Francis Heenan’s war
Francis Heenan saw active service in two of the deadliest theatres of war in the Great War.
Although his service records are not available, medal rolls show that he was on active duty as a private in the Balkans in 1915 with the 6th Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. The battalion was raised at Tralee in 1914 as part of Kitchener’s First Army. After training they sailed from Liverpool for Gallipoli in July 1915, and were immediately thrust into action, taking part in attacks at Chocolate Hill the day of their arrival on August 7th.
At some point Francis Heenan was transferred to the 2nd Battalion which had been in action in France since the beginning of the war and had suffered significant losses of men on more than one occasion. In November 1917 it was one of the lead battalions in the last British effort in the Passchendale campaign, facing a terrain that was a quagmire of water-logged shell holes. They went into battle with a complement of 20 officers and 630 other ranks, by the end of that offensive they were down to 7 officers and 240 other ranks.
It is likely Francis was transferred to ensure the 2nd Battalion was operating at full strength, he was also promoted to Corporal.
The date of his death, March 21, 1918, marked the first day of the German “Spring Offensive” (Kaiserschlacht) which opened with a devastating bombardment around 4.15am and lasted until noon after which a fierce attack by fresh troops was launched. The battalion suffered badly from the shelling but managed to keep the German troops at bay.
He was buried in the Saulcourt Churchyard Extension.
Francis Heenan’s Family
The lack of service records means there is no easily available information enabling me to connect Francis Heenan with his family. Fortunately the Commonwealth War Graves Commission provides one clue that was my starting point to tracing his family.
He was apparently born in Ballykinlar, a village that lies 12 kilometres south west of Downpatrick, in the parish of Tyrella and Dundrum in County Down, Ireland.
A search of the 1911 and the 1901 census reveals that there was only one family with the surname of Heenan in the parish of Tyrella – one member of whom was a Francis Heenan of the right age to fight in the Great War. Although I cannot be absolutely certain this is the right man, I feel confident enough to make this information public. If I’m proved wrong, I’ll do a correction.
Francis Heenan was born on 12 March 1891 at Tyrelle to James Heenan, a labourer from Tyrelle and Mary Jane Magee. He was one of eight children – all boys – born to this couple between 1871 and 1899. In the 1901 census Mary Jane is living with her widower mother Mary Magee at number 4 Commons of Clanmaghery, a small townland of seven properties adjoining the village of Ballykinler in Tyrelle parish. The name “Commons” normally refers to uncultivated land which was held in common. All her sons are with her but there is no indication of the location of her husband James. Since the family appear to be making a living as farm labourers it’s possible that James Heenan has gone out of the area to work temporarily on a farm.
Heenan, Mary Jane, aged 43, Daughter, Roman Catholic, Born County Down, occupation of Seamstress
Heenan, Matthew, aged 16, Grand Son, Roman Catholic,Born Co Down, Farm Servant
Heenan, George, aged 2, Grand Son, Roman Catholic,Born Co Down
Heenan, Hugh, aged 4, Grand Son, Roman Catholic, Co Down, Scholar
Heenan, Samuel, aged 7, Grand Son, Roman Catholic, Born Co Down, Scholar
Heenan, Thomas, aged 14, Grand Son, Roman Catholic,Born Co Down, Farm Servant
Heenan, Peter, aged 18, Grand Son, Roman Catholic,Born Co Down, Farm Servant
Heenan, John, aged 20, Grand Son, Roman Catholic, born Co Down, Farm Servant
Heenan, Francis, aged 10, Grand Son, Roman Catholic,Born Co Down, Scholar
Magee, Mary, aged 60, Head of Family, Roman Catholic, born Co Down, Farmeress and Seamstress
In 1911 the entire family, including James have moved into number 3 Commons of Clanmaghery. James Heenan is working as an agricultural labourer as are six of his sons, with the exception of Samuel who was an apprentice tailor and the youngest child, 12-year-old George.
The Heenan family would appear to have been living in this vicinity for some time. The son’s births are registered as having taken place at Ballykinler and the Commons of Clanmaghery. Francis himself was registered as being born at Tyrelle.
There are other people with the Heenan surname living in Ballykinler. The Griffith’s Valuation records for 1864 show Francis Heenan renting land at Upper Ballykinler from the Marquis of Downshire. There is likely to be a connection back to Francis Heenan’s family but as yet this has not been established .
- 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
- Medal cards: National Archives series WO 372 Accessed via Ancestry.com
- War Diary of Royal Munster Fusiliers: The National Archives series WO 95/2837/1 Accessed via Ancestry.com