A descendant of Ballymena’s most highly decorated soldier of the 1914-1918 era has spoken of her pride in the new commemorative plaque unveiled in his honour last week.
Ann O’Neill, a grandaughter of thrice decorated local man, John McNabney, travelled to Ballymena from Waringstown for the ceremony after she read about the plans in an online Guardian article.
“I am truly delighted to see that the sacrifice and bravery shown by my grandfather in the 1914-1918 war is still honoured in his home town.
“When I read about the plans to mount the plaque I contacted the Guardian who put me in contact with Jim McIlroy of the organising group.
“I was very honoured to be present and to play a part in that unveiling. It marks a proud part of our family history,” she said.
Jim McIlroy of the 12th Royal Irish Rifles Memorial Association said he had been stunned to learn of Anne’s link to the WW1 hero.
“Quite a bit of research has been done on John McNabney over the years and our group is grateful to Guardian editor, Dessie Blackadder who first highlighted McNabney’s remarkable story.
“We also pay our compliments to the ‘Ballymena and the Great War’ website which continues to bring the stories of many such men to life.”
With the outbreak of the war in August 1914 Larne Street men John McNabney and his brother Samuel, about 25 and 20 years old respectively, joined the Royal Engineers in Belfast on the same day, 22nd September 1914.
They were given consecutive service numbers, 57836 and 57837. Both were to serve throughout the war and both were to survive the experience.
John had signed the Ulster Covenant and was already serving in the ranks of Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force, his name appearing on a membership roll of 1st February 1913 listing for ‘North End’, Ballymena, part of Mid-Antrim UVF.
He appears to have been a key figure in the local section of the Signalling and Dispatch Riders Corps, his specialism signalling.
He and his UVF colleagues were indeed using a new-style signalling lamp of an advanced type not yet adopted by the British Army, and the UVF had many men who were literate in semaphore.
The Royal Engineers were keen to have them, and under Royal Engineer tutelage 57836 John McNabney flourished.
He went to France and Flanders in October 1915 (1914 volunteers were filtering into the battle zones by autumn 1915 to early spring 1916), was to rise through the ranks by learning and prowess to become Acting Sergeant, and his record shows had never committed offences whilst in the army; neither, indeed, did his brother Samuel.
This is not really surprising. He was a superb soldier - intelligent, conscientious and brave.
His gallantry was first recognised when he was given a 36th Ulster Division Parchment Certificate, his award being posted on the 30 June 1917.
These certificates were given after April 1917 for actions after the 1st July 1916, the opening day of the Somme battle.
His record of bravery continued with a Mentioned in Despatches (MID) published in the London Gazette of Tuesday, 15th May, 1917
He won a Military Medal, the award published and gazetted on March 12, 1918, but there is no record of the deed for which it was given.
However, a second award, a ‘Bar’, was soon to follow. In the London Gazette, Issue 30873, 26th August 1918 page 10110 it says, ‘His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve the award of a bar to the Military Medal to the undermentioned Non-commissioned Officers and Men’, and on page 100112 it lists the following: ‘57836 Cpl. (A/Sjt.) J. McNabney M.M. R.E. (Ballymena).’ The Ballymena Observer greeted the honour and stated:
‘Sergeant J. McNabney, Royal Engineers, Ulster Division, whose relatives reside at 9, Larne Street, Ballymena, has been awarded a ‘bar’ to the Military medal. Sgt. McNabney is well known in football circles and will be remembered as a popular player for South End Rangers Prior to enlisting in August 1914 he was in the employment of Mr. Thomas Kerr, boot and shoe manufacturer, Church Street, Ballymena. His brother Pte. S. McNabney is also serving with the Engineers.’
McNabney’s untiring endeavour and devotion to duty saw him approach the actions in the final days of the war, the so-called 'Hundred Days’, with the same raw bravery and determination that he had exhibited earlier.
This was to win him the prestigious Distinguished Conduct Medal, a medal won by only about 25,000 men amongst the hundreds of thousands who served in the Great War.
The citation, published in the London Gazette, 10 Jan 1920, Page 448, states that 57836 Sgt J. McNabney, M.M. 36th Division Signal Company, Royal Engineers (Ballymena) got the medal because ‘in the Dadizeele sector, during the fighting from 28th September to 5th October 1918, this
NCO was constantly out repairing lines under heavy shell fire and it was chiefly due to his courage and fearlessness that communication was maintained.
On the 2nd October he went out accompanied by another NCO and remained out during a very heavy barrage, maintaining communication during the enemy counter attack.’
Samuel McNabney, who we noted earlier also served in the Royal Engineers during the Great War, and his wife Agnes, still of Ballymena, lost their son in the Second World War. Twenty-year-old 164928 Pilot Officer (Air Bomber) Samuel McNabney of 7th Squadron Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (Pathfinders) was killed on the 8 August 1944. He is buried in Bolbec Communal Cemetery, France.