My Family at War – Part 3: Thomas Bunting

17/673 Lance Corporal Thomas George Bunting

Private Thomas Bunting

Private Thomas Bunting

Thomas George Bunting was the nephew of William Neill and Hammie Neill. Their sister, Annie, married Matthew Bunting on 11 July 1895 at Magheralin Parish Church and the couple had three children—Miriam, born on 31 October 1895, Thomas George born on 25 February 1897, and Alfred born on 19 June 1903. Annie, Matthew and the two boys lived in a small, three-roomed house in Ballymacateer and Miriam lived with her grandparents nearby. It is not known where Thomas worked before the war but it was probably in the mill with his parents and uncles.

Thomas Bunting enlisted into The Royal Irish Rifles on, or about, 17 May 1915, aged 18, and joined the 17th (Reserve) Battalion at Newcastle, County Down, where he was allocated the number 17/673.

The 17th (Reserve) Battalion had been formed in May 1915 from the depot companies of the 8th, 9th and 10th (Service) Battalions as those battalions prepared for their departure for England with the Ulster Division. It was responsible for training the reinforcements for those battalions and it did so until the reorganisation of the reserve battalions and their move to England in April 1918.

Like many who had enlisted just before the Ulster Division left for Seaford, Thomas Bunting’s training was completed in time for him to join a battalion of 36th (Ulster) Division before it sailed for France.

The 9th (Service) Battalion, The Royal Irish Rifles (West Belfast) had been raised in September 1914, largely from men of the Ulster Volunteers. One of four battalions in 107th Brigade, it trained at Ballykinler until 36th (Ulster) Division moved to Seaford on the Sussex coast in the first days of July 1915. Rifleman[1] Thomas Bunting joined 9th Royal Irish Rifles in the late summer of 1915 and was posted to 8 Platoon in ‘B’ Company. The final period of musketry training took place at Bramshott and it was from here on 3 October that the Battalion set off by train for Folkestone and sailed for France. Thomas Bunting landed in Boulogne-sur-Mer later that evening. The next day he travelled by train to Flesselles and marched to billets at Vignacourt. Over the next few days he marched closer to the front line. Finally, on 10 October, he arrived at Hédauville and in a tented camp there he prepared for his first stint in the trenches.

It was customary for New Army units to undergo training with more experienced formations. 107th Brigade was the first of the Ulster Division’s three brigades to be detached—it joined 4th Division, a regular division and part of the original British Expeditionary Force that had landed in France in August 1914.[2] The 4th Division was in the line north of the River Ancre opposite Beaumont Hamel. The first to experience life in the forward trenches were the men of ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies, who marched up to the line and were attached, respectively, to 1st Battalion, The Hampshire Regiment and 1st Battalion, The Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort’s Own) in 11th Brigade. Their early experience was not a quiet one—’C’ Company was subject to an artillery and mortar barrage the following morning and the Battalion suffered its first casualties when a shell hit a dugout ‘packed with men’: two men of 1 Hants were killed and one NCO and four men of 9th Royal Irish Rifles were wounded. Two days later a German patrol surprised a patrol from ‘C’ Company—the war diary reported that one man had been wounded and captured and another man wounded. In fact, Rifleman John Hanna died of his wounds; the enemy buried him behind their lines at Miraumont.[3] ‘D’ Company, meanwhile, had suffered no casualties before the two companies were withdrawn and replaced by ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies. They were attached to 1st Battalion, The East Lancashire Regiment and 1st Battalion, Prince Albert’s (Somerset Light Infantry) respectively. They suffered a total of three men wounded (one accidentally) before they were withdrawn on the night of 17 October. For the rest of the month Thomas Bunting and the men of the 9th Royal Irish Rifles were out of the line engaged in further training.

Once their familiarisation training was completed, New Army and Territorial Force divisions new to France and Flanders exchanged a third of their battalions for regular, experienced battalions and on 4 November 107th Brigade was exchanged for 12th Brigade, 4th Division. As a result, Thomas Bunting spent the next three months in 4th Division, and he would have noticed that his Brigade had been somewhat reorganised, losing two battalions and gaining two regular English battalions and a regular Irish Battalion.[4] The first two months were relatively quiet in most of the sector occupied by 107th Brigade but the weather was terrible and the trenches were in poor condition. This period was not wholly without incident. The Battalion witnessed its first fatal casualty (it is unlikely anyone would have known the earlier fate of John Hanna) when Rifleman Daniel Crilly, aged 37, of ‘B’ Company, was shot by a sniper on 8 December.[5] In all, by the end of the year two men had been killed, 21 wounded and seven captured (all of whom were also wounded).

In January 107th Brigade took over the southern sector of the 4th Division’s area of responsibility. Here life was harder for the men of 9th Royal Irish Rifles and fatal casualties increased, primarily because this sector included ‘Mary Redan’—a salient of trenches west of Beaumont Hamel and close to the German line (see map). In his history of 36th (Ulster) Division, Cyril Falls describes the Redan as:

…a most unpleasant corner. In the first place, it was not more than fifty yards from the German lines, and the mine-craters which fringed its eastern edge, which were occupied at night by British posts—a doubtful policy, as it appears today—were in constant danger of surprise. …one post was indeed bombed by the enemy and a man taken out of it. In the second place, the Redan was the scene of constant mining, and the bugbear of battalions in reserve, which had to send up large working parties to carry sandbags filled with chalk for the miners. It was the one point in our trenches which received fairly constant attention from German gunners, and the average weekly casualties in this tiny lozenge were probably higher than on the whole of the rest of 4th Division’s front.’[6]

Mary Redan and Beaumont Hamel

Mary Redan and Beaumont Hamel

The difficulty of the fighting in this small area early in 1916 is reflected in 9th Royal Irish Rifles being mentioned by name in the dispatch of 29 May by the Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Douglas Haig:

While many other units have done excellent work during the period under review, the following have been specially brought to my notice for good work in carrying out or repelling local attacks and raids.’[7]

107th Brigade rejoined 36th (Ulster) Division on 7 February 1916, when the Ulster Division took over a sector of the front with its original brigades and battalions for the first time—107th Brigade remained on the left of the Divisional front and continued to hold Mary Redan.

Later that month, Thomas Bunting and his fellow soldiers of 9th Royal Irish Rifles  witnessed the death of one of their own but not through enemy action.

In the early afternoon of 31 January the Battalion had paraded at Varennes in preparation for moving into the line at Mary Redan and the trenches immediately to its left. The relief was complete at about 7.00pm and at 8.45pm Corporal Todd[8] went to look for Rifleman James Crozier to ‘warn him for sentry duty at 9.00pm’.[9] Crozier was nowhere to be found. Corporal Todd reported his absence to Company Sergeant Major Hill[10] and another search failed to find him. Four days later, on the morning of 4 February, while the Battalion was still in the line, he was found by Corporal William Taylor[11] at 7th Ammunition Sub Park, some 25 miles in the rear, without his rifle or equipment, and was placed in custody. The next day he was collected by Corporal Fred Brightmore[12] of 4th Division Military Mounted Police and taken to Headquarters 36th (Ulster) Division.

Rifleman Crozier was charged with

…deserting His Majesty’s Service in that he ‘In the Trenches’ on the 31st January 1916 absented himself from 9th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles until apprehended ‘In the Field’ by Corporal William Taylor on the 4th February 1916.’[13]

At his court martial on 14 February, Crozier’s defence was that he was sick and could not remember leaving the trenches. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. It seems clear that the strong recommendation from his commanding officer and brigade commander that the execution should be carried out meant that there was little chance that Crozier’s sentence would be commuted.[14]

He was executed by a firing squad within earshot of the parading Battalion at 7.05am on 27 February 1916.[15]

In March a reorganisation occurred that left 36th (Ulster) Division responsible for a sector astride the River Ancre (see map). This comprised two sub-sectors—Thiepval Wood on the right of the river and Hamel on the left—and it was here that the Ulster Division would face its first major trial.

Thiepval and Hamel Sub-Sectors, 1916

Thiepval and Hamel Sub-Sectors, 1916

On 30 March, 9th Royal Irish Rifles moved into billets in Puchevillers, 11 miles to the west of Thiepval Wood. Preparations for the forthcoming attack were well under way and for the next three weeks Thomas Bunting and his comrades spent their time on work parties on the railroad that ran alongside the River Ancre, and engaged on company-level training. The last week of the month and the first week of May was spent in billets in Forceville, training at company-level and conducting mock attacks over dummy trenches. On 9 May, Thomas marched to Martinsart and for the next three weeks he was sent forward to Thiepval Wood on work parties.

Finally, on 30 May, he went into the trenches in Thiepval Wood. 107th Brigade was to be in reserve for the imminent attack, and the Brigade took over the front-line trenches in both sectors. This allowed the men of 108th and 109th Brigades to move into reserve and prepare for their part in the attack. The men of 9th Royal Irish Rifles spent the next week here, which was quiet until 5 June. That night, a raid took place in the Hamel sub-sector and, in response to the supporting artillery barrage, the enemy shelled heavily the area occupied by ‘C’ Company on the left of Thiepval Wood; seven men were killed and 29 wounded.

Having been relieved by 8th Royal Irish Rifles on 6 June, the Battalion spent the next week on work parties in the wood before returning to the front line trenches on 13 June. Relieved again by 8th Royal Irish Rifles on 20 June, the men endured two more days of work parties before beginning a final period of training and practice attacks.

From Blacker’s Boys:

The front for which 36th (Ulster) Division was responsible was divided into four sectors, to be attacked by 108th and 109th Brigades, with 107th Brigade in reserve. The right and right-centre sectors ran north and north-east from Thiepval Wood and were the responsibility of 109th Brigade. For this it was reinforced by 11th and 13th Royal Irish Rifles from 108th Brigade and 15th Royal Irish Rifles from 107th Brigade. The left-centre sector, immediately east of the River Ancre and including the area around St Pierre Divion, was not to be attacked directly. The left sector (previously the Hamel sub-sector) would be attacked by the remaining two battalions of 108th Brigade—12th Royal Irish Rifles and 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers. The attacking Brigades were tasked with clearing the enemy’s first, second and third lines before 107th Brigade captured the enemy’s fourth line, the Division’s final objective. All of the strong-points to be captured by the Division were named after well-known towns in Ulster. In the German ‘A Line’ there was Kilrea, Lisburn, Cavan and Moy. In the ‘B Line’ were Gobbins, Larne, Bushmills, Lurgan, Clones and Dungannon. Farther back in the ‘C Line’ were Coleraine, Portadown, Enniskillen, Strabane, Omagh and Lisnaskea. Finally in the D Line, and the final objectives, were Portrush, Bundoran and Derry City.

The artillery provided for the Division’s action was enormous. In addition to its own batteries, a brigade of four batteries was attached from 49th Division and a regiment from the French. The preliminary bombardment was to last for five days from 24 to 28 June, designated ‘ U Day’ to ‘ Y Day’, and was aimed at cutting the enemy wire and destroying the front line trenches. The barrage during the attack itself on ‘ Z Day’ would not be a true creeping barrage, but after a final intensive bombardment of sixty-five minutes it would fire upon each German line in succession.

The bombardment of the German trenches began as planned on 24 June. 9th Royal Irish Rifles was now in Léalvillers, seven miles west of Thiepval Wood and it was here that it continued to train for the first four days of the massive bombardment. On 27 June Thomas Bunting marched to Forceville, two miles closer to the front and on 28 June he marched to the assembly trench at Aveluy Wood but orders were issued postponing ‘Zero Hour’ for 48 hours and at 7.00pm the Battalion paraded and Thomas marched back to Léalvillers.

On the evening of 30 June he marched forward again to the assembly trench at Aveluy Wood, in preparation for the attack the following morning. By 4.00am 107th Brigade was in position with 8th, 9th and 10th Royal Irish Rifles in the north portion of Aveluy Wood (15th Royal Irish Rifles was in the western portion of Thiepval Wood under command 108th Brigade). Thomas spent a restless night here unable to hear much more than the noise of the final hours of the bombardment.

From Blacker’s Boys:

 Saturday 1 July dawned clear and dry and the Ulster Division attacked on time as ordered against the formidable defences on the Thiepval plateau. Beyond the first line trenches was the strongly built Swaben Redoubt, overlooked by Thiepval Village on the right and by the villages west and north of the River Ancre on the left. Having swept through the first line trenches there was bitter fighting for the Redoubt that involved most of the attacking battalions. The Redoubt was entered at 8.00am and, despite heavy losses, was taken by 8.30am. At about 9.15am 107th Brigade passed through the forward units of the two leading Brigades and advanced on the next objective in front of Grandcourt. Many casualties were taken but the position was entered and captured. Sadly, the effort and courage of the attacking troops was in vain; with no protection on the flanks, where the attacks by 29th and 32nd Divisions had failed, the leading troops were forced back to the Swaben Redoubt that afternoon. Delays in sending up reinforcements, the domination of the ground by German machine gunners, and repeated counter-attacks eventually forced the decision that the remnants of the Ulster Division must retire to the German front line. This was carried out in good order at 10.00pm after nearly fourteen hours of fighting, and during the night most of the survivors were withdrawn farther to Thiepval Wood, although small groups remained within the German lines.

9th Royal Irish Rifles - Narrative of Operations 1-3 July 1916

9th Royal Irish Rifles – Narrative of Operations 1-3 July 1916

By dawn on 2 July it had become clear that groups of men were holding out in the A and B Lines. Headquarters 36th (Ulster) Division ordered that ‘…they must be supported and reinforcements sent. Bombs and S.A.A. to be sent up to them and the position they hold to be consolidated and the flanks strongly held by blocking parties.’[16]

Lieutenant Colonel Crozier was ordered to reinforce the trenches from A15 to A19 and a composite battalion was formed from 100 men each from 8th, 9th , & 15th Royal Irish Rifles and 60 men from 10th Royal Irish Rifles. Crozier had intended to lead this operation himself but he was stopped by the commander of 107th Brigade and command devolved to Major P J Woods.[17] Although this composite battalion lost about a third of its strength crossing from Thiepval Wood to its objective, it was successful in reinforcing the new front line. Another day was spent in close proximity to the counter-attacking enemy before these men were finally relived at 10.40am on 3 July and returned to Thiepval Wood, bringing back 15 prisoners. The remnants of 107th Brigade then marched to Martinsart. The narrative of the attack by 9th Royal Irish Rifles may be read at the link to the right.

Lance Corporal Thomas Bunting was known to have been wounded sometime on 1 or 2 July. He could not be found and was reported as missing. His family did not know his fate until 1917. About a month after he was declared missing his father wrote to the Red Cross hoping that he was a prisoner of war. On 25 August 1916 the Red Cross replied—there was no record of him. Sometime in mid-1917 Thomas Bunting’s family were informed that his death was presumed to have occurred on or after 1/2 July 1916. He was only 19 years old. It is not known where he is buried and he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.[18]

Thomas Bunting on Thiepval Memorial

Thomas Bunting on Thiepval Memorial

He is also commemorated on the Dollingstown war memorial.  This simple memorial , on the Belfast Road alongside Alfred Terrace, is in the form of an obelisk. It was designed by the German-born, London-based architect Maximilian Clarke and was dedicated in February 1921. It commemorates 20 men from Dollingstown and Ballymacateer who were killed in the First World War and six men killed in the Second World War. Also commemorated is Robert McDowell, a former soldier of 16th Royal Irish Rifles and member of the Ulster Special Constabulary, who was murdered near Greystones, County Wicklow on 22 June 1922. Those from Dollingstown and Ballymacateer who served during the First World War and who returned home are commemorated on the Roll of Honour; included on it are William and Hamilton Neill.

Dollingstown War Memorial

Dollingstown War Memorial

The wartime death of Thomas Bunting was not the only tragedy to befall the family. His brother Alfred drowned while swimming in the River Lagan near Magheralin on 4 July 1921, aged 18.

His sister Miriam married Samuel Gardiner, a widower who worked as a carpenter in Dollingstown, on 4 May 1921 at Magheralin Parish Church.[19] Samuel Gardiner had served with the 8th (Service) Battalion, The Royal Irish Rifles (East Belfast) (8/11671, Sergeant) from its arrival in France in 107th Brigade, 36th (Ulster) Division. He finished the war as a Sergeant in the 1st Battalion. Samuel Gardiner had four sons (and a daughter who died at birth) with his first wife; it was the birth of a sixth child that resulted in her death on 25 April 1918. One of his sons from that first marriage, Norman, married my great-aunt May Neill, the daughter of William Neill. Miriam and Samuel Gardiner later had two sons, Alfred (Alfie) and William (Billy). Alfie’s son, Samuel Gerald Gardiner, was murdered by the Provisional IRA in 1976.[20]

My cousin, Gillian, for the image of Thomas Bunting’s name on the Thiepval Memorial and the newspaper extract.
Diane Flanagan for the photo of Dollingstown war memorial.

1. (Back) The rank ‘Rifleman’, although commonly used to describe a private soldier in The Royal Irish Rifles, was not adopted officially until 1923. As a consequence records show men of the Regiment variously as ‘Rifleman’ and ‘Private’. For consistency and in keeping with the custom within the Regiment, the rank ‘Rifleman’ is used throughout.
2. (Back) 107th Brigade was not well regarded by Major General Nugent, commanding 36th (Ulster) Division. He considered it less disciplined than the other two brigades in the Division, and he believed that some of its senior officers were not up to the mark. This poor reputation was not to last.
3. (Back) The graves of Rifleman John Hanna and of five other men buried in Miraumont German Cemetery were destroyed by shellfire. He is commemorated on a special memorial in Queens Cemetery, Bucquoy.
4. (Back) In this reorganisation, 8th Royal Irish Rifles joined 10th Brigade, 15th Royal Irish Rifles joined 11th Brigade and 107th Brigade received, 1st Battalion, Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers), 1st Battalion, The Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort’s Own) and 1/2nd Battalion, The Monmouthshire Regiment.
5. (Back) 17/294 Rifleman Daniel Crilly was buried in Sucrerie Military Cemetery, Colincamps, Plot II, Row E, Grave 4.
6. (Back) Falls, C. (1922). The History of the 36th (Ulster) Division. Belfast: McCaw, Stevenson & Orr.
7. (Back) London Gazette. (29 May 1916). Issue 29599, p 5311.
8. (Back) 9/18835 Corporal Edward Todd, 9th Royal Irish Rifles. Discharged on 8 July 1918 as a result of wounds.
9. (Back) For a full account of the trial proceedings see: The National Archives (TNA): WO 71/450.
10. (Back) 9/16552 Company Sergeant Major Arthur Hill, 9th Royal Irish Rifles.
11. (Back) MS/3292 Corporal William Taylor, Army Service Corps.
12. (Back) P1172 Corporal Fred Stanley  Brightmore, Military Mounted Police (formerly 4958, Private, The Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort’s Own)). Discharged on 23 October 1916 as a result of illness.
13. (Back) TNA. Op. Cit.
14. (Back) TNA. Op. Cit.
The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel F P Crozier, wrote:

From a fighting point of view this soldier is of no value. His behaviour has been that of a ‘shirker’ for the past 3 months. He has been with the Expeditionary Force in France since 3.10.15.
I am firmly of the opinion that the crime was deliberately committed with the intention of avoiding duty on the Redan, more particularly as he absented himself shortly after the case of another soldier had been promulgated for a similar crime. The Officer commanding the man’s Company is of the same opinion. Sentence was remitted in the case mentioned to 2 years Hard Labour

The Brigade Commander wrote:

I recommend that the extreme penalty in the case of No.9/14218 Rifleman James Crozier be carried out.
My reasons for this recommendation are that the case is one of deliberately avoiding duty in the trenches and as a deterrent to a repetition of offences of this nature. The discipline of the 9th. R. I. Rifs. is good for a Service Battalion

15. (Back) 9/14218 Rifleman James Crozier is buried at Sucrerie Military Cemetery, Colincamps, Plot I, Row A, Grave 5.
16. (Back) TNA. PRO. WO/95 2502-1. War Diary, 107th Brigade.
17. (Back) Colonel Philip James Woods CMG, DSO. Philip James Woods was born on 23 September 1880. He served in the South African War with the South African Constabulary. On his return he worked in the linen industry. During the Home Rule crisis he was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force in Belfast. He was commissioned into The Royal Irish Rifles on 10 September 1914. For his conduct during the operations from 1 to 3 July 1916, he was mentioned in despatches (published on 4 January 1917) and made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) (1 January 1917). He commanded the 9th Royal Irish Rifles from January 1917 until 2 August 1917, when he was replaced in command. He commanded the 19th (Reserve) Battalion until the reorganisation of the Ulster Division’s reserve battalions in April 1918. In May 1918 he joined the forces taking part in the Allied intervention in Russia, specifically in East Karelia, where he commanded a Karelian regiment. He was appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael & St George (CMG) (Lieutenant Colonel) for services in North Russia on 1 January 1919. Following the murder of William Twaddell MP he was elected Member of Parliament for West Belfast in 1923. He was defeated in the 1929 general election. He died on 12 September 1961.
18. (Back) Thiepval Memorial , Pier and Face 15 A and 15 B.
19. (Back) His first wife, Eliza Jane McClean, died on 25 April 1918 in childbirth. They had married on 25 September 1903 at Magheralin Parish Church and had five other children: Joseph, born on 12 December 1903; Samuel, born on 11 June 1905; Thomas George, born on 5 May 1908; a daughter who died at birth on 27 December 1910; and Norman, born on 23 August 1912.
20. (Back) On 24 June 1976, Gardiner was one of two passengers in a car driven by a fellow employee at the Goodyear factory in Craigavon, who was a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment. In the ambush Gardiner was shot and wounded, the UDR soldier escaped with minor injuries and the other passenger was unhurt. Gardiner died on 6 July 1976.

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