James Heenan’s war lasted just over a year. Having enlisted at Newscastle on Tyne he was sent to the Western Front in July 1915. By August 1916 he was dead, a victim of one of the bloodiest battles in human history: the Battle of the Somme. It lasted five months. By the time it ended in November 1915, more than one million men had been wounded or killed.
James was killed at Delville Wood (known as Devil’s Wood), a thick tangle of trees, chiefly beech and hornbeam with dense hazel thickets to the east of Longueval. The horror of the battle was captured by in this drawing by an official military artist.
The official war diary of the 7th (Service) The Borderers is a considerably less emotive account of the conflict. On August 4th 1916 the Battalion replaced the Royal Berkshires at Delville Wood, finding such “extraordinary difficulties – incomplete and unconnected trenches, enemy artillery activity, impassable state of WOOD” that the process of relieving the previous battalion lasted all night and into the early hours of the following morning. In the process five men were killed and 12 wounded.
The following day when patrols were despatched it became obvious that snipers were well established all around. The Battalion was told their task was to strengthen and improve existing line and support trenches. Work to dig a new trench in gap in one section of the wood had to be done mainly during the night because of enemy activities. Five men lost their lives and 13 others were wounded.
The day of Lance Corporal Heenan’s death – Aug 6 – warranted just a one line entry in the diary: Work and patrolling continued. Casualties killed 3 wounded 19.
He was buried where he fell but was subsequently exhumed and reburied at the Deville Wood Cemetery, the third largest cemetery in the Somme battlefield area as the final resting place of over 5,500 servicemen of the First World War. Most of those buried, of whom more than 3,500 remain unidentified, died in July, August and September 1916.
His service on behalf of his country resulted in the award of the 1914-15 Star, the Victory Medal and the British Medal.
James Heenan’s family
My attempts to find information about James’ family have so far drawn a blank. All I know, from a list, published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office at the behest of the War Office, of all those who died during the Great War, is that he was born in Winlaton, in Durham. This village was once at the centre of the local steel industry so its possible either James or his father worked in that industry. Or they may have been involved with the area’s other primary industry of coal mining.
A search of census records for anyone with the surname of Heenan born in Winlaton results in only one match. In the 1901 census James Heenan, a coal hewer, and his wife Mary are living in Elm Street, Benwell, Northumberland. They have a son James aged 7 born in Winlaton. That would make him seventeen at the outbreak of World War 1 and 19 when he was killed – within the range of possibilities.
The soldier’s effects register indicates he was married at the time of his death and his wife’s name was Bridget. The only marriage of a James Heenan and a Bridget (surname of Fitzpatrick) is registered in Durham in the first quarter of 1916. Was this the same James Heenan that died later that year? That’s a question I will be pursuing in the next few months.
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission [https://www.cwgc.org]
- War medal entitlement. Source The National Archives WO 329 Published by Ancestry.com
- The War Diary of the 7th Battalion The Borderers Regiment: Source: The National Archives,WO 95. Piece 2008/1:
- Census of England 1891, 1901 : National Archives. Accessed via Find My Past
- Soldier’s Effects Register: The National Archives, accessed via Ancestry.com
- Civil Registration of Marriages, England and Wales, General Register Office. Q1 1916 vol 10a page 598