John Heenan
Private 202533
1st/4th Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment
Died: Iran 18 December 1918
Memorial: Tehran War Cemetery. V.C.5

John Heenan died in one of the often overlooked theatres of war during the 1914-18 conflict: the Middle East.

Following Turkey’s decision to enter the war on Germany’s side, Britain sent troops to protect its oil supplies in the Ottoman province of Mesopotamia in November 1914.

Mesopotamia (modern day Iran and Iraq) held special interest for the British not only because of its oil deposits but  also because, for politicians like Austen Chamberlain (Secretary of State for India) and former Viceroy Lord Curzon, it was important to maintain British prestige in the eyes of India's Muslim population.

The 4th Battalion of the Dorset Regiment was despatched from India where they had undergone rigorous training, to Mesopotamia in 1916, landing at Basra as part of the 42nd Indian Brigade on the 23rd. They remained in Mesopotamia for the rest of the war.

Recruiting poster 1914. Source: The Keep Military Museum. No copyright restrictions

John Heenan had joined the Regiment around August the previous year. Although his detailed service records are not available, we know, from the absence of an award of the 1915-Star that did not see active service overseas until at least 1916.

It's possible that he was sent direct to the battalion's base at Nasiriyeh, Mesopotamia and was with them when they played a decisive part in the battle of Ramadi on the Euphrates. Alongside two Gurkha battalions  they captured a ridge that dominated the Turkish position, a success which earned them special mention in the official despatch. Six months later, on 23rd March 1918, the Dorsets played a leading part in capturing Khan Baghdadi, where 5,000 Turks were taken prisoner. 

From April 1st 1918, onwards the 1/4th Dorsets stayed at Ramadi in a constant state of readiness for further fighting. During the summer the low level level of activity on the part of their foes meant that its duties were reduced virtually to those of a garrison unit. Leave was freely given to the troops.

In early October orders were received to leave firstly to Madhij, then onto Dhibban where they heard news of the Armistice. It was then decided that the strength of the British army in Mesopotamia was greater  than required. The 1/4th despatched a draft of four officers and 250 other ranks to Salonika on 28th November. Some maintained a depot in India, Jullundar, then Kirkee. Demobilization had commenced from Mesopotamia, but on a very random basis. 

Based on my inquiries to the Devon and Dorset regimental museum, John Heenan was one of those left behind with the remains of the battalion in Mesopotamia awaiting his demobilisation orders.

They suggest that as he died in early December from typhus it is possible that he was already ill and in hospital when the battalion was being re-organised. 

He was initially buried at Hamadan (or Hamedan) military cemetery which is about 200 miles west of Teheran, then later reburied at the larger Tehran War Cemetery. 

John Heenan's Family

Information about John Heenan and his family is sadly lacking. His date of enlistment of August 1915 is not definitive but is calculated on the basis of the level of war gratuity given to his family on his death. His involvement with the Dorset Regiment would seem to pre-date August however since the 1/4 was the first line battalion of their Territorial Force comprised of the fittest men who were ready for action. He had clearly enlisted with them some time earlier and held in reserve until needed. 

The Soldier's Effects register gives the only clue to his family. It records that a payment of £41, made up of his back pay and war gratuity was made to his father Michael Joseph Heenan on December 3, 1919.

Unfortunately searches of 1901 and 1911 census returns for England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland have not located anyone with the name of Michael Joseph Heenan.

There is only one individual with the surname of Heenan in Dorset in the 1911 census -  35 year old George Frederick Heenan on board HMS Liffey. No-one with the surname is resident in the county in the 1901 census or anyone resident elsewhere that was born in Dorset. While there are plenty of John Heenans in the 1911 census, none of them have a father with the name of Michael Joseph.

Sources 

  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission  [https://www.cwgc.org]
  • War medal entitlement. Source The National Archives WO 329 Published by Ancestry.com
  • Soldier’s Effects Register: The National Archives, accessed via Ancestry.com
  • The Keep Military Museum for Devon and Dorset https://www.keepmilitarymuseum.org/