Thomas Murray was born in Alwinton in 1885, the only son of John Murray, a quarryman, and Isabella Eleanor Murray, of Church Street, Rothbury in Northumberland. His early life is unknown, but he matriculated as an evidently rather mature Arts student at St Chad’s Hall in Michaelmas term 1910, having attended St Chad’s Hostel at Hooton Pagnell for a year in order to prepare for the Durham Scholarship examination. He passed his first-year exams in Easter term 1911, and won the William Jones Bursary to study for the Theological Special B.A. He also received financial help with his fees at this time from H.D. Horsfall.
At the Hostel, Murray was captain of the Sports Committee: he captained its football team in the Epiphany term 1910 and won the tennis tournament. He went on to play tennis, rugby and football for St Chad’s Hall, being awarded his colours for each, and vice-captained the Durham Colleges rugby team.
He was also treasurer then editor of the college’s magazine The Stag, and treasurer of the Durham
Colleges Union Society. He participated in the Debating Society, seconding the motion ‘That the basis of Education should be classical rather than scientific’ on 9th February 1911, making “a plea for the real awakening of the faculties by a proper acquisition and classification of useful knowledge for future use and extension of knowledge”; on 15th November 1911 he proposed and carried the motion ‘The output of the press should be restricted’.
Murray went out of residence after the Michaelmas 1911 term and took no further exams, so ending his ambitions for the clerical career in the Church of England that he had reported to the census enumerator in 1911. Instead he appears to have opted for a teaching career, for he is next traced in 1912 as a
Second Form master at Wallasey Grammar School in Merseyside. Thomas Murray had married Dora
Clark, a Post Office clerk in Rothbury, on 19/12/11. The birth (30/3/12) of daughter Katherine ("Kay") not long after leaving Durham may explain the change of career! According to the CWGC, the family home was at 1 Woodfield Road, Tonbridge in Kent at the time of his death, although his address in Wallasey when he enlisted and when he worked as a teacher, was 2, Vicarage Grove, near the school in Liscard.
Part of the extensive archives of WGS held by Colin Bruce. Three of the masters here ended up commanding three of the four companies of the 11th Cheshire.
He rapidly answered the call on the outbreak of war. He enlisted in September 1914 in the 11th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment which had just been formed in Chester as part of the third wave of Kitchener’s Army. He was almost immediately gazetted from Battalion QMS as a second lieutenant on 29th September, lieutenant on 15th October, and captain on 30th November 1914 - a case of very rapid advancement partly due to previous military experience in the school CCF. The battalion was part of 75th Brigade, 25th Division. The battalion moved to Codford St Mary and was in billets in Bournemouth in November 1914. It later moved to Aldershot and went to France with the Division in September 1915. Murray ultimately became an adjutant of the battalion with the rank of Acting Major (anecdotal evidence), but this was sadly never confirmed in time.
The battalion saw its first major action defending Vimy Ridge during May 1916 and arrived on the Somme in late June for the infamous 'Big Push'. The brigade was billeted in the village of Hedauville, where the battalion's survivors would return in August and, according to the war diaries, lament absent friends.
Battalion War Diary entry for 27th June, 1916, TM is mentioned in despatches in London Gazette.
At 0728 on 1st July, after an unimaginable night waiting in the trenches, listening to the largest artillery bombardment in history, the Allies went over the top. The assault began with the detonation of the Lochnagar mine at La Boiselle, a mile or two south-east of them. It was then the largest man-made noise in history and apparently was heard in London. It must have awed and encouraged the men waiting for the whistles to blow. The crater is now a monument. The day saw 60000 Allied casualties including 20000 British and Commonwealth dead by the end of the day (worst in British military history after Boudica's defeat), as many as both sides combined at the Battle of Waterloo, and this was only day one.
2nd July, 1916. Thomas Murray spent the night in Martinsart Wood. All day and night, he would have watched the miles of casualties being taken back from the front. Over 100,000 men attacked yesterday (similar to D-Day), 20,000 of them are lying dead in no-man's-land, 40,000 wounded are being carried past him. Any hope of the promised rapid breakthrough must have dissipated.
Black Horse Bridge is still there, hidden behind Authuille cemetery
On this day, the brigade (75th) was moved to Aveluy Wood and attached to 32nd Division, just behind the front line, crossing the famous Black Horse Bridge (pictured above) to the support trenches, preparing to attack the Thiepval Spur at 0300 in the morning. The artillery barrage would have continued all night.
With him were his friends and fellow company commanders J L-W H Abell and J Batson. All three were masters at Wallasey Grammar School in Cheshire (see football photo). Thomas and Lloyd (Abell) ran the junior house together. Now they are in command of 500 young volunteers on the eve of their biggest test. Many of their men had been pupils at the school.
Less than a mile south and unknown to them, Private Walter T Bugden, great-grandfather of Chris Bugden, attached to the 6th East Kent Regiment ("The Buffs"), had also been moved into the line for tomorrow's assault. He will be attacking north of the village of Ovillers.
Trench map showing British lines in front of Leipzig Salient (blank section on right). Campbell Post in the middle, was the battalion HQ the morning of the fateful attack.
3rd July, 1916.
The plan of attack started to unravel in the night. The simultaneous assault to the north was cancelled and the brigade's attack postponed until 0600. Communication between brigades and division artillery broke down due to telegraph wires damaged by enemy shelling.
At 0300, four battalions of Walter Bugden's 12th (Eastern) Division attacked, a mile to the south, at Ovillers. It initially succeeded and the men poured over the first line German trenches. However, whilst attacking their second and third lines, unharmed German infantry poured out of their bunkers in the first trench, trapped the British between the lines, and called in bombardment. The attack was another costly failure.
Relief map of Thiepval to Ovillers showing British and German lines. The Cheshires attacked from where the word "British" is written in blue (upside down, top middle).
Just north of this on the other side of the Leipzig Salient, the 11th Cheshires were to attack the Geman positions from their front line trenches just north east of Authuille, alongside the 8th Border Regiment in the centre, and the 2nd South Lancashires on the left, the three together forming the 75th Brigade of the 25th Division, (attached for the assault to the 32nd Division). Three hours after Bugden's attack, they assaulted the line on the left of what was called the Leipzig Redoubt, just south of the strongpoint of Thiepval. This attack was unsupported, the plan changing overnight, and also a failure.
The official account in the War Diary written a week later recorded it in detail:
On immediately visiting the Companies the Adjutant found that a considerable number of casualties had occurred during entrance to the assembly positions, that the British trenches were devoid of British troops and that the guides had no instructions other than to lead the companies to some particular spot in the trenches. How much of the trenches each company was to occupy was left to the imagination – no proper relief of troops in fact had taken place. By about 5.30 am the Companies had more or less taken up some portion of the trenches and got in touch with one another. The trenches were exceedingly badly knocked about, affording little cover from fire and in a great many places little cover from view. Steps were taken to organise the Bombers and to ascertain where the dumps were to ensure a supply of bombs and S A A to the Companies. At about 6.20 am the Border Regt on the left of the Battalion (with whom touch had been made) attacked the German position but by whose orders it is not known.
Their right flank of the Borders being exposed, the leading Companies of the CHESHIRE Regt immediately attacked and the assaulting waves passed over “NO MANS LAND” in perfect order. Word to this effect was immediately sent to the Commanding Officer who at once proceeded to the scene of the action. The assaulting troops very soon came under a withering fire from Machine Guns which made the ground at about 50x from the first German line absolutely impassable. Line after line of the troops were mown down. The Commanding Officer who went with the reserve Company was unfortunately killed and Captain Hill, the Adjutant, on whom the command of the Battalion devolved decided to get the men still living back into the trench from which they jumped off and to hold it as a defensive line. The remainder of the day was spent in trench warfare and carrying in of wounded and other casualties. Unfortunately the list of casualties was large and included among every Company Commander. 20 officers, 657 Other Ranks entered the trenches on the 3rd and of this number 6 officers 350 OR came out on the night of the 4th.
Most men were cut down by forward and flanking machine-gun fire 50 yards in front of the wire, which had remained intact after the bombardment. The few who did get into the German line were killed or captured, although some 60 men retired to the British-held Leipzig Redoubt which had been dramatically captured on 1st July by the Highland Light Infantry. An assault from there in support was halted and the right wing of the brigade (the Cheshires) was thus exposed to devastating flanking fire. The Borders in the centre actually captured their opposing trench but without support, they had to retire. A later war diary entry reports all but two of the Cheshire officers killed or wounded in the attack.
Thomas Murray, Lloyd Abell and Walter Bugden all fell.
Murray was reported missing on 4th July 1916, and later confirmed as having been killed in action the previous day. His body was never recovered. His fellow teacher from Wallasey Grammar School, Captain John Lloyd-Williams Howard Abell, who had joined up with Murray in 1914, died minutes afterwards, leading 'C' Company, only yards from Murray's 'D' Company. The other WGS master, Captain J Batson, was wounded leading 'A' Company – this is the company in the famous captured trench photo of the battalion, taken later in the month nearby, pictured below. These men would have known Murray and Abell. By further coincidence, the captured German trench below, according to the caption, was just south of where Murray and Abell attacked, but roughly where Bugden attacked.
As both Murray and Abell were "missing", an investigation took place, even while the battle raged. Numerous eyewitnesses were interviewed both in the trench and in various hospitals in the area. Many fascinating details emerged including Thomas's last words "Come on Cheshire’s!" as he went over the top. Thomas had also removed his officer's tunic to disguise his rank, but he did not replace his service revolver, which was noted by an interviewee (see above) and may account for his early death in the assault, perhaps from a sniper. He was shot in the throat and was still by the time his batman arrived to aid him. Two attempts to bring him back to the line failed, and his orderly Private Tom Carran was shot in the leg in the process and forced to give up. Lloyd made it to the wire but died there. Attempts to retrieve his body failed and he was left in a shell-hole. Later, it was reported that Abell was in fact retrieved and buried two miles behind the line with their CO, Colonel Aspinall, who was also killed in that attack. However, Aspinall is buried in Bouzincourt but Abell has somehow disappeared. His descendant has listed her DNA in the hope that one day he will be found, as every year, bodies are discovered even a century later.
Murray and Abell are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme which lists 72,191 British and South African soldiers who perished in the Battles of the Somme and have no known grave. Murray is also commemorated on the memorials at St Chad's College; and at Rothbury in the 1914-1918 Book of Remembrance, organ panels in All Saints’ Church, a plaque now located at Thropton War Memorial Hall, and the war memorial in the High Street. His sacrifice is also commemorated on the war memorial at Wallasey Hospital, and also in the Liscard Roll of Honour, (the church next to the old school), and both are on a Wallasey Grammar School plaque, now at the new Wallasey School.
Thomas was a bell-ringer, a "tower captain" in fact. He rang at Rothbury and at Liscard St. Mary's, next to WGS. His death was recorded at the time in the magazine for bell-ringers – "The Ringing World", I have a photocopy of it. A century later, a national campaign commemorated every bell-ringer who died in the Great War, over 2000 of them, on the exact centenary of each one's death. On 3rd July 2016, bells were rung in his memory at both TM's former churches, as well as at Newcastle Cathedral. A remarkable and humbling tribute.