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Young Tom Bailey - A Formby Boy in WW1

Young Tom Bailey - A Formby Boy in WW1

It is so easy to look at faded or grainy photographs of WWI soldiers and not see them as the real people who used to walk many of the same streets we walk today, who used to live in Formby amongst their friends and families. They have been reduced to a monochrome image but we might still make some sense of their personality, their character and the way in which they lived their lives. Newspapers and photographs can help us, possibly diaries, letters and family memory. When you read this, you could ask yourself if there are any family memories, letters, photographs or artefacts that you have which could be used to remember someone in your own family. If so, Formby Civic Society would welcome talking to you.

Today I will focus on a young man, born in 1897 and who fell in action during the Somme in the warm summer of 1916. He is one soldier among many, but I was able to find out more about him after meeting his brother’s son and daughter. I met Elsie Whalley last year when she asked if there was any way of her ‘Uncle Tom’ being remembered by a wider community, and showed me two albums describing her uncle and her journeys to find where he had fought and died. Her brother Tom also had family memories and he helped put together this short portrait of one Formby lad who went to war. So, let us now take ourselves back in time, over a hundred years, to when Formby was a small village with a population of a little over 5,000 (according to the 1911 Census records). This is what we know about young Tom Bailey.

Tom had been born in Goosnargh in Lancashire in August 1897. When his mother died in 1901 giving birth to his brother, Jack , Tom’s father Robert had to find a way of bringing up his two lads alone. He ended up in Formby, and family tradition suggests he may have been helped by his brother Dick who was employed at the time by Dr. Stanley Gill at Shaftsbury House in Ravenmeols Lane. By 1906 Tom had a stepmother when his father married Margaret, the daughter of William Ball who had a butcher’s premises in Old Mill Lane. During their marriage they may not have been well-off on a farm labourer’s wages, but there was often meat on the table! They went to live at 2 Furness Avenue, part of a row of five cottages: the only one now remaining is the building that was ‘next door’, which later became a Baptist Church and is today The Village Church. Margaret and Robert Bailey lived the rest of their lives at that address and added seven more children to Tom and Jack: Elsie says her step-grandmother “brought them up beautifully”. There are people in Formby today who remember Margaret and her children, and that just shows how we can link up Formby life and society even over four generations.

Tom Bailey went to St. Peter’s School and then worked as a gardener for Mr. and Mrs. A. Anderson in College Avenue. However, when he was 17, the ‘Great War’ broke out, and we can only imagine the feelings that ran through the young men of Formby as well as their families as that situation began to unfold. At this time there was no knowledge of what the nature of the fighting would be nor for how long hostilities would continue. We can guess that Tom was one of many young men who were determined to join up, persuaded by the rhetoric of the time and maybe also leaving a mundane life in a small village. The call to fight for your country was strong, and by the end of October 1914 Tom signed up in Southport as Private Tom Bailey, 5183 1st/17th Battalion, the King’s Liverpool Regiment.

I wish we knew when the two photographs of Tom in uniform were taken: they look as though they were taken some time apart. In the image focussing on chest and face (I have cropped it for use here), he looks slightly unsure, as though the uniform is still very new to him. In the other photo, I feel he looks much more assured and confident.

Tom arrived in France in April 1916 and joined his Battalion in the field later that month, being posted to ‘B’ Company. The Battle of the Somme began in July. Tom was involved in the fighting to capture the village of Guillemont. On the 9th August, an early morning attack was scheduled but there was much confusion behind British lines. Colonel Shute from Battalion HQ later wrote, “I called up the Brigade on telephone to ask if the attack at 4.30.a.m. was ‘seriously intended’ to take place ... I registered my opinion that the attack had not the slightest possibility of success ... as many of the troops would barely arrive ... before the exact moment of going over the top, and that such a proceeding precluded all idea of any success.” He later added, “’B’ Company, misled by their guides, got to their position just at ‘Zero’, which position had to be reached over the open. They ... were seen by the enemy and suffered some casualties getting there.” ‘B’ Company was eventually relieved and the troops fell back to HQ in small groups between 7 and 10 a.m. It is likely that Tom Bailey lost his life in that early morning encounter, a few days before what would have been his nineteenth birthday. He would have grown quickly into a man in the months between joining the KLR and arriving in France, even more so in the short time he had at the Front. He was among fellow soldiers, many of whom would have become friends: Tom had been ready to ‘do his duty’ whatever the circumstances. The village of Guillemont was finally taken on the 3rd of September, 1916.

Robert Bailey died in 1922 but Margaret lived on until 1962, being buried with others of her family in St. Peter’s Churchyard. Her children with Robert were: Ethel, Robert, Dorothy, Edith, Elsie, Tom (born in 1918) and Walter. Neither Dorothy nor Walter were married and continued to live in 2 Furness Avenue for the rest of their lives: Walter, in particular, was well-known in the village: he worked for a Mr. Price at what used to be Ross’s Fish Shop and also as a postman throughout the village. Walter died in October 2003 aged 82 and his sister Dorothy followed him three months later, aged 95. She would have remembered Tom – just: he would have been killed when she was 8. Tom Bailey is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme battlefields in France, his body never having been recovered. The officer commanding his platoon wrote to Tom’s parents, “...he was one of the most popular boys in my platoon – always cheery, always willing, always brave, and a soldier at heart, and I share with you the deepest personal sorrow that he should have been taken from us.” On hearing the news of Tom’s death, his Uncle Dick and Auntie Esther wrote a letter (still retained by Elsie Whalley) in which they said, “We have been expecting a letter from him for a long time ... We are sorry for you ... it seems hard lines never to see him again. We hope the war will end soon before all the men are killed.”

Tom’s is one story among so many, but there remains just one more little anomaly that is worth pointing out. ‘Tom’ was a traditional name within the Bailey family and it was spelt as such quite deliberately. When the Civic Memorial was being prepared in the early 1920s, the name ‘Tom Bailey’ was carved. However, this was seen as a mistake and - as it was now not possible to effect any change – it was decided to carve underneath, ‘Thomas Bailey’. I had noticed the two similar names and had tried without success to locate ‘Thomas Bailey. It was Elsie and Tom (note the spelling!) who told me what had happened. And now we know. Do you know otherwise?

By John Phillips

Formby Civic Society

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