In a previous blog I shared with you the story of the memorial to the Railwaymen of Manchester employed by the LNWR at London Road Station ( Piccadilly). I mentioned that our youngest man to fall, James Alfred Connolly, was only 17 years old when he was killed.
So I thought I would research James some more and share his story with you.
James Alfred Connolly was born in Salford in the period October-December 1897 to parents James Connolly Aged 30, a Railway Goods Porter and Amelia Connolly Aged 27 a Housewife. His father had been born in the Ancoats area of Manchester in 1871 & his mother in Hulme in 1874 and they had married in the period May-July 1897, spot why they had to get married!
In the census of 1901 the family were living at 2 Croydon Street, Salford & James has been joined by a brother William born in 1900. The family would grow over the next few years adding Vincent in 1902, Agnes 1904, John 1906 & Francis 1908.
Sadly James’s mother Agnes dies in 1909 leaving James Senior a widower & holding down a job as a Railway Inspector, to look after 6 children so by 1911 the family have moved in with James’s Snr brother Anthony Connolly & his wife Lucy at 22 Clay Street Gorton, Manchester.
At some point after he leaves school and, most probably because of his father, James gets a job in the Goods Department at London Road station as a Clerk. He must have done well at school and certainly be very articulate for a job such as this.
With a name like Connolly there must be some Irish connection in the family so this may have influenced James’s decision to enlist in the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles in Manchester as Rifleman 3/1665. Like so many James’s service record sadly doesn’t survive & his medal indexes don’t state the exact date that he went abroad. But we can follow the Regiments story during 1915 from the War Diary and try to piece his story together.
The 2nd bn Royal Irish Rifles was a regular battalion of the British Army and they were at this point part of 7th Brigade 3rd Division. At the outbreak of war they were at Tidworth Barracks in Wiltshire close to Salisbury Plain. They shipped out to France over 2 days and n August 14th the first troops landed in France and mover to ROUEN before being billeted at MARBAIX. A few days later the battalion moved to HARMIGNIES but were relieved just as they were about to go into the lines. They moved around over the next few weeks & months and in September 1914 would become involved in the Battle of the Aisne around NEUVE CHAPELLE. I won’t go into detail here about this battle as to be honest with you I personally know very little about the era of the Great War but there are plenty of folks out there who have written excellent websites, blogs & books about it so it’s worth looking around yourself and getting the details.
November sees them transferred to the Ypres Salient arriving as many did at LOCRE before taking up positions in & around HOOGE, about 4 miles east of YPRES. They spend their days in the front line trenches, in support lines & as Brigade reserve, basically the average daily routine that most infantry Tommies experienced. Moving to billets at WESTOUTRE & again LOCRE after being taken out of the lines they dipped in & out of trenches at KEMMEL over the next few months. By April 1915 they are in the trenches at ELZENWALLE or in billets at LA CLYTTE. Interestingly the battalion records the loss of its 41 year old C.O Lt.Col (War Diary shows as Major) J.W Alston on 15th April. At 3.30pm he was visiting the trenches close to DICKEBUSCH and began observing the enemy’s positions through a telescope. A German sniper spotted him, fired but missed the telescope glass, however the bullet hit a sandbag on the parapet and deflected hitting Colonel Alston on his head above his left ear. He never recovered consciousness & died at 5.15pm. Lt. Col James William Alston is buried in DICKEBUSCH New Military Cemetery.
The battalion suffered further losses & casualties over the coming weeks & months in everyday trench life whilst in & around YPRES, DICKEBUSCH, HILL 60 & VIERSTRAAT. Reinforcements arrived every few weeks. Was James Connolly was amongst these men? (Update thanks to Dave O’Mara, James is recorded as disembarking on 29th April 1915)
On 16th June 1915 the battalion of 21 Officers & 650 Other Ranks would see itself involved in an attack around BELLEWAARDE FARM. Originally due to support 9th Brigade the battalion found itself called forward to an area around CAMBRIDGE ROAD. They suffered heavy shelling throughout this time yet the war diary proudly states that “The Non Commissioned Officers & Men of all companies distinguished themselves by their discipline, coolness & steadiness under most trying circumstances. At no time during the day could it be said that they were in anyway shaken by their ordeal” 13 Officers and about 300 other Ranks were recorded as killed, wounded or missing. They were relieved at 1.29am on 17th and retuned to bivouacs located on the VLAMERTINGHE-POPERINGHE road.
A few days later on 25th June another batch of 142 reinforcements arrived including 18 machine gunners & 12 signallers. Again
Let’s now fast forward to September 1915 and on 5th we find James in the trenches at HOOGE. By this time he has been promoted to Lance Corporal which given the fact he is only 17 years old shows he must have had something about him. The weather is heavy rain all day made even more miserable by the Germans shelling the battalions dugouts which had been set up in the CRATER. By 9th they had been relieved by 1st bn Wiltshire Regiment and moved a few miles back to the ramparts at YPRES. They seemed to incur casualties most days whilst there before being relieved on 12th Sept by 4th Middlesex Regiment. Heading back to Bivouacs they remained there until moving on 23rd to KRUISTRAAT where the 650 men & 96 others (Orderlies, Signallers & Servants) were put into bivouacs again.
The day after the battalion received operational orders and plans were discussed for an impending attack the following day, the 25th September.
The orders were as follows ” V corps with XIV Division attached will attack an occupy the front J 19 a 6.8 to I.12.a.0.4. The front allotted to 2nd Royal Irish Rifles is from I.12.d.4.1 to point of BELLEWARDE LAKE due East from I.12.d.0.4. B & D Companies will carry out the assault and assemble in trenches C5, C6 & C7 “( See below)
A bombardment would take place and 5 minutes before this the companies would leave their trenches and move into place opposite their front of attack. B company their right would be directed on I.18.b.2.9 to I.12.d.2.0, points 31 -41, and they were to keep in touch with 2nd South Lancs Regt. As for D Company their left was to be directed on I.12.c.9.3 to I.12.d.0.4 BELLEWARDE LAKE and keep in touch with the 5th Shropshire L.I of 14th Division.
The final line to be consolidated would be I.12.d.4.1 at point 31 on BELLEWARDE LAKE. C Company would be in support and 4 platoons would move forward and take the places vacated by B & D companies at C5,C6 & C7 points. A Company would be reserve and move up to assembly trenches left by C Company.
The battalion paraded at 7.30pm and moved forward to HOOGE to relieve H.A.C of which they did this by 11.30pm.
At 3.50am on the 25th the artillery began a half hourly bombardment of the German Front Line gradually moving their focus to the Support Lines.
At 4.19am the British detonated 4 mines, 2 mines at 4.19am at J.19.6.8a which the 2nd bn Royal Scots immediately seized and 2 mines at 4.19 1/2am. This second detonation was the 7th Brigades signal to attack. At 4.14am the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles had moved as instructed across the parapet and deployed approx 30 yards in front on the blind end of point C6. They were accompanied by 6 sections of bombers and 2 machine gun teams.
The 1st & 2nd Royal Scots together with 4th Gordon Highlanders of 8th Brigade to the far right of the Royal Irish Rifles & South Lancs were tasked with the capture of the Fort south of the Menin Road which they initially successfully did. The 1st Gordon Highlanders immediately next to the South Lancs were tasked with capturing the Almshouses or Wall along the Menin Road before linking up with their 4th bn and forming a front across the road by joining with 7th Brigade on their left.
The attack by the Royal Irish reached the German Second Line between points 29 & 91 with little opposition but none of the bombers made it. A counter bomb attack by the Germans forced these men back to the German Front Line where an Officer & a few men managed to hold out till dark.
Things elsewhere however weren’t going to plan (How many times have we read that!). Opposite Point 29 & between 91-93, barbed wire & machine gun fire was holding up the attack and the men had to take cover in shell holes close up to the German Lines. Only a few would make it back to their own lines later that night. C Company at 4.30am left their support lines to help reinforce B & D Companies but were met with heavy rifle & machine gun fire and few if any made it to the enemy trenches. From the reserve A Company then moved up into their own Front Line trench.
By 6am men of the battalion could still be seen occupying the German Lines but after that hour nothing further could be seen of them. Several parties volunteered to go forward to find out what was happening but all failed in getting definitive information and Headquarters remained in the dark about the situation until evening. None of the Signallers who had gone forward in the attack managed to get back any messages. As darkness fell some men from the attacking companies made it back to their own lines. Casualties were around 15 Officers & 350 Other Ranks.
One machine gun had made it to the German Front Line at about Point 00 but the team were either killed or captured. A Rifleman found it abandoned and stated that he had destroyed it using the butt of his rifle on his way back to his own lines that evening.
The War Diary states that the attack was carried out with the greatest determination & gallantry and mentions that A Company, the Reserves, despite knowing that the attack was unsuccessful were eager to be given a chance to go forward.
The attack by the Royal Scots & Gordon Highlanders had also failed as well as the attack on the left by 14th Division around BELLEWAARDE FARM. The fort had been lost, the battalions pushed back across the Menin Road and casualties were high.
The remains of the battalion was relieved by a company of 1st Wiltshire’s by 2.15am on 26th. The diary records 4 Officers Killed, 5 Wounded, 4 Wounded & Missing and 1 Missing. Other Ranks were 46 Killed, 140 Wounded, 150 missing, 26 Wounded & Missing and the 2 machine guns & their teams all lost.
One of those missing was Lance Corporal James Alfred Connolly Aged 17. He remains missing to this day and his name appears on Panel 40 of the Menin Gate Memorial to the missing in Ypres. He could still lie under the earth of Flanders around the area which is now part of the Bellewaarde Theme Park or possibly he may be one of the over 3,500 unknowns buried in the nearby Hooge Crater Cemetery.
Back in Manchester James’s family would have received information that he was missing on or since 25th September and finally that he was presumed killed. His father James received £4 16s 11d on 30th November 1916 & a further £3 on 19th August 1919.
His name together with those of the other 86 men of the Goods Department was inscribed on the memorial that his fellow workers of the depot had paid for and unveiled at Manchester London Road after the war and again his name features on the replacement memorial currently at Manchester Piccadilly Station, Platform 10.
His name also appears on Ireland’s memorial records, again suggesting an Irish family connection ( It incorrectly records him as being killed in France)
Once again I hope you’ve found this blog and story interesting and it inspires you to want to learn more. Any comments always greatly received
Sources: Ancestry Com
National Railway Museum
Great War Digital