Name: Thomas Donlan
Unit/Regiment: 1st/4th Battalion, The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry)
Service Number: 2084
Date of Death: 9 November 1915
Cemetery: Bard Cottage Cemetery, Ieper, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium
According to census records, Thomas Donlan was born in Batley in 1894. There is some confusion though. One record set attributes Thomas’ birthplace to Heckmondwike.1 His parents were Thomas and Catherine (Kate) Donlan (née McDermott) from Glenamaddy, County Galway. For ease I will use snr. to differentiate the elder Thomas Donlan from his son.
The couple married at St Austin’s Catholic Church, in Wakefield, on 4 July 1883. Their first three children (Margaret, known as Maggie, born in 1884; Mary born in 1886; and Catherine, known as Kate, born in 1888) had birthplaces in the districts of Wombwell, Normanton and Barnsley respectively: Thomas snr.’s work as a miner clearly illustrated in these family movements across the West Riding coal mining districts.
It was not until July 1890 and the birth of twins Ellen and John that I’ve found the family in Batley, and linked to St Mary’s parish. But this parish link was not constant. Only one other child, Martin – born in 1904 – was baptised in the church. Baptised elsewhere were Honora (sometimes known as Annie) born in 1892; Thomas; Winifred (born in 1897); Bridget (born 1899); and twins Michael Martin and Patrick (born in 1901).
Of the twelve Donlan children, nine were still living in 1911: One of each set of twins died in infancy (Ellen in June 1893 and Patrick in March 1903); Mary died at the age of 20 in September 1906.
Given some of the family addresses (notably in the Staincliffe areas, particularly The Crofts, in the 1890s/early 1900s), it is possible some baptisms took place in the Catholic parish of Heckmondwike, known as St Patrick’s – not the Holy Spirit – in this period. This may explain the birthplace confusion with Thomas.
The frequent local moves by the Donlan family is illustrated by addresses given in just a selection of records:
- April 1891 – New Street, Batley;
- June 1893 – The Crofts, Staincliffe;
- March 1901 – Thornton Street, Staincliffe;
- August 1901 – Common Road, Staincliffe;
- March 1903 – Spa Street, Batley;
- April and September 1904 – Hume Street, Batley;
- September 1906 – Harrison’s Yard, Dark Lane; and
- April 1911, November 1914 and November 1915 – Hume Street, Batley.
From this it can be seen the family finally settled long-term in Batley by 1903.
It was quite a tumultuous childhood for the Donlan children. By August 1901 Thomas Donlan snr. had accumulated seven convictions. These included two serious assaults on policemen, both resulting in lengthy prison sentences.
The first of these assaults occurred in June 1893, within weeks of the death of his young daughter Ellen. At the behest of Kate, police intervened in a matrimonial squabble between an intoxicated Thomas snr. and herself. As police-constable Baldwin tried to handcuff Thomas snr. the dispute degenerated into a brutal assault on the policeman. Both Thomas snr. and Kate were involved in the attack on him, with Kate endeavouring to assist her husband’s escape from arrest. The assault led to a two-month incarceration with hard labour in Wakefield gaol for Thomas snr. Because of her poor circumstances Kate got off with a more lenient sentence. She was fined 10s. and costs, or 14 days in prison if she failed to pay.
With some similarities, the second assault on a policeman occurred in August 1901. Late at night Police-constable Vayro spotted a drunken Thomas snr. creating a disturbance on Common Road, including in the Commercial Inn. After being spoken to, Thomas snr. returned home where another domestic dispute ensued. It was claimed the children were so frightened of him during the row with Kate that they escaped out of the window.2 Thomas snr. then emerged from the house too, and turned on the policeman. It earned him a further seven-week detention in Wakefield prison.
And yet again Kate, along this time with daughter Maggie, were charged – this time with using obscene language. In her defence Kate pleaded:
What can we do with a man who drinks. He (her husband) has gone down for seven weeks, and if it had not been for him we should not have got here. We have only the Bench and God for us. We are very poor.
Once more a lenient stance was taken, with a fine for Kate and Maggie of 2s. 6d. and costs apiece, with time given to pay. But still this must have been a period of immense strain on the family, and the children cannot have been immune to it. The main family breadwinner was once more in prison, with all those resulting financial hardships. And on top of that there was the emotional fall-out of the domestic situation.
Within a few years it was young Thomas’ turn to get into a scrape with the law. On 13 March 1908 he appeared in Batley Borough Court, accused of pigeon-stealing.3 Described as a pony-driver (so working in the pit conveying the coal tubs to and from the hewers) he stood alongside two other St Mary’s lads – Michael James O’Hora (O’Hara) and Austin Nolan.
The crime was committed on 8 March when the youngsters took four dark, dappled birds from Back Cross Park Street. The birds belonged to miner Robert Dewhirst, and were housed in a cote containing 15 pigeons. Robert locked the cote at around 5pm on Sunday evening. When he checked it at around 5am the following morning he found the door swinging open, the padlock discarded on the floor, and four birds missing. According to Court notes they had an estimated value of £2.
Later that day the birds were recovered. They were in the possession of Robert Clarkson, a Commercial Street fish and game dealer. He said he told the boys the pigeons were old and not worth more than 6d. He also claimed to have told the boys to fetch the owner and he would pay for them. The boys never returned.
Although it appears Thomas pleaded not guilty, he was not believed. All three lads were convicted. They were discharged on entering recognisance for 12 months. And they were instructed as to their good behaviour during this time. During this period they were to be under the supervision of James Gladwin, Batley’s Probation Officer. He was to visit them and submit regular reports to the magistrates about their conduct. Alongside this, a 20s surety applied. The really noteworthy facet of this sentencing is this was the first ever case for the local probation officer.
The sentencing appears to have done the trick for Thomas. There are no other transgressions recorded against him. But, in a sad postscript, all three boys were to lose their lives in the war and all appear on the church War Memorial.
For more details about this case, the boys, and the role of Batley’s probation officer see my post about Pigeon-Stealing in Batley.
Young Thomas’ mine-associated occupation is confirmed in the 1911 census. Here he is described as a coal putter. This is another way of describing the youth who brings the empty coal tubs to the face, and takes full ones away, either with the help of a pony, or by hand. Hurrier, however, is the more commonly used local word to describe this work. In fact, hurrier is the descriptor used for his pre-war occupation at Soothill Wood Colliery. He also worked at one point at White Lee Colliery.
But in addition to his mining work Thomas, along with his older brother John, was a so-called Saturday night soldier – a member of the Batley Territorials, the 1st/4th King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry). At the outbreak of war both brothers went into training with their battalion, eventually arriving in France with them on 13 April 1915. Thomas’ letters home were described as being “always cheerful”.4 He was universally respected by officers and men and was described by one comrade as “one of the best lads in the Battalion.5”
The battalion were in the Ypres-Boesinghe line in November 1915. The Unit War Diary for the period reads:
Nov. 1 to 6 – Battalion on Canal Bank in Brigade Reserve. Furnished working and ration carrying parties for front line Battalion. Casualties 7 O.R. wounded.
Nov. 7 – Relieved 4th (H) Y & L. Regt in SKIPTON ROAD position. Casualties 2 O.R. wounded.
Nov. 8 – Enemy was fairly active sniping both by night and day, otherwise situation quiet. Casualties: O.R. 2 killed; 3 wounded.
Nov. 9 – Enemy more active with rifle and machine gun fire. They put a large number of rifle grenades and whizz-bangs in front trench. Retaliation silenced enemy. Casualties: O.R. 1 killed.
Nov. 10 – Enemy has been much quieter. No shelling. Casualties: 2 O.R. killed.6
It was therefore an essentially quite period in the trenches, a period of daily attrition rather than any major activity. And, crucially for Thomas and his pals, a period when German snipers were active.
Skipton Road trench, shown below, was one of a series of trenches named after Yorkshire localities by men of the 49th (West Riding) Division of which the 1st/4th KOYLI were part. In terms of present day locality it is now part of the industrial estate near Colne Valley CWGC cemetery, which I wrote about here.
And it was during this relatively quiet period that Thomas was shot through the head by a German sniper. He died instantly. His official date of death is Tuesday 9 November. However some letters reaching the family in the initial aftermath indicate that he was killed on Wednesday 10 November. No less than five comrades mentioned the sad circumstances surrounding his death, with these letters arriving from 13 November onwards. The three letters I have identified all give the 10 November date.
Official confirmation of Thomas’ death came in a letter from Major Moorhouse, of the 1st/4th KOYLI, as follows :
It is with extreme regret that I have to write to you that your son, 2084 Pte Thomas Donlan, was killed in action on the 10th inst. He was shot through the head by a German sniper. Please except my heartfelt sympathy in this your sad bereavement, which I am sure must come as a great shock to you. But there is some consolation to be found in the knowledge of the fact that your son was a brave lad and died nobly fighting to uphold the honour of his King and Country. He is buried in a military cemetery just behind the firing line, alongside some of his fallen comrades and the place is marked with a cross. I can assure you his grave will be well looked after and I hope at some future date to be able to tell you the exact spot where he is buried.7
The letters from his companions gave more details about Thomas’ death. One read:
I have some bad news for you. Poor Thomas was shot in the head last Wednesday morning. Poor lad, he died almost at once, as it was an explosive bullet and it shattered his head. We, in his platoon are very sorry, and we shall miss him very much. I expect John (his brother) won’t know as he has gone down the line sick. Thomas is buried behind the trenches along with Colour-Sergt Major Pollard who was killed the same day.8
Thomas’ brother John, referred to in this letter, was initially admitted to hospital at Le Treport on 4 November suffering from illness. From there he was transferred to a London hospital. John did survive the war, eventually finishing his military service not with the KOYLI, but with the 1st East Yorkshire Regiment.
Again, if looking at date of death, Colour-Sergt Major Ernest Pollard, who was said to be killed the same day as Thomas in the above letter, has a recorded death date of 10 November 1915 – which was a Wednesday. And further indication of this 10 November date came in another piece of correspondence from someone serving with Thomas, who also indicated the day was Wednesday. The 9 November was Tuesday. This letter read:
I am very sorry to have to tell you that Private Thomas Donlan has been killed. He got hit in the head by a sniper on Wednesday morning about 10 o’clock. I was stood by his side when he was hit, and my pal held him while I ran for the stretcher bearers, but he was dead when we got back. He did not suffer any pain. He is buried in a little cemetery behind the firing line, and I will look after his grave while we are in this part of the line. There is not a lad in the Company who is not sorry for he was cheerful and one of the best lads in the Battalion. We were only about 50 yards from the Germans when he got hit.9
One final piece of evidence is held by the Imperial War Graves Commission – forerunner to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). The Graves Registration Report states Thomas died on 10 November, in contradiction to his CWGC headstone which indicates 9 November.
The cemetery in which Thomas lies is Bard Cottage. The inscription on his headstone reads:
SLEEP ON DEAR SON
REST IN PEACE
In the next plot is another St Mary’s man, Martin Carney who died on 11 November 1915.
Thomas was yet another one of the 11 members of the St Mary’s Batley Branch of the National Catholic Benefit and Thrift Society, listed in March 1916, who were with the Colours and died during the war.
He was awarded the 1914-15 Star, Victory Medal and British War Medal. In addition to St Mary’s, he is also remembered on the Batley War Memorial.
I have mentioned Thomas’ brother John survived the war. His father also briefly served with the KOYLI and survived. I have written about his colourful life in a separate post. But his brother-in-law Lawrence Judge, husband of Maggie Donlan, was not so lucky. He died in 1917 and he is also commemorated on St Mary’s War Memorial.
1. Soldiers Died in the Great War states Heckmondwike;
2. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 30 August 1901;
3. The Batley Reporter mis-reports his name as James. Court records confirm it is Thomas;
4. Batley News, 20 November 1915;
5. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 20 November 1915;
6. 1st/4th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry Unit War Diary, TNA Ref WO 95/2806/1;
7. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 20 November 1915;
8. Batley News, 20 November 1915;
• 1891-1911 England & Wales Censuses;
• Baptism records;
• Batley Borough Court Records, West Yorkshire Archives;
• Batley Cemetery Records;
• Commonwealth War Graves Commission;
• GRO Indexes – Births, Marriages and Deaths;
• Medal Award Rolls, TNA WO329/1455 and WO329/2761;
• Medal Index Card;
• Newspapers as named, but also various other editions of the Batley News and Batley Reporter and Guardian from 1893, 1901, 1903 and 1906;
• Soldiers’ Effects Register, NAM Accession Number: 1991-02-333; Record Number Ranges: 230501-232000; Reference: 106 and NAM Accession Number: 1991-02-333; Record Number Ranges: 296501-298000; Reference: 150
• Soldiers Died in the Great War;
• Wakefield Prison Records, West Yorkshire Archives, Nominal Register Number 34; Year Range: 1893 Jan – Jul; Reference Number: C118/144 and Nominal Register Number 49; Year Range: 1898 May – Aug; Reference Number: C118/159
• WO363 Service Records – Thomas Donlan snr;
• Western Front Association Pension Record Cards and Ledgers, Reference: 063/0270/DON-DON and 685/04D.