Tag Archives: Belgian Refugees

Three Men; two towns; one Parish (Batley, Poperinge and St Mary’s in WW1)

This is the story of three men, a series of coincidences and a twist of fate linking the West Yorkshire town of Batley, its Roman Catholic Parish of St Mary of the Angels and the Belgian town of Poperinghe[1] during World War 1.  The men are Michael James Flynn, Thomas Foley and Julien Cornelius Kestelyn[2].  Michael Flynn and Thomas Foley, whose lives followed remarkably similar patterns, were Army Reservists who re-joined their regiments at the outbreak of war. Julien Kestelyn was a Belgian priest.

St Mary of the Angels RC Church, Batley

St Mary of the Angels RC Church, Batley

Michael Flynn was born in Batley on 17 December 1879 and baptised at St Mary’s in January 1880. His parents Thomas Flynn and Ellen Egan came from County Mayo, the area where the majority of the Irish population of Batley originated. By 1871, when Thomas and Ellen married, Irish born families and their children made up around ten per cent of the town’s population. Michael was one of the Flynn’s seven children.  Thomas Flynn supported his family by working initially as a coal miner and then as a pit banksman, the mine surface worker responsible for raising and lowering the cage.  In  1911 he was a night watchman in the employ of Batley Corporation.

In civilian life Michael followed his father’s coalmining footsteps, working as a coal hewer. This was the man who extracted the coal from the coal face.  He plied his trade in the coal mines of Batley and Barnsley but at the outbreak of war he was back in Batley and employed at Howley Park Colliery.

In addition to his mining job Michael also served in the Militia for six years.  In March 1902, at the tail end of the 2nd Boer War, he joined the 3rd King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry). His attestation papers describe him as 5’5½” tall and weighing 130lbs.  He had a ruddy complexion, dark grey eyes and dark hair.  He had five scars on the small of his back down his spine and his left little finger had been deformed as a result of an accident.

At the time Michael enlisted, the Militia was a volunteer force, seen as an alternative to the Regular Army.  After volunteering and undergoing basic training, men returned to civilian life but reported for regular periods of military training. They were not normally obliged to serve abroad, although some did during the South African War (1899 -1902).   In 1908 as a result of the Haldane reforms, the Militia battalions were turned into Special Reserve battalions, which trained part-time just as the Militia had, but would provide drafts to reinforce the regular battalions of their regiments in the event of war. It was in the midst of these changes that Michael was discharged as time-expired in March 1908, returning to his hometown and parish.

Thomas Foley was from a remarkably similar background to Michael Flynn. Two years Michael’s junior, he was born in Batley on 10 December 1881 and baptised at St Mary’s later that month.   His parents, John and Bridget Foley (neé Cafferty) were, like Michael’s, from County Mayo. Like the Flynn’s, the Foley’s had seven children.  And, in another similarity, Thomas’ father also undertook a number of different jobs to provide for his family, though these were far more disparate than the ones carried out by Michael’s father.  John Foley’s jobs included a mason’s labourer, gas stoker, coal miner and latterly a willeyer in the shoddy industry of Batley.  This job involved feeding the willeying machine used to break down the rag and wool, thus separating and cleaning the fibres.  Employed at J T & J Taylor’s Blakeridge Mills, he was described as an industrious and well-respected employee.

Like Michael, Thomas was a coal hewer who enlisted with the Militia.  At the time of his enlistment he was employed by Critchley’s.  He signed up slightly earlier than Michael, in November 1899, just before his 18th birthday. According to his attestation papers the 5’4½”, 112lbs, fresh complexioned, blue-eyed, red-headed teen joined the 3rd West Riding Regiment.[3]  Whereas Michael’s Militia service was home-based, Thomas did serve overseas as his military service coincided with the 2nd Boer War. The mobilisation of Militia needed an official order of embodiment into the Army and this was announced in November and December 1899. Thomas’ record shows that he was “embodied” with the Regiment on 22 February 1900 and “disembodied” on 10 May 1902.

His experiences in the Militia must have given him a taste for Army life, because in March 1903 he enlisted in the Regular Army, joining The Cheshire Regiment.   He signed up for 12 years – three years in the Regulars followed by nine years in the Army Reserve.  By now he was a shade over 5’6”[4] weighed 130lbs and had a heart tattoo on his left forearm.   His conduct whilst in the Army was described as good. However his records do show the occasional instances of drunkenness (especially in his early days around Chester), violently resisting escort, attempting to damage Government property, absenting himself and using threatening language towards a NCO.   Interestingly, given his Irish background, one occasion was on St Patrick’s Day 1904 when he absented himself from Tattoo until he was found drunk and creating a disturbance in barracks at Aldershot.

In terms of skills, his musketry classification was 1st Class and he passed instruction classes in swimming. The latter is no surprise. His old school of St Mary’s was renowned locally for its excellent swimmers, regularly winning local inter-school competitions.

Thomas went onto the Army Reserve in the spring of 1906, returning to Batley to work as a miner, this time at Messrs Crawshaw and Warburton’s Shaw Cross Colliery.  And whilst living in the town, like Michael, he became a member of the St Mary’s (Batley) Branch of the National Catholic Benefit and Thrift Society, a Catholic insurance organisation.

He remained in Batley for around seven years before deciding to seek better wages abroad. On 24 April 1913 he set sail from Liverpool on board the “Arabic” bound for the port of Halifax, intending to make a new life in Canada. Some reports indicate he settled in St John, New Brunswick. Others state Kensington.

Britain’s entry into the War on 4 August 1914 was to change everything for both men. As Reservists, Michael and Thomas were re-called to the Colours: The former to the 2nd Battalion, The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry); the latter to the 1st Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment.

Thomas was one of many British Army Reservists who returned to England from Canada on-board the “Corinthian”. The ship sailed from Montreal and Thomas embarked at Quebec, docking in the port of London on 4 September 1914.  He enjoyed an unexpected four days furlough at the end of September 1914 which enabled him to visit his family and friends in Batley for a final time, before re-joining his Regiment.  He also left his medals, including from the South Africa campaign, with his family for safe-keeping.

At the beginning of October 1914 Thomas went to France. The 1st Battalion the Cheshire Regiment was desperately in need of re-enforcements. According to the Unit War Diary, it had lost 78 per cent of its strength in the retreat after the 24 August 1914 Battle of Mons.

Michael arrived in France a couple of months later in early December 1914. His Battalion had also taken part in the retreat from Mons.   Their War Diary shows that they incurred 600 casualties following the Battle of Le Cateau on 26 August 1914. In common with all other Battalions on the Front, a steady leach of men was maintained thereafter so reinforcements were continually required to feed the beast of war.

By the New Year both men were in Belgium.  In the meantime an influx of Belgium refugees were arriving in Britain.  It is estimated that 250,000 made their home here during the course of the war affecting all areas, including Batley.

There was much sympathy for the plight of “Plucky Little Belgium” and widespread horror at the atrocities inflicted upon it by the invading Germans. This translated into an outpouring of offers of accommodation and a network of voluntary relief work across Britain, with Belgian Relief Funds established countrywide to support the refugees.

At the beginning of October 1914 the Citizens’ Sub-Committee for Belgian Relief accepted Batley’s offer of accommodation at Shaftsbury House, Upper Batley.  The doctors of Batley also undertook to provide their services free of charge for the refugees.

The first batch of 25 Belgians arrived in the town later that month. They were greeted at the railway station by a Mayoral welcoming party and cheered on by thousands of townsfolk as they made their way to their new Batley home. The full complement of refugees was listed in the local paper, accompanied by selected photos and tales of frightful brutalities suffered at the hands of the German invaders, all serving to whip up public support for the war.

List of  Belgian refugees arriving in Batley in October 1914

List of Belgian refugees arriving in Batley in October 1914

By early November the Batley Belgian Relief Fund stood at £141 5s 10½d.  At the end of the month with offers of more accommodation, the town had around 50 refugees in a number of locations with the papers continuing to provide details of the names, ages, abode and occupations of what were paternalistically referred to as “our refugees”.

One month later the Relief Fund had doubled, standing at £282 12s 8½d, including a 5th donation from St Mary’s RC Church. The latest sum contributed by parishioners amounted to £3 12s 10d.

The papers provided regular progress updates of the “Belgian guests,” including employment, illnesses suffered, hospitalisation, deaths, day-to-day activities, news of further arrivals and departures and information about funds raised to support them.  All of which ramped up sympathy and a willingness to assist.

Fundraising and helping Belgian refugees was a way for the people of Britain to feel as if they were contributing to the war effort whilst their husbands, sons and fathers were away fighting for that plucky little country. This included the families of the military men of Batley St Mary’s, who may have had an added incentive to donate given the Catholicism of Belgium.

Thomas Foley’s last letter home, which his parents received on 3 March 1915, was described as “cheerful” and intimated that he was in the best of health.

It appears that on 7 March 1915 whilst in action Thomas suffered fatal injuries.   His  Casualty Form  notes that he was treated initially by the 94th Field Ambulance for what was described as a “bullet wound left shoulder, right of neck and lung injured”[5].   From there he was transferred down the line to Number 3 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) Clearing Hospital at Poperinghe. The town was well situated, being the nearest sizeable and relatively safe location to Ypres, suffering only the occasional long range bombardment.  So at this stage of the war it was an ideal position for a CCS.

The purpose of CCS’s was to treat the injured so they could be returned to duty quickly or evacuated to a Base Hospital. They moved location frequently.  According to some records Number 3 CCS was at Hazebrouck during March, the period of Thomas’ death, and did not move until April to Poperinghe. But the Poperinghe location is further confirmed in his entry in “The Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects”.

Thomas was too seriously injured to transfer to a Base Hospital. He died from his wounds at the CCS on 11 March. His Casualty Form records his burial in the military cemetery of Poperinghe and indicates that his grave was marked with a cross duly inscribed.  His family received official news of his death in early April.

Grave of Pte Thomas Foley DCM, 7114, 1st Battalion The Cheshire Regiment, Poperinghe Old Military Cemetery

Grave of Pte Thomas Foley DCM, 7114, 1st Battalion The Cheshire Regiment, Poperinghe Old Military Cemetery

It later transpired that, whilst injured, he performed acts of heroism and courage and for these actions he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM).  According to the Batley News he was the first Batley man to win the coveted distinction. The full citation, which was published in the supplement to the London Gazette on 30 June 1915, said:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, notably on the night of March 7th, 1915, when he went out in front of our trenches to bring in some stretcher bearers who had lost their way.  Subsequently he went out three times under heavy fire to bring in wounded men, and although wounded more than once himself he continued to carry out his duty.”

The medal was forwarded to his father in September 1915.  Along with the medal came a letter from Major Parr from the Infantry Records at Shrewsbury, on behalf of the Colonel of the Regiment.  Major Parr wrote:

“In forwarding the medal I trust you will allow me to add my sympathy in the loss of your son, and trust that the decoration for his gallant conduct may be some consolation in your trouble”.

John Foley said of his son, ‘Although I am his father, I do not hesitate to say that a finer, straighter, or cleaner lad has not set foot on the fields of France’.  Only a month later, on 15 October 1915, Thomas’ mother, Bridget, died

A month after Thomas’ death, Michael Flynn died from wounds in the same CCS on 12 April 1915.  His last letter arrived home on the day he died.  In it he said that they were having a rough time.

It is unclear when he received his fatal injuries.  But in the period leading up to his death, from 1–10 April 1915 the 2nd KOYLI were alternating between the support and front line trenches in the Verbrande Molen area, south east of Ypres.  On 1 April the Unit War Diary notes that although the enemy’s artillery was active, it did little damage.  This changed on 5 April when they were in the front line trenches and “D” Company in Trench 35 were heavily shelled and bombed at intervals throughout the day.  They suffered 14 casualties.  The shelling and bombing continued the following day.  The 2nd KOYLI received support from Belgian artillery but unfortunately one of their shells fell short landing in 36 Trench, wounding 5 men from “A” Company.  They were relieved later that day and went to the support dugouts, with “D” Company returning to Ypres.  But even at Ypres they were not safe, a shell hitting Battalion HQ on 7 April causing more casualties.  Late on 7 April those companies in the support trenches were back in the front line trenches, relieving the Dorsets.  This was a quieter period for the Battalion, with heavy firing to the left of their positions.   They were relieved by the Dorsets on the 10 April and returned to billets to rest.

A companion, Private Matthew McDonald,   who had been with Michael at Ypres which he called “the death trap” wrote, “It is not war, but murder, out there.”

Michael was buried just one row away from Thomas in Poperinghe Old Military Cemetery and their names appear next to each other in the CWGC Cemetery Register.

Grave of Pte Michael Flynn, 15338, 2nd Battalion The King's Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry), Poperinghe Old Military Cemetery

Grave of Pte Michael Flynn, 15338, 2nd Battalion The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry), Poperinghe Old Military Cemetery

But there is one further, less transparent, link between the Parish of St Mary’s and Poperinghe.  And that link is a Belgian priest, Fr Julien Kestelyn. He was born on 12 August 1888 at Krombeke, around five miles away Poperinghe but by October 1914 he was at the town’s Catholic College of St Stanislas’.  His life too was altered by the war, bringing about his move to a foreign land. But this was a move in the opposite direction to the St Mary’s duo, from Belgium to England.

Newspaper reports in Batley indicate that Father Kestelyn was ordained a priest in the trenches in the early days of the conflict, acted as a Chaplain for the Belgian Army and also assisted in Red Cross work at the Front. Other sources state he was ordained a priest in De Panne, a coastal town in Flanders during April 1915 by the Auxiliary Bishop of Mechelen.

He came to England shortly afterwards to act as Chaplain to the Belgian refugees in the Heavy Woollen District[6].  Initially, from May 1915, he was based at St Patrick’s, Birstall but by the beginning of June 1916 he transferred to a neighbouring Parish, becoming one of the priests at Batley St Mary’s.

In addition to his ministerial work within the Parish and for the Belgian refugee community throughout the district, he had a genuine interest in academia and education generally. This manifested itself in a number of areas.  According to the papers he was involved in opening a school for Belgian children in Huddersfield[7]. He produced literary papers and gave lectures on Ireland. And, in September 1918, he secured an Intermediate BA at Leeds University.

In the final months of his ministry at St Mary’s, the baptisms he conducted included that of a nephew of Thomas Foley.[8]

Fr Kestelyn left Batley in July 1919 to return home to Belgium and take up a post once again at the College in Poperinghe, teaching English amongst other subjects.

Father Julien Kestelyn

Father Julien Kestelyn

Prior to his departure he was presented with a cheque £130 and other tokens of appreciation from St Mary’s.    A few words from the farewell address by parishioners illustrate the high regard in which they held the Belgian priest. Wishing him health and strength to continue his work back home they also said:

“For your untiring care and deep devotion you have earned our loving gratitude, and your memory will be ever cherished in the hearts of all at St Mary’s”.

Sadly his health did not hold. Falling ill at around Christmas 1919 he never recovered. He died in Poperinghe on 9 March 1920.  The news was greeted with great sorrow in Batley and Birstall. A mass was celebrated at St Patrick’s, Birstall led by Dean John Joseph Lea of St Mary’s, with whom Fr Kestelyn had worked, and involving priests from across the Diocese.

So this is the story of two single men from the same Roman Catholic Parish in Batley whose lives and backgrounds followed similar patterns, who served in different Regiments, died in the same CCS just a month apart and are buried in close proximity in the same cemetery in Poperinghe.  And a Catholic priest, prior to the First World War working in Poperinghe, who moved to the Parish from which these men hailed, ministered to their families’ spiritual needs at a traumatic time in their lives and returned to post-war Belgium  only to die in Poperinghe within months of his homecoming. All were in their early 30’s.


[1] The modern spelling is Poperinge

[2] In England he was referred to as Father Julian Kestelyn.

[3] Newspaper reports state that this service was with the West Yorkshire Regiment.

[4] He had reached 5’7” when he transferred to the Army Reserve three years later.

[5] Curiously, the Field Ambulance records treating these injuries on the 6 March and transferring him to hospital on 7 March.

[6] This is the area around Batley and Dewsbury in West Yorkshire.  It was so-named because the shoddy and mungo wool industry on which the region’s prosperity was based was used to produce heavy coatings, duffels and blankets. Ironically, as a result of the War, the demand for its products soared.

[7] The priest on the left of this photo of Belgian schoolchildren in Huddersfield may possibly be Fr Kestelyn http://www.examiner.co.uk/lifestyle/nostalgia/belgian-invasion-huddersfield-1914-6898591

[8] 16 March 1919 baptism of John Reginald, the son of Thomas’ Foley’s sister Mary Lizzie.