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Robert Quigg VC (1885 - 1955):

Robert Quigg VC

Robert Quigg was one of three Ulstermen to win the Victoria Cross on 1 July 1916, that disastrous day for the British army, not least the Ulster Division. He is also famed for his use of language at the investiture ceremony.

Quigg was born near the Giant’s Causeway on the County Antrim coast, in a townland named Carnkirk where his father worked as a tourist guide and boatman. Quigg attended the Giant’s Causeway National School, where he was described as “diligent and reliable”. He did some farm labour on the nearby Macnaghten estate, the Macnaghtens being a prominent family in the district; the estate was then the property of Sir Harry Macnaghten, sixth baronet Macnaghten (born 1896; his father, the fifth baronet, was son of Lord Macnaghten of Runkerry, who was a judge and the fourth baronet.)Like many of that generation, Quigg signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912, the popular petition against Home Rule for Ireland (the vast majority who signed were Protestants in Ulster).

In September 1914, Quigg enlisted in the 12th Royal Irish Rifles, part of the Ulster Division, and remained in a sense in the employ of Sir Harry as his batman (that is, a kind of personal attendant) who was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Highlanders (The Black Watch), attached to the 12th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles. A family story relates that Lady Macnaghten, Harry’s mother, told Quigg not to come back from the war without her son. If true, this is poignant. Comrades of Quigg later recalled that he was a very enthusiastic soldier, a “madman”, whose refusal to keep his head below the parapet eventually led to his being transferred from the front line to the cookhouse. In short, he was highly impatient to kill as many of the enemy as possible.

On 1 July 1916 he had what the senior commanders thought would be a great opportunity to do this; it was the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and at 7:30 in the morning, the appointed time, he went over the top with his battalion. A survivor would recall the soldiers waiting for the signal from their officers, one of whom was Sir Harry, who looked at his watch and told his men not to worry as they had “plenty of time”; leading his men on the attack, according to this survivor, he was killed within minutes. Meanwhile Quigg was in the thickest of fighting, taking part in three separate assaults on the heavily-defended enemy lines on what was the worst day in the history of the British army (20,000 fatal casualties). The following day, Macnaghten not having returned, but rumoured to be alive though seriously wounded, Quigg went out into No Man’s Land, heavily shelled, to look for him. He made seven attempts, all unsuccessful, though each time he returned to his own lines with a wounded soldier. Sir Harry’s remains were never found (the baronetcy passed to his brother Arthur Douglas, one year younger and also a 2nd lieutenant, but he was killed in action in September the same year. At almost exactly the same time, 9 September, Quigg’s VC was gazetted, the citation stated that Quigg:

“...hearing a rumour that his platoon officer was lying wounded, he went out seven times to look for him, under heavy shell and machine-gun fire, each time bringing back a wounded man. The last man he dragged on a waterproof sheet from within yards of the enemy's wire. He was seven hours engaged in this most gallant work, and was finally so exhausted that he had to give it up.”

His VC was awarded to him by King George V at a ceremony at Sandringham, Norfolk, on 7 January, 1917. A legendary story relates that at this ceremony, the king, when pinning the medal on Quigg, addressed him with the comment; “You are a brave man, Quigg” to which Quigg was reputed to have replied “you’re a brave wee man yourself, Mr King”, the humorous point being the ambiguity engendered by the Ulster use of “brave” to describe someone likeable or decent.

There are differences of details in the many versions of the story; in one, the king first asks him what he did before the war and is confounded by the reply “footin’ peat for Jim Forsythe” delivered in what was for the part-Danish, part-German king an impenetrable North Antrim accent, though another part of the humour is doubt whether the king would have known what “footing peat” was (stacking sods of peat upright to dry them), whatever accent was used.

Quigg survived the war, and remained in the army until 1926, surviving what was possibly his most dangerous episode when he fell from an upper-storey window, nearly being impaled on iron railings with spiked tops. He lived for the rest of his life in North Antrim, where he was regarded as a local hero and was presented to Queen Elizabeth II (granddaughter of George V) when she visited Coleraine in 1953 (her coronation year) and reviewed a gathering of ex-servicemen. He died in 1955 and was given a full military funeral and interred at Billy Parish Church just outside Bushmills; there is a memorial to him inside the church. On 28 June 2016 a memorial statue, sited in Bushmills, was unveiled by the same Queen Elizabeth II; the same day, his neice unveiled an Ulster History Circle Blue Plaque in his memory.

Quigg was one of four Ulster soldiers to win the VC on 1 July 1916, and his was the only non-posthumous award (the others were Private William McFadzean, Captain Eric Bell, and Lieutenant Geoffrey Cather). In addition to his VC Quigg was also awarded with the Medal of the Order of St George, a Russian honour. His name appears at the Thiepval Memorial, France, where a dedicated tower, the Ulster Tower, specifically commemorates those nine soldiers of the Ulster Division to have won the VC during the First World War

Born: 14 March 1885
Died: 14 May 1955
Richard Froggatt
Richard Doherty & David Truesdale: Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross (Dublin, 2000); John Keegan: The First World War (London, 1998); David Stevenson: 1914-1918: The History of the First World War (Penguin Books, 2004);;