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Reserve Forces & Cadets Association
Northern Ireland



02 January 2019

An old, blurred snapshot in a treasured family album has proved the starting point for a fascinating journey into the past by local Cadets who unravelled a poignant story of World War 1 courage and loss.

As part of a Northern Ireland wide history project, members of the Portadown Detachment Army Cadet Force were challenged to find out more about the history of World War I by researching stories of ‘local heroes’. To give them some inspiration, their Detachment Sergeant Instructor came up with a photo of his Great Great Uncle, Sergeant Robert Titterington, and Cadet Sergeant Jake Wills (17), Cadet Corporal Chelsea Smyth (16) and Cadet Lance Corporal Murrin Ramsey (16) were immediately caught up in a journey into the past.

They discovered that their subject was born on 5 January 1891 at Derryinver, Bannfoot, Lurgan, probably on board one of the canal boats known as ‘lighters’ as his father’s occupation was listed as ‘lighterman’. 

Lightermen and their families usually lived on board their boats which were used to ferry cargo.  The conditions were cramped with just one cabin with a coal-fired stove for heating and cooking, a few cupboards, and a fold-away table with bench seats which doubled as beds at night.  Life was tough and, for young Robert, it was about to get tougher.  

In 1899 his mother died at the Fever Hospital in Newry as the result of a miscarriage and the following year his father left him and his younger siblings, Mina, Sarah and Davis, in order to make a new life in America. It was to be the last the children saw of him and, shortly after, they were fostered, with the help of the Protestant Orphan Society, by Robert and Mary Jones of Terryhoogan, Scarva.

The next reference the Cadets found to Robert was in 1908 when, aged 17, he enlisted in the army and arrived  at 1st Battalion Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers) at the Regimental Depot in Gough Barracks, Armagh, for Basic training. 
The trio discovered that in May 1911 Robert played a part in the grand unveiling of the Queen Victoria memorial in the Mall facing Buckingham Palace and in July 1913 Robert was awarded a 2nd Class Certificate of Education. In January 1914 he was promoted to the rank of Corporal. In February 1914 Robert joined the Soldiers’ Christian Association (SCA) at Moore Barracks, Shornclife, England and he was stationed there as war broke out, as part of 10th Infantry Brigade (of the 4th Division).

Robert sailed from Southampton to Boulogne in August 1914 and was almost immediately caught up in the terrifying first battle of Ypres and subsequent retreat from Mons. On May 25th 1915, Sergeant Robert Titterington was killed in action at the age of 24 and was buried at Hop Store Cemetery. Just a month before his death Robert had received a special mention for bravery in the field by Major General Wilson, Commander of the 4th Division.  

Reflecting on the sad history, Cadet Sergeant Jack Willis said, “Occasionally we all take our advantages and opportunities for granted but learning about Robert’s life made us think again.  He had a really hard start in life and obviously worked hard to better himself.  When he joined the army he managed to get some education and, by the time he was serving in Belgium, he had been promoted to the rank of Sergeant and was recognised for his bravery in what must have been dreadful circumstances, in the trenches of World War 1.”

Cadet Corporal Chelsea Smyth added, “We have all studied World War 1 in history classes and at the Cadets, but learning about Robert reminded us that, behind the statistics, facts and figures, were ordinary people whose lives were torn apart by war.  The research made us feel that we knew Robert as a person and we were all genuinely saddened that he didn’t make it out.”

Cadet Lance Corporal Murrin Ramsay agrees, “Looking at Robert’s experiences 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 and many of them from our area.  It gives a whole new dimension to history lessons and it has been an interesting challenge for us – a bit less adventurous than the majority of Cadet exercises, but one that we will always remember.”

The information gathered by the young people has already been shared with the Titterington family and will now become an important learning resource for others in the Cadet movement.