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Reserve Forces & Cadets Association
Northern Ireland



15 December 2017

A challenge to find out more about the history of World War I by researching stories of ‘local heroes’ has connected students of Royal Belfast Academical Institute with an ‘old boy’ who was an acclaimed hero of the Great War.

Cadet Corporal Owen Walsh (15), Cadet Sergeant Daniel Stewart (16) and Cadet Corporal Isaac Greer (16), all enthusiastic members of the school’s Combined Cadet Force, chose to research the story of Captain Charles Beauclerk Despard.  The story they discovered about the schoolboy affectionately known to his family and friends as ‘Charlie’, who grew up to become the holder of the Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross, before being killed in action, inspired and moved the modern-day teens.

Owen Walsh said, “At Inst we are very well aware of the old boys who lost their lives in the two World Wars and the school is proud to commemorate them, but researching the story of Charlie Despard for ourselves changed our perspective and really made us see that, behind every engraved name on those Rolls of Honour, there was a real person.”

Daniel Stewart added, “It was strange to think that this great war hero was once an Inst boy, like ourselves, and the more we learned of him and his bravery, the prouder we became.  He really was an outstanding soldier, but he was also a son, husband and father and his loss must have been dreadful for his family to face … reminding us of the human cost of war.”

Charles Despard was born at Woodleigh, Cultra on 31 December 1880, the youngest child of William Francis (a land and estate agent) and Mary Despard (nee Hunt).  Charles was educated at RBAI and, in 1899, he enlisted in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry where he served as a Private, then Corporal.  He joined the Imperial Yeomanry and served in the South African War.  He was commissioned on 1 April 1900 and, a year later, was Mentioned in Despatches ‘For gallantry while serving as a Subaltern with the 74th Imperial Yeomanry during the extraction of a convoy from a difficult situation near Griquatown, Cape Colony on 24 August 1901 during the South African War’.  He was also awarded the Queen’s and King’s Medals during this time.

After the war, fired with a sense of adventure, Charles emigrated to Canada to work in Saskatchewan as a rancher, returning to England on the outbreak of war in August 1914 to volunteer for active service. He was commissioned into the Service Squadron of the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons as a Lieutenant on 19 October 1914 and was appointed Captain on 30 October 1915, serving first with the 36th (Ulster) Division, then with the North Irish Horse.  While preparing for war, Charles Despard met and married Josephine Madden in Leixlip, County Kildare.

All too soon, he was on the front lines of World War 1 and, as Officer in Command of ‘D’ Company 9th (North Irish Horse) Royal Irish Fusiliers, he saw action near Cambrai and was involved in the retreat from St Quentin, earning both the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order.

The citations conjure the picture of a man of considerable selflessness. The Military Cross Citation, awarded for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’ spoke of how he commanded his company with the greatest skill and gallantry during an attack, clearing a portion of the village on the flank of the battalion. At dusk, seeing that he was in danger of being cut off, he withdrew his own and two other companies, evacuated all the wounded, and held a line south of the village. During all this time he moved about under very heavy machine-gun fire, regardless of personal danger, and displayed the greatest coolness and courage.

The Distinguished Service Order, awarded after the gruelling five day withdrawal from St Quentin in 1918 highlighted his high qualities as a leader, second-in-command of his Battalion. While in command of the rear-guard, the gallantry and determination with which he disputed the ground was largely responsible for the safe withdrawal of the rest of the main body.

Sadly, just a few months after that display of courage, Captain Charles Beauclerk Despard, then aged 37, was killed in action by shellfire at Kemmel Hill … the last surviving Captain in 108th Brigade of the 36th (Ulster) Division.  He was buried in Kemmel Cemetery but his grave was subsequently lost and so, today, he is commemorated on Tyne Cot Memorial, Belgium … and, of course, at his school.

Isaac Greer said, “We have all studied World War 1 in history classes and at the Cadets, but those lessons will take on a whole new significance for us, thanks to our work on the Local heroes project.”

The information accumulated in the young people’s research will now become an important learning resource for others in the Cadet movement.

Pictured below showing off the certificates which marked their participation in the research challenge are, from left, Cadet Corporal Owen Walsh (15), Cadet Sergeant Daniel Stewart (16) and Cadet Corporal Isaac Greer (16), from R.B.A.I. Combined Cadet Force.