Somme: May Trench Raid – death of a great great uncle

Tonight is the one hundreth anniversary of the death of my great great uncle during a German bombardment of the trenches after a succesful trench raid by the Ulstermen – a talk was recently held in the Masonic Hall (the old Tamlaght  / St Lukes Church of Ireland Church Hall), Coagh on Private Robert Sands and other men from Coagh who died in the Great War.

In this centenary year of the Battle of the Somme the tragic and brutal slaughter of the Great War`s must never be forgotten. The freedom`s and civil & religious liberties we cherish should never be taken for granted.  100 years ago one of my forebears, Robert Sands, made the ultimate sacrifice as part of the 36th Ulster Division. Our family cherishes the memorabilia we have including a portrait, a hand made stick carved by Robert Sands, his medals, his will and enlistment certificates for both Robert & his brother David Sands issued by the authorities in Ireland from Dublin Castle.

The Sands family & myself (my mother is Sands) still live in the same townland of Urbal 100 years later – the same house in fact.

The Inniskillingers, Foot and Dragoons can be traced back to 1688 and the Battle of the Boyne.

13890 Private Robert Sands
9th Battalion Royal Innskilling Fusiliers (“C” company)
Killed In Action: 8th May 1916
Age: 23
Authuille Military Cemetery, France, Grave D 45

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Robert & David Sands were the sons of William and Ellen Sands of Urbal, Coagh, Cookstown, County Tyrone – all of whom were signatories of the 1914 Ulster Covenant which can be viewed on the official PRONI Ulster Covenant website.

Robert Sands was the second son of William and Ellen / Eleanor Sands (nee Marks). Robert was born about 1893 in Tamlaght, Coagh, County Tyrone. The 1901 census records Robert as age 8, living with the family at house 10 in Aghaveagh, Coagh. Robert’s father, William Sands, was a labourer. The 1911 census does not list Robert as living with the family at house 3 in Urbal, Coagh, Tyrone. His father was a farm labourer, as was his older brother.
Family: William Sands, Eleanor Sands, William John Sands (born 29th June 1884), Charlotte Sands (born 19th August 1886), Maggie J Sands (born about 1889), Robert Sands (born about 1893), Sarah E Sands (born 5th September 1894), David Sands (born 2nd January 1897), Fredrick Sands (born 30th December 1899), Harriett E Sands (born 7th December 1902), Samuel Sands (born 14th May 1905), Herbert Sands (born 20th September 1906).

Before joining the army, Robert was a member of Coagh Company of Ulster Volunteers, and was a member of Drumconvis Loyal Orange Lodge 794 and acted as Chaplain there. He had one other brother on active service with the army – David Sands enrolled with the North Irish Horse on the 13th April 1915.

Robert enlisted on the 1st October 1914 at Finner Camp in Donegal. He was wounded on the 15th March 1916 and killed on 7th May 1916.

From the Mid Ulster Mail dated Saturday 5th February 1916: for the Glory of Coagh

Private E McGuckin, No 3 Company, 9th Inniskillings, writes from the Front:-

‘Just a few lines from a few of the Knuts from Coagh, serving abroad with the 9th Inniskillings. There are a good number of us here, and we are all in the best of form. We are at present behind the firing line resting, wearing away the effects of our Christmas dinner, which upset the whole Battalion for quite a long time. We expect to get back to the trenches again shortly, and I can tell you we will show the Huns what Coagh can do. Our section is in charge of Corporal Mitchell, and it includes such well known local men as Johnny McMullan, Robert Sands and James Hudson, and they are all waiting for the day to charge the Hun trenches and bring glory to Coagh. James Hudson is complaining to the billet right now, in very strong language, about those who still refuse to do their duty. We hope when they se this in the paper, and see how happy we are, they will at once dawn the khaki. I will close now, wishing every success to the good old ‘Mid’, which is eagerly looked for here every week.

Robert Sands also wrote the poem below.

From the Mid Ulster Mail dated Saturday 26th February 1916: A Call from the Trenches
No 13890 Private Robert Sands, 9th Inniskilling Fusiliers, Somewhere in France

A Call From The Trenches
By Robert Sands

“Fall in! Fall in! We’re out to win!” the country calls today
The raging hun, his worst has done, and soon he’ll have to pay.
We dozed a bit, before we hit, but now we’ll face about.
With open eyes and brave allies, to knock the beggars out.

Then bustle along with a cheery song, as long as there’s work to do
For Kitchener’s lot are on the spot, with plenty of work for you.
We’re on the scene ’til France is clean and brave little Belgium free.
We’ve stalled the job in earnest and we’ll finish it on the ‘spree’.

We are not great at Hymns of fate, but this we are gained to swear-
We’ll make them howl, for fighting foul, and beat them by fighting fair;
To keep our word may seem absurd but that’s what Briton’s do.
And they may bet our teeth are set, to see the business through.

So pull up your boot and learn to shoot, and march with the army swing,
Get thoroughly fit to do your bit along with our Gracious King.
We’ve got it in hand to sweep the land as Jellicoe swept the sea.
We’re starting the job in earnest and we’ll finish it o the spree’.

Then off we’ll go to face the foe, who laughs at old John Bull?
But some must stay to work and play, and keep the convoy full.
They serve King George in mine and forge, although they can’t be here,
So while we spend the shells they send, we’ll give them all a cheer.

Then Stand to the front and bare the brunt, for ours is the team to stay
And now that we’re in, we mean to win, whatever the croakers say
We carry a pill for Kaiser Bill, for all the Allies agree
They’ll stick to the job in earnest, ’til they Finish it on the ‘spree’.”

From the Mid Ulster Mail dated Saturday 15th April 1916: Coagh Soldiers at the Front

Private Edward McGuckin, a native of Coagh, in a letter to the Mail dated 22nd March, says that all the Coagh boys are well and in good fighting form, although they have been constantly in the trenches for the past eight weeks. They are well accustomed to jack Johnstons, whizz bangs, trench mortars, and such other scrap as the ‘Germhuns’ treat them to. Private John McMullan is going strong, so strong in fact that he has been nicknamed the ‘whizz bang’. Other Coagh boys are known as ‘Rifle Grenade Sands’, ‘Trench Mortar Currie’ and ‘Barbed Wire Hudson’. Another chum from Aughnacloy, and well known in Coagh, is George Marshall. As the letter was been written he was singing mournfully in the dugout ‘I want to go home’, but his comrades know well that he does not want any such thing, at least until he sees the Huns in final retreat homewards. They had the din of guns instead of drums on Patrick’s Day. They were all glad to see that Constables Howe and Ryan had joined the colours, and wish them the best of luck. Sands and Hudson feel rather sore about some recent marriages, and fear there won’t be any Coagh girls (left) when they return victoriously home. The writer concludes by wishing the good old ‘Mid’ every success.

Robert was killed in action on the night of 7th/8th May 1916 in Thiepval Woods, soon after a successful trench raid against the enemy. The 9th Battalion Inniskillings came under a heavy bombardment in retaliation. 19 other men lost their lives that night, including John McMullan from Coagh and Robert Little from Cookstown. Two other men died of their wounds the next day. Robert Sands is buried in row D, grave 45 at Authuille Military Cemetery, France.


From the Mid Ulster Mail dated Saturday 20th May 1916: Coagh

At a special meeting of Carryhill Loyal Orange Lodge 188, Coagh on Tuesday 23rd May 1916 the secretary reported the deaths of John McMullan and Robert Sands. Private McMullan, who was a respected member of this lodge and also a member of R.B.P. 243. On a motion of Bro. Thomas J. McKeown. W.M. seconded by Bro. S. McComb, D.M., the secretary was instructed to forward a letter of sympathy to the relatives of the deceased.

From the Mid Ulster Mail dated Saturday 27th May 1916:

Intimation has been received that Private Robert Sands, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, formerly of Urbal, Coagh, was killed in action on the night of 7th May 1916. The sad intimation was first conveyed to his sorrowing parents by a letter received from Corporal W T Mitchell of the same regiment, who also belongs to Coagh. The deceased soldier was only 23 years of age and before joining the colours in September 1914 was a member of Coagh U.V.F. He has been in the war-swept area since October 1915 and seen some hot fighting.

Corporal Mitchell from Coagh, sent a letter of sympathy to Robert’s sister soon after his death, saying:

“I`m very sorry to inform you of the death of your brother Robert, who lost his life on the night of 7th May 1916. It was during a heavy bombardment of our lines and his death was instantaneous, so he suffered no pain. He was the favourite of the platoon whose members all join me in offering our heartfelt sympathy in your sad bereavement.”

In a letter to Robert’s father, his Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Ambrose Ricardo, writes:

‘Dear Sir, I wish to convey to you the sympathy of all the ranks of the Battalion in the sorrow that has come to you by the death of your son Private R Sands. The battalion carried out a successful raid on the enemy’s trenches last Sunday night, inflicting severe loss on them. We were subjected to a very heavy bombardment for 3½ hours, and we had considerable casualties. Your son was a gallant soldier and a good comrade, and we mourn his loss. The battalion was thanked on parade today by the Army Corps Commander for the gallantry shown by the ranks. Yours faithfully, A Ricardo, Lieutenant-Colonel, Commanding 9th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.’

At a meeting of Drumconvis L.O.L. No 794, of which he was a member, and acted as Chaplain prior to enlistment, the keenest regret was expressed at the news of his death, and it was resolved that a letter of sympathy be sent to the relatives. The deceased has another brother at present in France.

From the Mid Ulster Mail dated Saturday 27th May 1916:

SANDS – May 7, killed in action, Private Robert Sands, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the beloved son of William and Mrs Sands, Urbal, Coagh, aged 23 years.

His Warfare is over, his battle fought,
His Victory won, though dearly bought;
His fresh young life could not be saved:
He slumbers now in a soldier’s grave.
We loved him in life, he is dear to us still.
In grief we must bend to God’s Holy will:
The trial was great, the loss heavy to bare,
The Angels, dear Robert, will tend you with care.

Deeply regretted by father, mother, sister and brothers (one of the latter in active service).

Robert Sands sacrifice is recorded on a plaque in St Lukes / Tamlaght Parish Church (Church of Ireland), Coagh (in the form of a bronze tablet formerly mounted in the Coagh Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall – now demolished)


Other local men in WW1

17808 Private John McMullan – 9th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
Died: 08/05/1916 (Killed in Action)
An enthusiastic member of Coagh Company UVF; also a member of LOL 188, and RBP 243. John McMullan and Robert Sands were killed in a heavy bombardment by the Germans after the Inniskillings had carried out a successful night raid on the German lines on 7th/8th May 1916. Both men are buried in Authuille Military Cemetery, France. They are also commemorated on Coagh War Memorial (Royal British Legion, Cookstown).

13935 Private Robert J Little – 9th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (British Army)
Date Of Birth: 30/09/1891
Died: 08/05/1916 (Died of Wounds)
Robert was a member of Strifehill L.O.L. No. 628 and a member of the Ulster Volunteers. Robert Little enlisted in the 9th Battalion Inniskillings at Finner Camp. On Sunday 8th May 1915, Private Robert Little was severely wounded was taken to the 108th Field Ambulance where he died of his wounds. Glowing tributes were paid to Private Little by both Lieutenant Colonel Ricardo and Captain Cruikshanks, his Battalion Commander.

19319 Private Frederick Currie -9th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
Date Of Birth: 08/08/1896
Died: 22/09/1916 (Died of Wounds)

He was seriously wounded at the Somme on the 1st July 1916 and lay on the open battlefield for four days with nine shrapnel wounds in one leg and a wound to the groin before being discovered. He died of his wounds in Second General Hospital, Leeds on 22nd September 1916.
Frederick was a member of Carryhill LOL 188, Coagh and a member of Coagh Company, Ulster Volunteers.

Further info

Where were our three Irish Regiments fighting on 1 July 1916? | Royal Irish – Virtual Military Gallery

The 36th (Ulster) Division of the British Army in 1914-1918

36th (Ulster) Division Memorial, The Ulster Memorial Tower

Royal Irish – Virtual Military Gallery

Coagh War Memorial – Cookstown War Dead

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • ted hagan

    No doubt brave men, and women, but I’m feeling uncomfortable with this ‘Great War’ worship and Easter Rising worship.

  • the rich get richer

    How easily the Powers that were ; Threw away the lives of so many !

    It was a sick society ; What was there to worship ? !

  • Cosmo

    Dear Kilsally, thank you for sharing these moving historical records of the First World War.
    If you ever get a chance to tour the depopulated and declining rural region of SW France you will be struck by the numerous clusters of family names on the 1st World War Memorials and huge percentage loss of young life from every village – a loss of youth,energy and talent from which the region simply never recovered.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Maybe in some cases it could be described as worship but surely for most of us it’s just remembrance?

    I visited the grave of a cousin of mine who died on the 1st of July 1916 the first day of the Somme.

    He served in the York & Lancs 12th ( City of Sheffield ) Battalion it was a ‘Pals’ battalion and he was one of 513 Sheffielders who died that morning attacking the village of Serre in Picardy.

    Looking at his grave I felt no worship, no pride, no jingoism, just sadness that a boy of 19 who would have been 50 when I was born never got to live a full life.

    I’m glad that I visited the memorial at Thiepval and various other war graves but – at least in my case – there was no worship involved, just a sadness at the waste of life and proof of mans inhumanity to man and plain blind stupidity in an inability to resolve disputes without killing.

  • Jollyraj

    This particular Robert Sands was actually quite a gifted poet.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I entirely agree Anglo-Irish. Memory and grief, an evaluation of the lives of those involved, and those lost, not in any sense any cause for celebration. The problem arises when those without connections and actual family memories to qualify their abstract enthusiasm try and muscle in to claim a dominant share. The men on the Somme all had individual names and faces, and the attempt to imply that in some symbolic way the whole of what would be the Wee Six were there is a dishonest attempt to generalise something that I remember as being intensely personal to many of those who actually survived. I remember as a young child on 11th November Armistice Day commemorations in the 1950s having local politicians present who had shirked actual service pointed out to me by a man who had actually been there and through the worst of it all. I need not repeat his blistering sarcasm at their effrontery.

  • John Collins

    This happens in all commemorations. I remember a genuine 1916 veteran being absolutely incensed that people , as they say in West Limerick, who ‘never fur (fired) a shot in their life’ were now claiming to have taken an active part in the Rising.
    Incidentally I find it strange that the Robert Sand mentioned here shares a surname, and christen name, with Bobby Sands, the hunger striker.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Indeed it does! I’m delighted to see that some excellent work has been down to clarify who was actually there in the Post Office:

  • Anglo-Irish

    It has always struck me that there is a connection between those in power in the West who jump on the ‘Glorious Dead’ Flag waving, trumpet playing pomp and ceremony, and those in the East who preach ‘ 72 Virgins’, paradise and a land of milk and honey awaiting those who die for Allah.

    Both designed to seduce young impressionable men and women into being prepared to lay their lives on the line for King, Country or God.

    Obviously, in order to be able to enjoy the fruits of such sacrifice it is vitally important that those more interested in Mammon ensure that they themselves distance themselves from danger.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Reminds me of the comment by Brendan Behan after taking part in a New York St Patrick’s parade which had a contingent supposedly of ex IRA combatants.

    ” For f**ks sake, if we’d had that many out we’d have taken the Isle of Man! “

  • Cosmo

    Never underestimate the lure of ‘Glorious Failure’ to an adolescent mentality. It is reported that one of the favourite films of AQ recruits, watched over and over again, was Braveheart!
    On another tack – have you seen the film Best of Enemies – a docu on the televised debates between Gore Vidal and W F Buckley. Eloquence, and energy, to even surpass your own!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you for the high compliment Cosmo, to even compare me with one of the wittiest men I’ve encountered in this life. I met Gore Vidal quite a few times before he oh so unwillingly passed over, and have approvingly quoted him often on Slugger! One of the sanest of Americans, and an old friend from her twenties of my late mother in law!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I entirely agree, AI.

  • Cosmo

    He was more than witty – he could see Buckley, and what he represented, was the enemy of the people and the death of US as anything to admire.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Gore actually believed in human freedom, and poured his unstinting contempt on those who would pretend that our post war downhill rush to catch up with all those brilliant techniques of controlling the people learnt from the nasties we had so striven to defeat were acceptable to any sane person. He is much missed.

  • Cosmo

    Now, The US right blatently really loves one freedom – the freedom to make money, and protection for the rich. Buckley’s intellectualism provided ‘cover’ for the money-grabbing elite only, and now this Republican arrogance has led a desperate following to Trumpism. ( He slightly redeemed himself in my eyes by disagreeing with the neo- con invasion of Iraq). But from what i can see he seemed a repressed driven person, possibly warped by his religious beliefs.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Yes, the US has always ahd a tension between these counter-definitions of freedom. As an old “mutualist” I watched with considerable amusement (the black humour of despair alas!) as the Libertarian and Individualist Anarchists all “discovered” a real community of interest in Thatcher’s dismantling of regulation of greed. “Instead of expropriating the rich, we can simply become the rich!”

    All great fun if they did not have to destroy the natural world and its capacity for renewal, with both crass and excessive economic exploitation and with their pointless wars over control of oil! Regarding such all too obvious lack of foresight, Gore had a great supper-table story. When his father Eugene began setting up commercial airlines in the 1930s Gore’s mother was invited to prepare the first in flight menus. “Everyone loves Consommé, we’ll be safe with that” she is reputed to have said. She did not take inn flight turbulence into account and as the legal actions for scaldings started to come in, her menu was dropped.

    Why does this make me think of Trump?