Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Thomas Skurray - "blown to pieces" August 1915

Thomas Skurray was killed in action 91 years ago; one of the first casualties sustained by the 6th Berkshire Regiment during the First World War. This is his story:

Thomas Skurray’s entry appears in Nurse Rose Smythe's album and is dated 27th September 1914. He was a relative of hers and was probably simply visiting Chailey (or Nurse Smythe was visiting him at Shorncliffe). At this stage of the war, although Sussex 54 VAD was well and truly established in terms of personnel, it would not have a premises from which to nurse until Hickwells became available in March 1915. Thomas Skurray’s entry reads:

Lce Cpl T C Skurray
No 10181
6th Royal Berks
St Martin’s Plain

Sept 27th 1914

One more won’t hurt

Thomas Clement Skurray was born in Shrivenham, Berkshire about 1880. He was the son of John and Maria Skurray (nee Greenwood, born 29th May 1840) who had married in London on 8th November 1866, their marriage recorded at Lambeth district in the December quarter of that year. John Skurray was a farmer, the son of another Thomas Clement Skurray (c1811-1858) of Woolstone, Berkshire. On the 1861 census he is noted as the 24 year old head of (what looks like) Cowleaze Farm, Woolstone, Berkshire and is recorded as a baker, farmer of 250 acres and employer of seven men and three boys.

By the time the 1871 census was taken John had married Maria and was living at Elm Tree House, Shrivenham. It is possible that the farm was sold and the proceeds divided between John and his siblings. The census records him as a “London cow keeper” and also notes that the couple have a three year old son, Charles Clement Skurray.

The 1881 census notes further changes in the composition of the Skurray household. Maria is now a widow and living with her children at her parents’ home in Winterbrook Farm, Cholsey. John Skurray had probably died earlier the same year, his death being registered at Highworth, Wiltshire in the March quarter of 1881. He was 44 years old. Maria’s father, 72 year old Charles Greenwood, headed the household in 1881. He was a retired farmer who had owned 320 acres of land and at one time was the overseer of the parish of Cholsey. Living with him were his wife, Emma Hannah Greenwood (nee Wright, aged 71), their daughter Sophia Greenwood (aged 32) and Maria and her five children. In age order they were: Charles (aged 13), Margaret M Skurray (aged 11), Gertrude Maude Skurray (aged seven), Jonathan Stephen Skurray (aged four) and Thomas (aged one). There was also a 19 year servant, Mary Blagrove, living at the house.

By the time the 1891 census was taken the family had shrunk considerably. Maria is still noted as living at Winterbrook but by now she is the head of the family and living on her own means. Apart from a 26 year old boarder, George Hardy, Gertrude (aged 17) and Thomas (aged 11) are the only children living at home. Maria’s father had died on 6th February 1887 but her mother would live on for another couple of years. She though, is not noted as living at the same address.

Ten years later, the family had moved and was living at Wensworth Dell (possibly), Stanley Road, Newbury, Berkshire. Maria, by now aged 60 and a widow for the last twenty years, is recorded as the head of the household and living on her own means. With her are her daughters Margaret (aged 31 and working from home as a music teacher) and Gertrude (aged 27 and with no occupation listed against her name). Thomas, aged 21, is recorded as a coppersmith.

When war against Germany was declared, Thomas was living in Devizes, Wiltshire. He enlisted at Reading though, joining the 6th Royal Berkshire Regiment, a New Army battalion formed in the town in September 1914. Lord Kitchener by now already had the 100,000 men he’d called for and the battalion would be designated as a K2 battalion and would ultimately form part of the 53rd Brigade in the 18th (Eastern) Division. Thomas appears to have adapted to army life well. A lance corporal by the time he left his entry in Rose Smythe’s album, he would be promoted again to corporal and finally to sergeant.

In late 1914 or early 1915, he married Mary Bray, their marriage registered in the district of St George, Hanover Square, in the March quarter of that year. He would not have had much time with his new wife however. The men of the 6th Berks remained in England until 24th July 1915 when they entrained at Codford for Southampton. They disembarked at Boulogne in heavy rain the following day and moved into tents at Ostrohove Rest Camp. Over the next few days they made their way towards Amiens and had a five mile route march on the 28th. Perhaps mindful of the German gas attacks at Ypres earlier that year, respirators were worn for quarter of an hour intervals during the march.

On 2nd August the men moved out of their camp at Rubempre and then marched for five hours until they reached Bouzincourt. The weather was reported as “very bad, rain falling heavily”. By 11pm they were in billets.

On 5th August the battalion suffered its first battle casualty when Private S Danby of C Company was wounded by a shell in the trenches. The battalion had previously had four men evacuated due to sickness, one of whom had since returned, but Danby has the distinction of being the first 6th Berks man to be wounded.

On 12th August, their first period of duty in the trenches over (and with two more men wounded), the battalion marched to Bresle where the men were given good billets “better than any we had had before”. From there, the men moved to Daours where they were engaged in the usual round of training and parades. On 19th August, A Company had baths and the men were given clean under clothes. C Company were partly bathed and outfitted the following day and Major General Maxse, commander of the 18th Division, who inspected the 53rd Brigade later that day at Bussy, complimented the men on their smartness and steadiness.

On Saturday 21st August the battalion marched out of Daours en route for Bray, arriving there at 9pm. The following day it went into trenches opposite Mametz, the relief being accomplished by 2.30am and with no casualties. The enemy facing them were reported as Bavarians.

The following day, Privates Wennan and Morrell of B Company were killed by a sniper and buried the same afternoon. Thomas Skurray, who belonged to the same company, was killed four days later. Reading the battalion war diary it is clear that the trenches in which the 6th Berks found themselves, needed some attention and that also there was intermittent shelling and rifle fire (some of it heavy), throughout the men’s time there. The night on which Thomas Skurray was killed though, was the most trying day for the battalion since it had arrived in France. The following transcripts are from the 6th Berks’ war diary:

Friday 27th August 1915
France, Bray
The day was quiet and work was proceeded with. The trenches want a lot of attention - accommodation for our numbers of men & officers being totally inadequate. The difficulty in getting wood is retarding the progress of our improvements. Timber & all materials for dug-outs - defensive positions etc - bombs and grenades are badly wanted & not easily obtainable. The Essex Regt (one Coy) took over the Citadel, & are employed in RE fatigues and digging a communication trench. The enemy shell the cook-houses etc at the citadel frequently - but with no result. Our Artillery was busy on the enemy's trenches during the day. At 8pm a rifle-grenade exploded on our left sector. Ptes Greenhaugh & Green of B Coy being wounded. At 8.30pm a sausage exploded close to Coy HQ of our left sector. Some damage was done & the following NCOs killed & wounded - KILLED Sgt Skurry [sic] - L/Cpl Bettis. Ptes Westall - Smith & Gillam. WOUNDED - Ptes Slater - Gorton - and Neil. All these men belonged to "B" Coy. Some aerial torpedoes - two more sausages and a number of rifle grenades were fired at us during the rest of the night, but no further casualties occurred. The night passed without further incident. The enemy were busy repairing damage done to their lines by our Artillery between points 311 & 313. Pte Gee - "A" Coy was buried in the afternoon. The B'dr visited the trenches during the evening.

Saturday 28th August 1915
France, Bray
Consultation with gunners as to best way of dealing with the sausage and preventing enemy making use of the crater. Decided to fire ranging shots on crater and to open fire in direction from which next sausage arrives. Artillery did excellent practice into crater. Enemy snipers very much less active - and there was little or no response to our Artillery. Sgt Skurry [sic] Ptes Westall & Smith were so blown to pieces that they will have to be buried in one grave. Three rifles brought back from scene of explosion smashed and twisted. Improvement of trenches continues under great difficulties. The 5 men killed last night were buried tonight at 8. Pte Andrews accidentally wounded on 26th died today at No 5 Casualty Clearing Stn. D Coy relieved B on left sector. Pte Richardson "D" Coy wounded. The night passed without incident.

Thomas Skurray is buried at Citadel New Military Cemetery, Fricourt. He shares the same grave reference (II.C.8) as Privates Smith and Westall although each man has a separate gravestone. All three graves are next to one another. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission notes the additional information that he was the “son of John and Maria Skurray, of Shrivenham, Berks; husband of Mary Seward (formerly Skurray), of 36, First Avenue, Garden City, Grimsby.”

On 17th October 1915, less than two months after her son had been killed in action, Maria Skurray died at the age of 55.

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