Thomas Shellabear, first man to die

British Army war diaries.

For the infantry, these were written by battalions from each regiment during the Great War. They usually follow a fairly strict format and contain information relevant to the operations of the battalion on each day. However, during the first couple of weeks of the Battle of Mons, the people who would normally write up these diaries were somewhat distracted, to say the least. Fighting a rearguard action, then marching off to the next trench line, fighting a defensive action, marching again and constantly moving along the road, with the ever looming threat of a large German Army chasing you, would take up all your strength and resolve as soldiers and only personal notes were taken by the officers when time permitted.

For these reasons it is easy to understand why the first couple of weeks of some battalion diaries don't take the usual format. In the case of the 2nd Battalion, Duke of Wellington's West Riding Regiment, these are several pages from the personal memories of the battalion's commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Gibbs, from his notes made at the time which according to the colonel, had been hidden in Belgium and were retrieved in 1919. These were typed up and later submitted to the Historical section of the Committee of Imperial Defence, in April 1924 as his account of those days, to enable them to record the events of those days more accurately.

Lt. Colonel Gibbs was severely wounded by three pieces of shrapnel from a shell explosion very early on in the first actions of 24th August 1914. He was helped away by some Red Cross personnel and treated for his wounds after leaving Major MacLeod, his second in command to take charge. The diary entries after MacLeod took command were written up using his own personal diary and another from Lieutenant Ince.

Once Colonel Gibbs had been evacuated to hospital he would have been treated and eventually recovered from his wounds. He had time to record his thoughts in the form of notes and maps, which were then hidden until the end of the war (as he was captured by the Germans) so they were quite contemporary with the events and not memoirs written several years later.

Lieutenant Colonel Gibbs (seated, in uniform) at hospital.
Photo courtesy of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment scrapbooks.

The first page contains this note in the margin:
This period of the war diary was never compiled at the time and has been completed as much as possible from private diaries of Lieutenant C.W.G. Ince. Very few details are forthcoming as only names of places were noted. Casualties are from returns sent in.

Extract from Colonel Gibbs' diary notes, part of the 2nd Battalion West Riding Regimental war diary (13th Brigade, 5th Division), 23rd August 1914:

It was now about 1 pm and oppressively hot.
I went to where "B" Company was in fairly good cover behind some banks just beyond the sheds (D) and from which we could get a fairly good view with glasses. Occasional glimpses of Germans creeping along hedge rows at from 400 to possibly 700 yards, were now to be had, but Carter had warned his men not to fire till a really good target offered itself, so as not to give their position away. When they did begin, I think it fairly staggered the enemy who went to ground at once. Shrapnel was soon opened on the buildings along the Canal, but luckily without any serious effects to our men, and then ceased. The hopelessness of having no guns to reply with me was most galling, but I can't help thinking it puzzled the Bosche, and certainly as far as our part of the line went, they had evidently made up their minds to wait until dark before making any further advance, although Rifle fire was kept up pretty regularly.
Carter got a bullet through the calf of his leg necessitating his removal to the dressing station at the town hospital. Private Shellabear was killed close to me, about 3 p.m., and was I believe the first man killed in the Regiment.

Lieutenant-Colonel Gibbs.

The correct date of death?

It's easy to imagine with this evidence about those first days after the Battle of Mons began, that fighting a rearguard action in this manner would be incredibly exhausting for all these men, so for someone to take the time to record events in any meaningful way is not going to be a high priority. However, notes were made and officers personal diaries were kept, which could be examined later to build up an accurate picture of the events which occurred.

We see that Lieutenant Colonel Gibbs noted the time and date of the death of Private Thomas Shellabear and it is this statement which I wish to look into more closely.

If we look at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission record for Thomas, we see they have him reported dying on 24th August 1914.
This is repeated by the 'Soldier's Died in the Great War' record which states he was killed in action on the same date.
Another official record is the Soldier's Effects book, which states that he died on the 23rd. But if we look closely, someone has pencilled a circle around the '23' and written '24' in pencil, above it. Were they querying this date at the time? A soldier's pay stopped at the point of his death and they would definitely have tried to establish this date of death accurately. There are no service records available for Thomas Shellabear, but his medal records also state the 24th as his date of death.

'Soldier's Effects' record for Thomas Shellabear - with the date of death circled in pencil.

There was certainly some confusion at the time and for poor Thomas it's a moot point, but is all this information trumped by the account from his commanding officer? Is Lt. Colonel Gibbs' account likely to be the most accurate one?
If Lt. Colonel Gibbs didn't submit his personal account until 1924, then the administration of Thomas' financial affairs would have been done and dusted long before that. His date of death would have been established from available evidence and there would be no real reason to change that.
However, even though Thomas has been commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the date could still be wrong. So should we pursue this in the interests of accuracy? Does it matter over one hundred years later? Our view is that if these things are worth recording at all, then they're worth recording correctly.

Private Tom Shellabear, 2nd Battalion, Duke of Wellington's West Riding Regiment. Service number 10206.

Thomas Shellabear was born in Barnoldswick 1894 with his birth being registered at Skipton in the second quarter of the year. His parents were John William and Agnes Shellabear and the family was living at the bottom cottage at Lane, near Bancroft's Farm. Father John William was a stone mason.

John William Shellabear died in 1896 aged just 43 leaving Nancy (Agnes) to fend for herself and the children. She married a widowed moulder called Isaac Carradice on 18th October 1898 at St. Andrew's Church in Keighley, At that time they were living at 150, Westgate in Keighley.

By the time of the 1901 census Thomas was eight years old and living with his mother Nancy Carradice and his siblings Annie (15); Spencer (14); John W. (13); Emelia (12); Ada (10); and Rose (2), at 7, Opal Street in an area of Ingrow in Keighley known as the 'Jewel Box' because of the streets which are named Opal, Emerald, Pearl, Ruby and Diamond. (these streets still exist today) The census shows that their step-father Isaac is not present on the 1901 census although he may have been working away) but all the children and their mother are using the surname Carradice.
The children probably all attended Ingrow Council School around this time, which was located very close to their home.

The Jewel Box at Ingrow in 1908, showing Ingrow School and Opal Street where Thomas lived in 1901. (Courtesy of NLS Mapping - see sources below)

By the time of the 1911 census they are all called Shellabear again (possibly Agnes was separated or divorced from Isaac Carradice) and they were all living with their mother at 7, Bengal Street in Keighley. By now Thomas is 17 years old and working as a steel borer for a textile machine maker.

We do not know much of the circumstances of Thomas' Army Service but he must have either been serving or a reservist in August 1914, as he was mobilised very early on and would have either been serving at Dublin already or posted there from Halifax to join the 2nd Battalion, Duke of Wellington's West Riding Regiment which was at Portobello Barracks in Dublin.
The Battalion had been mobilised by telegram on 4th August and over the next few days was reinforced with several drafts of men posted in. On 14th August 1914, the whole battalion embarked on 'HM Transport Gloucester' and sailed for Le Havre in France. They arrived at Havre on the 16th August and began the process of disembarkation at 4.00 pm. They were billeted overnight in three dockyard warehouses.
The next day they marched about five miles up a long hill to Bleville Rest Camp. entrained and passed through Rouen, Amiens and detrained at Landrecies on the 18th August and were marched off and billeted at Marouilles. they stayed here for a few days until 21st August when they formed up and marched 10 miles, then through the 'Foret de Mormal', debouching at Obies, through Mecquignes to Havai, arriving at about 3.00 pm.
They paraded at 6.30 am on the 22nd August and crossed the Belgian frontier just south of Athis, then on to Dour and through Noussu to St Ghislain where they rested at about 2.00 pm. It had been hot and the men were tired so they were glad of the rest.

They were detailed in support and relief of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and the 3rd Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment who were holding a line at the Mons - Conde Canal immediately to the North of Saint Ghislain.
The battalion moved into support of the KOYLI and Royal West Kents, beginning at 7.00 am of the 23rd August. Shortly after 1.00 pm German soldiers could be seen moving through bushes and hedgerows about 700 yards away and the British front line opened up with rifle fire. This was answered with shrapnel shells and rifle fire from the German side, which generally caused little harm.
Private Thomas Shellabear was killed by a rifle bullet at about 3.00 pm, witnessed by Lt. Colonel Gibbs, who was close to him at the time and the Lt. Colonel wrote this in his diary notes, believing him to be the first man from the regiment to be killed.

Two officers and six men of the 2nd Battalion West Riding Regiment were killed on this day and one man missing.
Thomas was buried and his grave was marked, but apparently all the graves left behind them after the retreat from Mons, were later exhumed and reburied by the Germans at Hautrage Cemetery. However, only four names of 2nd Battalion West Riding men have been allocated to the 23rd of August.

Thomas was posthumously awarded the 1914 Star, the British War Medal and The Victory Medal for his war service. As his next of kin, his mother would have received his medals, back pay and his Great War memorial plaque and King's certificate.

Thomas is remembered in Keighley's Great War roll of honour which is on permanent public display in Keighley Library. He is also named on the Ingrow War Memorial in the churchyard at St. John's Church.

Keighley's Great War Roll of Honour book held in a glass case in Keighley Library.

Ingrow War Memorial at St John's Church in Keighley.

Thomas is also named on the Ingrow Council School roll of honour (along with his two brothers John William and Spencer, both of whom survived the war). This roll of honour was unveiled at the school on 9th September 1920 by the Mayoress of Bradford. It was thought to be lost for a number of years but was discovered in the Ingrow Primary School cellar by a caretaker and it is now on public display at the school.

The Ingrow Council School War Memorial Board

The Ingrow Council School War Memorial Board

Ingrow Council School War Mem unveiling - order of service

Finally, Thomas is remembered on the family grave in Utley cemetery at Keighley:
Tom Shellabear. Killed in action 1914. Aged 21 years.

The Shellabear family grave at Utley Cemetery which bears an inscription to Thomas.

Source information:
Birth marriage and death records.
1901 and 1911 census records
British Army Medal rolls.
British Army Pension Cards, Western front Association.
Soldiers Died in the Great War.
Soldier's Effects records.
National Archives - The 2nd Battalion, Duke of Wellington's West Riding Regiment war diary: WO95/1552/1/1.
The Duke of Wellington's Regiment Museum scrapbooks.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Herbert A. France archive BK424 at Keighley Library.
The National Library of Scotland online mapping website.

2 Responses

  1. I have just found this article in your blog about Thomas Shellabear, a member of my family. I'm sorry I asked you for information on him in my last comment. I should have searched your site more thoroughly first. I am new to your site and hadn't realised what a tremendous amount of information it contains. Thank-you so much.
    • Andy Wade
      You're welcome Carol. We would appreciate anything your family may know about him, stories or especially a photograph as we don't even have a newspaper photo of Thomas.

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