2nd Lt. T. Swain



UNIT: 8th Yorkshire Regiment

STATUS: Died of Wounds

DATE OF DEATH: 25th July 1916

CEMETERY OR MEMORIAL: Northallerton Cemetery

AGE: 19

Thomas was born at Scruton on 20th September 1896 and was the 2nd son of Mr. Thomas Swain and Mrs. Emily Swain. His father was a farmer who lived on Darlington Road and who was also a Director of the Wensleydale Pure Milk Society. Thomas was the younger brother of William Swain who was also to be killed on the Somme, and whose name also appears on the Northallerton Memorial.

He was educated at West House School and The Northallerton Grammar school, before being apprenticed to Messrs. Oxendale and Barker, Drapers, whose business has now expanded to become Barkers Department Store in Northallerton High Street. He was clearly a very successful and popular young man. At school, he was a gifted scholar and was captain of the school football team. He was also a fine singer. He was a member of the junior section of the Northallerton Church Choir, often being called upon to sing the solos, and won several prizes at the Swaledale Tournament of Song. Later he became the leader of an Amateur Dramatics company which toured the villages in the Northallerton area.

When War was declared he joined the 4th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment in Northallerton where he quickly rose to the rank of sergeant, when he was attached to the 3/4th Battalion which had just been formed at Northallerton to act as drill instructor. He then received a commission and was transferred to the 8th Battalion, which he joined in France immediately afterwards.

Thomas was wounded on 11th July during the capture and holding of a village on the Somme called Contalmaison. The attack took place on 10th July and was preceded by an artillery bombardment which had begun earlier that morning. The 8th Yorkshires, together with the 9th Yorkshires were given the task of capturing a section of a major German trench called Quadrangle Trench before then continuing on to capture Contalmaison itself. The section of the Quadrangle which they were to attack was that between the two roads into Contalmaison which ran from Bailiff Wood and Peake Woods, with the 9th attacking the northern (Bailiff Wood) section and the 8th the southern (Peake Woods) section. Both Battalions arrived at their assembly trenches approximately 800 yards west of Bailiff Wood only to find that they were either facing the wrong way or had been so badly damaged by shellfire that they were virtually useless. The Commanding Officers therefore were forced to make the best arrangements they could less than an hour before the attack was due to begin. The ground over which they were to attack started off fairly level and then descended down into a small valley on the opposite slope of which was situated Quadrangle Trench. For the 8th Battalion this upward slope then continued beyond the Quadrangle to the village itself.

The attack began at 5.00pm. and from the first the troops found themselves under heavy fire from shells, rifles and machine guns which intensified as they became increasingly exposed to view. When the 8th Yorkshires descended into the valley in front of the Quadrangle they found that the preliminary bombardment had failed to cut the German wire and they were held up by this obstacle which was almost untouched in places. In addition heavy rain in recent days had turned the ground into a quagmire of flooded shellholes which together with the wire and debris strewn around meant that the advance could only be continued by means of short rushes by small groups at a time. Despite being under heavy fire both from in front and from their left flank they continued their advance in this manner until by 5.25pm. they had succeeded in capturing the Quadrangle, which by this time had been reduced from a substantial trench to a muddy ditch about three feet deep.

The trench no longer afforded any cover to its captors and so it was perhaps fortunate that at 5.30pm. the British artillery bombardment lifted from Contalmaison and the attack on the village began. The 9th Battalion reached the village first as the ground over which they advanced was fairly level. The 8th Battalion, however, had to advance up a fairly steep slope against the greater part of the Germans' machine gun defences which had been deployed to meet an expected attack from the South East. The Battalion advanced up the slope but their progress was checked by a hedge and a line of wire netting. This check left them particularly vulnerable to the enemy fire and heavy casualties were suffered at this point, indeed, it was later found that 50% of the Battalion's casualties during the whole day were suffered between the recently vacated Quadrangle Trench and this obstacle. Despite these losses the obstacle was overcome and the troops entered the village only to be fired upon from behind by unexpected rifle and machine gun fire, suffering still further casualties.

The Battalion was by now reduced to 4 Officers and 150 men, but they still continued to fight their way through the village to link up with their comrades in the 9th Battalion. When they finally completed the capture of the village they had captured 8 German Officers and 260 men together with 6 machine guns which were immediately pressed into service against their former owners.

The two Battalions could not muster enough fit men between them to hold the entire village and so a defensive line was established through it from a trench in the North of the village running South through the grounds of the Chateau in the centre of the village. The Germans made two counter attacks during the night. The first was made from the Cutting to the North West of the village and was repulsed by men from the 8th Battalion using the machine guns they had captured from the Germans. The second, which took place at around 9.00pm. was preceded by rapid fire from a hedge at the Southern end of the village. A barricade was hastily constructed across the road from which the Germans' fire was returned so effectively that the developing counter attack was checked. A bombing party, under the leadership of 2nd Lt. Donald Bell of the 9th Battalion then attacked the enemy head on and drove them back. A few days previously 2nd Lt. Bell had performed a similar act of outstanding bravery in single handedly attacking a machine gun post and killing its crew. For his first act of heroism 2nd. Lt. Bell was to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Unfortunately during this second similar action his heroism was to result in his death.

No further attacks were made during the night and on the following day more reinforcements began to arrive to make the position in the village more secure.

The present-day view of the ground over which Thomas Swain and his men attacked Contalmaison.
They advanced forwards into the valley and up the far slope, in front of the village.

Thomas Swain was wounded by a gunshot, which fractured his left leg, at some point during this action. If it is correct that he was wounded on 11th July then he must have survived the bitter fighting on the 10th only to fall whilst the village was being consolidated the following day. The 8th Battalion was relieved during the night of 11th/12th and moved back to Albert in the rear.

2nd Lt. Swain's wounds were obviously serious, though about five days after he was wounded his mother received a letter which he had dictated to his Chaplain in which he tried to re-assure his mother that he was "only slightly wounded and was quite happy, and would be home in a short time". After being sent back to England he was transferred to the Bathwist House Hospital, 12 Belgrave Square, London. Unfortunately, his leg had become infected with gas gangrene, a common condition among wounded soldiers, and in order to try to control it, his leg was amputated beneath the knee.

On 20th July, his surgeon, Dr. Blackett, wrote to his parents to warn them that Thomas was in a very dangerous condition, and summoned his mother to visit him in hospital. On 24th July he was visited by his brother William who was about to return to France after his leave and who was also destined not to survive the Battle of the Somme. Thomas did not recover from his wounds and his subsequent operation, and he died in hospital at about Midnight on 25th July 1916. His body was transferred to Northallerton for burial in the local cemetery on 28th July 1916, and virtually the whole town appears to have turned out to honour him. His coffin arrived at Northallerton Station at 10.35 am. and was escorted through the town to the church by a body of 71 men from the 3rd Battalion, including a band, with the remaining men marching behind, with rifles reversed. After a packed service in the church, the coffin was taken to the nearby cemetery where, after the singing of a hymn, Tom Swain was laid to rest with full military honours.

Unusually, no Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone was erected to mark his burial place, presumably at the request of his family. His grave is now a family plot, where he is joined again by his parents and which also bears the name of his brother William who was killed a few weeks later and is buried on the Somme.