Lance Corporal Michael Degnan.
2nd Battalion, Duke of Wellington's West Riding Regiment. Service number 10781.
Michael was born in Darlington, County Durham in 1896. His parents were Patrick and Margaret Degnan and they were living at 7, Bowes Street, St. Hilda, Darlington at that time. In the 1901 census Patrick was employed as a bricklayer's labourer and Margaret was a wool twister. Michael was five and had two brothers Joseph (9) and Lawrence (7) and a younger sister Annie (3).
In the 1911 census the whole family was still living together at Bowes Street but with the addition of a daughter Catherine who was seven years old.
Michael was by now 16 and was serving his time as a Bricklayer's apprentice. Further information on his life before the war is in the paragraph from the newspaper detailed below.
Michael was either already serving in the Army or was in the reserves when war broke out and he was called to the colours. His war gratuity amount suggests that his service counted from August 1914.
He arrived in France on 29th April 1915 as part of a large draft of men and joined his Battalion in the field on 2nd May, which is recorded in the Battalion war diary:
WO95/1552-1 2nd Battalion Duke of Wellington's West Riding Regiment war diary:
May 1, 1915:
In Divisional Reserve in woods near KRUISSTRAAT. 2nd Lt. GUNN joined Battalion. 2nd Lieut's BEYFUL and SIMPSON rejoined.
May 2, 1915:
In Divisional Reserve in woods near KRUISSTRAAT. Casualties, 3 wounded. Draft of 230 other ranks joined Battalion.
May 3, 1915:
In Divisional Reserve in woods near KRUISSTRAAT.
May 4, 1915:
In Divisional Reserve in woods near KRUISSTRAAT. At 10 pm Battalion received orders to relieve Devon Regt. in Trenches 38, 39, 49, 42, 43, 45 and Hill 60. Relief completed by 3.30 am May 5, 15.
May 5, 1915:
In Divisional Reserve in woods near KRUISSTRAAT. At 8.30 am the enemy sent over asphyxiating gas, with disastrous effects. The Bn. had to vacate Hill 60 and Trenches 40, 43, 45 on account of there being practically no men left to hold them. Trenches 38 and 39 were held and eventually strongly reinforced by the Dorset Regt., who eventually reoccupied 40 Trench.
Nearly all the men were very badly asphyxiated and large numbers died from the effect. During the day the enemy kept up heavy artillery fire. No more gas fumes were used. In the evening the R.W. Kent Regt. attacked without success. At about 2.30 am The Batt'n consisting of the officers (Capt Brown Commanding, Lt Ince, and Lt.######.) with about 150 other ranks were ordered to withdraw to OUDERDOM, being relieved by the Cheshire Regt.
The Commonweath War Graves Commission lists 160 men from the 2nd Battalion West Riding who were killed on this day. They are buried in several cemeteries locally, but it's likely they were all from this one devastating gas attack.
Keighley News report 5th June 1915, page 3:
TWO KEIGHLEY BROTHERS KILLED
Mr and Mrs Patrick Degnan, of 35, Woodhouse Road, Keighley, have received intimation that their son, Lance-Corporal Michael Degnan, of the 2nd Duke of Wellington's West Riding Regiment, was killed in action on May 5 by gas, He left England on April 29, and had only been in action one day when he met his death. He was only 19, and was formerly employed at Botany Mills, Dalton Mills, Keighley. He was also assistant scoutmaster of the Cullingworth Boy Scouts, and formerly captain of the Keighley Gaelic Association football team. When 15 he won a gold medal with a Darlington school football team.
Another son, Private Laurence Degnan (21), of the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, has also been killed in action, his name appearing in last Thursday's official list of casualties. He had been in the trenches since last September. Another brother - Joe Degnan (23) - is serving in the Navy on HMS Superb. Mr and Mrs Degnan have also six nephews serving in the Army.
Michael was buried in Grave 187, Row E of Plot I in Bailleul Communal cemetery Extension, Nord. According to the Commonwealth war Graves Commission records, 160 men of the 2nd Battalion West Riding Regiment died on this day. The records also show that Michael 'died of wounds' which mean he was likely to have been evacuated to a medical facility before succumbing to the effects of the gas.
After the war his parents would have received his Army service medals which were the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal. They would also have received a King's certificate and a Memorial Plaque. Sadly his Army service records didn't survive the blitz in World War Two which destroyed so many of them, so we cannot confirm much of his service.
Michael Degnan is named along with his brother Lawrence, on the St Anne's Catholic Church War Memorial.
Both brothers died on the same date, 5th May 1915. His brother Lawrence died whilst serving at Voormezeele with the 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Menin Gate memorial to the missing.
Their elder brother Joseph survived the war, serving in the Royal Navy from 1910 to 1920. He died in 1942 aged 50.
England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915
1901 England Census
1911 England Census
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Soldiers Died in the Great War
British Army WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920
WWI Service Medal and Award Rolls, 1914-1920
Army Registers of Soldiers' Effects, 1901-1929
Keighley News archives held at Keighley Library
WO95/1552-1 - 2nd Battalion Duke of Wellington's West Riding Regiment war diary