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William McFadzean VC (1895 - 1916):

Willaim McFadzean

William Frederick McFadzean is remembered for being the first winner of the Victoria Cross during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In fact he won it for an act of extreme heroism before the attack proper had even begun; it was also the ultimate act of self-sacrifice as he deliberately and with no time to reflect gave his own life to save those of countless comrades. 

Billy McFadzean, as he was known, was born in Lurgan, County Armagh, son of William McFadzean, a JP, though his family moved to the Cregagh district of east Belfast, where his mother came from. He was educated at Mountpottinger Boys’ School and the Belfast Trade Preparatory School. His record there included over 30 reprimands for bad behaviour. This may have been due to a natural liveliness, or an implacable supervisor; nevertheless he secured a post in the prominent Belfast linen firm, Spence, Bryson and Company – he was an apprentice paid £20 per year. Billy was physically fit: six feet tall, and athletic, he was a keen rugby player for Collegians RFC. He was a popular figure, animative, supportive, and selfless, as he would ultimately prove.

1912 was a year full of political activity even by the standards of a politically febrile province, and Billy was not at all unaware of this. He was soon involved with the Young Citizen Volunteers, one of the then-popular volunteer movements formed to resist Home Rule, which was being pressed by the Government in the face of determined political opposition in London as well as Ulster. Extra-political opposition began to loom as well and the various volunteer movements in Ulster began to arm themselves and organise along increasingly military lines. The highly dangerous situation was defused only by the outbreak of war all over Europe in August 1914. Only the United Kingdom had no large standing army and no conscripted forces, but the war at its outset was extremely popular and hundreds of thousands across the United Kingdom volunteered, Billy among them. He enlisted with the 14th battalion, the Royal Irish Rifles, on 22 September. Following training in Ireland and England, the battalion was despatched to France on 5 October 1915. McFadzean, as always trying to keep up spirits with his songs and his “banter” took a little time to write to his parents, telling them how proud he was to be the soldier-member of the family, adding: “I hope to play the game and if I don’t add much lustre to it, I certainly will not tarnish it.” 

The “game” would lead to the most catastrophic day in the history of the British army, 1 July 1916, when a mass attack was to begin against the German lines on the Western Front. McFadzean, presumably due to his physical strength, had been selected as what was then called a bomber or bombardier (what are now called “grenades” were then called “bombs”, more specifically “Mills bombs”), whose job was to pack a canvas bag with hand grenades and join in the frontal assault throwing the grenades at enemy positions. McFadzean’s battalion was to attack the German positions at Thiepval Wood. As day was breaking on 1 July, he was preparing his ammunition, which came packed in boxes. As he was cutting the binding rope on one box, two grenades fell out, and lost their pins – this meant that they would explode within seconds, and cause along with the other grenades an enormous explosion which would have been devastating in the combined space of a trench. A split-second decision – McFadzean threw himself on top of the box, thus absorbing almost all the blast, so much so that only one other soldier was injured. In the words of his VC citation in the London Gazette two months later: 

“The bombs exploded blowing him to pieces, but only one other man was injured. He well knew his danger, being himself a bomber, but without a moment's hesitation he gave his life for his comrades.” 

As his remains were removed, many present, despite the heavy bombardments overhead, removed their helmets as a mark of their respect. 

The award of the Victoria Cross for his action that morning was gazetted (officially published, in the London Gazette) on 9 September. Shortly afterwards his commanding officer wrote to McFadzean’s father:  

“It was one of the finest deeds of a war that is so full of big things and I can assure you that the whole battalion rejoiced when they heard it. Your gallant boy, though gone from us, his deeds will forever live in our memories and the record will go down for all time in the regimental history which he has added fresh and great lustre to.” 

The previous October, McFadzean had doubted whether he would add “lustre” to the “game”. 

Praise also came from higher quarters. The King wrote to McFadzean’s family: 

“It is a matter of sincere regret to me that the death of Private McFadzean deprived me of the pride of personally conferring upon him the Victoria Cross, the greatest of all rewards for valour and devotion to duty.” 

William McFadzean senior was given a train ticket (third class) allowing him to attend the ceremony on 28 February 1917, at Buckingham Palace, when the King presented him with his son’s Victoria Cross, stating: 

“Nothing finer has been done in this war for which I have given a Victoria Cross than the act committed by your son to save many lives in giving his own so heroically.”

On Sunday 1 December, 1917, a service was held at Newtownbreda Presbyterian Church (the McFadzean family church) where a memorial tablet dedicated to McFadzean was unveiled; there is a memorial to him in First Presbyterian Church, Lurgan. His name appears on the Thiepval Memorial in France, by the site of the action on 1 July 1916, and his name is inscribed at the Ulster Memorial Tower nearby, a monument specifically commemorating the Ulster troops who died on 1 July 1916. He is also commemorated in song, and in that most Belfast of forms, a mural, in the Cregagh Road area where he lived. The medal itself was presented to the Royal Ulster Rifles Museum, Belfast.


Born: 9 October 1895
Died: 1 July 1916
Richard Froggatt

Philip Orr: The Road to the Somme (Belfast, 1987); R Doherty & D Truesdale: Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross (Dublin, 2000);; ATQ Stewart: The Ulster Crisis (London, 1969); Supplement to The London Gazette, 9 September 1916, p. 8871;