Long-lost photo reveals Scot’s bravery in First World War

John O'Hara, front left, with Father Leon Peulmeule outside the church as its relics are removed. Picture: IWM
John O'Hara, front left, with Father Leon Peulmeule outside the church as its relics are removed. Picture: IWM
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THE discovery of a long-lost photograph of a Scots soldier rescuing sacred objects from a French church almost 100 years ago has unearthed a remarkable tale of courage during the First World War.

John O’Hara, whose grandfather, also John O’Hara, helped found Celtic FC and whose grandson, Brendan O’Hara, is the SNP’s defence spokesman at Westminster, was a 21-year-old member of the Machine Gun Corps when the picture was taken on 26 February, 1918 by photographer Lt David McLellan.

SNP MP Brendan O'Hara. Picture: Fiona Hudson

SNP MP Brendan O'Hara. Picture: Fiona Hudson

He and four other soldiers had been sent to Armentières, to help rescue artefacts from the church of St Vaast, which had been hit by a shell.

The picture, which has been sold as a postcard for decades in the town where people never knew the identity of the British soldiers, captures a poignant moment just at the start of Germany’s spring offensive, the final failed push which alone accounted for more than 1.5 million Axis and Allied military deaths.

O’Hara, who joined up in 1916, survived the war and after demobbing in 1919 studied medicine at Glasgow University before practising in South Wales and then going back to Glasgow, where he became Celtic’s team doctor.

The war photograph first came to the attention of the O’Haras when daughter Eileen brought back a magazine in 1946 with a picture which she thought looked like her father.

John O'Hara in later years

John O'Hara in later years

The picture turned out to be of him and it was cut out by his wife Helen and put away and then lost for decades, only to be found in a box by his daughter-in-law Jane.

She gave the discovery to her son, Diarmid O’Hara, a former BBC executive, who went to the Imperial War Museum archive to search for the original.

His brother Brendan, MP for Argyll and Bute and the SNP defence spokesman in Westminster, said: “For months Diar­mid trawled the archive of the Imperial War Museum typing every combination of words he could think of to try and unearth the photograph.

“Nothing worked. As he was about to give up, he decided on one last word combination, ‘Sacred Salvage’. Then from the millions of images in the IWM archive, this photograph emerged.”

Armed with the picture, Brendan and Diarmid’s sister, Noeleen, who lives in Holland, visited Armentières and its museum to find out more.

O’Hara said: “On speaking to the museum’s curator she discovered that the men in the photograph were minor local celebs, and my sister’s astonishment was nothing compared to that of the warden, who couldn’t believe the granddaughter of one of the men she’d seen on a postcard for decades had just wandered into her shop.”