Derek’s Great War howitzer will help mark grim battle’s centenary

From left; Derek Beattie, Jimmy McCreedie, John Whyte, and Jim Sherrard practice at the Ballycarry man's First World War howitzer.
From left; Derek Beattie, Jimmy McCreedie, John Whyte, and Jim Sherrard practice at the Ballycarry man's First World War howitzer.

A local man will be joining re-enactors from across the world to pay tribute to those who fought at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

Ballycarry man Derek Beattie will be one of a team of four from Northern Ireland representing the 36th (Ulster) Division at the centenary commemorations for Passchendaele this Saturday, November 10.

Derek gets a send off from wife Valerie, also dressed in period costume

Derek gets a send off from wife Valerie, also dressed in period costume

The team will be one of 16 from different parts of the world representing the men who fought in the battle.

Thousands of spectators are expected to attend the Passchendaele Salute at Fort de Seclin near Lille in France, with 16 Great War guns drawn by six horses apiece being the centrepiece of the event.

Derek and his colleagues will be one of the teams firing the guns and will spend a full day in training prior to the Saturday event.

The guns will be manned by volunteers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Republic of Ireland, Belgium and France as well as the United Kingdom.

Rehearsing their timings at loading shells in advance of the centenary event

Rehearsing their timings at loading shells in advance of the centenary event

The event is being hosted by the High Commissioner for Canada and the charity Combat Stress will be the beneficiary.

The Ballycarry man recently restored a First World War howitzer and is very familiar with the types of guns used on the Western Front.

Derek is being joined by Jim Sherrard from County Down and John Whyte and James McCreedie from County Londonderry, all members of military vehicle clubs in Northern Ireland.

“We will be having a full day’s training and then on the day itself we will fire six rounds from our gun, three seconds apart. In total there will be a 100 gun salute to mark the centenary of the end of the battle,” he explained.

“When I bought and was restoring my howitzer I had the wheels made in England through the firm that makes the wheels for the King’s Troop, and I got to know some of the people involved in this event at that time,” he added.

The organiser of the Passchendaele event, John Slough, kept in touch with him and the opportunity arose to take part in the centenary event.

He and the others on the team have all purchased 36th (Ulster) Division uniforms for the occasion, which will start with a Drumhead Service at 10am on the morning of November 10.

When the guns are fired, Derek says they will fire at three second intervals, and he says it will be a proud moment.

“It will be a very proud moment, it’s a once in a lifetime experience. I am really looking forward to it and hope everything goes well,” he said.

“After the ceremony the crowd can come forward and talk to the gunners, so I am looking forward to explaining more about the guns when that happens,”

“Although we will not have much time to spare we may get the chance to see some of the sites in the general area which are associated with the First World War battles,” added Derek.

Further details on the event can be found at www.passchendaelesalute2017

The Third Battle of Ypres began on July 31 1917 and became infamous for the scale of casualties and the mud through which men had to fight.

Despite not much progress being made by the Allies during the offensive, the capture of the remnants of Passchendaele village by British and Canadian forces enabled Haig as overall commander to call off the offensive on November 10, 1917, and claim success.

The village was just over five miles from the starting point of the offensive, which cost at least 260,000 casualties on both the Allied and German sides.