It is difficult to believe that taking a well-earned drink of water at a village well could lead to the deaths of three young soldiers of The Highland Light Infantry!
But, that is what happened on that fateful day in 1956, which changed the lives of their families forever; and epitomises the award of the Elizabeth Cross. The award, named after Her Majesty The Queen, was launched in 2009 and is granted to the next of kin of Armed Forces personnel killed on operations or a result of terrorism as a mark of recognition for their tremendous loss.
So, on Monday 24 October, exactly sixty years to the day, that the family of Private Matthew Neely, received the fateful telegram with the shocking news of his death, Deputy Lieutenant Jean McFadden awarded Mrs Margaret Moncur with the Elizabeth Cross in recognition of the death of her big brother, Matt, while on active service in Cyprus.
The soldiers of The Highland Light Infantry had been deployed to Cyprus as part of the Cyprus Emergency Peace-keeping Force in January 1956
On 23 October 1956, Matt, only 19 years of age, had been playing in an off-duty, inter-platoon football match in the Cypriot village of Lefkoniko and was first to go to the nearby well for a refreshing drink. Sadly, the well had been booby-trapped and his approach set off an explosion of an electrically detonated mine, which killed him instantly and injured two other soldiers. Private John Beattie later died of his wounds in the British Military Hospital in Nicosia and both Matt and John were buried with full military honours in Nicosia Military Cemetery on 25 October. The third soldier, Private Ben Doherty seemed to have lesser injuries and was returned to Cowglen Hospital in Glasgow; but, sadly, following a six-week struggle, he succumbed to his wounds.
In the splendid surroundings of the Lord Provost’s Dining Room, Margaret, Matt’s only surviving sibling, remembered the arrival of that dreadful telegram during breakfast: her brother, Billy, opened the telegram and rushed down the street in his bare feet to tell their mother, who had gone to the bakery for the family’s morning rolls. Major Ken Kenyon, who was a sergeant at that fateful football match was able to add his memories as an eye-witness to the tragic event.
The Neely and Beattie families asked for the bodies to be returned to Glasgow and an appeal, including money from their comrades, raised the necessary funds to transport the coffins by ship to Liverpool, then by rail to Central Station, to be buried in Glasgow’s Western Necropolis in December 1956.
Matt, John and Ben were among the 371 British servicemen who lost their lives between 1 April 1955 and 18 April 1959 during the Cyprus Emergency, sometimes known as “the forgotten conflict”.
The Elizabeth Cross is available to the families of those who died in conflicts dating back to 1948, including the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, the Falklands conflict and, more recently, operations in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. Those receiving the honour receive two pinned silver emblems, one full-size and one miniature, to be worn at formal and less formal remembrance events respectively, as well as a memorial scroll.
In a message to Her Armed Forces, Her Majesty The Queen said:
“This seems to me a right and proper way of showing our enduring debt to those who are killed while actively protecting what is most dear to us all. The solemn dignity which we attach to the names of those who have fallen is deeply ingrained in our national character. As a people, we accord this ultimate sacrifice the highest honour and respect.
“I greatly hope that the Elizabeth Cross will give further meaning to the nation’s debt of gratitude to the families and loved ones of those who have died in the service of our country. We will remember them all.”
We, at the RHF Museum, would be delighted to help should you or someone you know feel that the death of family member in the service of our country may warrant the award of an Elizabeth Cross.