Martin Heenan left the fields of Ireland and his family farm to join the army. He died in the fields of France at the tail end of the Battle of Cambrai.
By the time he was attached to the 1st Battalion of the Irish Guards their strength had been depleted more than once. They had been in France from the start of the war and had seen action in numerous battles including Mons, Marne and Ypres. David Heenan joined them between September 1916 and November the following year. In the absence of his service records we cannot be more precise but the sequence of army numbers suggest his enlistment was more towards the beginning of that period.
He may therefore have been with them during the Battle of the Somme which ran from July 1 to November 18 of 2016 when they sustained severe casualties. What is more certain is that he was with them during participated the Third Battle of Ypres (31 July – 10 November 1917). After a brief pause, during which time the Battalion was marched to a new location, they went back into attack during the Battle of Cambrai (November 20 -Dec 7, 1917).
Cambrai was an important supply point for the German Siegfriedstellung (known to the British as the Hindenburg Line). Capturing the town and the nearby Bourlon Ridge would enable the British Army to interrupt the supply and threaten the rear of the German line. The method of assault selected was new, with no preliminary artillery bombardment. Instead, a large number of tanks were used in significant force.Early success was soon reversed by a German counter-attack.
On November 30 orders came for the 1st Guards Brigade (which included the 1st Irish Guards) to immediately move to the village of Gouzeaucourt. Commanding officers who went ahead to see what was happening found gunners, engineers, horses and infantry pouring towards the village where it would be easier for the artillery to operate. According to the war diary of the 1st Guards, the scene was chaotic. The Battalion fell into formation as best they could and set out from the village towards high and bare land around, halting just outside Gouzeacourt Wood.
As they entered the wood they were shelled by German troops, though not heavily, and the fight then became more man-to-man combat. The woods were captured by the Guards who then sat out the night of Dec 1 awaiting reinforcements or relief.
When and where did Martin Heenan lose his life? In the woods or in the village of Gouzeaucourt? The answer is a matter of conjecture.
There is no indication of fatalities in the skirmish in the woods. However there were fatalities in the village. In his history of the Irish Guards during World War 1, Rudyard Kipling (whose son had served with the regiment) wrote that the action that recovered Gouzeaucourt village "had not taken more than an hour but the day had cost them 130 men killed, wounded and missing. All the casualties were from marine gun fire, men dropping in streets, across thresholds in cellars and in the angles of wrecked walls that, falling on them, hid them for ever."
There is a strong possibility therefore that Martin Heenan was one of those casualties. The fact that his body was never recovered suggests also that he was one of those whose bodies were buried under collapsed walls.
Remembering Martin Heenan
The only memorial that commemorates his death is the Cambrai Memorial within the Louverval Military Cemetery, France. This commemorates more than 7,000 servicemen from Britain and South Africa who died in the Battle of Cambrai whose graves are not known.
He was posthumously awarded the British Medal and the Victory Medal. His back pay £6 5s 5d and a war gratuity payment was sent to his mother Mary on June 6, 1918.
Martin Heenan's Family
Guardsman Martin Heenan came from an extremely large Roman Catholic family in County Tipperary, Ireland. He was born on 10 July 1890 at Lissadonna, near Borrisokane, the ninth child of John Heenan, a farmer, and his wife Mary Foley. The couple went on to have a further nine children. Of them two did not survive to become adults.
The 1901 census for Ireland shows the family living in the townland of Carrick in the poor law union of Borrisokane. The parents and 11 of their children occupy three rooms of a property which consists of a house, stable, cow house and a piggery. John Heenan is described as a farmer. Martin Heenan is eight years old.
In the 1911 census the property has been expanded to include a fowl house but still consists of a three-room dwelling occupied by John and Mary Heenan, 10 of their children and a two-year-old grandson. Martin Heenan is described as a farmer's son who can read and write and speaks both Irish and English.
John Heenan died in 1919, aged approximately 75, leaving his property to his wife. She died two years later.
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission [https://www.cwgc.org]
- Civil Registration Ireland, Birth, Marriages and Deaths Indices. Accessed via Find My Past
- Census of Ireland: 1901, 1911 Accessed via National Archives Ireland
- Soldier's Effects Register: The National Archives, accessed via Ancestry.com
- Medal cards: National Archives collection WO 372 Accessed via Ancestry.com
- War Diary of the 1st Guards Battalion The National Archives, ref WO95/1216/1. Accessed via Ancestry.com
- Kipling, R: (1923). The Irish Guards in the Great War https://archive.org/details/irishguardsofgre01rudy