Thomas Gavaghan

Name: Thomas Gavaghan
Rank:
Private
Unit/Regiment:
1st/4th Battalion, The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry)
Service Number
: 3917
Date of Death:
28 December 1915
Cemetery:
Bard Cottage Cemetery, Ieper, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium

Thomas Gavaghan’s headstone, Bard Cottage Cemetery – Photo by Jane Roberts

Thomas Gavaghan was born in Batley on 10 January 1893 and baptised at St Mary’s later that month.1 He was the son of James and Catherine Gavaghan (née Lynch). The censuses show the couple were from Ireland, with the 1911 census pinpointing their birthplace as Charlestown, County Mayo.2

James and Catherine married in 1883.3 Thomas was one of their eight children, five of whom were alive at the time of the 1911 census.4 These were James (born in 1888), Mary (born in 1890), John (born in 1895) and Peter (born in 1897). Another son named John was born and died in 1887.

In 1891 the family address was Churchfield Terrace, Batley but subsequent censuses saw them living at 10, Ambler Street, Batley. This was their address at the time of Thomas’ death.

Ordnance Survey Maps – 25 inch England and Wales, 1841-1952, Yorkshire CCXXXII.11 (Batley; Morley), Revised: 1905, Published: 1907 – National Library of Scotland, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-NC-SA) licence

James worked as a wool willeyer according to the 1891 and 1911 censuses. A willeyer (with spelling variants including willier) was someone who worked at a willeying machine, cleansing and separating wool in preparation for carding. However, he was not continuously employed in the textile industry as, according to the 1901 census, he worked as a farm labourer. Catherine’s occupation in the 1891 and 1901 censuses was recorded as a rag sorter.

Thomas followed his parents into the woollen manufacturing industry working as a ‘piecner’ in 1911. A Dictionary of Occupational Terms describes this as follows:

Piecer, piecener; mule piecer, spinner’s piecer, spinning piecer, spinning mule piecer, spinning mill piecer; pieces, or joins together, by hand, threads broken in spinning; keeps mule clear of waste; sometimes adjusts temper weights, collects full cops of yarn from spindles, and assists spinner q.v. generally.5

However, he subsequently changed occupation, and before enlisting worked as a miner at West End Colliery. Here he was described as very popular amongst his workmates.

Besides his involvement with the church at St Mary’s, he was also a member of the St Mary’s Batley Branch of the National Catholic Benefit and Thrift Society. In March 1916 he was named as one of its 11 members who had given their lives for their King and Country.6

Thomas enlisted in Batley in November 1914. His three brothers also served in the Army. Elder brother James was with the Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment). Younger brothers John and Peter both enlisted with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

Thomas’ overseas service as a Private with the 1st/4th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) commenced on 15 August 1915. They formed part of the 49th (West Riding) Division. At the point Thomas joined them overseas, the Battalion were in Belgium, in the vicinity of the Ypres-Boesinghe line. This is an area north of Ypres, along the Yser Canal, near the village of what is now known as Boezinge.

Whilst there were no major battles in the sector whilst Thomas was here, it was an area subjected to regular hostile shelling, combined with the constant threat of snipers, rifle grenade attacks and machine gun fire. It meant a steady stream of casualties, both of men killed and wounded. In between time in the trenches the 1st/4th KOYLI supplied working and ration carrying parties.

In December 1915, whilst still in the Ypres-Boesinghe line, Thomas was commended for the part in played in a significant incident involving the 1st/4th KOYLI.

Early that month intelligence reports, and information collated from captured German soldiers, suggested the enemy was about to mount a gas attack. Gas cylinders had been seen along the German front line, opposite the 49th Division’s position. At just before 5am on the morning of 19 December the anticipated attack began. The KOYLI’s Unit War Diary for the day described events:

4.50am: A hissing noise like a fast running motor car was heard in the German lines. Very shortly after the presence of cylinder gas, said to be Fosgene [sic], was detected in the air. Warning was given, tube helmets put on and rapid fire opened on the enemy’s parapet with rifles and machine guns. S.O.S Gas was sent to the Artillery who immediately opened fire. No Infantry attack was made but later a German patrol numbering about ten was seen advancing towards our trenches. Rifle fire was opened on them and they dispersed, only one man being seen to regain the German trench. The enemy heavily bombarded the whole of our front line and Support trenches during the day.7

The 1st/4th KOYLI did manage to keep the enemy at bay, but as they were being relieved that evening a fresh German bombardment was launched using shells filled with lethal phosgene gas.

The diary for the day goes on to record one officer and 23 men killed through gas poisoning, with a further two officers and 149 other ranks wounded as a result of it. In addition another officer was wounded and subsequently died, and a further six other ranks were killed and 19 were wounded in the ensuing attacks of the day.

News filtered home to towns across the Heavy Woollen District. The Batley News was one of many local papers to cover the incident. It included the following official praise:

How well our brave Territorials behaved in the trying ordeal on December 19th is shown by the appreciation of their Divisional Commander, who in an Order issued on December 22nd, in “Belgium,” said:—
I have just received the preliminary report of the gas attack and heavy shelling by the Germans on the Sixth Corps’ front on the 19th inst., and I should be very glad if you would convey to the troops of the 49th Division my appreciation of their steadiness and behaviour under very difficult and trying circumstances.
Owing to their steadiness the attack failed to produce any practical or material effect. It was a day which reflects great credit on the whole corps.8

As I have indicated, Thomas was among a number of men named in the Unit War Diary to be commended for good work during this gas attack.9 Four men received the DCM; the others, including Thomas, received gallantry cards from the Divisional Commander.

Thomas did not have long to enjoy the plaudits. By the 27 December he was once more in the front line trenches of the Ypres-Boesinghe line, in the Skipton Road position.

Trench Map showing Skipton Road in July 1915

The Unit War Diary for the 27 and 28 December 1915 notes:

Enemy’s machine guns were particularly active up to 10 p.m. Some sniping all through the night and heavy sniping this morning. Relieved by 8th Battn. Rifle Brigade, 14th Division. Casualties: O.R. 4 killed, 5 wounded.10

Thomas, along with another Batley man, Pte. Orlando Morrison, were amongst the victims of German snipers on 28 December.

Thomas and his cousin Peter Gavaghan served in the same Battalion, and it was Peter who sent the family first news about Thomas’ death. This was followed by a letter from Captain George Thomson who wrote on Sunday 3 January to Thomas’ mother as follows:

I expect by now you will have heard of the death of your son. He was shot in the head by a German sniper on the 28th December and died shortly after. I saw him very soon after and I am certain he suffered no pain, I cannot say too much in his favour. He has done some good work since he joined us and he will be greatly missed by all of us. It is only a few days since I drew the attention of the Commanding Officer to the good work your son has done. He was laid to rest just behind the firing line and the exact place has been marked by a cross. I hope you will accept my deepest sympathy in your sad loss.11

The family also received a letter from Lt. Col. Haslegrave, the Commanding Officer of the 1st/4th KOYLI. It read:

It is with extreme regret I have to inform you that your son No. 3197 [sic]12 Private T. Gavaghan, of the Battalion under my command, was killed in action on the 28th December 1915. He was shot through the head by a German sniper, and died immediately afterwards. Please accept my heartfelt sympathy with you in this your sad bereavement, which, I am sure, you must feel very much. It is exceedingly hard lines that he should be killed the same day the Battalion were coming out of the trenches for their well-earned rest. There is some consolation, however, to be found in the knowledge of the fact that your son did his duty and died a hero, fighting to uphold the honour of his King and Country. He is buried in a military cemetery just behind the firing line, and the place is marked by a cross. I can assure you every care will be taken to see that the grave is well looked after, and I hope at some future date to be able to tell you the exact spot where his body lies.13

Thomas was 22 years of age, his family hearing the news of his death just days short of his 23rd birthday. He is buried in the same Belgium cemetery, Bard Cottage, as two other St Mary’s men, Martin Carney and Thomas Donlan. Orlando Morrison, the other local man who died on the same day as Thomas, is also buried in that cemetery.

Thomas 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.

Thomas’ mother was awarded a pension for his death. This ceased when she died on 8 February 1921.14

Of his three brothers, only John survived the war. Two of Thomas’ cousins, brothers Joe and Peter Gavaghan (the man who first communicated Thomas’ death to the family), also lost their lives. All are commemorated on the St Mary’s War Memorial


Footnotes:
1. Batley St Mary of the Angels baptism register;
2. 1911 Census, The National Archives (TNA) Ref. RG14/27245 Schedule 135;
3. GRO Marriage Indexes, Dewsbury, June Quarter 1883, Volume 9b, Page 839;
4. 1911 Census, Ibid;
5. A Dictionary of Occupational Terms: Ministry of Labour. Based on the Classification of Occupations Used in the Census of POPULATION, 1921. His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1927;
6. Batley News, 16 March 1916;
7. 1st/4th KOYLI Unit War Diary, TNA Ref. WO95/2806/1;
8. Batley News, 1 January 1916;
9. The Unit War Diary incorrectly gives his service number as 2917 instead of 3917. However by cross matching with names and service numbers for the Battalion, and combined with the letter from Captain Thomson, there is little doubt that it was him;
10. 1st/4th KOYLI Unit War Diary, Ibid;
11. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 7 January 1916;
12. The service number in the article is incorrect, with the numbers being transposed;
13. Batley News, 8 January 1916;
14. Western Front Association Pension Record Cards and Ledgers, Ref 680/04D


Other Sources:
Batley Cemetery Burial Registers;
• Boesinghe: The Forgotten Battlefield
, Paul Reed, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/get_started/boesinghe_01.shtml;
Commonwealth War Graves Commission;
England and Wales Censuses, 1881 to 1901, TNA, various references;
GRO Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes;
Long, Long Trail, https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/;
• McGreal, Stephen. Boesinghe. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2010;
Medal Award Rolls;
Medal Index Card;
• National Library of Scotland maps;
Newspapers – various editions of the Batley papers;
Pension Index Cards and Ledgers, Western Front Association;
• Roberts, Jane and Chris. Greatest Sacrifice: Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union. Scratching Shed Publishing, 2018;
Soldiers Died in the Great War; and
Soldiers’ Effects Register.