Michael Rush – An Irish-born Boer War Veteran

When you start a piece of research you never know how it will develop. Michael Rush is a perfect example. He served in, and survived, the First World War. But the research into him took many twists and turns, and ended up directly linking Michael to four men on the St Mary’s War Memorial: brother-in-law John Commons, and nephews James Collins, John Thomas Connolly and James Rush. It shows the familial interconnection typical of many of the families living within the parish of Batley, St Mary of the Angels. The research also illustrated the need to draw upon multiple sources, and weigh up the relative evidential value, to reconcile contradictory information. I will not, however, dwell on the research element. This biography is about the end results.

There are a variety of birth dates and places for Michael Rush. The conclusion is he was born in 1870.1 Although a civil registration document has not yet been tracked down, the baptism which appears to relate to him took place on 4 September 1870 in the parish of Curry, County Sligo.2 His parents, Michael3 and Anne Rush (née Mulloy, and its various spellings) lived in Cully Townland which is right on the County Sligo/County Mayo border. Less than three miles from the County Mayo town of Charlestown, this explains the contradictory information in documentation, with many giving either Charlestown or County Mayo as a birthplace. One document even states Batley!4 I will refer to Michael’s father as Michael (senior) to distinguish between father and son.

Michael (senior) and Anne married on 9 February 1860 in the County Mayo parish of Carracastle, around four miles from Charlestown.5 It appears their daughter Mary was born in Ireland, pre-civil registration. No baptism has yet been traced. However by 1863, and the birth of Catherine, the family had moved to Dewsbury. Son James followed in 1865, by which point Michael worked as a mason’s labourer.

The move to England apparently did not work out, for by 1868 the family were back in Ireland. It was here Michael (senior) and Anne’s subsequent children were born. Bridget 1868 (and died before 1876), Martin 1870, Bridget 1876 and Anne 1880. Michael (senior’s) occupation was initially a farmer and, for the last two children’s births, a labourer.

But in the early 1880s, just after the 1881 census, the Rush family decided to try their luck once more in England. The first evidence of this move back was the marriage at St Mary’s, on 2 June 1883, of Catherine Rush to James Collins. This was followed on 20 September 1884 by Mary’s marriage, in the same church, to John Connolly. And, also at St Mary’s, John Rush married Hannah Elizabeth Pearson on 19 May 1888.

The 1891 census shows Michael (senior) and Anne living at Lidgate Lane, Batley Carr, along with unmarried daughters Bridget and Anne.6 Michael cannot be traced in this census, because by now he was serving as a Private in India with the Lancashire Fusiliers, after enlisting in the first few months of 1889. Neither does he appear in the 1901 census. At the time of this census he once more found himself unexpectedly overseas, now with the 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers in South Africa.

In November 1899 Michael was well-settled back into civilian life. After serving his initial seven years in the Army, in early 1897 he had returned to his family home and started work as a coal miner. In 1898 Michael and his parents lived in Ambler Street. And this was Michael’s address when, on 26 November 1898 at St Mary’s, he married 21-year-old woollen weaver Mary Ann Commons.7 Mary Ann was born on 21 October 1877, the daughter of coal miner James Commons and his wife Mary Elizabeth Warren.8 The newly married couple set up their married home in the New Scarboro’ area of Batley

But in November 1899 everything changed. Less than a year after their wedding, Private Michael Rush found himself once more back in the Army.9 The previous month saw the start of the 2nd Boer War. Michael, still on the Reserve List after his previous military service, was recalled and made his way to Bury to rejoin the Lancashire Fusiliers. From there he moved on to Chatham with his regiment to prepare for embarkation to South Africa.

On a cold, foggy 2 December morning, thousands of troops, Michael amongst them, poured into Southampton docks where three chartered ships awaited them. As the fog cleared and sunshine broke through, amidst cheering crowds the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers set sail on board the troopship Norman.10 Arriving at Cape Town on the evening of 19 December 1899,11 they then transferred on to the Roslin Castle, headed for Durban to reinforce General Buller’s troops in Natal, docking there a couple of days before Christmas.12 Weeks later Michael was taking part in the Battle of Spion Kop.

This was a prominent 1,465m peak in the Natal Colony. On the night of 23 January 1900 the 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers were part of around 1,700 troops under the command of Major-General E. R. P. Woodgate.13 A Manchester Guardian reporter takes up the story of the fierce fighting of the 24 January:

If we could get on to the Southern crest of it [Spion Kop] we could probably push on to the northern end, once there we could open a flanking fire on the Boer lines which ran east and west. Spioenkop [sic], properly used was the key that would open the door of Ladysmith. Patrols had reported that there were only a few Boers on it.

Soon after dusk on Tuesday a party set out to make a night attack on the hill. There were Thorneycrofts’ Mounted Infantry, the Lancashire Fusiliers, the Lancashire Regiment, two companies of the South Lancashire Regiment and a company of Engineers. General Woodgate Commanded. It was a hand-and-knee march up the southern face – a climb over smooth rock and grass. It was slow.

The crest was not reached until dawn. When dawn came the party found that it was in the clouds. It could see nothing but the plateau – 400 yards across – on which it stood. Trenches were made but it was difficult to determine the right place for them. The Boers were invisible. At last the mist lifted. The curtain rose upon the performance of a tragedy. The Boers – need I say, on another ridge of Spionkop? – began to fire heavily, and our men seemed to have no sufficient protection in the trenches. The space was small; they were crowded together.

I will describe the scene as I saw it from below. I shall always have it in my memory – that acre of massacre, that complete shambles, at the top of a rich green gully, with cool granite walls (a way fit to lead to heaven), which reached up the western flank of the mountain.

To me it seemed our men were all in a small square patch; there were brown men and browner trenches, the whole like an over-ripe barley field. The Boers had three guns playing like hoses upon our men. It was a triangular fire and our men on the Kop had no gun. Men must have felt that they had lived a long life under that fire by the end of the day.14

By the close of the battle British losses were around 322 killed or mortally wounded, and 563 wounded.15

Boer War: bringing the wounded down from Spion Kop. Process print after H.M. Paget.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

In his subsequent account of events Michael believed they ought never have ascended Spion Kop, as the Boers were able to shell them on the morning following the occupation of the hill. He talked about the terrible carnage, with the trenches full of dead bodies soon after the Boers commenced the attack.16

Back in England, the Reporter Local Shilling Fund was established. Set up by the local Batley and Dewsbury Reporter group of newspapers, donations were distributed amongst wives and children of soldiers engaged in the war. Relief was assessed on means and varied from 3s to 17s per week, based on the number of children. Widowed mothers reliant on the support of serving sons received assistance too. Additional special grants to meet extraordinary circumstances were made – for instance to a woman who gave birth two days after her husband left home for the front. The intention was that this fund be in place for 12 months if the war continued that long. From 19 January 1900 the paper published the names of beneficiaries, and amongst those receiving a weekly grant was Michael’s wife, Mary Ann, living at 6 Whitehead’s Buildings which were situated on Clarence Street.17

Clarence Street looking towards Batley town centre and the library (foundation stone laid in July 1905 and officially opened in October 1907) as taken from Holland Street – Photo by Jane Roberts

By 1901 Mary Ann had moved to nearby Back Holland Street. The Shilling Fund support having been wound down, her work as a rag sorter would have been essential.18 Also in the household, and in an example of someone being double-counted for he was also recorded with his parents on census night, was her 12-year-old brother John Commons.19

Michael’s service in South Africa continued during which, in September 1900, his mother died. It did at one point seem as if he would be home early with his regiment actually on board a ship at Durban for several days, supposedly bound for East London. It proved premature. The orders came to disembark and, from there, they returned to Ladysmith and Elandslaagte, prior to continuing their war in the Eastern Transvaal.20

Looking in what was described as excellent health, and despite his complaints about the food in the early days of the war before the introduction of field bakeries, Michael finally arrived home in Batley on the night of 13 May 1902. He travelled up from Southampton where he docked on the Montrose the previous day.21 His early return, just prior to the signing of the official treaty ending the war, was in part due to having completed his full term of service in the Army. In addition to the deadly Spion Kop episode, he had gone through his South Africa campaign without injury.22 For his South African service he was awarded the Queens and King’s South Africa Medals with Clasps for 1901, 1902, Orange Free State, Transvaal, Tugela Heights, Relief of Ladysmith and Laings Nek.

Michael returned to coal mining, by 1911 being employed at Howley Park Colliery.23 He and Mary Ann never had children, but the 1911 census has them living at 12, Charles Street with six-year-old Ann Warren, described as a cousin.24 She may possibly be the Annie who is referred to as their daughter in other sources, although the 1939 Register age does cast some uncertainty on this. The 1921 census should help clarify. The 1911 census Ann was actually the daughter of Matthew Warren and his wife Maria (née Egan), Matthew being the uncle of Mary Ann Commons. Maria died in March 1907, leaving Matthew with three children. Ann, the youngest, was three months short of her second birthday. In 1911 Matthew has the two eldest children with him, but not his youngest daughter who, according to the census, is still living.25

Even though a time-expired soldier, Michael retained his military links, remaining on the National Reserve list. This list comprised of trained officers and men no longer obliged to serve in the military, but who were voluntarily available to reinforce the regular army or Territorial Force in times of national emergency. By 8 August 1914 the call for volunteers came, and 60 members of Batley Detachment of the National Reserves responded, Michael amongst them. At this point he made himself available for home service during the war.26

A year later he decided to put himself forward for overseas service once more. On 19 August 45-year-old Michael underwent a medical examination in Batley. From this, and a subsequent one in 1917, we have a description of him. Of medium build, and weighing 150lbs, he stood at 5’6”. He had grey hair, black eyes, and a dark, ruddy complexion.27

The following day he was down in London, signing his attestation papers for the 5th Labour Battalion of the Royal Engineers.28

Manual labouring work was needed to support military operations. For example quarrying, or building and maintaining the road, rail and canal transport networks, as well as the construction and repair of ammunition dumps, buildings, camps etc. Until the formation of the Labour Corps in 1917 a number of solutions were employed, one of which was the establishment of 11 Royal Engineer Labour Battalions. They were made up of older men, men not fit for front line fighting but who were used to working with picks and shovels, men such as navvies and miners. Michael, as a miner, and older former soldier, was a perfect fit.

The 5th Labour Battalion Royal Engineers Unit War Diary provides a wonderful insight into those chaotic first few days of Michael’s third spell of active military service.

Southampton, 19-8-15, 4 p.m. … The formation of the 5th Labour Battalion, Royal Engineers, began on 19th August. The procedure was novel. In ordinary cases recruits join some already formed depôt, say of the County or a Regular Regiment. In this case, the men arrived before the Officers, and before any machinery for dealing with them; in a crowd without cohesion, all arriving together from various parts of England; leaderless, for the attested gangers called Corporals were not from the same places as the men, whom they had not set eyes on before. All relations they had had with their own gangers and labour leaders in their own towns had been snapped on enlistment.

… I reached Southampton myself about 4pm on the 20th, commencing my duties in the camp at 6pm.

The picture presented to me when I made this first appearance on the Friday evening was as follows:-

Several rows of bell tents had been pitched by the Rest Camp on the grass plains with grass growing inside the tents. A large crowd of about 800 labourers, in civil clothes, were wandering about over the ground or lying on the grass in the tents. They were absolutely without leaders of any kind, and had nothing but the clothes they stood up in, no blankets, no rations, no cooking pots, no equipment, no canteens to eat out of.

Some of the poorer class of men had arrived drunk, others were spitting about the camp and using filthy language. The large majority were of the genuine labouring class, steady and orderly and self-respecting.

Moving about outside the marquee was the adjutant, picking out likely men for cooks, orderly room clerks, ration men etc. There was no beginning of military life, no pretence of respect for authority yet.

Luckily the weather was fine, and the adjutant was able to collect some men and draw rations, and then the men spent the night lying on the grass in the tents, without blankets…More men kept dropping in at any hour of the night, hungry and tired, some from the North of England, having being travelling for 48 hours. The men were given bully beef and biscuits on arrival.

Southampton, 21st Aug. Next morning 21st…the men had been fallen in by tents and those who chanced to be old soldiers, picked out by the adjutant from among them, were drilling them at different spots among the trees….

By Saturday evening the numbers were more than filled, nearly 1200 men having arrived….

The men were elderly men to a great extent generally between 35-50; one man admitted an unofficial age of 65…he was sick of seeing so many young men loitering at home, and thought he would set an example….

Southampton 22.8.15. On Sunday all the men were marched by the adjutant to the ornamental lake (Cemetery lake) and bathed. Some of the poorer men being in a very dirty condition and no soap yet available; also the men had nothing to buy it with.29

The next few days were occupied with equipping the men, administrative matters such as issuing regimental numbers, pay and separation allowances, as well as a medical matters like inspections and inoculations. It needed to be a quick turn round because they were due to set sail for France on 28 August. On that Saturday morning the adjutant went round and closed to the men all the public houses in the vicinity. However:

Although they had embarkation hanging over them that afternoon, the men began wandering about the Common in search of relaxation at the Public Houses; and the adjutant therefore posted picquets [sic] round camp and at these places of resort; men who had wandered off to the town had to be collected.30

Some of the men did mark the occasion by getting the worse for drink, with Regular Sappers coming in to help maintain strict discipline. But despite this minor hiccup:

Thus in 7 days the original crowd was organised into a body of drilled and fully equipped soldiers, who were marched in an orderly manner with the Colonel in Command, through Southampton Town to the docks. It is unlikely that any troops have ever been raised so rapidly from such unpromising beginnings to such results, in the short week allowed…all this could not have been done had not the men themselves assisted greatly by showing a proper spirit.31

The 5th Labour Battalion, including Michael, disembarked at Le Havre on 29 August 1915. He was now a Pioneer, Service Number 117059, earning 2s per day.32 From Le Havre they made their way to Belgium, where their tasks included quarry work, hut building and constructing, repairing and relaying roads. And, although this seems relatively ‘safe’ work, they were regularly subject to shelling, resulting in casualties and fatalities.

A member of Batley Trades and Friendly Club, this organisation undertook a weekly collection for its members on active service. In October 1915 Michael was the recipient of one of their parcels containing a pair of socks, a woollen shirt, a khaki handkerchief and a sleeping helmet (usually a knitted woollen hat or balaclava to retain heat whilst sleeping), and another package containing cigarettes.33

The comforts would have been appreciated given the conditions being endured. The Unit War Diary for 2 and 3 September 1915 give a flavour of these:

The men were in barns full of straw on the ground or in lofts. It rained very hard all day 3rd, and as the Billets were bordered by muddy fields and lanes, and much scattered, the night was not passed pleasantly, especially as the men were without blankets.34

Despite his supply of comforts from his old club, the damp conditions and work took its toll on Michael. On 23 November 1915 he set sail for England and a spell in hospital suffering from sciatica. He was not fit to join the home depot until 8 January 1916, returning to the Western Front eight days later.35

But his sciatica continued to plague him, having several more attacks which tended to ease after being placed on two or three days of light duties. But in March 1917 another severe episode struck. This one resulted in another return to England and 31 days in Oxford’s Third Southern General Hospital where he received treatment for sciatic nerve neuritis.36

World War I: the Examination Schools, Oxford, while occupied by the Third Southern General Hospital, interior. Watercolour by Walter Spradbery.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

His symptoms were pain to his right hip, which radiated from his buttock down his thigh to the outer part of his foot. It resulted in him walking with a limp. He also had considerable tenderness over the courses of the sciatic nerve especially in back of the left thigh. Treatment included rest, blistering liniments and massage. None made any apparent improvement to his condition. Electric massage was not given as it was considered that he would not gain any material benefit from it.37

After medical examinations, including by a medical board, the cause was directly attributed to Michael’s military service. His notes stated he had been engaged in digging trenches and making gun pits, resulting in exposure to damp. In April 1917 he was assessed as being only a ¼ able to earn a livelihood in the general labour market. The following month, on 22 May 1917 he was discharged from the army, no longer physically fit for war service.38 He returned to his Charles Street home.

On discharge he was awarded the Silver War Badge, under King’s Regulations Paragraph 392 (xvi), meaning he had been released on account of being permanently physically unfit, in his case as a result of sickness.39 This badge was designed to be worn on civilian clothes after early discharge from the military during First World War to prevent those not in uniform, and without an apparent disability, being thought of as shirkers.

Silver War Badge – Photo by Jane Roberts

He also received a disability pension. By 1920 his disability had reduced to 20 per cent, and he was able to return to his mining job – in later years being employed at the White Lee Colliery. He retained his link to the Batley Trades and Friendly Club, becoming a member of the committe. He also became a member of the Batley branch of the British Legion.40

The Rush family eventually left their Charles Street home, moving to North Parade in the Mount Pleasant area of Batley. This was his address when he died on 13 February 1943, after a long illness.41 His burial took place in Batley cemetery on Wednesday 17 February, with the service conducted by St Mary’s priest Father O’Mahoney.

In addition to the Silver War Badge, Michael was awarded the 1914/15 Star, British War and Victory Medals for his First World War service.

1. His age at marriage was 28, equating to a birth date of 27 November 1869 to 26 November 1870. His age in the 1911 census was 41, giving a date of birth of between 3 April 1869 to 2 April 1870. His service papers on 11 April 1917 give his date of birth as 20 April 1867, yet when he enlisted on 20 August 1915 his age was 45 (so a date of birth between 21 August 1869 to 20 August 1870. The 1939 Register gives his date of birth as 1 January 1870;
2. Curry parish register. Baptism parental details match those known for siblings, and is in same parish as three siblings too;
3. His 1943 obituary incorrectly indicates his father was John, but his more reliable service papers and marriage certificate state Michael;
4. Service Papers, The National Archives (TNA) Ref: WO 363;
5. Carracastle marriage register;
6. 1891 Census, TNA, Ref: RG13/3735/67/28;
7. GRO Marriage Certificate;
8. St Mary’s baptism register. GRO Indexes show birth registered in the March Quarter of 1878. The 1911 census age equates to a birth date between 3 April 1877 to 2 April 1878. This contradicts the 1939 Register which gives her date of birth as 2 May 1875;
9. Batley News, 25 November 1899;
10. Lancashire Evening Post, 2 December 1899;
11. Lancashire Evening Post, 20 and 21 December 1899;
12. Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, 29 December 1899;
13. Spink Auctioneeers: https://www.spink.com/lot/18002000105;
14. Ibid;
15. A Gazetteer of the Second Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, Findmypast;
16. Batley News, 17 May 1902;
17. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 19 January 1900;
18. 1901 Census, TNA, Ref: RG13/4257/80/37;
19. 1901 Census, TNA, Ref: RG13/4255/39/31;
20. Batley News, 17 May 1902;
21. Ibid;
22. Ibid. However, the likely Lancashire Fusiliers candidate for Michael Rush, taking account all the other information from other sources, is Pte M Rush, Service Number 2992. However the Natal Field Force Casualty Roll indicates he was wounded on 24 January 1900 at Spion Kop.
23. Service Papers, The National Archives (TNA) Ref: WO 363;
24. 1911 Census, TNA, Ref: RG14/27236. This equates to a birth date of 3 April 1904 to 2 April 1905. Ann’s baptism gives her date of birth as 25 June 1905. The 1939 Register puts it at 3 January 1896!;
25. 1911 Census, TNA, Ref: RG14/27245.;
26. Batley News. 8 August 1914;
27. Service Papers, The National Archives (TNA) Ref: WO 363;
28. Ibid;
29. 5th Labour Battalion Royal Engineers Unit War Diary, TNA, Ref: WO 95/4059/1;
30. Ibid;
31. Ibid;
32. Ibid;
33. Batley News, 23 October 1915;
34. 5th Labour Battalion Royal Engineers Unit War Diary, TNA, Ref: WO 95/4059/1;
35. Service Papers, The National Archives (TNA) Ref: WO 363;
36. Ibid;
37. Ibid;
38. Ibid;
39. Silver War Badge Medal Rolls, TNA, Ref: WO 329, 2958–3255, Ref 329;
40. Batley News, 20 February 1943;
41. Ibid.

Other Sources (not directly referenced):
1939 Register;
1891 to 1911 England and Wales Censuses;
Batley Cemetery Registers;
First World War Pension Ledgers and Index Cards;
GRO Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes;
Imperial War Museum website;
The Long, Long Trail website;
Medal Index Card;
Medal Award Rolls;
Parish Registers, various;
• Various editions of the Batley News and the Batley Reporter and Guardian