Private Thomas Duffy and his experience of the Battle of Mons

In September 1914, the Poole and East Dorset Herald carried a lengthy interview with Private Thomas Duffy under the headline ‘Wounded Hamworthy Reservist relates his experiences at the Battle of Mons’. A Culture Volunteer on the Poole History Centre First World War project decided to explore further.

According to the newspaper article, Private Thomas Duffy was from Hamworthy and had ‘rejoined’ the Royal Scots Regiment when war began. Hamworthy Parish Church has a memorial board to those who joined up, were wounded, taken prisoner, or were killed in the First World War, but Thomas Duffy is not mentioned.

Family history records show that Thomas Duffy (born 1885) was married in March 1914 to Alice Maud Cobb (born 1889), whose parents were Charles and Annie Cobb of Hamworthy. Other records show that Duffy was born in Edinburgh and enlisted with the Royal Scots while living in Scotland. At some point he left the service and must have travelled to the Poole area where he met, and married, Alice Cobb.

The Dorset Church of England Parish register has a Thomas Powell Duffy being baptised on October 18th 1914 at Hamworthy to Thomas and Alice Maud Duffy. Their son died just a month later and is buried in Hamworthy cemetery. At the time, the family were living at 2, Seaview Terrace, Hamworthy – hence the Hamworthy connection in the newspaper headline.

The Battle of Mons was the first battle involving the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the German Army. It took place from August 23rd to 26th 1914.  Initially, the regulars of the British Army were very successful against the conscript army of Germany; however, the French were falling back and the German army was considerably larger than the BEF. Although Sir John French, commander of the BEF, wanted to maintain their gains he realised that it was inevitable that the BEF would become isolated and surrounded – there was no option but to withdraw.

Private Duffy gave a wide-ranging impression of the first few weeks of the war when he talked to the local newspaper in September 1914 after being invalided home. On arriving in France, they had marched around 35 miles every day for three days to get to Mons where they arrived on August 22nd ‘very fatigued’. The following day they were told to ‘fall in’ and marched around 2 miles to find themselves in the middle of a battle. Duffy described being near a tree that was hit by German artillery and then by rifle fire. After a while, he decided that ‘he was in an unpleasantly dangerous position’ and moved a short distance away. While Duffy was eating ‘a biscuit with some jam’ he turned to discover a Captain Henderson taking a photograph of him and several others, oblivious to the shells that were flying around. Duffy and his fellow soldiers were under attack from lunchtime to nearly 9pm in the evening when the enemy made sporadic attacks until just after midnight. They had been under fire for 12 hours.

Duffy said that ‘the Germans are absolutely no good with a rifle’ – the Germans themselves commended the quality of British rifle fire finding it at times so rapid they thought they were facing machine guns. However, he found that the German artillery were ‘quick and accurate’ and ‘were good shots’. Duffy is remarkably candid in his interview about the fighting and the loss of men. While the Royal Scots hadn’t lost anybody at Mons, 350 men were lost at Amiens. He claimed that only 120 out of 1,200 men answered at a roll call of the Gordon Highlanders.

 He describes the fighting that occurred and how they were outnumbered by the enemy 4 to 1. They eventually fell back under artillery fire and found themselves so worn out they were allowed an hours rest. At one point they hadn’t eaten anything between Sunday evening and Tuesday morning while having to march over 30 miles. Duffy commented on the welcome the French civilians gave them and that ‘they were exceedingly kind to us on the march’. It was at this point Duffy dislocated his foot and was sent on a long journey back to Le Havre in a railway carriage along with dozens of wounded. Arriving back in England he was sent to Netley Hospital, Southampton, and then was given two weeks sick leave in Poole. He said his wife ‘had wanted for nothing’ while he had been away and he hoped to return to the front very soon and have ‘another cut’ at the enemy.

The WW1 Pensions Ledgers and Index Cards have Private Thomas Duffy being discharged from the Royal Scots on October 4th 1916. His Silver War Badge Record states this was because of ‘sickness’. These badges were given to ex-servicemen who had been discharged because of ill health so that they would not be accused of cowardice when seen wearing civilian clothes. The 1919 Electoral Role has Thomas and his wife living at Suvla Cottage, Hunger Hill. The choice of name of the cottage is interesting as Suvla Bay was part of the tragic Gallipoli campaign and one wonders if it was named after the conflict.

Cottages at Hunger Hill from the collection of Poole Museum Service

Cottages at Hunger Hill from the collection of Poole Museum Service

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