Armistice 100: Hampstead businesswoman lays First World War ghosts to rest

Sharon Baxter's great uncle died in the First World War after fleeing home to join the army. Pic: JO

Sharon Baxter's great uncle died in the First World War after fleeing home to join the army. Pic: JON KING - Credit: Archant

She was 11-years-old when a tall man in a long trench coat drifted past the kitchen window.

Sharon travelled to France where she found Andrew's grave. Pic: SHARON BAXTER

Sharon travelled to France where she found Andrew's grave. Pic: SHARON BAXTER - Credit: Archant

At first she thought it was her Uncle Don coming to visit, but when she popped her head through the cottage door at the family home in Swinford, Ireland, there was no one there.

Puzzled, she explained the mystery to her mother.

“Don’t worry, that’s Cloaky,” Ellen said.

And that’s how in 1971 Hampstead businesswoman Sharon Baxter first learnt about the ghost of her Great Uncle Andrew Neary.

Andrew Neary. Pic: SHARON BAXTER

Andrew Neary. Pic: SHARON BAXTER - Credit: Archant

In the First World War the young Irishman chose to take his chance fighting with the British Army rather than face the wrath of his family, and the law.

It was a Saturday night when after a few pints Andrew got into an argument with local boy Michael Gallagher. Tempers flared, punches were thrown and a brawl broke out.

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Andrew was the victor, but the boy was in a bad way – knocked unconscious – as the scrap went much further than either wanted it to. A crowd had gathered around the pair, neither of whom wanted to lose face.

Andrew went on the run – from the police and his farmer dad, who would’ve killed him for bringing shame on the family. He was the youngest of 13 children.

Through the fields, in the middle of the night, the panic-stricken farm hand made his way through the peat bogs to the house of his favourite aunt, Kate Groarke, in Killaturley three miles away. He explained his escape plan.

With enough money, he would flee to Inniskilling and join the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, returning when it had all blown over, perhaps even coming back a hero.

Reluctantly, Kate gave him the little money she had and he made his way to Galway where he took the King’s shilling.

He was fighting at Delville Wood on September 6, 1916, trying to capture a German position during a series of engagements in the Battle of the Somme when he was killed.

Private Neary was 21-years-old.

“It must have been devastating for his family,” Sharon, 58, said. “Mainly for his aunt. She was a broken woman after that. She never forgave herself.

“The family didn’t blame her. She did that quite sufficiently by herself.

“What he endured in the war must have been far worse than any justice he would have encountered in Ireland,” she added.

Moved by his story, Sharon – owner of the ‘Enry ‘Iggins hairdresser’s in Flask Walk – by then in her thirties, went in search of her Great Uncle’s final resting place.

A few internet searches later, she discovered where he was buried – heading to Delville Wood Cemetery in Longueval, France, with his grave number.

“I made it my mission to find him. The family all chipped in for a wreath. I just wanted to close the circle and tell him we had found him.

“Maybe his ghost was stalking our house because no one had been to visit him,” Sharon thought.

She walked past grave after grave before stumbling upon his headstone.

“I felt euphoric. It all felt real then, not just ghost stories around the fire in Ireland.

“We wanted to show we appreciated his sacrifice and that we have never forgotten him and he will never be forgotten,” Sharon said.

That sacrifice will be marked further when Andrew’s name is added to a memorial in Heaton Park in Manchester, where the Neary’s resettled in the 1950s.

On the family’s own Remembrance Day plans, Sharon, said: “We will raise a pint of Guiness to Andrew Neary and all the other fallen soldiers.”

And of Andrew’s ghost? His presence is still felt, but as a source of wonder.

“The children in the family are fascinated by him. We tell them he’s not going to hurt you, he just wants to feel part of the family and the home. They’re intrigued by their link to the First World War.”