR GRAMMAR CADETS DISCOVER LOCAL HEROES OF WW1

A challenge to find out more about the history of World War I by researching stories of ‘local heroes’ has connected North Down teenagers with heroes of the past.

Students from Bangor Grammar School chose as the subject of their research an ‘old boy’ whose father was once principal of their school. Sixteen-year-olds Cadet Sergeant Michael Dempster and Cadet Lance Corporal Tom Campbell, both enthusiastic members of the school’s Combined Cadet Force, uncovered the story of Lance Bombardier John McFeeters.  The son of Bangor Grammar School headmaster, Rev. James McFeeters, John who was affectionately known as ‘Jack’ to friends and family, proved a bright lad with a gift for languages and his success in the intermediate examinations in Latin, French, and German earned him a scholarship at Queen's University Belfast.

The outbreak of World War 1 however changed the course of his career and, aged just 19, Jack volunteered as a soldier, joining the Antrim Artillery.  In the weeks that followed Jack found himself tackling training just a few miles from his home with a posting to Grey Point Fort at Helen’s Bay.  Some weeks later, shipped out from Southampton on a converted cattle ship headed for le Havre, the young Gunner McFeeters found himself preparing for ‘the real thing’.  He was soon fighting on the front line, seeing active service at St Omer, Ypres, Arras and Cambrai.

In November 1918 rumours began to circulate amongst the men that an armistice would be agreed on November 12th… the date changed to the 11th and, at 11am on the morning of that memorable day Jack and his friends lit a celebratory bonfire, while their Commanding Officer called for three cheers, and they all sang the National Anthem.

After the war, Jack finished his studies at Queen’s then built a distinguished career as a doctor with a practice in England.  He raised his family there and, after his wife’s death, he emigrated to Australia to be close to his daughter and died there in 1989.

Cadet Sergeant Michael Dempster says, “We know now of course that Jack was one of the lucky ones, having survived the war, but our research gave us a better insight into the conditions for the soldiers of the Great War and the dangers which faced them.  Trench life was incredibly hard as well as dangerous and the men really had to draw on their inner strength and courage.”

Cadet Lance Corporal Tom Campbell adds, “We had studied World War 1 in school, plus we do some military history in the Cadets, so we already knew a bit about the war and about some of Northern Ireland’s famous World War 1 heroes.  Looking more closely at Jack’s life however made us really think about the real people behind the statistics.  It was shocking to understand how young some of the soldiers were and it gave us a different perception of the sacrifice and service of young men who, like us, started out at Bangor Grammar School.  Of the 178 Bangor Grammar pupils who served in World War 1, forty-three were killed - the highest casualty rate for any school in Ulster.”

Despite that grim toll and the hardships of war, Jack would later say, “I have much to thank the Army for. I had led a very sheltered life up to my enlistment, and I feel that in the Army I really grew up. I could not have had more kind and helpful friends than the officers, NCOs and men of 65 Siege Battery, particularly the ‘old sweats’ who welcomed the young ‘rooky’ and helped to make a man of him.”