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Mike Lally

Mike was born on 2 September 1894 on Oldham Road, Collyhurst, Manchester. His Mike Lally aged 104father, Michael, and mother, Cecilia, were from Ireland. Mike’s father was trained on a farm in Ireland and when he got married in the 1880’s he came to England where he had many jobs including buying and selling horses, working in the glass blowing trade and as a market porter, before he joined the Manchester Regiment, fighting in the Boer War (1899-1902). Michael died when Mike was 5 years old. Mike’s mother, Cecilia, worked as a servant in a house in Chorlton, Manchester and later worked making cigarettes. Mike Lally had 7 brothers and sisters (Matthew, Cecilia, John, Ellen, Katherine, Jim and John Thomas).

Mike went to several schools across Manchester, but was more interested in swimming in the local canal and was caught several times, for which he received the birch. A lot of boys from Mike’s school joined the army and Mike was no different. Mike joined the Manchester Regiment band in 1910 aged 16 and served eighteen months in the band at Ladysmith Barracks, Ashton-under-Lyne, before he was posted to Ireland.

Mike stayed in Ireland until he heard that the First World War had been declared. He sailed from Dublin aboard the ‘Buteshire’ about 13 August 1914. Mike marched from the port of Le Havre and boarded a train, ending up in Cambrai.

Mike and the rest of the British Army began the retreat from Le Cateau on 26 August and between then and 6 September they seemed to do nothing but march and cross rivers, there was very little fighting. The march back to Mons was so intense that Mike and others took their boots off and wrapped puttees around their feet.

Mike had his 20th birthday at a place called Crepy-en-Valois. He got 100 francs, but the older soldiers took it off him - he never saw a penny of it. A week after his birthday he was promoted to Lance Corporal.

They crossed the river near a place called Saacy and came under German fire. Mike remembered crossing the river on rafts. They were there for about three weeks before they saw the Germans off. The howitzers were behind them on the other side of the river and Mike remembered the shells coming overhead and plastering a hole in front of their positions.

By the second week in October they were near La Bassee, they were supposed to be advancing on Lille but had been driven back to Neuve-Chapelle. There was one gun, which they nicknamed “Big Bertha”; the shell used to groan “Oohow, oohow,” as it came over and you’d see a great big splash. The hole it made was big enough to bury two tramcars, Mike remembered. The worst were the whizz-bangs, which they christened “German sausages”. You would hear this “beep-tp” and you could see them in the air but you couldn’t get away from them.

On 29 October, ‘B’ Company was at Festubert fighting a rearguard action. The Germans had captured 12 British soldiers, and Mike was ordered to retreat. After this retreat Lieutenant James Leach, came round saying, “Don’t worry, we’ve still gotJohn Hogan VC 60 men left”. John ‘Jerry’ Hogan and Lieutenant Leach decided to take seven men over the top. The next thing Mike saw was them fetching our captured men back and some German prisoners as well. Jerry Hogan and the Lieutenant were awarded the Victoria Cross for what they did that day. (Jerry Hogan left the army after the war. The next time Mike saw him was when he was walking though Salford and spotted Jerry Hogan standing in the street with a tray of matches and a notice reading “No Pension, ex-serviceman”. Mike said “Hello” and put two bob in his tray).

Mike was part of the famous 1914 Christmas truce. They took trenches over from the French, near Sanctuary Wood and some of the dugouts had pianos in them. It was there they had the 1914 Christmas truce. It was at this time that they received their Christmas boxes, which Mike got with cigarettes and chocolate in. Mike gave all his tobacco away; all he was interested in was the chocolate.

Mike carried that box all through the war, together with a set of rosary beads. The truce lasted about five or six hours and only happened that once. By the end of January 1915 Mike was promoted to Corporal.

Sanctuary Wood, where they spent Christmas, was near a place called ‘Hill 60’, which both sides wanted. The Germans kept blowing bits of the hill. Mike was on the right of the railway there, and did more than seventy days in the trenches without a break and the conditions were horrific.

There were some gas shells used at Hill 60, but the first major gas attack was on 22 April 1915. Mike was very lucky to miss the gas attacks, for they did not have masks; all they carried was a field dressing. Mike remembered the Captain saying to them when they went out, “If ever you get gassed, get your first aid kit out and urinate on it and put it over your mouth”.

By 5 July 1915 Mike was at Ypres, Belgium. There had been so much shelling that the whole area was a wasteland of mud. Trench life at Ypres would have been all right but for being up to your waist in filth. They had duckboards down but they weren’t much use. Even in summer when it was warm in the day, it was terribly cold at night. There were little dugouts which would hold eight or nine men.

In January 1916 they found themselves marching through Albert, Belgium, then they were involved in a big attack near Thiepval at the beginning of July 1916. When they got to the line, they found piles of troops lying dead in the trenches. It was terrible and the weather was bad as well. During 1916 Mike was promoted to Lance Sergeant. Before he was 24 years old he had been promoted to acting Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM), the highest rank an ordinary soldier can hold.

In 1918 Mike was wounded. There were five of them standing there in an open trench and Mike had his hands to his face. He felt his hands and face go, and he was smothered in blood. It didn’t hurt that much at the time, but when he looked at his left hand two fingers were hanging off and the first finger of his right hand was blackened and shot through into his palm. There was also a silver splinter of a bullet sticking out of his lip; that was in him for years, travelling round and eventually reached his ear. He had it taken out in Crumpsall Hospital during the Second World Cecilia, Mike’s MotherWar (1939-45). They nipped the fingers of his left hand off at the first dressing station, and then sent him down to Étaples to have the right hand done. There was no such thing as a general anesthetic there, they just put a shot in his hand and nicked the finger off. He didn’t feel anything much, but it left his hand curved over and clenched. From Étaples he went home and was sent to Netley Hospital to have it straightened out.

After the war Mike signed on again. He got a home posting with a pension, which was 29 Shillings then. He came back to Ashton at first and then was sent to Stenton in Yorkshire. In 1922 he put in for the warden’s job at Rawlinson Barracks, Denbury. Mike was in charge there for some time. He later had various postings as a drill instructor to different Regiments.

Mike finished his service in 1928 at Carter Barracks, Wiltshire. After leaving the army, Mike came home to Manchester and got a security job with Thomas Hope’s, where he stayed for fifteen years. He worked on the market for a time as well and, just like his father, found that the wages weren’t as important as what he brought home. By then Mike had a good army pension.

Mike died on 13 April 1999 aged 104. He left behind a daughter, Cecilia, 2 sons, Michael and John, 10 grandchildren and 6 great grand-children. 

You can learn more about Mike’s life and times in the publication: The Recollections of three Manchester’s in the Great War, from conversations with Frank Heaton and edited by Sue Richardson.