Thomas McNamara

Name: Thomas McNamara
7th (Service) Battalion, The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry)
Service Number
: 3/3131
Date of Death:
20 September 19161
Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France

Thomas McNamara’s inscription on the Thiepval Memorial – Photo by Jane Roberts

Thomas McNamara was the son of Thomas McNamara and his wife Mary (née Niland).2 The couple, who lived in Hagfield near Charlestown in County Mayo, married on 15 November 1883 at the Roman Catholic chapel of Kilbeagh. Thomas (who I will refer to as Thomas (senior) to differentiate between father and son) is described sometimes as a farmer, but more often a labourer, in various official records.

Their son Patrick was born in September 1884, followed by Bridget in December 1888, John in June 1890, then Thomas on 23 September 1892. Then came three more daughters, Catherine (Kate) in September 1894. Mary Ellen in April 1898, and finally Anne in June 1901.

The importance placed on the spiritual is shown by the fact that Thomas’ baptism took place in Kilbeagh parish on 24 September 1892, the day after his birth. However, less emphasis was placed on the physical. His father appeared at the Lowpark Petty Sessions in September 1894 for failing to vaccinate the infant Thomas against smallpox within three months of birth.

The strong, wider familial links of the McNamara/Niland family is clear from the censuses. Thomas (senior) is not recorded with his family in either the 1901 or 1911 censuses. However, in 1901, Mary and her children are living in Hagfield, with Mary’s widowed mother Bridget Niland. This was as likely more to do with the support Bridget could give Mary in bringing up the family, than Mary could give her elderly mother who was by now in her 70s. This was because, from the middle part of the 1890s, Mary struggled with heart disease. And on 8 July 1903, at the age of 43, this proved to be the cause of her death. At around the same time, two-year-old Anne, who had not thrived since birth, also died.

This is where the importance of the paternal familial links become apparent. Bridget McNamara, the widowed mother of Thomas (senior), was also living in Hagfield in 1901. By 1911, still in Hagfield, Mary Ellen, the youngest of the McNamara girls, is living with her grandmother Bridget and aunt Ellen McNamara, in their basic two-roomed Hagfield house.

Meanwhile, four of the other McNamara children – Bridget, Kate, John and Thomas – had made the move to Batley and were living at New Street with aunt and uncle Luke and Catherine Colleran. The Collerans had been resident in Batley for well over 20 years, their marriage being registered in the Dewsbury district in 1887. Catherine was the older sister of Thomas McNamara (senior).

It would have been a huge change for the McNamara youths – the death of their mother being the likely catalyst for them leaving their rural dual Irish/English speaking home to live with an aunt and uncle they would have barely known. And what a contrast to Hagfield Batley was – a populous, growing, smoke-filled, bustling, industrial Yorkshire town. Yet the McNamaras would have had some sense of comforting familiarity from back home, with many of the Irish community in Batley having links to the Hagfield and Charlestown areas of Ireland.

The McNamaras settled into their new home, all four working in the town’s traditional industries. Bridget and Kate obtained employment as rag sorters. Whilst John and Thomas were both hurriers in the coal mining sector in the 1911 census.

Shortly after the outbreak of war Thomas left his job at Soothill Wood Colliery, to serve with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. This was the same regiment with which his brother John served.

Thomas McNamara

Thomas’ Service Number 3/3131, with it’s ‘3’ prefix, indicates that he signed as a Special Reservist. The Special Reserve was introduced in 1908 as part of the Haldane Reforms, replacing the Militia. Men attesting with the Special Reserve signed on for six years and, after undertaking an initial period of training, thereafter received 3 to 4 weeks training annually. They also accepted they may be called up in the event of general mobilisation. The probability is Thomas signed with the 3rd Reserve Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI), and this was in the early days of the war. Unfortunately Thomas’ service records have not survived to provide corroboration or any further details of his service.

It was with the 7th KOYLI, comprising mainly Yorkshire miners, that Thomas served overseas. On the morning of 22 July 1915 Thomas, along with the rest of the 7th KOYLI, left their Larkhill camp on Salisbury Plain and headed by train for Southampton. Here, at 5pm, they boarded the Mona’s Queen and set sail for France, disembarking the following morning at Le Havre.3 Part of the 20th (Light) Division based in the Fleurbaix sector of France, close to the Belgian border, they then took part in a final period of training to familiarise themselves with the conditions.

It was a steady first month, but casualties were sustained including 16 other ranks, though the majority of these (13) were as a result of sickness. And it was during this period that Thomas penned his informal will in his Army Pay Book. It read:

In the event of my death
I leave all I possess to
Mrs Bridget McNamara,
Hackfield [sic] Charlestown
Co Mayo Ireland
Thomas McNamara
Private 3131
K. O. Yorkshire Light Infantry
August 1st 19154

He was leaving everything to his paternal grandmother, rather than his father who was still alive.

The 7th KOYLI had a very minor part in the Battle of Loos at the end of September 1915, but in the main they were in and around the Fleurbaix sector. In mid-February 1916 the 7th KOYLI crossed the border into Belgium, to trenches in the north part of the Ypres Salient, a recognised hot spot of the British line where casualties were all too frequent.

On 16 April 1916 they were on the move again, down to Calais for a spell of rest which covered the Easter period. It also coincided with glorious weather. In addition to training and parades, relaxation and recreation opportunities took place. These included competitions, sports day and entertainments including “…A concert held in Y.M.C.A, by Miss Lena Ashwell’s party which proved a great success.5

Some of these competitions had a practical application. For example the 7th KOYLI wiring team won a wiring competition, qualifying for the Divisional competition which they duly won on 11 May 1916.

Before the month was out though, they were back in Belgium and in the trenches.

In June 1916 they, along with their Division, took part in the Battle of Mount Sorrel. This was a local operation primarily involving the Canadians. At the beginning of June the Germans launched an attack capturing the important vantage points over Ypres and the Ypres Salient of Mount Sorrel, Hill 61 and Hill 62. The Canadians were determined to quickly re-take them, and counter attacked – initially unsuccessfully. It was not until their attack on 13 June that the Canadians eventually recaptured the high ground.

The 7th KOYLI involvement was as follows:

June 13th – 1.30am….at this hour gas was discharged from the trenches on the right and left of this Battalion and the Divisional artillery bombarded the German front line opposite. Smoke bombs were thrown on our front. At 1.45am the discharge of gas ceased and raiding parties were sent across from various points on the Divisional front. No parties went across from this Battalion as no gas had been discharged on our front. The enemy replied to the gas and smoke with a somewhat heavy bombardment… Very little damage was done and only 2 casualties were suffered.6
The Canadian attack which took place at 1.30am was entirely successful and all positions attacked were taken.7

In July 1916, as the Battle of the Somme raged, the 7th KOYLI, and Thomas, were still on the Ypres Salient. They had been overseas for one year. So far they had escaped relatively lightly. This is supported by their other rank casualties in this 12-month period to 22 July 1916 of 45 killed in action; 21 died of wounds; 209 wounded; 145 sick and off strength; and 2 died of natural causes.

But within days of them celebrating their first anniversary since landing in France, they were on the move south and to the Somme. And to put their casualties over the first 12 months into some perspective, once there whilst in trenches in front of Ginchy on 23 August 1916 they suffered 25 other ranks killed or wounded as a result of heavy enemy bombardment; on 24 August further heavy shelling cost another 50 casualties.8

September 1916 came, and with it the Battle of Flers-Courcelette between 15-22 September 1916. This battle is best known for being the first time tanks were used. But it was also during this battle that Thomas lost his life.

Battle of Flers–Courcelette. “C” Company Mark I tank, C.19 ‘Clan Leslie’, in the Chimpanzee Valley on 15 September 1916, the day tanks first went into action, by Lt John Warwick Brooke, © IWM Q 5574, IWM Non Commercial Licence

The 7th KOYLI, with the 61st Infantry Brigade, were attached to the Guards Division between the 15-17 September phase of the operations.

At 4pm on the 15 September they were billeted in Trones Wood. That evening they were attached to the Guards whose objective was the village of Les Boeufs. In the way of the British front line and this objective was a network of trenches, including the particularly formidable Quadrilateral trench system. Orders were received at about midnight, with the KOYLI detailed to protect the right flank of the attack which, because of earlier failures at the Quadrilateral, was exposed.

The attack on the 16 September, as far as the 7th KOYLI and the 61st Infantry Brigade was concerned, was successful. Parties got into Les Boeufs but, through some misunderstanding, the Guards did not attack, so the 61st consolidated the line which it had gained around 400 yards west of Les Boeufs. On this day there were around 30 other ranks casualties amongst the 7th KOYLIs. A shell though accounted for the loss of all the 7th KOYLI Battalion Headquarter’s officers. But the 7th KOYLI achieved all its objectives in spite of the fact that the units attacking both flanks were held up.

The casualties continued to mount. Just after dawn on 18 September, whilst in support of the 59th Infantry Brigade, a further 60 other rank casualties were sustained as a result of a very heavy barrage of shells and sweeping machine gun fire.

The 19 September was a fairly quiet day. The only things of note were the rain and the fact no water was sent up. That changed on the 20 September. More rain came and they were heavily shelled all day, suffering 30 more casualties. Finally, at 2am on the 21 September, in horribly muddy and wet going, they were relieved in the trenches by the 1st Grenadier Guards. In the process of the relief they sustained 10 more casualties.

Towards the end of September 1916 Thomas’ sister Bridget (now Mrs Rodgers, following her very recent marriage to Ernest Rodgers) received a letter to her address at Union Street, Batley from a Pte John Doyle, a Batley soldier and a “pal” of Thomas’. In the letter dated 22 September, Pte Doyle wrote:

I am sorry I have to tell you that your brother, Tom, has been killed. A shell dropped amongst the company as they were marching through a village away from the firing line yesterday, the 21st. It happened in the early morning. There were a few wounded besides, but Tom caught the most of the shell. He has been buried in the village, and a cross marks his grave. It was hard lines after roughing it for a month in the trenches to be killed when coming out for a rest, but it was God’s will. Poor old Tom. He was one of the nicest and jolliest lads in the company. All his platoon liked him, and join with me in sending you their deepest sympathy. He was one of the coolest under shell fire, and always jolly, in the trenches or out. Tom and John Burns (another Batley soldier) and myself belonged to the same platoon, and as well as losing a “pal” we have lost a fellow townsman. All he said after he was hit was “I’m dying”. He died as he lived, a man, and there is no one more grieved than I am. I tried to get his badge for you as a keep-sake, but we did not carry our packs into the trenches with the fighting going on, and we left our caps and such stuff with them till we came out again. When we came out and got our packs I got Tom’s, but his cap was missing. The RAMC men got the property he had in his pockets. No doubt it will be sent on to you. Well, God has taken one brother, let us hope He spares the other to come home to you. You have lost a good brother, and we have lost a good “pal”, and how grieved I am I can’t tell you. All I can say now is may he rest in peace.9

It is clear from this letter, combined with the Unit War Diary, that Thomas’ death took place in the early hours of 21 September as the 7th KOYLI were leaving the front line trenches, not 20 September as is stated on official records.

The end of the letter also makes reference to Thomas’ brother John. He did, thankfully, survive the war.

In addition to St Mary’s, Thomas is remembered on the Batley War Memorial. He is also honoured in Ireland, both on the Mayo Great War Memorial in Mayo Peace Park, Castlebar and in Ireland’s Memorial Records of the Great War. The eight volumes of the Memorial Records contain details of more than 49,000 fatalities. The men and women commemorated either served in Irish Regiments or were born or resident in Ireland at the time of their death and were serving with units from Britain and its Empire.

And, because his wartime grave was subsequently lost and he has no known final resting place, Thomas is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, along with the more than 72,000 other officers and men of the United Kingdom and South Africa who died in the Somme sector before 20 March 1918 and have no known grave.

The Thiepval Memorial – Photo by Jane Roberts

Thomas was awarded the 1914-15 Star, Victory Medal and British War Medal.

One final footnote, whilst Thomas’ will left everything to his grandmother Bridget McNamara, his pension payment went to his father Thomas (senior) who was living at Hardybutts, Wigan.

1. 20 September 1916 is Thomas’ official death date. However some sources indicate 21 September 1916, including his pension record card and letters home to the family. The latter, coupled with the Unit War Diary, would seem to indicate the early hours of the 21st as his battalion were leaving the firing line.
2. I have used the Niland spelling for consistency. But there are other variants including Nilan and Neilan.
3. The disembarkation place was Le Havre according to the Unit War Diary, and they spent the night at a rest camp at Sanvic; but other sources – including the official history of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in the Great War by R. C. Bond – states the crossing was to Boulogne.
4. Soldiers’ Wills – National Archives of Ireland, Ref NAI/2002/119
5. 7th KOYLI Unit War Diary, The National Archives, Ref WO95/2127/2
6. To put the 7th KOYLI involvement in perspective, the Canadians had casualties of 8,430 killed, missing and wounded between 2 and 14 June in the Battle of Mount Sorrel.
7. 7th KOYLI Unit War Diary, The National Archives, Ref WO95/2127/2
8. Ibid
9. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 29 September 1916

Other Sources:
• 1901 and 1911 Irish Census;
• 1911 England & Wales Census
Baptism and Marriage records – Carracastle and Kilbeagh parish registers;
• Bond, R C. History of The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in the Great War 1914-1918 ; Bond, Reginald Copleston. London: Lund, Humphries, 1929.
• Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Ireland’s Memorial Records 1914-1918;
Irish Petty Session records;
The Long, Long Trail website;
GRO Indexes;
Irish Civil Registration;
Medal Award Rolls, TNA WO329/1455 and WO329/2763;
Medal Index Card;
Soldiers’ Effects Register, NAM Accession Number: 1991-02-333; Record Number Ranges: 367001-368500; Reference: 197
Soldiers Died in the Great War;
• Western Front Association Pension Record Cards and Ledgers, 672/03D
and 129/0612/MCN-MCP