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Reserve Forces & Cadets Association
Northern Ireland



01 January 2019

The story of an R.B.A.I. ‘old boy’ killed in action in France in 1917 has inspired current students to find out more about World War 1.  

Their research, carried out as part of the Northern Ireland wide ‘Local Heroes’ history project, revealed a poignant story of service and sacrifice and provided a new perspective on the history of the Great War to RBAI Year 11 pupils William Adams, Thomas Stevenson and Jack Owens.

They chose as the subject of their research 2nd Lieutenant John (‘Jack’) Riggs who was a pupil at ‘Inst’ from 1904 to 1911. The cadets chose Jack as the subject of their research because of the availability of over one hundred letters written by him, while he served in France, to his eventual fiancé Dorothy Kendall. The letters revealed their often conflicting attitudes to current affairs, their hopes, desires and fears during the period 1915 to December 1917 when, unfortunately, Jack was killed near Arras.

The trio of teenage researchers discovered that Jack, who lived in the Ulster Bank House in Waring Street, Belfast, with his mother and stepfather, initially served an apprenticeship as an engineer with the Belfast shipbuilding firm Workman, Clark and Company. He joined the Royal Engineers shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914 and trained as a despatch rider with the 15th Division in England and was posted to the front a year later. In 1916 he was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery and was posted to the Arras sector.

While home on leave in the spring of 1917 he and Dorothy became engaged to be married. They were clearly looking forward to a long and happy future together even though their personalities were very different. In December of that same year, however, Jack was seriously injured by an exploding German shell and died of his wounds a day or two later.

Reflecting on the research, William Adams said, “We felt a real connection with Jack because, like us, he had been a pupil at Inst, but instead of enjoying a carefree youth he instead found himself in the trenches, something virtually unimaginable to us.  Finding out about Jack really made us think more deeply about the real people who were caught up in the war, most of them not much older than we are now.”

Thomas Stevenson added, “When you learn about the First World War in school and in the cadets you take in loads of statistics, but this project reminded us that there is a real person behind every casualty and a real family left bereaved.  We felt sorry for Dorothy’s loss too. Clearly she too was left scarred by the experience. The fact that she treasured Jack’s letters shows how deeply she felt his loss.”

Jack Owens concluded, “Working on the Local Heroes project gave us a whole new dimension to our history lessons and it was an interesting and valuable challenge for us – a bit less adventurous than the majority of cadet exercises, but an experience we valued and one that we will always remember.”