A Province-wide challenge to commemorate the centenary of the Great War by researching ‘local heroes’ has become a labour of love for local teenagers.
Emmalee Wray and Eve Matthewson from Ballymena Cadet Force Detachment found themselves increasingly inspired as they unearthed details of the personal history of Emmalee’s own late great-great grandfather, Private Leonard Hamilton, and their touching account of his life earned them first prize in the competition.
Emmalee says: “Within the Army Cadet Force Detachment we often look back at military history so we already knew a bit about some of Northern Ireland’s most prominent World War 1 heroes but we wanted to find out what the Great War was like for so-called ‘ordinary’ soldiers and we chose my great-great grandfather, Leonard Hamilton.
“Looking at his war-time experiences and how they shaped his life gave us a real insight into the lifetime mark that war leaves on people.
“It also made me feel specially connected to him which was a lovely personal bonus.”
Leonard Hamilton was born in 1892 in Lurgan to Sarah and William Hamilton, both weavers.
He went to Model Primary School in the town until he was 14 when he left to work alongside his parents at the Lurgan Weaving Company.
He soon tired of the job and worked his passage to Canada where he trained as a tailor, sending money home to help his parents and never losing touch with the girl he left behind, Sarah.
In 1914 he and many of his co-workers joined the Canadian Army and, in July 1915, he found himself part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force heading for the trenches of Belgium.
Emmalee and Eve found that nothing in his life could have prepared the young man for what he would see and experience as he served on bloody battlefields right across the front such as St Eloi, Mount Sorrel, the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendale and Amiens.
Despite massive losses all around him, Leonard survived, but his brother, Bob, was killed in action.
Leonard returned to work in Canada, becoming tailor to a Mr Dwight D Eisenhower who would go on to become US President.
His sweetheart, Sarah, joined him and the pair were married in Canada in March 1919, returning some years later to live in Lurgan.
Eve said, “When we did our research and found out more about the conditions and dangers that Leonard endured we were delighted to think that he had secured a happy family life with Sarah, but we discovered that the war years cast a shadow over his entire life.
“His life became still more sad and isolated after Sarah’s death when he focused on the deaths and bloodshed he had witnessed in the trenches.”
The information accumulated in the young people’s research will now become an important learning resource for others in the Cadet movement.