Pte Thomas Moles

PHIL NICHOLS1
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The text that follows appears as a courtesy from the Publisher

Anyone quoting from parts of the text are to acknowledge the source

The book is available from the publisher as shown above.

Moles 1Moles, Thomas Lionel (1889-1917) : Thomas was born in 1889 in Brompton Ralph, the younger son of John & Sarah Louisa Moles [see also John Moles, Thomas’ elder brother]. Although marrying in 1885, it seems that the children John, Rhoda and Thomas lived with their grandparents, while their mother was working as a domestic servant – 1891 in Brompton Court and 1901 in Crewkerne. John Moles senior appeared to have deserted the family in the 1890s and Sarah Louisa, believing her husband to be dead, married Hubert Mudford in 1908 [see note at the end on this entry]. Hubert was a widower and carpenter and wheelwright, who had been born in West Chinnock but was living in Lyme Regis. He was also the uncle of Ernest Edward Hockey. Hubert and Sarah Louisa moved to West Chinnock during the war, becoming the landlords of the New Inn in about 1915. Photo (courtesy of Mrs M Lucas) : Thomas Lionel Moles, undated photo, but possibly aged about 20.

Moles 2Meanwhile, Thomas, according to his 1915 enlistment papers, had joined the Somerset Light Infantry 3rd Battalion as a volunteer, serving for four years and presumably this was from about 1906/07-1910/11. In August 1907, Thomas was the best man at his brother’s wedding at Chittlehampton, North Devon.

As a 21 year old, Thomas then emigrated in March 1911 sailing from Bristol to Halifax, Nova Scotia. He enlisted with the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force in July 1915, joining up at Vernon, British Columbia. He described himself as a rancher, unmarried, and gave his date of birth as 17th November 1891. Information from the Moles family states that Thomas was born on 18th November 1889 and his birth was registered between January-March 1890; the local parish register shows that he was baptised at Brompton Ralph on 25th May 1890. On enlistment, Thomas was 5’8½” tall, with a fair complexion, blue eyes and fair hair. He was assigned to the 54th (Kootenay) Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the service number 443288. The Battalion, which became the 54th (Central Ontario) Battalion in August 1917, embarked at Halifax, Nova Scotia for Britain on 22nd November 1915, arriving on 30th November, for training at Bramshott Camp, eastern Hampshire. Fortunately, the Moles family has preserved a photograph of Thomas taken while at Bramshott : Photo (courtesy of Mrs M Lucas): Thomas Lionel Moles while at Bramshott

It’s possible that Thomas travelled to West Chinnock to see his mother during this period, but, if so, it may have been the only time he visited the village. He drew up his military will on 21st February 1916 to give the whole of his property, in the event of his death, to his mother. In March 1916, Thomas also arranged for his pay to be assigned to his mother. Then, on 13th August 1916, Thomas’ unit embarked from Southampton, landing at Le Havre, in the early morning of 14th August. The Battalion then became part of the 11th Infantry Brigade, 4th Canadian Division. Thomas’ health suffered during this time and he spent a total of 24 days in hospital with tonsillitis and other illnesses between July 1915-February 1916 and later (March and April 1917) Thomas was suffering from mumps and was hospitalized at St Omer (no.7 General Hospital), northern France.

The 54th Battalion fought at the Somme (Le Transloy, Ancre Heights and Ancre) in October / November 1916 and, in 1917, the Arras offensive (Vimy, Lens, Souchez, Avion, Hill 70 and Ypres). The Battalion suffered heavy casualties at Vimy Ridge on March 1st 1917 and again at Vimy on April 9th 1917 (Godefroy : For Freedom and Honour). A description of conditions on the Somme state that they “… were truly awful. Mud in the trenches was often up to the hips and it was no uncommon sight to find men stuck in the mud and having to be dug out; the weather was very bad. … men were often so tired on coming out that they lay down in a shell hole and slept until morning. In addition to this the billets on coming back were most uncomfortable … the only decent spot to live in was the shelled town of Albert, where the ruined houses and cellars did keep the rain out, but our residence there was limited to five days during our seven weeks’ stay on the Somme.”  quoted from Bailey, John Beswick “Cinquante-Quatre : being a short history of the 54th Canadian Infantry Battalion” (1919) p. 12.

Then came the incident which cost Thomas his life, when he deserted in October 1917. According to research carried out by Stephen Stratford : “Moles had a poor conduct sheet. He was charged for being AWOL on 18 December 1915, 23 March 1916, 6 June 1916 and 30 June 1916. He also had several convictions for drunkenness. During October 1917, Moles was ordered to rejoin his company which was about to go into action. Instead of going forward, Moles went to a village in the rear areas. He was eventually arrested 3 weeks later, and charged with desertion.” http://www.stephen-stratford.co.uk/canadians.htm He was also charged with stealing the property of a comrade.

At his court martial on October 4th Thomas “claimed his nerves were shaken and that he could no longer go into the line”. However, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. The Brigade Commander failed to confirm the sentence, but was overruled by the Commander-in-Chief. At this point, the Battalion moved 100 kilometres to the north to join the Battle of Passchendaele and Thomas was moved with them. The War Diary for the 54th Battalion reports the execution on 22nd October 1917 : “Weather fair. Working party of 9 officers and 380 other ranks supplied carrying grading material … on tracks. Two men wounded. The sentence of death on no. 443288 Pte. T. Moles was duly carried out at 5.50am at Ypres Prison. The firing party consisting of four men from each Company, one Sargeant, Lieut. C.H.Seaman in charge of party. Capt. W.Garland Foster, Adjutant, Captain J.H.White, Chaplain, 54th Bn Chaplain. The Battalion moved to Toronto Camp, Brandhoek, where they were quartered in huts”. Thomas Lionel Moles was buried at Ypres Reservoir Cemetery, Belgium.

The officer i/c Records then wrote on 7th November 1917 to “Mrs Muttford, New Inn, Crookhorn, W.Clinink, Somerset” to say “I regret to inform you that … Pte Thomas Moles was “killed” on 22nd October 1917”. However, the poorly addressed letter was returned to the Canadian forces as ‘address not known’, and the Casualty Section had to seek the correct address from the Paymaster at the Assigned Pay Branch. The updated information was sent back to the Casualty Section on 16th November, so it seems highly likely that the Moles family did not receive official confirmation of Thomas’ death until at least four weeks after the execution. It could be assumed that the Casualty Branch directed a second letter to the correct address, but it seems that the first that the Moles family knew of Thomas’ death was the receipt of an Estates form. On 20th November, a letter from Sarah Mudford (but written by Thomas’ sister Rhoda), stated “having received [the] Estates form … Mrs Mudford believes him to have been killed, but having had no confirmation to this respect would be much obliged for any information from you before filling out the form”. There is no record in the file of that second letter, but on 30th November, the Lt Col (unnamed) in charge of Records wrote to Thomas’ mother “I regret to inform you that an official report has been received that 443288 Pte Moles, 54th Battalion Canadians was ‘killed’ on 22nd October 1917, and I am at the same time to express to you the sympathy and regret of the Militia Council at your loss.” Understandably, the family were anxious for more information to clarify how and where Thomas died and, on 12th December, Rhoda wrote again to the Officer i/c Records requesting more information : “The last news from him early in October led us to believe that he was still at the cook house, but having received no news from any friend of his we feel we should like to know the place or battle he died at”. Eventually their persistence led to the painful revelation of the truth : on 19th December, the Lt Col i/c Records wrote to Rhoda to reply to her letter of 12th December “I regret very much to have to inform you that no.443288 Pte Moles 54th Battalion Canadians met his death by being shot following the sentence of a Field General Court Martial”. On December 27th, Rhoda had sent a very considered and thoughtful reply : “My mother and self are deeply grieved to think of him being shot. We imagine it must have been for cowardice, but should it have been for anything more serious, my mother wishes to know. If cowardice was the cause my mother will not look upon it as such knowing him to have had head weakness from birth. Any scrap of personal belonging found on my brother will be most gratefully received by us. Had my brother been killed in battle we should have been proud of him but we make allowances for him but trust that he is now in the hands of a righteous judge”. There is no record of a further response on the matter.

In January 1918, Thomas’ personal effects were returned to his mother – “one letter, 10 postcards, four photos” – and then in May 1918 a final army pay cheque was sent to Thomas’ mother for £31-8-10. The calculation of this sum took into account the period of Thomas’ absence from his unit from 5.00pm on August 26th to 7.00pm on September 19th 1917.

Thomas had fought as part of the 54th Battalion from August 1916 to September 1917, a period when thousands of Canadian and Allied servicemen were killed or injured. The conditions at the Somme and Vimy were more than enough to have caused the nerves of any soldier to have been badly shaken. There were 275 other Canadians who suffered court martial, but only a small proportion of these (25) were executed. Thomas was clearly thought by his mother to have had previous nervous issues – the “head weakness from birth”. Although less certain, it is likely that the example of his father’s record in deserting the family when Thomas was very young could not have helped.

In the view of this writer, it is entirely appropriate that Thomas’ name is included on the Roll of Honour in West Chinnock (and Stogumber) church, whether or not the local communities knew of the manner of Thomas’ death.

Thomas’ family continued to live in West Chinnock for several years, with Hubert and Sarah on the Elector’s List at the New Inn until Autumn 1924, although it’s likely they had moved out before this as the names of the new landlords, Henry and Susan Saunders, were also shown against the New Inn in Autumn 1924. Hubert and Sarah briefly moved to Higher Street, West Chinnock (Elector’s List Spring 1925), but at his death in Lyme Regis in January 1928, Hubert was described as “of West Chinnock”. Sarah Louisa died in Lyme Regis in 1944 [see also John Moles and W H Holland].

[My thanks to a number of researchers for assistance with the above text on Thomas Moles, and especially to Floyd Low of the website “54th Canadian Infantry Battalion in the Great War 1915-1919”

Note : John Moles, senior was born in Exton, Somerset in about 1852. He appears to have deserted his family in the early 1890s and it is clear that his wife, Sarah Louisa, thought he had died. Sarah described herself as a widow in the 1901 census and she remarried in 1908, after, according to the family, advertising in local newspapers for information about the whereabouts of John Moles. [An exemption in the ‘Offences against the person’ Act of 1861 meant that a person whose husband or wife has remained continually absent for seven years before the second marriage, without them knowing that they are alive, would not have been committing an offence by remarrying]. In 1917/18, after the military execution of her younger son Thomas Lionel, Sarah completed a form relating to the completion of Thomas’ estate. The form asked for information about the parents of the soldier, and Sarah (or her daughter Rhoda) gave John Moles’ name and stated “killed in Wales coal mines 1890”. However, John Moles re-appeared in January 1927, with several newspaper articles describing him living in a disused quarry near Timberscombe. The articles were almost inevitably titled “An Exmoor caveman” (e.g. Western Morning News, 4th January 1927). John Moles continued to live in the cave until a move to the Williton Workhouse, where he died in November 1930.