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Couley, W., Pte., 1916

Photo: Illustrated Chronicle

On the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme is the name of 25/42 Private William Couley serving with the 2nd Tyneside Irish Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers who died 01/07/1916.

Peter and Pauline Walker have submitted the following:

He was the son of John and Mary Ann Couley (nee Gill) who had at least five children:
•Mary Couley (b. 1872)
•Margaret Ann Couley (b. 1873)
•William Couley (b. 1876)
•Frank Couley (b. 1881)
•Joseph Couley (b. 1891)

He married Dorothy Ann Mains in 1898 and they had at least nine children:
•Sarah Ann Couley (b. 1899)
•John Henry Couley (b. 1901)
•William Couley (b. 1903)
•Madeline Couley (b. 1906).
•Thomas Couley (b. 1908)
•Frederick Mains Couley (b. 1910)
•Mary Ann Couley (b. 1912).
•Dora Couley (b. 1914)
•Joseph Couley (b. 1916)

He was employed as a factory fireman in 1911.

Newcastle Journal 11/08/1916:
L/Cpl Frank Conley, 17, Glanton St., Newcastle and his brother Pte. W. Conley are missing. (The names have been misspelled in the newspaper).

Newcastle Evening Chronicle 12/08/1916:
Byker Man Missing: Mrs. William Couley, 34, Walbrook Terrace, Byker, has been informed that her husband has been missing since July 1.

William enlisted in the 2nd Tyneside Irish at Newcastle Upon Tyne when it was formed in November 1914. He was most probably sent home until January 1915 when the Battalion was called up to Birtley for physical training and foot drill.

The Tyneside Irish Brigade consisted of the four Tyneside Irish service battalions: 1st (24th NF), 2nd (25th NF), 3rd (26th NF) and 4th (27th NF) and at the beginning of May it was felt it was time to bring the Brigade together and the four battalions including the 2nd Tyneside Irish were assembled at Woolsington Hall, three miles outside Newcastle, near to today’s airport.

The Brigade was renumbered 103 Brigade part of the 34th Division under the command of Major General Ingouville-Williams. The main activities during the time at Woolsington were musketry, bomb throwing and route marching.

At the end of August the 34th Division received orders to assemble on Salisbury Plain and on the 28th the 2nd Tyneside Irish entrained at Ponteland Station travelling south to Andover in Hampshire, detrained and then marched to the camp at Windmill Hill on the eastern edge of Salisbury Plain. The weather was bad and the tents were constantly flooded so a month later they were moved to the hutted army camp no 10 at Sutton Veny on the western edge of the Plain. The main activities were similar to that at Woolsington, musketry, bomb throwing and route marching. Initially the 34th Brigade was earmarked for service in the East, firstly in Egypt and then East Africa so tropical kit was issued then withdrawn and then reissued and withdrawn again. In September William managed to get home for a few days to spend time with his family. Many of the men had been training for over a year and it seemed that the Tyneside Irish would never be sent on active service but finally, in early January 1916 they were mobilised for service in France.

On Tuesday the 11th January 1916 the 2nd Tyneside Irish Battalion travelled in three trains to Southampton and embarked on the SS Caesaria and the SS Tudno for France where after disembarking they went to a rest camp near the port and remained there overnight. In the morning the battalion marched to the railhead where they entrained for St Omer. They travelled in cattle trucks bearing the sign, 40 men or 8 horses. At St Omer, William’s “B” Company was marched to billets in Hallines. Training was undertaken with such activities as route marches, musketry and inspections and on 22nd January they were moved nearer to the front line to receive instruction in trench warfare. By the first week of February they were considered ready for the trenches and attached to other experienced units for instruction. The 2nd Tyneside Irish was attached to 68 Brigade of the 23rd Division and during the occupation of the trenches on the Bois Grenier line, A and B companies came under heavy enemy shelling and suffered their first casualties with the death of one man and the wounding of four others. This would have been William’s first experience of enemy action and we can only wonder how he felt seeing his compatriots and friends being killed and injured.

With their instruction completed, the Battalion took over the line and the pattern for the next few weeks were tours of duty in the trenches followed by rest periods in billets away from the front where musketry, bayonet exercise and bomb throwing were practised.

The Tyneside Irish Brigade was withdrawn from the line in April 1916 to begin preparing for the coming summer offensive and after handing over the trenches to the 2nd Australian Division spent the rest of April and early May practising the assault in the training area near Moulle. They were then moved to the Somme front and on the 15th May took over the line to the right of La Boiselle and suffered severe shelling throughout until they moved back on the 22nd to become the Divisional reserve. They did not get much rest as they provided working groups to the front and were involved in several raiding parties into the German trenches. The Battalions began to move forward again on the 27th and 28th June in preparation for the opening of the attack but due to heavy rain it was delayed by 48 hours and the Brigade marched back to their billets. Then on the 30th June they began to move forward again making their way to the trenches of the Tara-Usna-Becourt line.

The plan of attack was relatively simple with the 34th Division advancing in four columns, each three Battalions deep. The 101 Brigade on the right of La Boiselle and 102 (Tyneside Scottish) Brigade on the left with 103 (Tyneside Irish) Brigade with all four Battalions in line abreast in reserve along the Tara – Usna line.

The 2nd Tyneside Irish was deployed next to the Becourt Wood on the north side of the Albert – Baupaume road making up part of the Divisions third wave of attack supporting the Battalions in front of them. Did William know that his younger brother Lcpl Frank Couley of the 1st Tyneside Scottish was in one of those Battalions to the left of La Boiselle?

The plan was very badly flawed, because all the Battalions would begin to advance together, which left no room for manoeuvre should anything go wrong and the programme did not take account of the German machine gunners or their artillery.

The sun on the morning of the 1st July was breaking through the mist as the British barrage pounded the German trenches with the German artillery replying. The waiting must have been very stressful but at 07:26 the wait was almost over as word came along the line to get ready. At 07:28 the mines at “Y sap” and “Lochnagar” were fired, the ground shook and trembled and at 07:30, “zero hour” the whistles blew, ladders placed against the trench wall and the Brigade rose from the trenches. They began to advance in formation to the sound of an Irish piper in beautifully regular lines, with intervals maintained as if they were on an ordinary parade, straight into the German counter barrage and machine guns.

They kept going forward, disappearing into the morning mist and the smoke and dust from the shellfire with men falling, wounded and dying and littering the battlefield. Tragically, the objectives of the advance failed but not for lack of effort or sacrifice on the part of the Tyneside Irish and the other battalions around them. The blame lies with the Commanders who ordered the men to advance in ceremonial formation over open ground, in front of an enemy ready to defend the ground they held. William’s battalion barely reached the British front line although a few lucky ones did press forward. It is not known where or when William fell, only that his body was never identified, perhaps it was recovered only to be lost in later fighting and his grave is that of an unknown soldier or maybe he was hit by a German shell. Sadly, we will never know. We do know that he never saw his youngest son, Joe, who was born on the 12th June 1916.

William’s younger brother Frank, Lance Corporal Francis Couley No 20/95 20th (1st Tyneside Scottish) Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, was also killed on the same day in the same battle. He is buried in grave XII.S.8. in Ovillers Military Cemetery

He is remembered on the St Lawrence Crucifix B95.09 and in the Book of Remembrance B95.11 both now at St Silas Church, Byker, and on Ireland's Memorial Record: World War 1: 1914-1918

The CWGC entry for Private Couley

If you know more about this person, please send the details to janet@newmp.org.uk