Rifleman Arthur Heenan – like many thousands of other soldiers – lost his life while fighting on the Western Front in World War 1.

As a regular solider serving with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles he was in Aden on August 4th 1914 when Britain declared war on Germany. He returned to the UK, landing at at Liverpool on 22 October and moving to Hursley Park near Winchester for training and preparation.

The battalion embarked for France two weeks later, landing at Le Havre on 6 November 1914 and taking up positions east of Laventie in the Pas de Calais. Arthur Heenan's first experience of a major action came the following year during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle which lasted from March 10 until March 13, 1915. After an initial artillery bombardment, the battalion then advanced to the previously captured German front lines and helped to secure the village of Neuve-Chapelle.

How he died is not clear but army records give a strong indication that he was killed or presumed missing on May 9, 1915 during the Battle of Aubers Ridge.  

The daily war diary kept by the commanding officer, documents what happened on that day.

It apparently began with all units in position by 2.30am.

Battle of Neuve Chapelle

Map of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, New York Times, May 1915. Public Domain

The British bombardment opened at 5am when field guns started firing shrapnel and howitzers fired high explosive shells. Some of the British guns fell short of their target - later it transpires that this was due to faulty ammunition and excessive wear on the gun barrels. The bombardment intensified at 5.30am with some companies moving on foot into no-man's land.

But by now the front trenches and the rear communication trenches were in a chaotic state. Forward movement was said to be impossible because of the intensity of the gun fire. In the confusion some German soldiers who had been captured and were under escort to the British camps, were mistaken for a counter attack. At 8.30am the attack had all but come to a standstill and movement in or out of the trench system impossible. Yet Haig ordered the officers to "vigorously press home the attack."

Come evening, the diary notes, it was clear that reinforcements would not be ready for such an attack. The high command decided to postpone the action until the following day.

At some point during that chaotic day Rifleman Arthur Heenan was killed. Officially he was reported missing and presumed to have died on that day. His family were informed only that he was missing but by September when they had still not received any further indication of his fate, his sister appealed for help to readers of the Belfast News-Letter.

The article headed "Rank and File Casualties" printed on September 8 reads:

Rifleman Arthur Heenan (8966) D Company 1st Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, who was reported wounded on 9th May has not been heard of since. His sister, Mrs Kirk, 71 Tobergill Street, Belfast, would be pleased to hear from anyone who may know anything of his whereabouts

He was one of more than 11,000 British casualties sustained on May 9, the vast majority of those were men who were within yards of their own front line trench. 

British casualties continued to move through the field ambulances for at least three days after the attacks on the 9th and 10th. Mile for mile this was one of the highest rates of loss during the entire war yet there is no memorial to the attack. 

Rifleman Heenan's war had come to an end, but it continued for the remaining members of his battalion who went on to battles in the Somme, at Ypres and Passchendaele.

Who was Rifleman Arthur Heenan?

He was born on August 3, 1899 at 41 Longford Street, Belfast, in what is now Northern Ireland. His father John was a carpenter who had married  Mary Jane Patton in 1871. The couple had 10 children. 

Civil registration records show that the couple lived in the same house in Longford Street, Belfast for many years. It was where 5 of their children were born, including Arthur.

Agnes (Henan) born 14 June 1872 at 34 Argyle St. Father: John Heenan, bleacher. Mother: Mary Jane Henan. 

Margaret Jane Heenan born 19 August 1876 at 43 Longford St. Father: John Heenan, carpenter. Mother Mary Jane (Hutton)

Matthew Heenan born 2 Nov 1878 at 41 Longford St.  Father John Heenan: carpenter. Mother Mary Jane Heenan, formerly Hutton.

Robert (Henan) born 11 Nov 1880, at 41 Longford St. Father John Heenan, carpenter. Mother: Mary Jane Henan née Hutton. 

Sarah Ann Heenan, born 25 August 1882 at 41 Longford St. Father: John Heenan, carpenter. 

Eliza Heenan born 12 Jan 1885.  Father: John Heenan, carpenter of 41 Langford St. Mother: Mary Jane Heenan 

At some point they moved to Brookmount Street  and then, by the time of the 1911 census John Heenan is a widower, living alone in Suir Street, Belfast. Mary had died in May the previous year as a result of a cerebral haemorrhage. 

Rifleman Arthur Heenan: his life as a soldier

It's unclear when Arthur Heenan joined the army because hardly any of his military service records have survived.

But it's possible to form some impressions by piecing together a few fragments of information.

We know that he was a regular soldier since he was with the 1st Battalion rather than a service battalion created purely for the purposes of the 1st World War. From his service number of 8966 we can also narrow down his enlistment date to early in 1908. This means that he was highly likely to have seen service overseas in Burma (1909), Kamptee, India (1911) and Aden (1913), all locations where the Battalion was stationed from 1908. 

Ploegsteert Memorial in Belgium

For his service in France he was awarded the Victory medal, the British medal and the 1914 Star.

He earned £17 7s for his service on the Western Front, a sum that was paid to his father in January 1917.

Since his body was never located, there is no gravestone but he is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial, in Belgium along with 11,354 other servicemen of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in this sector during the First World War and have no known grave. Most of those commemorated by the memorial did not die in major offensives, but were killed in the course of day-to-day trench warfare or in small scale set engagements.

Sources

  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission [https://www.cwgc.org]
  • Civil registration Ireland: Birth Index, 1864-1958. Accessed via Find My Past
  • Census of Ireland: 1901, 1911. Accessed via National Archives Ireland 
  • Lt. F.P. Roe; et al. (1923). A Short History of the Royal Ulster Rifles
  • Medal cards: National Archives collection WO 372 Accessed via Ancestry.com
  • Soldier's Effects Ledgers, accessed via Ancestry.com