Michael Brannan

Name: Michael Brannan
Rank: Private
Unit/Regiment: 2nd Battalion, The Northumberland Fusiliers
Service Number: 20898
Date of Death: 2 October 1915
Memorial: Loos Memorial, Pas de Calais, France

Inscription on the Loos Memorial – Photo by Jane Roberts

Michael Brannan was born in Batley in October 1873. His parents James and Maria Brannan (née Leach) were originally from County Sligo and County Mayo respectively. However, it was in Batley that they married a couple of years prior to Michael’s birth.

The Brannan family lived in Ambler Street, Batley. Initially James worked as a coal miner, but in censuses from 1891 onwards he was a labourer connected with stone quarrying work. Maria worked as a rag picker, when employment was mentioned for her. Michael’s siblings included older sister Bridget, and younger brothers Nicholas (who died age 7, in January 1884), John Thomas and Martin.

Michael did get involved in some youthful scrapes. One early brush with the law resulted in a Batley Borough Court appearance in September 1889, age 15. He and two other boys – James Gallagher and Arthur Lee – were found guilty of damaging a fence and fruit trees. They were spotted in the garden of Samuel Jubb at first light on 29 August. Michael was caught red-handed, with a quantity of Siberian crab apples in his pockets.1

The Brannan family, minus Michael, were at 22 Ambler Street in 1891.2 Michael, now a coal miner, was lodging with the Soar family at Kinsley, Hemsworth.3 But he was back in Batley just before Christmas in 1894, on 17 December finding himself once again facing the Batley Borough Court magistrates. This time the charge was drunk and riotous behaviour in Commercial Street. Michael claimed he was only looking at the Post Office clock. Whatever the truth, when hauled off to the police station, he protested far too loudly. Such was the commotion the police had to fetch in his mother to quieten the noisy teenager down. Despite his protestations of innocence, he was found guilty of the charge, and the offence landed him a short spell in Wakefield prison.4

Michael married Annie Owens in 1897. Born in August 1875, she really was the girl next door: the Owens family lived at 20 Ambler Street.

Initially the couple lived at Michael’s parents home, along with their daughter Bridget, born in February 1898. But at Easter time in 1899, with Michael working as a collier at Soothill and Annie pregnant with the couple’s second child, they abruptly left.5 James was born shortly afterwards, and the 1901 census records Annie and the two children living at 21 Ambler Street.6

Michael and Annie’s eldest son James died in early August 1904 and was buried in Batley cemetery. Just over four months later, on 22 December, son Martin was born. Three other boys followed – Thomas on 27 March 1907; John on 4 March 1910; and William on 23 July 1913.

John was born in the St Anthony’s area of Byker, Newcastle upon Tyne. Michael’s work as a coal hewer had taken the family up to Northumberland, and they are recorded as living at Byker in the 1911 census. This census also shows, in addition to James, the couple had also lost two more children.7 But by 1913, and the time of William’s birth, the family had returned to Yorkshire.

They were definitely back at Ambler Street in 1915, with Michael now serving with the 4th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, based at Forest Hall, Northumberland.8 Perhaps his links with the Newcastle area influenced the direction of his military service. There is also a suggestion from some surviving records that at some point he used an alias of Bannan.9 Although his service records do not appear to have survived, we have a basic description of him from other sources. He stood around 5’6’’ tall and had brown hair.

Michael’s original Service Number was 17515. But upon transfer to the Northumberland Fusiliers he was allocated Service Number 20898. He first disembarked in France on 3 May 1915. It is likely he was amongst the draft of 248 other ranks joining the 2nd Battalion at Poperinge on 9 May 1915.

The 2nd Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers saw action in the Battle of Loos (25 September – 14 October 1915) and it was during this battle that Michael was killed.

The Battle of Loos was the first time the British used poison gas during the war. It also witnessed the first large-scale use of New Army, the so-called ‘Kitchener’s Army’ units.

The battle opened on 25 September and the British were able to break through the weaker German trenches and capture the town of Loos, mainly due to numerical superiority. However, the inevitable supply and communications problems, combined with the late arrival of reserves, meant that the breakthrough could not be exploited. A further complication for many British soldiers was the failure of their artillery to cut the German wire in many places in advance of the attack. Advancing over open fields in full range of German machine guns and artillery, British losses were devastating.

Just before the battle, on 21 September, the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers arrived at the French hamlet of Rouge Croix from Locre in Belgium. Rouge Croix is around two miles north east of Richebourg Saint-Vaast. Physical training took place there, until their departure on 26 September. There then followed a series of marches, with the battalion arriving around 10 miles further south at Sailly-Labourse, for a final intensive set of physical exercise, musketry and training on 28 September. On 29 September they made a final two-mile march to Annequin, in readiness to take their turn in the front line trenches. This relief took place late on 30 September, with the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers taking over the Big Willie trench, and about 150 yards of the Hohenzollern Redoubt.

The battalion’s unit war diary described the ensuing events as follows:

1 Oct: About dawn an hour after the Battalion had taken over the trenches the enemy, working unobserved down an old communication trench, which ran from their line into the junction of BIG WILLIE and HOHENZOLLERN Redobut, gained a footing of about 100 yards by a surprise bomb attack. C & D Companies at whose junction the attack took place at once built a double barrier and stopped further advance.
About 6pm C and D C[ompan]ys assisted by a bombing party from 2 Cheshire Reg[imen]t (in a sap to the rear) by heavily bombing from right, left and rear, retook about 50 yards of the ground lost.

2nd Oct: This was repeated several times after but without further success.

2nd Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers Unit War Diary – The National Archives, Reference WO95/2277/2

Michael Brannan was one of the 13 fatalities from the battalion on Saturday 2 October, missing presumed dead. Of these, 12, including Michael, have no known grave and are commemorated on the Loos Memorial.

Loos Memorial and Dud Corner Cemetery – Photo by Jane Roberts

Michael was awarded the 1914-15 Star, Victory Medal and British War Medal. In addition to St Mary of the Angels RC Church War Memorial, he is also remembered on Batley War Memorial.

Dead Man’s Penny inscribed with the name Michael Brannan – Photo by Jane Roberts

Annie Brannan never remarried. She retained her Ambler Street connections. This is where she lived in 1939, at number 15; and this was her address given in the Batley cemetery records when she was buried on 4 April 1956.

1. Batley Reporter and Guardian and Batley News – 7 September 1889
2. 1891 Census, The National Archives, Reference RG12/3718/32/21
3. 1891 Census, The National Archives, Reference RG12/3766/54/18
4. Batley News – 21 December 1894
5. Batley Reporter and Guardian and Batley News – 14 April 1899
6. 1901 Census, The National Archives, Reference RG13/4255/42/38
7. 1911 Census, The National Archives, Reference RG14/30678
8. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 15 January 1915
9. Pension Ledgers and Cards, Western Front Association, Reference 013/0045/BAN-BAN

Other Sources:
1939 Register;
1881 – 1911 Censuses;
Batley Cemetery Burial Registers;
Commonwealth War Graves Commission;
GRO Indexes;
HMP Wakefield records;
2nd Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers Unit War Diary;
Various military records.

Note: For more on the Brannan family see A St Mary’s School Sensation.