Thomas Saville Shaw – from the woollen mills of Leeds to Doncaster via Belgium and Italy.

Thomas Saville Shaw was born in 1897 in Farnley, Leeds, to Thomas Saville Shaw senior and his wife Annie. They had ten children, six boys and four girls, and most of them like Thomas junior followed their father into the weaving industry.

Life was hard and children were expected to contribute to the family from an early age. In 1911 at the age of 13 Thomas was working as a “piecener” at the mill. A piecener, or piecer, worked on a machine called a woollen mule that was used to spin cotton and other fibres. Mules were worked in pairs by a minder, with the help of two boys: the little piecer and the big or side piecer.  As he grew older he graduated to being a bool machinist, having survived the dangerous job on the mule.

Three of his brothers had already volunteered to fight in the First World War and he joined up in December 1915, 4 months before his 19th birthday, and thus too young to be posted abroad straight away. He was appointed to the 8th battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment but he wasn’t actually enlisted until June 1916, into the 6th Battalion.  He did his home training with them which lasted till October, and then finally he was on his way to fight.

Ypres Sector, near Hill 60, a barbed wire protected track leading to English position

Title: Ypres Sector, near Hill 60, a barbed wire protected track leading to English position
Description: IWM (Q 52852) by-nc

He embarked for Boulogne in France on the 25th October 1916, where he was posted to D Company in the 11th Battalion and sent to Ypres. He got his first taste of the front line trenches on 16th November and though with intervals of falling back to support positions, that was where he stayed until February when he was sent to Bayenghem for training. This must have been a welcome respite, with time for baths, sports, church services for Easter and even a football championship. However in April the battalion relieved the Sherwood Foresters in the line and became the centre battalion of the infamous Hill 60 sector on the Ypres Salient.  D Company avoided the worst of the fighting during this first eight day tour though, losing 1 man killed and 5 wounded – things being described as “quiet” in the company records. Then they were marched to Steenvorde for more training before being back to the front in June. This time they saw real action, with the big Allied offensive. From the 7th June to being relieved on the 10th, the battalion suffered 269 casualties, including 50 killed and 10 missing. One can only imagine the relief when it was over and Thomas and his friends were out of the front line once more and back to relative safety in the Dickebusch area.

This only lasted until the middle of September when it was time for the battalion to go into the front line once more, at Inverness Copse.  Perhaps he had a fleeting chance to see his brother Harry, who arrived in Dickebusch the same month. There was a major attack mounted on the 24th, which successfully captured the earmarked German trenches. Although the copse was strongly held, “the enemy appeared demoralized and very ready to surrender”, according to Company records. That didn’t prevent the 64 deaths, 214 wounded and 10 missing out of the strength of 288 officers and men who took part in the action. Thomas was one of the lucky ones, surviving unscathed, but when the company went back into action on the 12th October 1917 he suffered a gunshot wound which resulted in him being sent for convalescence in Rouen.

The ruined town of Asiago, the Battle of Vittorio Veneto

Title: The ruined town of Asiago, the Battle of Vittorio Veneto
Description: IWM (Q 25965) by-nc

While he was recovering the battalion moved to Italy, where it took part in several battles. We don’t know at what point Thomas was posted out there but he was definitely with them when they went to the Asagio Plateau in March 1918. He was appointed Temporary Lance Corporal in April and took part in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto on 26th October, one of the last actions before the Armistice was signed. Thomas must have given thanks that the war finally over, but it was to be a year before he was finally home for good.

During his time in Italy before demobilization he had a bit of a chequered career. He was transferred to the Suffolk Regiment in March 1919 and held temporary promotions on several occasions, including once to the rank of Sergeant – while also being put on charges twice! The first was for eating his “iron rations” without permission and the second for being unshaven on parade. His family did see something of him during the summer of 1919, having two periods of 14 day leave, but it wasn’t until 2nd November that he arrived in Ripon and then was finally demobilized in Leeds on the 29th. He went back to live in Lower Wortley near his family at 2 Pinder Street, New Blackpool.

He got a job as a journeyman file maker and in 1920 married Hilda Newsome in the Salem United Methodist Church in Batley. She was nearly 10 years older than him at the age of 31 and lived in Batley. Hilda listed no occupation on her marriage certificate but in 1911 she was working as a cloth weaver, and her father, William Arthur, was a cloth drawer at a woollen mill. With this woollen trade connection maybe that’s how Thomas and Hilda met? In 1921 Thomas was living in Heckmondwike, where his war medals were posted to him. Sadly we don’t know what happened to Hilda but at some point Thomas relocated to Doncaster, where he married again in 1955. His new wife, Wilhelmina was born in Sunderland though also now living in Doncaster, and they were married in the National Spiritualist Church, which is still there today.

Thomas died in 1960, at the age of only 62, in Doncaster Royal Infirmary.

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