Tommy Dowdell

Where is Tommy Dowdell Buried?

BBC Interview with Barry Niblock

The Story

The name Thomas Dowdall is inscribed on the War Memorial in Newtownards and his is surely an absorbing and harrowing tale.  To begin with, in all of the Army papers where his signature appears, he signed his name as Thomas Dowdell.  In the family circle he was known as Tommy.

Tommy Dowdell was the son of Andrew Dowdell and Mary Dowdell (nee Henry), both of whom were servants when they got married in Magherafelt Roman Catholic Church on 11 December 1890.  Tommy was born in Magherafelt on 13 November 1896.

Andrew Dowdell went to Glasgow where he worked as a sanitary labourer and on 28 October 1898 Andrew died of cardiac failure following pneumonia.  His brother John Dowdle (note spelling) of The Glebe, Magherafelt was there when he died.  At that time Tommy Dowdell and his mother were living with her parents, Hugh and Mary Henry.  Hugh Henry worked as a shoemaker.  Subsequently the Henry family moved to Belfast and for a time Tommy and his widowed mother also lived at Ardkeen in County Down.

In 1911 Mary Dowdell married John Drysdale. John was a son of George Drysdale, a fisherman from Cloughey, and Annie Drysdale (nee Quinn), a seamstress from Ballycranbeg.

Tommy Dowdell enlisted on 15 August 1916 at Bridge End in Belfast.  Although we do not have a photograph of Tommy we can imagine what he looked like from his description.  Described as a labourer, Tommy was 19 years 9 months old, he was 5 feet 4½ inches tall, he weighed 104 lbs and his chest measurement when fully expanded was 33 inches.

Tommy’s address at the time was 63 Louisa Street, Belfast and he gave his mother, Mary Drysdale, as his next of kin.  His regimental number was 9595 and he was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles.

On 24 October 1916 Tommy Dowdell was admitted to Ward 6 of the Military Hospital in Belfast with a gun shot wound to the head.  He was described as being dangerously ill and the Medical Officer was of the opinion that his injury would, in all probability, ‘interfere with his future efficiency as a soldier’.  It was noted that a bullet had entered his head, just to the right of the bridge of his nose, penetrated the skull and probably lodged in his brain.

On 25 October 1916 a Court of Enquiry was set up to investigate the circumstances in which the injury occurred.  It happened during a session of musketry training at Victoria Barracks in Belfast and several witnesses gave evidence.  The soldiers were engaged in snap shooting practice after having come in from range practice where live ammunition was being used.  Tommy had been taking his turn to hold the target for his comrades to aim at and everyone should have been using dummy rounds.  Somehow, there was a ball cartridge among the dummy rounds and Tommy Dowdell was shot in the head.

By 15 November 1916 his condition had improved sufficiently for Tommy to be pronounced ‘out of danger’.  The Court of Enquiry was reconvened and Tommy himself was called to give evidence.  He stated that he and Rifleman James Smyth, the soldier who had fired the ball cartridge, were on good terms.  He said that he had no reason to think that the shot had been fired intentionally and he was satisfied that what had happened was ‘a pure accident’.

On 16 December 1916 Tommy Dowdell was transferred to Mountstewart Hospital near Greyabbey to recuperate and on 15 January 1917 the Court of Enquiry delivered its Opinion that:

  • 9595 Rifleman Thomas Dowdell, 3rd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles was injured while on duty
  • The occurrence was a pure accident
  • Neither 9595 Rifleman Thomas Dowdell nor 9514 Rifleman James Smyth was to blame in the matter

Tommy Dowdell returned to active service and he was posted to France on 1 September 1917.  He was wounded in the arm in December that year and was transported to Eastleigh Hospital in England.  On 22 December 1917 he was transferred to the Irish Counties War Hospital at Glasnevin in Dublin and on 22 January 1918 he was sent home on furlough for five weeks.

After being at home for about two weeks he developed paralysis and needed ongoing medical attention thereafter.  Tommy’s mother stated later that she had reported his state of health to Victoria Barracks in April 1918 and that she had handed in a Medical Certificate to an Official there.  No trace of this certificate was found amongst Tommy Dowdell’s service papers.

On 25 February 1918, at the end of his five-week furlough, when Tommy Dowdell did not report to the Officer Commanding the 3rd Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, he was declared by the Army to be a Deserter.

Tommy Dowdell died on 26 November 1919 ‘from epileptic convulsions and syncope following a gun shot wound in the head’.  At the time of his death his address was stated to be 31 Springmount Street, Belfast.

Even after his death letters kept arriving, advising him to report to the nearest Military Barracks.  Afterwards the Army apologised for this and his mother continued her efforts to have Tommy’s name cleared.

Finally, on 31 May 1922, the Army Council confirmed in writing that Thomas Dowdell was ‘no longer to be regarded by the Army as a Deserter’.

It was stated that:

  • Thomas Dowdell’s record of service was to be adjusted accordingly
  • Thomas Dowdell’s mother was entitled to receive his Dependent’s Pension

Thomas Dowdell’s name had been cleared but his details were never forwarded to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) for his name to be commemorated.

That being so, two subsidiary objectives for the War Dead of North Down & Ards project were set:

  • To have Tommy Dowdell’s name commemorated by the CWGC
  • To have a CWGC headstone erected in Tommy Dowdell’s memory

As a result of correspondence over recent months, the Ministry of Defence has approved his commemoration and this is an important first step.

For a CWGC headstone to be erected we need to find where Tommy Dowdell is buried.  Enquiries to date have drawn a blank at the following burial grounds:

  • Belfast City Cemeteries
  • Milltown Cemetery
  • Mount St. Joseph’s, Ballycranbeg

Can you provide any information that might help us to locate his grave?

Name Thomas Dowdell

(Alternative surname spellings
include Dowdall and Dowdle)

Date of Death 26 November 1919

Address on the
Death Certificate 31 Springmount Street, Belfast

Thank you for any information you can provide