28939 CPL. J. MCNAMARA. VC. E.SURREY.R.
John McNamara was born on 28 October 1887 in Walton Le Dale. His father was John Thomas McNamara (b. 1864 in Walton Le Dale), a blacksmith. His mother was Margaret Kelly (b. 1863 ?). John and Margaret were married in 1885 and they had four children but only John jnr and his brother Francis (b. 1886) survived. Indeed it looks as though their mother Margaret died in childbirth or from complications associated with childbirth in 1890. John Thomas left the children with his parent and 1891 and was living in Blackburn and seems to have died a few years later, so in 1901, Francis and John were living with their grandparents in School Lane. When the grandparents died, John moved in with his aunt Elizabeth and her husband William Eckersely (and their five children) and they all lived at 6 Charnley Fold. John worked as a ring jobber in the mill across the road. The following year, he married Mary Ann Atkinson (b. 1887 in Walton Le Dale) and they had 4 children.
John enlisted originally with the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and was assigned service number 25097 and posted first to 3rd Battalion (reserves) but when he was called up he was posted to 10th Battalion. John was not awarded the 1915 Star so he presumably joined them at some stage in 1916. 10Bn came under orders of 112th Brigade in 37th Division. The Division was engaged in the Battle of the Ancre (the final phase of the Battle of the Somme 1916).
The Battalion was heavily engaged in 1917, at the Arras Offensive in the spring, and there they suffered heavy losses (21 officers and 478 other ranks, killed, wounded or missing). After this, they were moved to the Kemmel sector, near Ypres, which was considered a relatively quiet sector, but they were back in action again in October but they were mainly used for building and repair work and were not engaged in any of the battles of October or November. In the general army reorganisation of early 1918, the decision was taken to disband 10Bn and reassign the troops to different units. John McNamara, by now a Corporal, was posted to 9Bn East Surrey Regiment, with new service number 28939.
9Bn came under orders of 72nd Brigade in 24th Division. 24th Division was caught in the first phase of the German Spring Offensive, being forced to retreat to Rosières. But at the First Battle of the Avre (4-5 April), they finally managed to halt the German advance towards Amiens. Quite exceptionally, the War Diary lists by name all officers and men, killed wounded or missing in March 1918. The War Diary records that on 1 April, 10 officers and 120 other ranks from 10Bn L.N.LAN.R. were incorporated into the 9/E Surreys. In total that month they reported reinforcements of 38 officers and 651 other ranks, and further casualties of 25 officers and 200 other ranks. Many of the other reinforcements were raw recruits who had seen no previous fighting and were in need of training. So after their engagement at the Avre, they spent the rest of the month in billets and in training at Diéval. In May, the Bn was holding the line north of Lens. In billets at Bully Grenay on 23 May, again quite exceptionally for a War Diary, a list is included of the names of all other ranks awarded the Military Medal for their bravery during the fighting in March. At the end of May, again, a list is given of the names of all other ranks killed or wounded, even identifying 13 men who were gassed. They were back in the line in the first week in June, during the month they were in and out of the front line, with regular night patrols but relatively little action. During July, British artillery bombardment of German lines increases but with little response, but in early August there is again increased activity on both sides. Aeroplanes are also active, dropping bombs even at night. There is much harassing fire on both sides, and finally at the end of August it is thought that the enemy had withdrawn from Lens. This was confirmed on 1 September by a captured German prisoner and the following day, “9Bn was the first to set foot in Lens since the enemy took it in 1914.”
The War Diary records the events of 3 September as follows:
During the night of 2/3 September we established posts in the enemy’s front line again, but were prevented from penetrating to CARP TRENCH on the left by M/G. fire and bombs. These apparently came from two “Jack-in-the-Boxes” quite close up to the enemy’s old front line. In the morning, no less than three attempts were made by the enemy to oust our posts. Twice they were beaten back, but the third time a large force which attacked us drove back our left posts and unfortunately inflicted casualties. The Adjutant Captain W H Lindsay M.C. was killed while going round the posts. We, on our side, managed to kill several of the enemy and brought in one dead Hun. This occurred at about 1pm. Artillery behind the 73rd Infantry Brigade luckily spotted a raiding party and brought down an excellent barrage – thus preventing the enemy from regaining his trenches. During the afternoon once more we sent out our men – but this time only to the right sector, so that now we were holding from FOSSE I along the enemy’s trench to CONDUCTOR SAP. The enemy remained quiet during the night – shelling our old front line very slightly.
John McNamara was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery during this assault. The Citation reads:
On 3 September 1918 northwest of Lens, France, when operating a telephone in evacuated enemy trenches occupied by his battalion, Corporal McNamara realised that a determined enemy counter-attack was gaining ground. Rushing to the nearest post, he made very good use of a revolver taken from a wounded officer and then, seizing a Lewis gun, he fired it until it jammed. By this time, he was alone in the post and, having destroyed the telephone, he joined the nearest post and maintained a Lewis gun until reinforcements arrived. It was undoubtedly due to the magnificent courage and determination of Pte. [sic] McNamara that the other posts were enabled to hold on, and his fine example of devotion is worthy of the highest praise.
Later John wrote a letter to his family at home in which he gave his own account, which was later published in a local newspaper:
"We went off under cover of darkness, leaving our lines in the dead of night, each man specially equipped. Things went grandly for a few hours for we entered the German front lines and put out a few men at different posts to hold it. We then proceeded into the enemy’s second line, and sent back for a few more men to hold on. We then went right into his third line in front of ----, and here was a surprise awaiting us.
No sooner had we entered this trench than I heard the voices of the enemy, and I at once reported to the captain leading our party, but before he had time to answer me he was shot right through the head and died at once. Then our second, third and fourth officers were all badly wounded. …. We were now left to fight or die, so I at once took the situation in my hands and got a few of the party together and we fought hand to hand in a very narrow trench with dead on both sides and the wounded moaning in the bottom of the trench, helpless
After a good half-hour’s fighting – yes, fighting I will never forget, we were all wiped out but two of us, and the enemy, numbering four, ran away and left me and my mate on our own. Just picture two men in a trench with dead and wounded all around and could not help the lads. So I held the trench myself while my mate rushed back for a party of stretcher-bearers who were following us to pick up the wounded.
When the stretcher party reached us they brought a message that we had got too far, and we were ordered to retire to the German second line. But I and my mate could not leave our wounded in that state, so we helped the stretcher-bearers to carry in the wounded and the dead we left for the following day. It was absolutely murder to stay in the trench, for the German guns were now playing on us, so we got back to the German second line."
They continued clearing the enemy trenches for the next few days and were relieved on 6 September. The remainder of the month was spent either consolidating the trench system they had captured north of Lens, or in billets at rest or in training. On 30 September they moved to new billets at Beaudricourt. Here, they began a new form of training, designed to accustom the men to open fighting after 5 months in the trenches. 5 October was treated by the Battalion as a holiday; with baths at Sus St Léger and a football match against the Royal West Kents (the Surreys lost 3-nil). They left Beaudricourt the next day and moved to the new front line at Cantaign, on the outskirts of Cambrai. They were to advance, first to Rumilly then to Niergnies, encountering little German resistance, and finally capturing the small village of Awoignt on 9 October, from where they were able to send patrols into the city of Cambrai to establish that the Germans had withdrawn. From 11-13 October, they advanced rapidly to Cauroir, then Avesnes-les-Aubert and finally the small town of St Aubert where they found billets. The following day, they sent a working party forward to the village of Haussy, to establish if it was possible to place a bridge across the River Selle. A suitable location was found and the Brigade was ordered to build a small bridge and the following morning the Battalion marched down to the river and gradually got across and formed up on the other bank. The Germans had built barricades to defend the village of Haussy and they defended them stoutly but by 7am the Battalion had captured its objectives. Two officers and 7 men were killed. By noon, they had taken 285 German prisoners and estimated 80 enemy dead. They were now coming across civilians who had taken refuge in cellars. At 2pm the Germans began shelling the whole area and then they launched a counter-attack, with men dressed in fresh uniforms assumed to be “Storm Troops”. These forced the Battalion to retreat and several men were drowned in the river. The Battalion managed to prevent the Germans from coming back across the river, but casualties were severe. They were eventually relieved and returned to their billets at St Aubert and then moved to Cambrai. They attended Church services at Cambrai on 20 October.
Route taken by 9Bn East Surrey Regiment, 6-16 October 1918
A further 90 men are listed as missing. CWGC records 61 officers and men from 9Bn as losing their lives in October 1918, 42 of whom were killed on 16 October, including John McNamara (who still didn’t know he had been awarded his VC). John was 30 years old. He is buried at the Romeries Communal Cemetery near the town of Solesmes. On 11 November, the Battalion was at St-Waast-La-Vallée when they received news of the Armistice: “the men hardly credited the news”. They were still there on 16 November when they received news that “the late Cpl MACNAMARA had been awarded the V.C. for his splendid work and gallantry at LENS. This N.C.O. was unfortunately killed at HAUSSY.”
Service Number: 28939
Award: Victoria Cross
Date of Death: 16/10/1918
Regiment/Service: East Surrey Regiment, 9th Bn
Cemetery/memorial reference: IV. D. 17.
Cemetery: ROMERIES COMMUNAL CEMETERY EXTENSION
Additional Information: Son of John and Margaret McNamara; husband of Mary Ann Mitchell (formerly McNamara), of 82 Stone Row, School Lane, Preston.
In 1921, Mary Ann McNamara married James Mitchell.
Mary Ann’s brother was 12651 Cpl. Peter Atkinson, who served in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and was killed in Mesopotamia on Christmas Day 1916. To read about his service see here.