Peter O'NEILL
Rank: Private
Number: 21775
Unit: 20th Battalion LANCASHIRE FUSILIERS
Date of Death: 23 October 1917
Age: 33
Cemetery: Tyne Cot Memorial, Zonnebeke, Belgium

Little is known about Peter's life. Regimental records, published after the War, indicate he was born in Stockport and enlisted into the army in the town. Reporting his death, the local newspaper stated that he had worked for the Carrington Bridge Mill. This was, presumably, the cotton doubling firm of Carrington Mills Ltd, Newbridge Lane.

He lived at 39 Tamworth Street with his wife and six children. He had married Margaret E Gill in civil ceremony registered at Stockport in 1907. The couple became well known in the area as entertainers at wedding receptions and the like. Both sang and Peter played the accordion.

The 20th Battalion was formed in Salford in March 1915 and Peter was, almost certainly an original member. It was known as a "Bantam Battalion", comprised of men who were under the army regulation height of 5' 3" and originally rejected for service because of their stature even though they were otherwise fit.

The Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) had started on 31 July 1917 and, almost immediately, had become a slow hard slog through mud as the front line gradually moved forward in a series of advances over the coming weeks. The Fusiliers had been resting in the early part of October and many new replacement troops joined from Britain during this time. On the 16th, they moved back into the front line south of the Houthulst Forest, to the north of the Belgian town of Ypres.

At 2am on the 22nd, they formed up for an attack with the 17th Battalion on the left, the 18th on the right and the 20th in reserve. They advanced at "zero hour" - 5.35am. As the 18th attacked, the men lost direction and some of them found themselves on the left of the 17th Battalion, leaving gaps in the planned attack line. At the same time, the Division on the right failed to make significant progress and this meant the attack line was broken up even further, allowing the Germans to pour fire onto the attacking Fusiliers from their flanks.

By 6.15am, "X" Company of the 18th had moved back to the right, but this delay meant some huts and pillboxes in the middle of the Forest were not put out of action and the enemy were able to fire from them throughout the day. The men of "X" now found they were virtually surrounded and had to withdraw back to the Forest edge. The remainder of the 18th had by now secured its objectives. At about 11am, two Companies of the 20th Battalion were ordered forward to fill the gaps. They advanced under heavy fire to the captured position and helped to consolidate it.

The Fusiliers were shelled throughout day and night. At about 2am on the 23rd, a raid was organised to try and capture the huts in the Forest. The leading troops came across an enemy machine gun team in a shell hole. The gunner was bayoneted and the other four men taken prisoner. As they moved on and approached the huts, they were spotted and artillery and machine gun fire was opened on them and they were forced to retreat.

All three Battalions had their Headquarters at a captured pill box known as Egypt House. The Regimental History records it was "conspicuous and well known to all the men. The result was that all the wounded were brought there and that the enemy, seeing constant movement round the pill-box, shelled them continuously. It was almost impossible for anyone to come out of Egypt House to help the wounded and it was not possible to carry a stretcher through the narrow doorway. It was a ghastly scene." The Fusiliers were relieved from the Forest at about midnight on the 23rd. Peter was one of 30 members of the 20th Battalion to have been killed over the two days.

One of Peter's daughters is understood to have been told of his death by a "friend" who said "Your dad has had his head blown off". She was found behind the front door crying. On a more respectful note, when news of his death reached Carrington Mill, the machinists all stopped work for while in respect.

(Updated: February 2008. My thanks to a grandson of Peter's for family information. JH)

   
           
   
     
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