On 4th August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. Three days later, Kitchener asked for 100,000 volunteers to form a New Army, and in County Durham thousands of men immediately answered his call. By the end of September, enough men had volunteered to form five new battalions. One - the 13th (Service) Battalion DLI - had in its ranks a thirty-two year old miner from Wingate, Thomas Kenny. In 1915, he was to be awarded the Regiment's first Victoria Cross of the Great War.
Thomas Kenny was born at South Wingate on 4th April 1882. After he left St Mary's Roman Catholic School at Wingate, he worked as a quarryman and, later, as a miner. By 1914 he was married with six children and was living in Walker's Building in South Wingate, Today we can only guess at the reasons that made Thomas Kenny leave his family, home and work in 1914 to join the Army but, possibly, a clue may be found in what he told an audience in his home village in March 1916-
"All I can say is that I did my duty in France to the best of my ability."
On 16th September 1914, the new recruits for 13 DLI were sent south by train from Newcastle upon Tyne to Bullswater Camp, near Pirbright in Surrey to become part of the 68th Brigade of the 23rd Division. There began the difficult task of turning enthusiastic civilians into trained soldiers. This job was made more difficult by the lack of instructors, experienced officers and non commissioned officers. Added to this was the shortage of uniforms, rifles and equipment, and the dreadful state of the camp at Bullswater. The battalion lived in tents until the end of November and suffered badly from tile rain, mud and cold. Finally at the end of July 1915, all ranks were given seven day's leave. Training was over. Active service on the Western Front was about to begin.
17424 Private Thomas Kenny, "B" Company, 13th (Service) Battalion DLI landed at Boulogne with his battalion on 26th August 1915, nearly a year after he had volunteered. Training immediately began to prepare the men for the trenches and the battalion was also asked to provide many working parties - no doubt because so many of the Durham’s were miners. On 7th October, 13 DLI relieved the 12th (Service) Battalion DLI in the line at Bois Grenier, near Armentieres. This part of the Western Front was described in 1915 as "quiet", though the battalion still suffered daily casualties from shelling, rifle grenades and snipers.
A vivid description of these first few weeks of the battalion's life in the trenches survives in the letters Lieutenant Philip Anthony Brown wrote home to his mother. He was born in 1886 in Kent and studied History at Oxford, before moving to Newcastle upon Tyne in 1911 as a tutor with the Workers' Educational Association, The following year; he became a lecturer at Durham University. When the Great War began, he enlisted as a private but was soon persuaded to accept a commission in the 13th Battalion DLL On 8th October 1915, he wrote -
"About 12.30am, a man came and said he could hear moaning over the parapet. I was afraid that this meant that some of my men, who had just started on a listening patrol, had been hit.... I went down with my observer, a very nice Irishman from County Durham, who goes with me everywhere, and crept along-.. a very shallow trench. We soon came on one man down in the bottom of the ditch. It was difficult to move him, but finally my observer got him on his back. Poor fellow had a bad wound in the side."
This was the first night of the battalion's first tour of duty in the trenches. The observer was Private Thomas Kenny. The routine of front line duty followed by relief continued for the rest of October, with working parties - digging and wiring - sent out every night, except when it was so wet that all work was cancelled. About 8.30pm on 2nd November, in pouring rain, the 13th Battalion relieved 12 DLI, once again, in the front line trenches numbered 1.26.3-5, opposite La Houssoie, near Armenlieres. The rain continued all the next day, filling the trenches and caving in the parapets and dug-outs, but at least the rain kept the Germans quiet.
Philip Brown wrote again to his mother...
"We have gone back to the trenches - and to such trenches. I don't think any words can adequately describe them. It has been raining..... There is not a patch of dry ground anywhere. Boards soaked in mud, sandbags bursting with mud, ponds and even wells of mud.....yellow mud, greasy ponds, dirty clothes and heaps of' mangled sandbags. A great deal of the trench work is collapsing in (he wet, as was to be expected, and it keeps us busy reconstructing it. We had a certain amount of shellfire, but very little rifle fire yet. A mild enemy in front of us, I think. Now I must stop, as I am on duty and should go the rounds."
This was his last letter home...
At 9,15pm on 4th November 1915, Lieutenant Brown, as the officer of the watch, went out to visit a party working on the barbed wire in front of Trench 1.26.4. He was accompanied, as always, by his observer, Private Thomas Kenny. The rain had stopped, but with no wind, a thick fog covered no-man's-land. In the dark and fog, Lieutenant Brown lost his bearings and missed the working party. The two soldiers went on until they realised that the ground was unfamiliar. They were lost somewhere in no-man's land. They then sat down to listen for any sounds that might direct them back to their own lines and safety. Hearing nothing, they decided to try to retrace their steps through the mud. It was then about 9.45pm. At the moment they rose, a single rifle shot rang out and Lieutenant Brown fell, shot through both thighs.
Thomas Kenny at once went to his aid and hoisted Lieutenant Brown onto his back. Immediately, heavy rifle fire opened up from the German lines, forcing Private Kenny to crawl through the mud, but still he kept his badly wounded officer on his back. When the bursts of fire were too severe, he lay still, only starting again when the firing slackened. This ordeal lasted for nearly an hour, before Private Kenny, cold, wet and utterly exhausted, at last stumbled upon a ditch he recognised. He made Lieutenant Brown as comfortable as he could and started off to find his battalion's front line.
Thomas Kenny arrived at a battalion listening post in Trench 1.26.4 at just after 11pm, and there found Captain White. After he heard Kenny's story, Captain White asked for volunteers to go with him out into no-man's-land. Two stretcher bearers, plus Privates Thomas Kerr and Michael Prough volunteered. Private Kenny, despite his exhaustion, his torn uniform and his bleeding hands and legs, then led them to where he had left his wounded officer. As the rescue party started back with Lieutenant Brown for their own lines, German soldiers opened fire with rifles and machine-guns and then grenades were thrown from a position only thirty yards away. Captain White immediately ordered the party to go on, whilst he stayed behind to cover their retreat. All reached safety without suffering any further casualty.
Once back in the battalion's trenches, Philip Brown, despite his terrible wounds and weak from loss of blood, recovered consciousness for a short time and was heard to say - "Well, Kenny, you're a hero."
He died whilst he was being carried back to the dressing station.
The London Gazette announced the award of the Victoria Cross to Private Thomas Kenny, on 7th December 1915, stating that his "pluck, endurance and devotion to duty were beyond praise." [Citation] He was the first soldier of The Durham Light Infantry to gain this award during the First World War. On 4th March 1916, Lance Sergeant Thomas Kenny was presented with this Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace. Mrs. Brown, the mother of Philip Brown, was there to meet the man who had tried so hard and for so long to save her son's life.
Thomas Kenny returned to his battalion on the Western Front. He was wounded in October 1916 and, by 1918, had risen to the rank of Company Sergeant Major. With the nd of the First World War and demobilisation, Thomas Kenny eturned to his old life as a miner. He worked at Wingate Colliery until 1927 and then at Wheatley Hill, as a stoneman drifter. He continued to work underground until 1944, when, aged 62 years, he finally moved to a surface job. At this time, he was living at 13 Darlington Street, Wheatley Hill and attended Thornley Roman Catholic Church.
Thomas Kenny died in Durham on 29th November 1948, aged 66 years and was buried, on 2nd December, at Wheatley Hill cemetery. Following an appeal by members of The 'Faithful' Inkerman Club, his unmarked grave was finally given a headstone in August 1994. The stone was unveiled by Captain Richard Annand VC, during a simple ceremony.
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