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Alfred Thornley was born in Preston in 1888 and was the third child of John Henry and Mary Jane Thornley. He had two older brothers James Harrison Thornley and William Tuson Thornley; and a younger sister Elizabeth Alice Thornley.
At the time of the 1901 census the family were living at 157 New Hall Lane, Preston. Alfred was 14 years old and had already left full time education now being employed as a rope maker. The census shows his father was employed as a collector for a ‘burial club’.
Burial Clubs were to be found in 19th century Britain. This was a time of high death rates, especially among children, and poor working-class families were fearful that they would be unable to pay for a decent funeral for their loved ones and would have to rely on the local Poor Union to provide a pauper’s funeral: buried in a common pauper’s grave without a headstone. There could also be a danger that they would end up on an anatomy school’s dissecting table by virtue of the Anatomy Act (1832).
To help them, churches, trade unions, and other associations, formed benefit societies which they called Burial Clubs. The scheme was that weekly payments to the club would ensure the funeral expenses of the burial would be paid for, regardless of how long the person had been a member. The amount to be paid depended on the type of funeral desired and age of the person.
The Club would collect the money from members at their homes or a weekly collection day would be arranged at the local public house, or other type of venue once it was realised that the public house would be a temptation for those who would rather buy beer than save for their funeral. Other societies offered sickness payments which included provision for funeral expenses.
By the time of the 1911 census the family had moved to The Willows, Cromwell Road, Ribbleton. His father John Henry Thornley had died in 1906 and Alfred, now 23 years old, was employed as a domestic gardener.
In December 1915 Alfred, now aged 28 years 6 months, received notice to join the Colours and enlisted into Army at Preston. He had been desirous to join the Royal Field Artillery but was assigned to the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment where he was given the service number 23513.
The medical officer described Alfred as standing 5ft 10in tall, weighing 151lbs with a 38in chest. He also thought it pertinent to mention Alfred’s ‘hammer toes’ and a ‘black patch’ over his left buttock – these distinctive marks might prove vital when identifying his body later on a foreign battlefield.
Alfred spent three months in the Army Reserve before being mobilized in March 1916 when he started his training in the UK. He embarked at Devonport on 7th June 1916 and arrived in Basra in Mesopotamia where he joined the 6th Battalion in the field on 5th July 1916. He must have been considered under-trained for such operations having had so little time in training with no previous military experience.
On 15th February 1917 Private Alfred Thornley was killed in action. General Maude’s despatch about the actions in which he was killed is transcribed below;
THE OPERATIONS IN THE DAHRA BEND : FEBRUARY 6TH – 16TH.
The 6th to the 8th were days of preparation, but continuous pressure on the enemy was maintained day and night by vigorous patrolling and intermittent bombardment, and many minor enterprises were undertaken whereby losses were inflicted and advanced posts wrested from him. An assault on the Liquorice Factory would have been costly; therefore it was decided to deal with it by howitzer and machine gun fire, so as to render it untenable—or at least prevent the garrison from enfilading our troops as they moved north.
On the 9th the Liquorice Factory was bombarded and simultaneously the King’s Own effected a lodgment in the centre of the enemy’s line, thereafter gaming ground rapidly forward and to both flanks. Repeated attacks by the enemy’s bombers met with no success, and two attempted counter-attacks were quickly suppressed by our artillery. Further west the Worcesters, working towards Yusufiyah and west of that place, captured some advanced posts, trenches and prisoners, and established a line within 2,500 yards of the Tigris at the southern end of the Shumran Bend.
On the 10th our infantry in the trenches west of the Liquorice Factory, who had been subjected all night to repeated bombing attacks, began early to extend our hold on the enemy’s front line. This movement was followed by a bombardment directed against machine guns located at Kut and along the left bank of the Tigris, which were bringing a galling fire to bear against our right. During this, The Buffs and a Gurkha Battalion dashed forward and, joining hands with the King’s Own on their left, the whole line advanced northwards. As communication trenches did not exist, any movement was necessarily across the open, and was subject to a hot fire from concealed machine guns on the left bank, but in spite of this, progress was made all along the front to depths varying from 300 to 2,000 yards, our success compelling the enemy to evacuate the Liquorice Factory. Artillery observation was much hindered by a high wind and dust storm.
The operations of the 10th and the information obtained by’patrols during the night of the 10th/llth made it clear that the enemy had withdrawn to an inner line, approximately two and a half miles long, across the Dahra Bend, with advanced posts strongly-held. Weather conditions rendered aerial reconnaissance impracticable, and some re-adjustment of our front was necessary before further attack upon his trenches could be justified, but on the llth our infantry established a post on the Tigris south-east of the Shumran peninsula, and on the Following day extended our hold on the right bank. The enemy was finally en- closed in the Dahra Bend by the 13th. An attack against the enemy’s right centre offered the best prospects of success, and this involved the construction of trenches and approaches for the accommodation of troops destined for the assault. The foreground was however occupied by the enemy’s piquets, and the dispersal of these necessitated a series of minor combats between our patrols and the enemy’s covering troops, as well as some severe fighting on the 12th.
Opposite our right an important joint was brilliantly captured by assault across the open on the 12th by an Indian Grenadier Battalion, and retained, in spite of heavy fire during the advance and two counter-attacks launched subsequently. This success not only deprived the enemy of a point from which he could enfilade most of his own front, but enabled us to force the withdrawal of his advanced posts in the eastern section of his position.’
During the four days of preparation, although there were indications that the enemy intended to stand and fight, the most likely ferry points were bombarded every night lest transfers of men and stores across the Tigris might be in progress.
Early on the 15th the Loyal North Lancashires captured a strong point opposite our left, which enfiladed the approaches to the enemy’s right and centre, the retiring Turks losing heavily from our machine-gun fire. An hour later the enemy’s extreme left was subjected to a short bombardment and feint attack. This caused the enemy to disclose his barrage in front of our right, and indicated that our constant activity on this part of his front had been successful in making him believe that our main attack would be made against that part of his line.
Shortly after the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and South Wales Borderers carried the enemy’s right centre in dashing style on a front of 700 yards, and extended their success by bombing to a depth of 500 yards on a frontage of 1,000 yards, taking many prisoners. Several halfhearted counter-attacks ensued, which were crushed by our artillery and machine guns, and it became evident that the enemy had strengthened his left and could not transfer troops back to his centre on account of our barrage. A little later the enemy’s left centre was captured by The Buffs and Dogras, and pushing on in a north-easterly direction to the bank of the Tigris they isolated the enemy’s extreme left, where about 1,000 Turks surrendered.
By nightfall the- only resistance was from some trenches in the right rear of the position, covering about a mile of the Tigris bank, from which the enemy were trying to escape across the river, and it had been intended to clear these remaining, trenches by a combined operation during the night, but two companies of a Gurkha battalion, acting on their own initiative, obtained a footing in them and took 98 prisoners. By the morning of the 16th they had completed their task, having* taken 264 more prisoners. The total number of prisoners taken on the 15th and 16th was 2,005, and the Dahra Bend was cleared of the enemy.
Thus terminated a phase of severe fighting, brilliantly carried out. To eject the enemy from this horsehoe bend, bristling with trenches and commanded from across the river on three sides by hostile batteries and machine guns, called for offensive-qualities, of a high- standard on the part of the troops. That such good results were achieved was due to the heroism and determination of the infantry, and to the close and ever-present support rendered by the artillery, whose accurate fire was assisted by efficient aeroplane observation.
The Battalion War Diary for the 15th February reads;
‘D’ Company under Captain C. B. O’Connor attacked and secured the nullah in front of the Ruins, few casualties, but during the occupation of the trench, which was very shallow, casualties became heavier. Two platoons went out later under 2nd Lieutenants Hampson and Wade and were largely instrumental in capturing two officers and ninety men. Casualties, 2nd Lieutenant N. Hampson and thirty-seven men killed. Lieutenant F. C. Burt, 2nd Lieutenant G. O. Pearson and forty-five men wounded.
Alfred Thornely was buried in Amara War Cemetery and is also remembered on the War Memorial at St Mary Magdalane church on Farringdon Lane in Ribbleton, pictured below.
By July 1917 Alfred’s personal effects were sent back to his family home at ‘The Willows’. These amounted to; 1 x Wallet, 1 x Note book, 1 x Pencil, 2 x Photos, 7 x Cards and 1 x Disc.
Mary later took receipt of her late-son’s British War Medal and Allied Victory Medal in 1922. She also received a memorial plaque and scroll both bearing his name and in recognition of his sacrifice. At the time of writing this article Alfred’s medals and memorial plaque are listed for sale on eBay.
Service No: 23513
Date of Death: 15/02/1917
Regiment/Service: The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, 6th Bn.
Cemetery: AMARA WAR CEMETERY
Paul McCormick is the creator and administrator for the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment website. Since 2010 he has been researching the soldiers that served during the First World War and sharing their stories on his website. You can contact Paul through the website 'Contact Me' page or on Twitter and Facebook.
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