This is part 2 of our November Remembrance Series where we share the stories of people connected to the North Belfast Heritage Cluster who were also part of the war effort during WW1. This story comes from Clifton Street Orange Hall. The Orange Hall has memorabilia and artefacts from Lodges across Belfast and this story comes from the Roll of Honour of Castleton Temperance RBP 814.
Many men found themselves far from home during the First World War. Perhaps none more so than John McFarland and the Royal Naval Air Service Armoured Car Division (RNACD), who found themselves fighting for Britain, alongside the Russians on the eastern front.
Born 25th of July 1881 to William and Jane McFarland, John grew up on the family farm in Faccary, Co. Tyrone, with his younger brother, David. He came to Belfast after 1901, where he became a ‘motorman’ for the Belfast Corporation before moving to Rockdale Street, just off the Falls Road after he married his wife Mary Yuile from Co. Tipperary in 1907. It was his occupation as a tram mechanic which would come to define his role in the upcoming war. During his time in Belfast, John would join Castleton Temperance Royal Black Perceptory 814 . It was his affiliation with this lodge that brought him to the attention of our archivist, who noticed his name, alongside two unfamiliar war medals. This prompted further investigation into the name now displayed amongst other Orangemen who served during the two World Wars.
In other research pieces surrounding War Veterans, there has been a focus on the individual’s life before the outbreak of war, however, in the case of John McFarland, it is his military career that is rather unique. At the outbreak of war, John was one of many men associated with the Armoured Car Divisions, established by Oliver Locker-Lampson, the Conservative and Unionist MP, in October 1914. McFarland was likely attached to the 14th or 15th Armoured Car Divisions, which contained a substantial number of men from the Belfast Area. These divisions were funded by Locker-Lampson, but were also supplemented by the Ulster Unionist funds.
Deployed in Belgium in 1915, the divisions proved their usefulness in limited periods of combat, but they were largely unsuited for the entrenched form of warfare that was taking place on the western front. Facing the dismantling of their vehicles and the disbanding of their units, Locker Lampson then lobbied for the Armoured Car Division to be redeployed to Russia. This redeployment is how John McFarland found himself fighting as part of the campaigns in the Caucasus, Roumania and the Galacia region, where he would fight alongside Russian forces as part of a British unit.
McFarland went on to become one of the more decorated men in the unit. As Chief Petty Officer, he was wounded whilst deployed in Roumania in December 1916. For his conduct during the RNACD’s time in Roumania, he was awarded his first Russian commendation; the St George Cross, 3rd Class:
“For conspicuous bravery at seven different times and places in Roumania (Presented by Grand Duke Michael)
It is likely that during one of these acts that McFarland was injured. The 3rd and 4th Class medals were given out to foreign soldiers quite readily, with a large number being bestowed upon members of the Armoured Car Division, with academics such as Alston suggesting that “some in the unit believed the Russians handed them out like toffees.” It is therefore a rare distinction that John McFarland was the only one in the entire unit to be awarded the St George Cross 2nd Class:
“For bravery in assisting to clear a road blocked with sandbags etc., thus enabling armoured cars to attack. Aug. 191-.”
Damage to the document has obscured the full year from being legible, however, the medal registry showing that no medals were awarded before 1916, it is likely that it was bestowed on John McFarland in August 1917, as the RACD covered the retreat of Russian Forces. This act was highly praised by Russian Generals with several Crosses of St George awarded for their efforts. However, this does contradict his official death date recorded as 1st July 1917. He would also be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal from the Royal Navy for his work as part of the Armoured Car division.
Whilst we are unsure what happened to John McFarland in June-August 1917, he would never make it back to his wife Mary or his home in Rockdale Street. Based on the evidence presently available from the National Archives, it is likely he died in the later half of 1917, as revolutions and political power plays meant the Armoured Car Division were forced to retreat alongside a withdrawing Russian Army, before finding their armoured cars seized on Christmas Day 1917.
McFarland (F/2863) is memorialised in Poznan Cemetery in Poland. He is remembered alongside 4 of his fellow Armoured Car Squadmates: C.P.O William James Locke from St Ives. P.O Wilfred Lionel Mitchell, from Somerset. P.O William George Pearson, from Norfolk and C.P.O Edgar Viane from Gwent in Belgium, who died in the Galacia region in 1917 and on a memorial dedicated to members of the RNAC whose graves were never found.
In Clifton Street Orange Hall, the Rolls of Honour fill the top corridor of the building highlighting the numbers of men from the organisation who served during both World Wars. Amongst the other names on the wall, John McFarland does not stand out, until you look a bit deeper. The foreign medals recorded beside his name hinted at an interesting story ready to be told. Perhaps less noticeable was the name just below McFarland: The name of his brother-in-law and brother of Mary, James Hugh Yuile. As can be seen in the photograph, James also received a foreign medal, the Croix de Gurre from France, while serving with the Royal Field Artillery, however, his story will have to be told another day.
The Highs and Lows of Research
Researching John McFarland highlighted the difficulties in exploring stories from over 100 years ago; especially during such a complex and chaotic period as WW1. We have pieces of information but are also left with holes that restrict our understanding of the person. Due to the nature of military procedures, we often are able to find out more about a person’s life as a soldier, than that of their time before they enlisted. However, even this fragmented story helps paint the picture of a person behind the name that first piqued my interest when I saw it on a roll of honour on the 3rd floor of Clifton Street Orange Hall. This research piece focused more on his time as part of the Royal Navy Armoured Car Division because of the unique journey these men, many of them from Belfast, found themselves on.
Whilst we may never know some facts about John McFarland, or indeed his fellow soldiers in the armoured car division, through researching his story not only was I able to link an individual now memorialised in Clifton Street Orange Hall to a memorial in Eastern Poland, but we were also able to uncover more information that may give more detail and new information surrounding their time in Russia. I have since passed on this information to the Commonwealth War Graves Association which highlights that there may be discrepancies in the dates of death for the men memorialised on the Poznan Memorial in Poland. The discrepancy can be attributed in part to the withdrawal of the Russian Army and additional breakdown in communication and procedures caused by the revolution and associated emerging politics, as well as the logistical difficulties of communicating such information from the Eastern Front back to Britain.
Whilst John was originally from County Tyrone, and lived off the Falls Road when he enlisted, the roll of honour within Clifton Street Orange Hall was what connected him to North Belfast. However, it has become apparent throughout this extended period of research, I was able to identify a number of people who served alongside John in the RNACD who came from areas such as Alexandra Park, Disraeli Street and Skegoneil Avenue: These individuals will now be the focus of future research as we continue to uncover the stories of North Belfast and its people.
Whilst this story is somewhat patchy, it demonstrates that even an incomplete history can have a big impact on our understanding of our home, and the people who once lived and worked in it. You never know what story you, or your relatives have that can help unlock a memory in others.
 Old place names and archaic spelling that would have been contemporary with 1914-1918
About the archivist:
James Cromey is the Archive Coordinator for the North Belfast Heritage Cluster. He has a background in Victorian, Industrial and Medical History and has received degrees from the University of Glasgow and Queens University Belfast. All research has been conducted to a high academic standard and has been fully referenced. If you would like to know more about a story or piece of research, or if you wish to tell us about your own story, email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org