Thomas Benedict Melling

Born: 7 January 1897

Died: 5 April 1918

Studied at the RCA: October 1914– April 1915

Thomas was one of five surviving children of cotton weaver turned newsagent and tobacconist, also Thomas, and his wife Cicely, living in Lostock Hall, a suburban village near Preston in Lancashire. Although no student file has been found for Thomas, other sources indicate he attended Preston’s Harris Institute (a technical college) in his early teens, winning a local education authority scholarship in July 1914, enabling him to attend the College for the next three years. This was not to be. No student file has been found for Thomas, but other documents reveal that Thomas left the College towards the middle of only his second term, on 22 April 1915. This was over a year before conscription indicating that he volunteered for the army having only recently turned eighteen years of age.

At first Thomas joined the 21st (Service) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) (4th Public Schools). This was formed in September 1914 in a flurry of activity to recruit educated men into the forces with a view to their becoming officers. The enthusiasm for this came from local worthies and well-connected individuals rather than the army itself.  As Thomas’s service file has not survived it can only be speculation that because of his age he is unlikely to have left with this battalion when it first embarked for France in November 1915. When the 21st Battalion were disbanded five or so months later, in large measure because so many did, indeed, become officer cadets, those who were left, such as Thomas, were transferred elsewhere.

Thomas joined another Royal Fusilier (RF) battalion –  the 24ths – the second of the Sportsmen’s Battalions, who owed their establishment twenty months earlier to the determination of a Mrs Cunliffe-Owen, who wrote to Lord Kitchener asking whether he would accept ‘upper and middle class men…able to shoot and ride, up to the age of forty-five’.  Such a description, of course, does not fit Thomas, and many others, referred to in the battalion war diary in April 1916 as a draft of ‘100 NCOs & men … a good lot, average age 22 years’, joining them in France. The battalion, part of the 5th Brigade (2nd Division) served during the Battle of the Somme, in the first month relieving the 17ths, another RF battalion in the brigade, south of Bapaume at Delville Wood, probably followed by fighting in August at Waterlot Farm (a sugar refinery) and, in the late autumn having moved north, in the Battle of the Ancre, the last battle in the British offensive that year.

In the war diary of the medical services attending soldiers on the first day of this battle, Thomas is named as one of many wounded. The advance in which he briefly took part began early on a cold and foggy 13 November, the objective being German lines between the villages of Beaumont Hamel and Serre. Unfortunately, the barrage intended to cover their movements fell short and it is possible that this caused Thomas’s injuries, rather than the fighting that followed.  No record has been found of the nature of his wounds, but they were serious enough to lead not only to evacuation from the field, but eventually all the way back to a Red Cross ward in Rotherham General Hospital. This destination is revealed in a local newspaper report of 6 December describing a ‘substantial tea’ and whist drive, held the day before, organised by a ‘Ladies Committee’ for the soldiers being treated there. Private T.B. Melling is noted as coming fourth in the drive’s six prize-winners.

Later records show Thomas returned to serve in the Royal Fusiliers early in March 1917, but not to his former battalion. He instead spent a mere two weeks with the 4th Battalion before moving yet again, this time to the 7th Battalion in the 190th Brigade (63rd Division) remaining with them, still as a private, for the rest of his service. He was one in a ‘Draft of 1 officer and 78 ORs’ arriving in Busnes, near Béthune, noted in their war diary on 28 March, which also remarks appreciatively, that they were a ‘Very fine lot…’ and ‘nearly all had had previous experience’.

Thomas would have taken part in the Battle of Arras just a couple of weeks later, when the 7th Battalion captured the village of Gavrelle. By June they were being held in reserve in the Oppy-Gavrelle area forming work parties – the usual alternative to fighting. The next major action he took part in was many miles north in late October, during the mud-drenched Second Battle of Passchendaele, when the Fifth Army was hoping to capture an area south of Poelcapelle near Ypres. Along with a couple of other battalions, including the 1/28th Battalion (London Regiment) Artists’ Rifles, the 7ths suffered a high number of casualties, but Thomas survived this as he did the heavy attack on Welch Ridge near Cambrai, a couple of months later – once again alongside the same Artists’ Rifles. But the losses by this time were so great that the two battalions were soon to become a ‘composite’ battalion along with the 4th Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment, under the reorganisation of the British Army early in the New Year.

As is usual for the lowest ranks, Thomas is not mentioned individually in the battalion war diaries. What the diaries reveal at this time instead is that while not involved in any major battles, they were threatened almost continuously by low-level attacks during the next couple of months, with the release of poisonous gas on 15 March – perhaps near Havrincourt Wood (close to Flesquières) – leading to 250 men requiring hospital treatment.

The battalion was one of several holding the vulnerable Flesquières salient, south of Cambrai, that found themselves confronted by the launch of the German Army’s Spring Offensive on 21 March – a rapidly moving operation that stood in stark contrast to familiar trench warfare. While war diaries (with dates muddled) calmly record their holding of the line for almost a day, followed by an apparently orderly withdrawal, it also records that they then fell back westwards repeatedly over the next few days, under the intense and seemingly unrelenting assault   –  all of which Thomas survived. After six days of fighting and retreating they were finally able to rest in billets at Forceville on 28 March, with indications that at least some of the German battalions were by this time equally exhausted.

This would prove to be only a brief pause. When the offensive was renewed, this time on the north bank of the River Ancre on 5 April, the 7th Battalion had already been sent a couple of days before towards Aveluy Wood (south of Thiepval), in their case to relieve the 24th Battalion (RF), Thomas’s former battalion. The wood was almost entirely held by the German Army by this time, with carefully placed artillery near roads and the railway. It is not clear what happened there over the subsequent two days of fighting: a report noted: “All communication with the Brigade cut” early on the first day. Instead runners would have had to be used to report to and from any company that could be found, suggesting that, along with casualties (the 7ths alone suffered 300), any organising would have been very difficult. No specific information has been found indicating exactly where Thomas, or his company, was at any particular time during the fighting, although there is a suggestion that they may have been in the north of the woods. He was reported later simply as ‘killed in action’ on 5 April, with a notice to this effect published in a regional newspaper, the Lancashire Daily Post, two months later.

Thomas is commemorated on the Arras Memorial, Pas-de-Calais and on a memorial in St Paul’s graveyard in Farington, Lancashire – the village where he had been born.