Michael Groark or Rourke – and wife Margaret’s Quest to Learn his Fate

Name: Michael Groark, served as Rourke1
Rank: Private
Unit/Regiment: 1st Battalion, The Royal Scots Fusiliers
Service Number: 6093
Date of Death: 16 June 1915
Memorial: Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Ieper, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium

Michael Rourke

Uniquely for the biographical part of my one-place study, this is the story of two people: Michael Groark (also known as Rourke), and his wife Margaret Duffy. Their story cannot be separated. Although it is Michael’s name etched on the St Mary’s War Memorial, this story is as much about his wife and the extraordinary efforts she made to discover his fate once he was posted missing.

Both were parishioners of Batley St Mary’s RC Church, ordinary working class Yorkshire folk, with the Irish family backgrounds so typical of the parish. Margaret did not have the money and contacts of some who found themselves in similar desperate positions during the war. But she had persistence, ingenuity and determination. Her story is the story of many other families up and down the country trying to find out what had happened to missing husbands, fathers and sons.

The family name is interchangeable between Rourke and Groark (and variants). The early surname version tended to be Rourke (and the name under which Michael’s birth is registered). However, by the turn of the century it seems to shift to Groark. Although Michael served in the Army under the name of Rourke, it is the Groark version under which he is recorded on the St Mary’s War Memorial.

Michael was born in West Town, Dewsbury in late 1877, the eldest child of Patrick and Bridget Groark (née Mullany and variants).2 This fell within the Dewsbury Catholic parish of St Paulinus.

Both Bridget and Patrick came from Ireland, with the 1911 census giving Patrick’s birthplace as Swinford. This is in contrast to the 1891 census which indicates both husband and wife came from County Sligo. The couple married in around 1876/77.

Michael was the first of their 10 children. His siblings included Mary Ann (born in 1879, and who died in March 1904); James Henry (born in 1881 and died the following year); Maggie (whose birth was registered in the first quarter of 1883); Lizzie (born in 1887); James (born in 1889); Henry (born in 1892); Francis (born in 1894); Nellie (born in 1896); and Agnes (whose birth was registered in the first quarter of 1900). James (1889) was the first child recorded as being baptised at St Mary’s.

Patrick was described as a cart driver in the 1881 census, when the family lived at Ingham Road, Dewsbury. They later moved to Batley, living first at North Street in 1891, followed by Wooller Houses, Carlinghow in 1901. By 1911 they were back in North Street, Cross Bank.

During this period Patrick worked in the agricultural sector as a farm labourer, and the 1911 census gave more detail specifying that he was a cowman. It is possible he worked at the nearby farm of John Williams, described as a farmer and cattle dealer. This farm was located only a stone’s throw away from the Groark family home, at 56 Cross Bank Road.

Bridget worked in the woollen industry in 1881 as a weaver and in the following census as a rag sorter. She died in 1911, her burial taking place in Batley cemetery on 2 March.

In 1915 Patrick and his family were living at Fleming Square, Commercial Street in Batley, and this was their address at the time of Michael’s death.

Upon leaving school Michael had a varied employment pattern, involving two of the traditional Batley industries – mine and mill. He interspersed these with a career in the military.

It was the mine that beckoned Michael first. In1891, at the age of 13, the census records him working as a coal miner. His Militia attestation papers of April 1897 say that he was employed at Critchley’s colliery as a hurrier, and his papers of July 1897 state he worked as a collier with the same employer. After briefly serving in the Regular Army with the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1898, he once again returned to Critchley’s to work as a miner, as is detailed in his January 1899 Militia papers. At the time of the 1901 census he was a soldier, but resident in the family home in Batley.

As can be seen from the above, his service in the Army was not constant. He bounced from Militia, to Regular Army and back again, with spells back in civilian life for good measure.

Here is the chronology of his early military service.

Michael first went to Dewsbury to enlist in the Militia on 21 April 1897. Curiously his age is under-recorded as 17 years and 9 months. This very brief foray into military service was as a Private with the 3rd Battalion, The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry) (KOYLI). His assigned service number was 6285. At this point he measured 5’3” and weighed in at 104lbs. His physical features were described as fresh complexioned, with light grey eyes and dark hair. A couple of small scars were also mentioned, including on the back of his left hand. However within a week of attesting, he purchased his discharge for £1.3

Three months later, on 29 July 1897, he was back at Dewsbury to re-enlist yet again. This time he served as a Private with the 3rd KOYLI for just over 12 months, under service number 6400. Then, on 10 August 1898, he transferred to the Regular Army with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. His physical description in July 1897 was little changed from April that year, with the only difference a marginal height change to 5’ 3½”.4

His Regular Army attestation papers as a Private with the Royal Scots Fusiliers are dated 10 August 1898. This suite of documents describe him as 5’ 3¾” and 111lbs, again fresh complexioned with light grey eyes and brown hair. He had a small, round scar over the outer end of his right brow and a scar on the back of his right middle finger. He joined his unit at Ayr on 16 August 1898, under service number 5892. Once more he did not remain long. Instead of the 12 years he signed on for (three years in the Colours, followed by nine in the Reserve), he lasted only 91 days service. He purchased his discharge from the Army for £10 on 8 November 1898, half of which was subsequently refunded in May 1899.5

On 17 January 1899 it was back once more to Dewsbury, where he re-joined the Militia for a third time. And it was back to that old favourite, the 3rd KOYLI, as a Private and with yet another service number to his name, this time 6906.6

Michael’s final decision came on 13 April 1899.7 He once more transferred to the Royal Scots Fusiliers, which perhaps explains why half his discharge payment from the previous year was refunded in May 1899.

He then went on to serve for many years in the Army. This included service in the Boer War, with the 2nd Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers. Here he earned the Queen’s South Africa Medal and date Clasp for 1901, along with clasps for service in Cape Colony, Orange Free State and Transvaal. After his South Africa service he transferred to the Regiment’s 1st Battalion, serving in India.

Unfortunately all that remains of his Great War service papers are a few fragments of burnt records, which are essentially duplicates of the 10 August 1898 set.

By 1911 Michael had left the Army, changed his career path totally and was now working as a mill hand, specifically as a willier/willeyer. This is someone who works at a willying machine, cleansing and separating the wool in preparation for carding. This was also his occupation immediately before the war, at Messers Chas. Robinson and Company’s mill.

Michael, by now using the surname Groark, married Margaret at St Mary’s on 7 June 1913. Born in Batley on 11 December 1876, she was the daughter of County Mayo-born coal miner Patrick Duffy and his wife Mary (née Regan), from Pontefract. The Duffy family are shown at Cobbler Hill in Birstall in 18818 and 1891, and by the latter census Margaret had employment as a woollen cloth weaver.

Her marriage to Michael was not Margaret’s first wedding. That was to John William Haley, in 1899. Margaret and John William lived in Whitwood in 1901, which stands midway between Normanton and Castleford, with John working as a general labourer. Their first two children, sons Thomas (born in 1900) and Patrick (born in 1902), had Castleford birthplaces. But whilst heavily pregnant with her third child in 1903, Margaret’s 34-year-old husband died. She returned to her family, where she gave birth to daughter Margaret Kathleen in Birstall at the end of September 1903. By 1911 she was living with her three children in the house of her widower father at Birch Street, in the Carlinghow area of Batley, working as a cloth mender in a woollen factory.

In marrying Margaret, Michael therefore took on a ready-made family, becoming step-father to her three children. In April 1914 there was an addition to the Groark brood when Michael and Margaret’s son, Michael, arrived.

The family lived at North Street, in the Cross Bank area of town, and this was the family address at the time of Michael’s death. This location was a concentration of densely-packed back-to-back houses close to St Mary’s church and old school buildings. The area was demolished during the local slum clearances of the 1960s and early 1970s. The land is now the location of the current Catholic primary school of St Mary’s.

Map showing the location of the North Street, Ordnance Survey Maps – 25-inch England and Wales, 1841-1952, Yorkshire CCXXXII.11 (Batley) Revised: 1915, Published: 1922 – National Library of Scotland, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-NC-SA) licence

At the outbreak of war, Michael’s army history kicked in once more. He was called up as a National Reservist, going out to France on 15 September 1914 to join his old unit, the 1st Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers. At this point they were based in the Aisne area of France, following the first Battle of the Aisne, which ended on the day Michael set foot on French soil. Their Unit War Diary records them receiving a draft of 95 reinforcements on 19 September 1914, only days after Michael’s disembarkation. So it is probable Michael was amongst this draft.

The same diary records the very cold, wet weather in this period, conditions which evidently did not suit Michael, now in his late 30s. He initially made light of things. In October his wife received a reassuringly, cheery letter in which he first of all mentioned his good health. Then, with typical home-town satisfaction, he added:

I am the only Batley man in this regiment. I am proud to be a member of it, as it has done very good work, but I am not allowed to give details.9

However, health issues soon came to a head. In early November 1914 Margaret received an official communication from the Infantry Record Office at Hamilton informing her that her husband had been admitted to hospital at Port-le-Grand, suffering from bronchitis. She had not received a letter from him since the middle of October and was naturally very anxious about his condition, although the communiqué did give her some small measure of reassurance that any news about his health would be immediately passed on to her. Shortly afterwards, that same month, he was invalided home with rheumatism. After a spell in England he returned to the Front for a second time.

In May 1915 a letter from him at the Front was published in the local paper. He said he was well and the weather very hot. He also pointed out that the men got a bath and change of clothing when out of the trenches. Also enclosed with the letter was a copy of an address to his Battalion by his Brigade Commander, highly complementing them on their part in an action in which Michael participated. This read:

In order to cover the right flank of troops on our left, your battalion was ordered to take up a very bad and exposed position on a forward slope and sure enough on the morning after you were exposed to a very heavy shell fire, followed by an infantry attack by vastly superior numbers. The Germans came pouring through, and it soon became obvious that your position was untenable, and we were ordered to take up a position further back.

The Colonel, gallant soldier that he was, decided, and rightly to hold his ground, and the Royal Scots Fusiliers fought, and fought until the Germans absolutely surrounded and swarmed into the trenches. I think it was perfectly splendid. Mind you, it was not a case of ‘hands up’ or any nonsense of that sort. It was a fight to a finish. What more do you want? Why, even a German General came to the Colonel afterwards and congratulated him and said he could not understand how his men had held out so long. You may well be proud to belong to such a regiment, and, I am proud to have you in my brigade.

General Sir Smith-Dorrien also praised the R.S.F. for their fine work after Neuve Chappelle. He visited them in billets and addressed them in terms of high praise. “None but the best troops could do the work, and so I sent you, and you have done it” he said.10

Michael’s last letter home was dated 14 June 1915, two days before the Battle of Bellewaarde on 16 June 1915. The attack was conceived to dislodge the German trenches on high ground north of Hooge, between the Menin Road and the Ypres-Roulers railway. The Germans had gained this position at the end of the Second Battles of Ypres. This German salient, on the high ground of the Bellewaarde Ridge, provided the enemy with good vantage point overlooking the British Front Line Trenches. The British attack was to be undertaken by the 9th Brigade of the 3rd Division, of which the 1st Royal Fusiliers were part. They were allotted an attacking role in the first phase of the operation, alongside the 4th Royal Fusiliers and the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, to take a narrow strip of wood and the German front-line trenches as far as the north-east corner of Railway Wood.

On the eve of the attack Major Dick addressed the Battalion, as recorded in the Unit War Diary:

He said that for the last 6 months the B[attalio]n has not taken part in any important engagements, but had done continuous good work in the trenches and that he was sure they would do the regiment credit. He reminded them of the excellent work done by the 2nd B[attalio]n in the recent fighting, and of the the Company Commanders remarks to the B[attalio]n at YPRES in February.11

The diary continues the account. At 4.30pm the Battalion set off for the trenches by Bellewaarde, in preparation for the attack. They consisted of 18 officers and 839 other ranks, including Michael. By midnight they were in position in the assembly trenches. At 2.50am a Divisional Artillery bombardment commenced and, unfortunately, the Royal Scots Fusiliers’ trenches were slightly damaged by this so-called friendly fire. The bombardment ceased at 4.15am and they advanced. On the right ‘A’ Company, of which Michael was part, under the command of Captain Utterson-Kelso, reached their objective with practically no loss. But that high point of the action proved short-lived. Limited territorial gain, combined with heavy losses – including that incurred by friendly artillery fire – resulted in scant positive news.

First Attack on Bellewaarde, 16th June 1915. “Y” Wood, Hooge, at 6am. The flag on the right was one of those put up to show that the German trench had been captured and that the troops were going on. Men of the King’s Regiment (Liverpool Scottish) are taking cover under the parapet of the captured German front line. The officer standing with cap on is the F. O. O., 3rd Division. Photographer Frederick Alexander Fife © IWM Q 49750, IWM Non Commercial Licence

The much depleted Battalion was finally relieved at 11pm that evening. The following day the Royal Scots Fusiliers’ shocking roll call of casualties during the battle stood at one officer and 36 other ranks killed; two officers and 24 other ranks seriously wounded; 10 officers and 199 other ranks wounded; and a further 202 other ranks missing. This was subsequently amended, with the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s figures for 1st Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers’ deaths on 16 June 1915 standing at one officer and 115 other ranks killed. Of these, only two men have known graves, the remainder being commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial, in Ypres.

In fact by the end of that 16 June 1915 day total allied casualties in the half mile square battlefield stood at around 4,000, with 25 per cent killed in action in under 12 hours. Michael was amongst them.

Menin Gate – Photo by Jane Roberts

Back home in Batley, by July his family were becoming increasingly uneasy as to Michael’s wellbeing. With no definite information they clung on to hope. The first disquieting news came from a Batley soldier, Pte. C King of the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers who wrote to Margaret on 21 June. The letter was published in a local Batley paper:

Mick and I were together on June 15th and promised that if anything happened to either of us on the 16th we would write to his home. I hope you will not take this too seriously but live in hope; I went round his regiment and could not find any Mick. Some of his pals told me he was wounded.12

Writing to Mr. A Baines of Upton Street, Cross Bank, Batley on 30 June Pte. King amplified further, writing:

I am very sorry for Mrs Rourke. His regiment was in the charge with us on the day I will never forget – the 16th of June. I saw for myself that he was amongst the missing, but there is hope yet. It was a bloody sight but a grand charge. We had a lot of casualties and they lay all over. My deepest sympathy goes to Mrs Rourke, for I am very much afraid that poor Mick is gone. The Germans shelled us for 27½ hours after we made the charge and the men were blown to bits; it was hell.13

Around the same time as she received news from Pte King, she also received information that her husband had been wounded and taken into a Chelsea Hospital. She asked the Record Office for information, but they informed her that her husband’s name had not yet appeared on any casualty list, and no report had been received that he had been admitted to any hospital. Margaret did not give up this line of inquiry, or leave it to the military authorities to pursue; instead she personally followed it up by contacting Father F Kerr McClement of St Mary’s, Cadogan Street, Chelsea to see if he could be of assistance. Unfortunately he was unable to provide any positive news, writing to her:

I am sorry you have had so much anxiety as to your husband and I have done my best to find his whereabouts. He is not in St Marks College, Chelsea (which is generally known as Chelsea Hospital) nor in St Georges Hyde Park Corner, Victoria, Tite Street, or in any of the private hospitals visited by us.14

On Saturday 17 July, Margaret received a communication from the War Office stating that they were sorry to inform her that her husband had been missing since the 16 June. His name appeared in the list of missing, published in The Times of 28 July 1915.

There then followed months of uncertainty, interspersed with inconclusive, sometimes conflicting, information, as Michael’s wife desperately, with persistence, determination and ingenuity, tried to find any information as to the fate of her husband.

Margaret’s next recorded steps were to contact organisations with expertise in tracing the whereabouts of missing soldiers. One was the British Red Cross and Order of St John Inquiry Department for Wounded and Missing Men. Their records show three enquiry dates on 2, 9 and 30 August 1915. They responded with the following news:

Pte. Pilgrim, of this regiment (the Royal Scots Fusiliers), who is now in No2 Canadian General Hospital, Le Treport, tells us that there are two men named Rourke in his regiment. The man whom he knows something about is a slim man, slightly built dark, with a moustache, about 38 years of age. This man was wounded at Hooge on June 16th, and could not be brought in, as the Germans had retaken trenches which they had lost. We do not know if this refers to the man for whom you are inquiring; perhaps from the description you could tell us if it is so. But you must remember that it is not at all certain from this report what happened to Pte. Rourke. We hope to obtain more information which will make the matter clearer.15

The description given matched Michael’s. As more news filtered through, it appeared that Michael had been involved in the Battle of Bellewaarde action where the Allies captured four lines of German trenches. The Germans counter-attacked, re-capturing the last two trenches. Michael lay wounded in the third line of trenches, but so severe was the action that when the retreat came and the Germans re-captured that line, his comrades were unable to take their wounded colleagues back with them.

Margaret still did not give up, continuing to write to authorities in an attempt to establish any firm news of her husband’s fate, now clinging to the hope that if not lying injured in an Allied hospital, perhaps he was being held as a prisoner of war. With this possibility in mind she contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross, but they had received no information about him, so could give no satisfactory news as to his whereabouts.

Margaret also wrote to the King of Spain. Whilst this may seem unusual, Spain was a neutral country and King Alfonso XIII contributed a great deal to improving the treatment of prisoners throughout the conflict. At his own expense he maintained a staff of 40 who helped him serve as an intermediary between prisoners and their families, using the Spanish diplomatic network in his endeavours. In response to her plea for assistance she received the following reply:

Palacio Real de Madrid
October 30th 1915

Madam, – I am ordered by His Majesty the King, my august sovereign, to answer your letter petitioning His Majesty to cause enquiries to be made in Berlin with regard to Mr Michael Rourke, your husband. Although His Majesty’s Embassy in Berlin is charged only with the interests of France and Russia, His Majesty being desirous nevertheless of demonstrating his interests in British subjects, has graciously acceded to your request, and has commanded the Spanish Ambassador in Berlin to communicate with Great Britain’s representative there – the United States Ambassador – in order that in conjunction with the latter the necessary investigations may be made. His Majesty earnestly hopes that these enquiries may be the means of procuring satisfactory information for you – E de Swire.16

Despite these knock-backs Margaret remained resolute and continued in her quest. Many other women were also tirelessly pursuing word about their missing menfolk, with advertisements for information appearing in newspapers. It was in one of the Sunday papers that Margaret saw an advert from Elizabeth Morton from Chesterfield seeking news about her husband Lance Corpl. Thomas Morton, 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers, reported missing on 16 June 1915 at Hooge. Noting that this soldier was in the same Battalion as her husband and had been missing since the same date, Margaret wrote to Mrs Morton expressing sympathy with her and pointing out that she was in the same predicament.

Mrs Morton had received a response to her advert from a Pte. Harry Thomson of the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers, who was in a military hospital in Newcastle on Tyne. He communicated the news of Mrs Morton’s husband’s death, so ending her search and hope of a positive outcome. In turn Mrs Morton passed Pte Thomson’s address to Margaret in case he could shed some light as to the fate of Michael. Margaret wrote to him and received the following response:

I am sorry to tell you that your husband, Pte Michael Rourke, was killed on the 16th June 1915. He was slightly wounded with myself and Lance Corporal Morton. I wanted him to go back to the dressing station and get looked after there, but he would not hear of it. He wanted to go on and have it out with the Germans as he called it. We went on together for about 20 yards when he fell with a bullet through the head. He never spoke after it. We managed to get him and some more of our men back later on and bury them behind our firing line. I am sorry to have to tell you the sad news Mrs. Rourke, but it is best to know the truth. The regiment lost very heavily that morning. The Royal Scots Fusiliers did their work very well. I am glad to say that I am keeping a little better. This is the second time I have been wounded. I hope you are keeping well, yourself and all your family. Anything also that you want to know about “Mick”, as we used to call him, I shall be pleased to tell you if I can. I must close now as the doctor is on the rounds.17

Margaret forwarded the letter onto the War Office.

Towards the end of May 1916, eleven months after initially being posted missing, she received a letter in reply which confirmed that her husband was dead. The letter read:

Madam, with reference enquiry concerning 6095 [sic] Pte. Michael Rourke, Royal Scots Fusiliers, I am directed to inform you that nothing further having been received relative to this soldier, who has been missing since the 16th June 1915, the Army Council have regretfully been constrained to conclude that he is dead and that his death took place on the 16th June 1915, or since. I am to express the sympathy of the Army Council with the relatives of the deceased:- C.F. Watherston.18

The conclusion was Michael died in the Battle of Bellewaarde. His body was never identified. He is commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, alongside the names of more than 54,000 other officers and men whose graves are not known.

Menin Gate Inscription – Photo by Jane Roberts

Michael was awarded the 1914 Star, Victory Medal and British War Medal. In addition to St Mary’s, he is also remembered on the Batley War Memorial. He was yet another member of the St Mary’s Batley Branch of the National Catholic Benefit and Thrift Society to perish in the conflict.19

Michael’s three brothers, James, Henry and Francis, also served in the Army during the war. James joined the York and Lancaster Regiment, whilst Henry and Francis served with the KOYLI. Only the youngest, Francis, survived. The strain took a toll on other members of the Groark family. In particular Nellie had a difficult time coping, with frequent court appearances during this period.

Margaret was awarded a pension of 25s a week for her children. She did not remarry, and remained in Batley. She died in in April 1957.


Footnotes:
1. All Michael’s service details are entered under the surname of Rourke. The slight variation are his pension records which also show the alias Grourke;
2. The Mullany variants include, amongst others, Mullan, Mullanay, Mulhaney, Malany and Mulvaney;
3. Michael Rourke, Militia Service Records, The National Archives (TNA), Ref: WO96/899/206;
4. Michael Rourke, Militia Service Records, The National Archives (TNA), Ref: WO96/899/205;
5. Michael Rourke, Royal Hospital Chelsea, Soldiers Service Documents, The National Archives (TNA), Ref: WO97/3779/62;
6. Michael Rourke, Militia Service Records, The National Archives (TNA), Ref: WO96/899/204;
7. Ibid;
8. In the 1881 census Margaret is not with her parents, but with her paternal grandparents, at Brownhill, Batley, on the border with Birstall.
9. Batley News, 24 October 1914;
10. Batley News, 8 May 1915;
11. 1st Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers Unit War Diary, TNA, Ref: WO 95/1432/1;
12. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 16 July 1915;
13. Ibid;
14. Ibid;
15. Ibid, 10 September 1915;
16. Batley News, 13 November 1915;
17. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 26 May 1916;
18. Batley News, 27 May 1916. A version of this letter also appeared in the Batley Reporter and Guardian of 26 May 1916. Here it is signed by C.F. Waitherton. Both versions wrongly give Michael’s service number as 6095, not 6093; and
19. Batley News, 18 March 1916.


Other Sources:
• 1914-1918 Prisoners of the First World War, International Committee of the Red Cross Historical Archives;
• 1939 Register;
• Batley Cemetery Burial Registers;

Michael Rourke, British Army Service Records – various;
British Red Cross and Order of St John Enquiry List, Wounded & Missing, 1914-1919 – Naval & Military Press transcript;
Casualty List – The Times, 28 July 1915;
Commonwealth War Graves Commission;
England and Wales Censuses, 1881 to 1901, TNA, various references;
GRO Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes;
Imperial War Museum;
Long, Long Trail, https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/;
Medal Award Rolls;
Medal Index Card;
Memorial for the Fallen of the Battle of Bellewaarde in 1915 website, https://www.argunners.com/memorial-fallen-battle-bellewaarde-16th-june-1915/;
National Library of Scotland;
Newspapers – various editions of the Batley papers;
Parish Registers – various;
Pension Index Cards and Ledgers, Western Front Association;
Soldiers Died in the Great War;
Soldiers’ Effects Register;
The Battle of Bellewaarde June 1915, https://carolemctbooks.info/bellewaarde-june-1915/
The Great War Blog – 16 June 1915 – Bellewaarde Farm, https://ww1blog.osborneink.com/?p=8448; and
Western Front Association – Liverpool Scottish at the Battle of Bellewaarde, https://www.westernfrontassociation.com/world-war-i-articles/the-liverpool-scottish-at- bellewaarde/;