Thomas Heenan served with the 12th company of the Canterbury Regiment of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He joined the army at Nelson, Hokitika on August 18, 1914. He was killed in action on August 7, 1915, less than a year after joining the army, on a day that marked one of the biggest losses experienced by New Zealand forces.
His army records indicate that at the time he enlisted he was
24 years and 3 months old and was working as a self-employed trapper. He gave his religion as Anglican and his last address in Hardy Street, Nelson, New Zealand. His medical examination recorded that he was 5ft 6 inches tall and weighed 9 stones 1 pound and had good eyesight and hearing.
Prior to his enlistment, Thomas said he had been a member of the Garrison Band at Westport, the Volunteer Band of Hokitika and the first Westland Rifles. He had also been a second lieutenant in the senior school cadets. It’s reasonable to suppose that because of those experiences he was given the rank of bugler with the Canterbury regiment.
The recruits for the expeditionary force underwent training and preparations during August and the first weeks of September. By September 24 they had departed, joining ships from Australia to form a large convoy. The recruits believed they were headed to France but while in the Red Sea orders were received for them to disembark at Egypt to protect the Suez Canal from attacks by the Turkish army. Seven weeks after leaving Wellington Harbour, the ships arrived at Alexandria and the troops despatched by train to camps on the outskirts of Cairo.
In The New Zealanders in Gallopoli by Major Fred Waite, he describes the training and drilling needed to turn the recruits into an effective fighting force. This involved daily drills and marches through sand in extremes of temperatures. It was tedious so the officers and men took every opportunity to find entertainment and creature comforts – some began growing seeds in small plots outside their tents, others taking advantage of the casinos, dancing houses and saloons in Cairo.
When Christmas arrived, a celebration dinner was enjoyed out of doors and, Major Waite reports, ” …out on the desert the regimental bands played all the old familiar tunes, the men meanwhile holding impromptu dances under the silent desert stars.”
As a bugler and experienced bandsman, Thomas Heenan would have been a key member of the regimental and providing that entertainment.
By the end of March the forces in Egypt were declared fit and ready for active service, They set sail from Alexandria between April 12 and 17, 1915.
The allied forces of Russia, Britain and France had launched a campaign at the Gallipoli peninsula (also known as the Dardanelles) in February that year with the aim of opening a way to the the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Additional forces were sent to the peninsular in August to support a new plan to secure the Sari Bair Range of hills and capture high ground. Part of that plan involved an attack on the Chunuk Bair summit by the New Zealand Infantry Brigade who were required to battle their way through deep and steep-sided gullies choked up with dense jungle to reach their target.
The 12th company of the Canterbury Regiment were within 500 metres (550 yds) of the near peak of Chunuk Bair by dawn on 7 August. Later that morning they came under heavy fire. A history of the Canterbury Regiment records that just after midday ordered to mount another attack: “the remainder of the battalion moved forward and lay down in the open. It at once came under heavy shrapnel fire from the left flank and suffered severe casualties, losing one officer killed and six badly wounded, in addition to three officers previously wounded.”
Thomas Heenan died at 7.15pm that night.
The New Zealand Infantry reached the summit and held onto it for two days before being relieved by other battalions but it was at severe human cost.
Reporting on Bugler Heenan’s death, the Dominion newspaper of August 28, 1915 noted that the campaign of August 7/8 had been the heaviest list yet of those killed in the Dardanelles. Of the 140 men from New Zealand killed over those two days, 49 came from the Canterbury Regiment.
Thomas Heenan was posthumously awarded the 1414-15 star, the Victory Medal and the British Medal. He is commemorated at the Chunuk Bair (New Zealand) Memorial in Turkey and in the New Zealand Roll of Honour.
Thomas’ grandparents John Heenan and Margaret Kelly may have originated in Ireland and emigrated in the late 1840s or early 1850s. By 1862 they were in Australia where their daughter Margaret was born in Ballarat, a town in the state of Victoria that was at the centre of gold mining from 1851. Thomas’ father Thomas James Heenan was born in Ballarat the following year.About 1864/5 John and Margaret Heenan moved their family to New Zealand to another town associated with gold mining: Hokitika on the western coast of the south island. The couple had their last two children here: William Joseph Heenan and David Alexander Heenan.
Thomas James Heenan (Bugler Heenan’s father) was born in 1863. According to electoral registers in New Zealand he worked variously as a labourer and a miner. He married Mary Cecilia Kearns in Hokitika in 1899. They had four children of whom Bugler Thomas Heenan was the second, born on May 8 1890 in Hokitika. At the time of their son’s death, Thomas James and Mary were living in Revell Street, Hokitika.
- World War 1 service: New Zealand, World War I Service Records, 1914-1920. Archives New Zealand; Wellington, New Zealand; Series Number: 18805
- Gallipoli campaign: The History of the Canterbury Regiment NZEF 1914-19 accessed at New Zealand Electronic Text Collection, University of Wellington, Victoria
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission [https://www.cwgc.org]
- New Zealand Army WW1 Roll of Honour 1914-1918
- Dominion Newspaper: Volume 8, Issue 2552, August 28, 1915 via PapersPast. [https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/]
- Australia, Birth Index, 1788-1922