This post was written by Victoria Doran
A member of the Wirral Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment who died when nearly the whole battalion ‘went over the top’ on the first day of the Battle of Ancre Heights.
Birkenhead News 19 June 1915
Matthew O’Neill was born in Greasby on 20 May 1895, the eldest child, and only son, of the 4 children of James O’Neill (1869-1916?) and Elizabeth Cunningham (1876-1960). Not surprisingly given his surname the family had Irish origins. Nothing is known about James O’Neill before his marriage according to Roman Catholic rites on 12 February 1894 at St Joseph, Upton.
James O’Neill and Elizabeth Cunningham marriage certificate – courtesy of an Ancestry family tree
He probably came from County Down, Northern Ireland, and his father’s name was Andrew. He was a labourer and gardener.
Elizabeth Cunningham was the middle of, probably, 4 children of Matthew Cunningham and Margaret Sandels (1847-???). Sandels has many different spellings in the records. Nothing is known of Matthew, but Margaret was born in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and was the daughter of John Sandels (1801-1884) and Mary Shevlin (1829-1913). Matthew and Margaret were married in Birkenhead district in 1866.
John and Mary Sandels arrived in Greasby in the late 1850s, and their youngest son, Peter Sandels (1859-1923) was born there. John was firstly a rug gatherer and then a hawker. A rug gatherer would have collected old rags for use in paper making (before wood pulp was widely used). The family would have been very poor. By 1881 John was an invalid and Mary worked as a charwoman, Peter was a farm labourer and they had 3 lodgers to assist with the family income.
Meanwhile Matthew and Margaret had emigrated to New York, where their children were born between 1872 and 1879. By 1880 Matthew and baby Margaret had died and Margaret was taking in lodgers on East 16th Street, Manhattan, and several members of the Sandels family lived nearby. She must have died in New York as in 1891, the 3 remaining children were in Greasby living with their maternal grandmother.
Matthew was a member of the congregation at St Joseph, Upton, and it is likely that Matthew and his sisters attended St Joseph’s Primary School. In 1911 Matthew was working for a market gardener.
During the first week of September 1914, the 13th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment was formed from men almost all of whom worked for Lever Brothers at Port Sunlight. They became informally known as the Wirral Battalion. All those who enlisted in the first week had a “W” as a prefix to their service number, and Matthew O’Neill became Private W/267. On 7 September 1914, escorted by a marching band, 700 men marched to Port Sunlight station en route to Chester Castle. It is almost certain that he worked for Lever Brothers.
Cheshire Regiment cap badge
Matthew’s military record has not survived, but we know he landed in France on 25 September 1915 with the battalion. They went to the front line near Nieppe in northern France. In May 1916 they had their first real action at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. They then moved to the Somme and took part in the Battle of Bazentin and the Battle of Pozières before the Battle of Ancre Heights started on 21 October 1916. This was part of the final phase of the Battle of the Somme.
This started when nearly the whole battalion ‘went over the top’ in three waves behind a barrage of artillery fire at 12.06 pm from Hessian Trench towards their objective of Regina Trench. The artillery fire kept the Germans in their trenches and also cut the barbed wire. The objective was taken without much difficulty, but 3 officers and 74 men died, with another 120 wounded.
Matthew was one of those who died. He was 21 years old. His body was not recovered and he is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial.
He is also commemorated on Grange Hill War Memorial, West Kirby and the Frankby War Memorial at St John the Divine churchyard, Frankby.
His oldest sister, Margaret Elizabeth O’Neill (1898-1983) married in 1924 and remained in the area for a few years before moving to Glasgow in the late 1930s.
His other 2 sisters must have received a good education as they both emigrated to New York about 1922 and described themselves as ‘governesses. They subsequently worked in clerical jobs. Winifred O’Neill (1904-???) married and her 2 young children made an unaccompanied visit to their grandmother, Elizabeth, then also living in Glasgow in 1951. It is not known whether Cecilia Mary O’Neill (1907-???) ever married.
His mother and sisters kept in touch with frequent Atlantic crossings by all concerned.
Birth: 20 May 1895 at Greasby
Death: 21 Oct 1916 on the Somme, France; killed in action
Addresses: Greasby (01); 2 Greenwood Terrace, Greasby (11)
Occupation: market gardener; probably worked for Lever Brothers at Port Sunlight
Unit: 13th (Wirral) Battalion, Cheshire Regiment
Number and Rank:W/267; Private
Medals: 15 Star, Victory and British War
Commemorated: GH, F, Thiepval Memorial, Somme, Picardie, France
Sources: BR, CWGC, SDGW, MC, BN, RSE, Census: 01, 11, PR, passenger lists, Ancestry family trees