2014 will focus on one huge international milestone - the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.

All communities were affected as men from our areas travelled to France and adjoining countries to fight side by side with comrades from other religious faiths and political viewpoints.

Over nine million people died as a result of the fighting but many more from disease or starvation.

In this article, Oliver Breen, an Enniskillen military historian, looks at the impact the Great War had on Ireland and in particular, how the First World War brought Protestants and Roman Catholics together.

He explained how it was while he was visiting the Inniskilling Museum in Enniskillen that he first came across the story of the remarkable bravery of a young private in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. This story involves two Irish Divisions who took part in the great battle for Messines Ridge, the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division. Those serving lived side by side, fought side by side and died side by side and are now buried side by side on Flanders fields. Just recently, the Organisation of National Ex-Servicemen and women(ONE) from the Tannagh Branch in Cootehill, presented the standards of the 36th Ulster Division and 16th Irish Division to the Rioyal Inniskillings Fusiliers Regimental Association. They will be displayed in a major parade in Enniskillen later this year.

Oliver takes up the story of how two men with opposing viewpoints, met on the battlefield.

“The bulk of the 36th Ulster Division was made up from the Ulster Protestant community who were ardent members of the Ulster Volunteer Force although there were also many Ulster Roman Catholics in the Division. The make-up of the 16th Irish Division was predominantly Roman Catholic nationalists from the south of Ireland led by man called John Redmond.

“It was during the Battle of the Somme that destiny brought these two great Irish Divisions together and friendship and co-operation flourished on the battlefields of France and Belgium.

“The Somme is a river in the province of Picardy, Northern France. The name Somme comes from a Celtic word meaning “tranquillity,” having its source in the forest at Arrouaise and runs for 245 kilometres and out into the Somme Bay in the English Channel.

“As daylight faded on the first day of the Somme battle, the advance halted and brought closure to that first fateful day. In its wake, the machine guns and bombs left 20,000 British soldiers dead with a further 40,000 lying wounded in no man’s land. Many of the wounded would die before the sun would rise again. Medical staff and stretcher bearers were unable to rescue the wounded from the battlefield as they were legitimate targets for the German machine guns.” Oliver explained one story which highlights the comradeship and mutual respect that Northern Protestants and Irish Nationalists had for each other on the battlefields of Flanders. It was about Willie Redmond, a 56-year-old Irish Nationalist from County Wexford and Private John Meeke, a Protestant in the 11th Battalion, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

Willie Redmond born in 1861, was an Irish Nationalist politician and an MP having been elected for his father’s old consitutuency of Wexford but which was then abolished in 1885. At the 1885 general elections he was returned MP for the Fermanagh North Seat which he held until 1892 when he was elected MP for East Clare, which he held unopposed until his death during an assault at the Battle of Messines on June 7 1917.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Redmond called on Irish Volunteers to enlist in Irish regiments of the 10th and 16th Divisions of Kitchener’s New Army in the hope this would strengthen the cause of later implementing the Home Rule Act.

Oliver said, “Redmond was convinced however that the shared experience of the trenches was bringing Protestant and Catholic Irishmen together and overcoming the differences between Unionists and Nationalists. He told a friend, Arthur Conan Doyle that it would be a fine memorial to the men who have died so splendidly if we could, over their graves, build up a bridge between north and south.

On June 4 1917, three days before his death at an officer’s dinner, he made a speech in which he prayed for peace between north and south. Before going back to the front, he said, ‘I am going back to get killed.’ Redmond went to the Western Front with the 16th Irish Division in the winter of 1915.

“He joined ‘A’ Company of the 6th Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment on the front line. As dawn broke, Irish troops of the 36th and 16th Divisions advanced shoulder to shoulder in the great attack on the Messines Ridge which lay in the direction of the village of Wytschaete. Redmond, first over the top and leading his men, was hit almost immediately in the wrist and then hit in the leg. He could do no more but urge his men forward. Major Willie Redmond was out of the war for now.

Oliver also spoke of the outstanding courage of a Co. Antrim soldier, Private John Meeke of the 11th Battalion, The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers which would earn him the Military Medal.

After the War, John Meeke returned home a hero but still retained his wounds. Shortly after returning home he married Kathleen Craig. He developed tuberculosis and tragically died on December 7 1923 just five years after the end of the World War One.

“For over 80 years John Meeke went into obscurity and it was not until 1999 that John’s story was revived by a North Antrim war historian, Robert Thompson. John Meeke would risk his own life to save a man from the south of Ireland. Back home in Ireland, they would have lived as bitter enemies but on the battlefields of World War One Ulster Protestants and Irish Catholics fought side by side and died side by side and were buried side by side.

Redmond and Meeke came together on the battlefield.

“As Major Redmond was serously wounded by enemy fire, Private John Meeke, a stretcher bearer, was searching the battlefield for wounded soldiers when he saw Redmond fall. Using battlefield debris and shell holes as cover, John Meeke braved the heavy machine gun and artillery fire and struggled to the Major’s side. As he bandaged the Major’s wounds, the two men came under continued sustained fire. As he finished bandaging the wounded officer, John Meeke was wounded on his left side. The two men, under fire, were eventually rescued by a patrol from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, part of the 36th(UIster) Division. Major Redmond was carried to the safety of a field dressing station which was inside a nun’s convent and at 56 years old, and weakened by his time in appalling conditions in the trenches, he was not strong enough to survive his injuries.. The nuns buried Redmond in their garden where his grave remains to this day. A British cemetery lay just 20 metres away from Redmond’s grave but it was requested by Redmond’s family that he remained where the nuns laid him to rest in the convent garden at Locre, Belgium. Today, his grave is cared for by the townspeople of Locre.

“Private John Meeke insisted on returning to the battlefield to search for more casualties until he too was taken to the field dressing station for treatment. For his remarkable act of bravery he was awarded the Military Medal.” John Meeke and his brother, Samuel, who also fought in the War, are buried side by side at Derrykeighan Old Churchyard, Dervock, Co. Antrim.

“In 1917 an act of heroism by John Meeke, an Ulster Protestant to a staunch Irish Nationalist, was one of the most talked about acts of Irish heroism. To this day it still is. What can we learn from this heroic act of John Meeke who was badly wounded and almost lost his life while saving the life of his enemy, an Irish Nationalist? We each in turn will have our own point of view on this unselfish heroic act, for an Ulster Protestant to have risked his own life to save that of an Irish Nationalist,” said Oliver.