Thomas Handley was born in Burnley in 1896. His parents were Thomas, an Oldhamer, and Mary. Thomas senior worked as a carter for railway goods. Thomas junior was their eldest with five others following - James Edward,Annie,Daniel, Mary Ann and Willie. James who was born the year after Thomas was born in Conisbrough in Yorkshire, the others were all born in Burnley.
In 1907 tragedy struck the family when Mary, only 33 years old, died. This left Thomas senior as a widower with six children to bring up. By the time of the 1911 census young Thomas, then 14, was working in a cotton mill. It's known that he worked at the Healey Wood Mill in Burnley. Some time between 1911 and war breaking out in 1914, Thomas Handley junior moved to Royton, leaving his family behind in Burnley. It is unknown where or with whom he lived, perhaps with relatives of his father, or where he worked.
When war broke out Thomas headed back to Burnley and enlisted in the local regiment, the East Lancashire Regiment. A short spell followed with the 3rd Battalion, a reserve unit which was based at the Laira Battery in Plymouth. He was then sent out to France in December 1914 to the 1st Battalion who had already seen heavy losses since arriving themselves in late August. He had obviously lied about his age when signing up - whilst you could join the army at the age of 18, you couldn't be sent abroad to fight until you were 19. Thomas reached France on December 11th and from there proceeded to his new unit, who at the time were in the Ploegsteert area near to the Belgian/French border. Thomas was shortly afterwards involved in the Christmas Day Truce between the British and German front line soldiers. A fellow member of the battalion,Edward Roe,wrote in his diary:
25 December.Christmas Day.... At 5.00 am word has passed down the trench that the Hampshires (the unit to the left of the 1st East Lancs) and the Germans were out fraternising in no-man's land."Impossible,who's leg are you pulling", "if you don't believe me, go down and see for yourself". And there they were, sure enough,British and German warriors in no-man's land, unarmed, talking to each other and exchanging souvenirs. There is a Christ after all. Presently the Germans on our front get up on their trench parapets and commence to wave their arms to us. We do the same and in twenty seconds we are out in no-man's-land talking to Germans, or trying to. They gave us bottles of wine and cigars;we gave them tins of jam,bully,mufflers,tobacco etc.I annexed a tin of raspberry from the sergeant's dugout and gave it to a stodgy and bespectacled Saxon.In return he gave me a leather case containing five cigars.....
Roe then related the rules of the truce between the soldiers of the 1st East Lancs and the 'enemy':
1.Any action taken by the Artillery of either Army did not break our truce as we had
no control over Artillery.
2.If either side received an order to fire, they would fire the first three rounds
high in the air so as to give the other side time to get under cover.
3.The German machine gunners had to expend a limited amount of ammunition daily.
They would fire high and would blow a shrill warning blast on a whistle before firing.
This waste of ammunition would take place every evening, if possible, between the hours
of 5.00 and 6.00 pm.
4.Neither side were allowed to erect barbed wire entanglements in front of their
5.If either side fired a shot with intent to kill, the truce was declared off.
Unfortunately the local truce of Thomas Handley's battalion and their Saxon counterparts was broken on December 27th when a young British lance corporal shot an unarmed German standing having a smoke behind his trench.
In late April 1915 the battalion was moved up into the Ypres salient to join the Second Battle of Ypres. They were driven by London bus to Vlamertinge and then marched through the shattered ruins of Ypres, early on April 29th. They marched down the road past the shattered Menin Gate - where now stands the memorial containing many of their names, Thomas Handley's included - and out the other side of the town again to take over some reserve trenches at Zonnebeke. On the evening of May 2nd they relieved the 1st Rifle Brigade in the front line, they had to throw many British dead out of the shallow trenches. Roe said "what a lot of dead;in fact the trench was held by dead men, the survivors were like lunatics"
On May 4th finding themselves in an untenable position they retired to a new line seeing along the way men tearing in agony at their own throats, victims of a new weapon unleashed by the Germans - chlorine gas. The morning of May 9th found the 1st East Lancs holding the front line at a spot called Shell Trap Farm (the farm was itself by now in ruins). Many had died here over the preceding days and British and German bodies lay all around the heavily cratered landscape and glimpses of grey,khaki or blue material could be spotted underfoot or coming out of the walls of the trenches denoting where a dead German,Briton or Frenchman from earlier fighting could be found. Throughout the next few days they came under considerable shellfire from the German artillery until the enemy attacked on May 13th.
An intense bombardment began on the men of the 1st East Lancs at 03:30 and at about 07:00 the German infantry attacked. They were driven off with heavy losses but they broke through at Shell Trap Farm, which had been held by the Rifle Brigade,on the battalion's left. This resulted in A Company coming under fire from both their left flank and the rear. This company had already suffered terribly in the artillery bombardment. The survivors, strengthened by men from C Company and a company of the Essex Regiment fought the Germans off back towards the Farm. Throughout the day various platoons from B,C & D Companies were in action trying to wrest back control of the Farm. This was eventually achieved and men from D Company were put in place to garrison it. Most of these men were then taken prisoner by the Germans that night. Men from the South Lancashire Regiment retook the farm the next day.
During the day's fighting 62 men from the battalion were killed, Thomas Handley was one of them. The official version of events, whether through a history book or the unit's war diary is more often than not a rather dry one. Thankfully we have Edward Roe's account of the day Thomas Handley was killed which shows the grim reality of what happened:
"...we thought the world had come to an end. He flattened two dugouts right away and killed six men. I was 'scared stiff'. We all were for a matter of that, but we gave no outward sign. We endured three hours of awful fury. All shelters were blown in or up. Moans and groans - who is killed now? How many men buried here? Men are going mad;they are running up and down the trench trying to dodge the trench mortar bombs. I implore Mr Knight to take his Burberry (officer's clothing) off. I told him he would be the first man to be shot when the Jerries came over if he kept it on. He would not take it off.
One man stripped himself naked, scrambled over the parapet and made for the German trench. We do not know what happened to him. Three men in succession have been shot through the head as they peeped over the parapet. The German trenches are fully manned and they are keeping up a continuous rifle fire on our parapet.
'Watch the left!Watch the left!Ah,that infernal left!'.Mr Metcalfe's brain has given way;he has gone made and has to be tied on a stretcher at the breastwork in the rear,not a very inspiring sight when an officer goes 'potty' before his men.
There are dead and moaning wounded all around us,and what are left are huddled in groups in part of the trench that have not been blown in. It seems as if numbers inspire confidence...
It must have been after 7.00 am when his barrage lifted.'Get ready,he is coming!'. Yes, he is! His bombers are advancing,quite leisurely.We cry with relief;at last we can retaliate. We open fire - sights at 250 yards.It could not be described as rapid fire as our rifles are clogged with clay. The Maxim splutters on our right and about twenty Jerries get bowled over. Whistles are blown and they retire on their own trench line.
We were congratulating ourselves on repulsing the attack when his artillery commenced again. They gave us another hour of screaming,shrieking hell. Again his guns lift and someone shouts that they are advancing down the trench on our left and throwing bombs as they advance. The left of the line get out of the trench and form a flank in the open to meet the threatened attack. Shots are being fired in the trench on our right; all is confusion. We shoot down some German bombers who are sneaking down the trench from the left. They are clearing their way by lobbing bombs into the bays ahead. They are pretty small men and are accompanied by riflemen. The machine gun has ceased cackling on my right and the 'Jerries' are on the trench parapet. Mr Knight gets shot on my left. I can hear a German officer shouting out 'Surrender and we will treat you kindly'. Still the firing, bombing and shouting goes on. I am watching the bombers coming up the trench from the left. Mr Canton dashes from the breastwork with about twenty men. He was wearing a raincoat and got shot right away.
I fired and hit a Jerry bomber as he appeared around a bay. The Jerries are all over us. Our attention is directed to the Jerries in front, some of whom are in our trench and some on the parapet. I reload with one charger. Someone falls on my right;I can hear the impact of the bullet. I fired two rounds at the Jerries on the parapet. In the excitement when reloading, I did not pull the bolt back to the full extent and got a jam. I curse and wrestle fiercely with the bolt. I get it righted and swiftly glance towards the parapet - to find a Jerry has me covered. A young bowlegged 'Terrier' (a pre war Territorial soldier.Roe was a regular) named Bleasdale, who is on my right, drops him - I will never call the Terriers 'Saturday Night Soldiers' again.....
Stars! Christ,what has happened?I drop my rifle.My right arm seems paralysed. Spasms of pain shoot up my arm.I made a mental note of persons who told me that you don't feel it when you get hit....I am dazed and my vision is dimmed. Someone shouted 'Retire'. I crawled into a shell crater half filled with water. I have visions or recollections fo the remnants of the trench defenders struggling past my shell hole to the breastwork about 50 yards in rear. I can see the Germans in their field grey and round peak-less caps. They are in our vacated trench, searching dead men's pockets for letters and small books. They are heaving the dead out of the trench and are shifting the parapet to the parados (the parapet being the front of the trench and parados the back).....
I make for the road on my left and manage to crawl down a ditch to our reserve trenches. On my way down I pass the Essex going up to counterattack supported by our reserve companies. What a sight - the reserve trench. It was heavily shelled all morning and filled with dead, dying and wounded. The latter can be saved if they can be carried out. The dying and wounded are crying out for water. I have none,but pits or holes are dug on the side of the trench floor to drain away the surface water. The blood from the dead, dying and wounded also drains into those holes. I get a couple of mess-tins and fill them from the muddy,discoloured water. Their own or their comrades' blood was responsible for the water being almost the colour of blood;but they don't mind - it is wet......
The hospital is crowded out with wounded. The dead are laid out on the lawn in a row awaiting burial. I meet some of my own unit wounded here. I hear tales of how Major Rutter smashed our Maxim up with a pick and, a German officer calling on him to surrender, he carried on smashing up the Maxim and got shot.....
McCann, Captain Leake, Sergeant Cuttle and Cherby Williams from Kent, all old 2nd battalion men, 'went west'.
Of course I could not describe what happened in detail on the 13th. My description is only flashes of memory. No man can fight and describe with accuracy what happened"
Back home in Burnley, Thomas Handley senior received the news on Tuesday June 2nd that his eldest child had been killed in action. His body was never identified and like nearly all of those killed that day his name is on the Menin Gate memorial to the missing:
Date of Death:13/05/1915
Regiment:East Lancashire Regiment
Memorial:Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial
Panel Ref:Panel 34.
The other men killed along with Thomas that day were:
ASHWORTH HENRY Private 5552 born Hamilton,lived Haslingden
ASPEY ARTHUR 21 Lance Corporal 10930 (served as Longshaw)from Birkenhead
BAMBER JOHN Private 6576 from Great Harwood
BESWICK ROBERT 27 Private 5767 from Manchester
BLACKBURN ALEXANDER 35 Private 12130
BOLTON WILLIAM Private 6415 from Blackburn
BOWRY BERT Private 11029 from London
BRANDON THOMAS 33 Private 5855 born Accrington,lived Rochdale
BRITTON ADAM Private 6543 born Workington,lived Kendal
CANTON HERBERT 23 Captain from Isle of Wight
CHALLENDER JAMES 22 Private 6539 from Manchester
CONLON THOMAS Private 8931 from Sligo
CONWAY JOHN Lance Corporal 9709 from Middlesbrough
CORKILL RICHARD Private 5611 born Dalton,Lancs.Lived Isle of Man
CORRIS JOHN Private 6665 born Askam,lived Leigh
CUTTLE FREDERICK Serjeant 6698 born in India, enlisted in Preston
DEWHURST WILLIAM Private 6186 from Todmorden
DUNNE RICHARD 25 Private 13356 from Burnley
FARTHING JOHN 34 Private 20276 from Manchester
FINNIGAN PETER 22 Private 12561 from Rochdale
GALLAGHER JOHN Private 5704 from Wigan
GASKELL ERNEST Private 8721 born Accrington,enlisted Blackburn
GEE JOSEPH 19 Private 5794 from StHelens
GLOVER EDWARD Private 20273 born Milnrow,enlisted Openshaw
GOULDING JAMES 26 Private 9563 from Dublin
GREGSON JOHN 34 Private 7010 from Blackburn
GREGSON JOHN Private 7137 from Preston
GRIFFIN WILLIAM 41 Private 6475 from Birmingham
HALLIWELL JOHN 23 Serjeant 10177 from Preston
HALSTEAD JOHN Private 12174 from Brierfield
HODKINSON GEORGE Private 5839 born Accrington,lived Preston
HUGHES JOSEPH Private 4536 born Accrington,lived Oswaldtwistle
INGHAM ROBERT 25 Private 10468 from Padiham
JIGGINS HENRY Private 9532 from London
KANE THOMAS Private 12431 born Manchester,lived West Kirby
KNIGHT FREDERICK 23 2nd Lt.from Cheshire
LANE HECTOR 25 Lieutenant from Dorset
LEACH ROBERT Private 8193 from London
LEAKE GEORGE 35 Captain from London.His brother also fell
LEE JOSEPH 34 Private 7548 from Salford
LENNOX ALEXANDER 25 Lance Corporal 9484 from Belfast
MARGISON JAMES 30 Private 8282 born Burnley,lived Manchester
MARR JOHN Private 8963 born Farnworth,enlisted Manchester
MASON GEORGE Private 7978 from Haslingden
MOBB THOMAS 20 Corporal 10871 from Accrington
MORRIS JOHN Private 10107 from Hartlepool
MURRAY DAVID Corporal 10844 from Liverpool
McCANN RICHARD 29 Private 8357 from Co.Dublin
McGINN JAMES Private 7969 from Oswaldtwistle
McNULTY JOHN 32 Private 16849 born Burnley,lived Blackburn
NOONE JOHN 33 Private 5418 from Burnley.Boer War veteran
OWENS JOHN 37 Private 7021 from Liverpool
PICKERING GEORGE 29 Corporal 6881 from Bootle
PULLAN HARRY 21 Private 5848 from Leeds
PURSLEY WILLIAM Private 7759 from Belfast
RUTTER EUSTACE 44 mentioned in dispatches Major from Somerset.Boer War veteran
RYAN STEPHEN 39 Private 5417 from Belfast.Served 12 years in India
SMITH CHARLES Private 9399 from London
STRINGER HENRY 20 from Burnley
WALMSLEY ALBERT Private 5816 from Burnley
WALSH REUBEN Private 12226 from Darwen
WHITTAKER EDWARD 37 Private 7391 from Blackburn