Dowdell, Thomas (Tommy)
No. 9595, 3rd Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles
Died of disease on Wednesday 26 November 1919 (aged 23)
Not yet known
Brookwood 1914 – 1918 Memorial (recently added)
Newtownards and District War Memorial
The name Thomas Dowdall is listed on Newtownards and District War Memorial. In all the Army papers where his signature appears he spelt his surname Dowdell. In other records his surname is spelt Dowdle or Doudle.
Until 2010 Tommy Dowdell’s name was not included in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Debt of Honour Website. Based on the evidence I submitted, the Ministry of Defence approved his commemoration by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and his name has now been added to the Brookwood 1914 – 1918 Memorial. This memorial commemorates casualties with no known grave. The CWGC has agreed that, if we can identify where Tommy Dowdell was buried, a CWGC headstone will be erected.
Thomas Dowdell was born in Market Street, Magherafelt on 13 November 1896 and he was a son of Andrew and Mary Dowdell (nee Henry) who were married on 11 December 1890 in Magherafelt Roman Catholic Church. Andrew Dowdell, a 21-year-old bachelor from Magherafelt worked as a servant and he was a son of John Dowdell, a farmer. Mary Henry, a 19-year-old spinster from Magherafelt, worked as a servant and she was a daughter of Hugh Henry, a shoemaker.
Andrew and Mary Dowdell (nee Henry) had two children:
Thomas (born 19 November 1896 in Market Street, Magherafelt)
Andrew (born 31 October 1898 in Queen Street, Magherafelt – three days after his father died; died 25 March 1899)
Andrew Dowdell Senior worked in Glasgow as a sanitary labourer and he died there on 28 October 1898. While he was away, Mary Dowdell lived with her parents, Hugh and Mary Henry, in Queen Street, Magherafelt. Mary’s younger son, Andrew Dowdall, was five months old when he died there on 25 March 1899, the cause of his death being ‘debility from birth’.
The Henry family moved to Belfast and in 1911 they were living in Gracehill Street.
Mary Dowdell (nee Henry) worked as a servant and she was living in Ballycranmore, Kircubbin when she and John Drysdale were married on 1 January 1911 in St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Ballycranbeg, Kircubbin. Mary was 32. John Drysdale, a 23-year-old labourer from Ballycranmore was a son of George Drysdale, a labourer.
Thomas Dowdell worked as a labourer and when he enlisted on 15 August 1916 at Bridge End in Belfast he was living at 63 Louisa Street, Belfast. It was noted in his attestation papers that he was 5 feet 4½ inches tall and weighed 104 lbs. He was assigned to the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion Royal Irish Rifles.
On 24 October 1916 Thomas 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 stated 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 an 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 ‘the occurrence was a pure accident’ and that ‘neither 9595 Rifleman Thomas Dowdell nor 9514 Rifleman James Smyth was to blame in the matter’.
Tommy Dowdell returned to 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 he was declared by the Army to be a Deserter. It is unclear from his records what steps were taken to find him.
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 as 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’.
Thomas Dowdell’s name had been cleared but his details were never recorded on the CWGC Debt of Honour until 2010. As a result of correspondence during 2010 the Ministry of Defence has approved his commemoration and, for a CWGC headstone to be erected, his grave needs to be located.
Enquiries to date have drawn a blank at the following burial grounds:
Belfast City Cemeteries
Milltown Cemetery Belfast
Killysuggan Graveyard Newtownards
Movilla Cemetery Newtownards
Mount St Joseph’s Graveyard Ballycranbeg