b, 17/01/1892 Widnes, Cheshire. d. 12/01/1917 Bailleul, France.
Thomas Mottershead (1892-1917) was born at 6 Vine Street, Widnes, Cheshire on 17th January 1892. His early education came from the Simms Cross Council School in Widnes, where his intelligence gained him entry to Widnes Technical School in 1907. For the next three years, he studied engineering both in school and in private, obtaining several certificates of skilled competence in engineering theory and practice; and on leaving school he was apprenticed as a fitter and turner to Widnes Alkali Works. Continued spare time study brought him membership of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, and he took employment with Cammell Lairds in Birkenhead. He played football as a junior and was also deeply religious, becoming a Bible reader at St Paul’s Sunday School.
On 10th February 1914, Thomas married Lilian Bree, a childhood sweetheart, and in the following year, she bore him a son, Sydney Thomas Mottershead. Seeking to better his position, he travelled south and took a temporary job as a garage motor mechanic in Andover, Hampshire in the summer of 1914. Then, with a friend from Widnes, he made his way to Portsmouth to attempt to gain a position in the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard. Their arrival coincided with the outbreak of war and both Mottershead and his friend, Frank Moore, enlisted with the Royal Flying Corps on 10th Augusy 1914. He was now No 1396 Air Mechanic and Class, and was posted to Central Flying School, Upavon, and in September, arranged for his wife and son to join him there.
For the next eighteen months he served on the maintenance staff, gaining promotion to Corporal on 15th September 1915; acting Sergeant on 1st January 1916, and Sergeant on 1st April 1916. He was determined to become a pilot and in May 1916 commenced training. He proved to be an excellent pilot, due to his superb technical knowledge and experience, and obtained a 2nd Class Pilot’s Certificate on 9th June 1916. He then spent a month as a flying instructor, but on 4th July, in company with three other NCO pilots – Flight Sergeant JTB McCudden MM (later VC, DSO, MC, MM), Sergeant Pateman, and Haxton – was posted to France and the RFC Pilot’s Pool at St Omer; arriving there on 5th July. Mottershead was then posted to 25 Squadron at Auchel for operational duties.
With the Battle of the Somme raging, he was straight into the action, having been allotted an experienced observer-gunner, Lieutenant W E Harper. For the following two months, he continued to add to a growing reputation for cool courage. On 22nd September 1916, his bravery would earn him a first gallantry award. Flying FE2B, 6998, with 2nd Lieutenant Street as observer, he was detailed to bomb the railway station at Samain. Diving to 1,500 ft over the objective, he bombed an ammunition train and destroyed it; then he flew very low over a second train and raked it with machine gun fire. As he climbed away, he was attacked by a Fokker scout, but by skilful manoeuvring he outfought the German monoplane and Street shot it down. For this, Mottershead was awarded the DCM, with the citation in the London Gazette on 14th November 1916.
He spent two weeks on leave over the Christmas holidays with his wife and son; also taking time to visit his old school and was persuaded to give the pupils a brief account of the work of the RFC in France. He then returned to the Squadron at the beginning of 1917.
On Sunday 7th January 1917 near Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium, Sergeant Mottershead was on patrol in FE-2d (serial number A39) with observer Lt. W E Gower when he was engaged in combat by two Albatros D.III of Jasta 8. Lt Gower managed to hit one and put it out of the action, the second Albatros however, flown by German 'ace' Leutnant Walter Göttsch (20 victories), hit Mottershead's aircraft, with the petrol tank pierced and the machine was set on fire. Enveloped in flames which his observer was unable to subdue with a handheld fire extinguisher, the Sergeant was badly burned but nevertheless managed to take his aircraft back to the Allied lines and made a successful forced landing. The undercarriage collapsed on touching the ground however, throwing the observer clear but pinning Thomas in his cockpit. He was subsequently rescued but died of his burns five days later.
On the 13th January 1917, Thomas was laid to rest with full military honours in Bailleul Communal Cemetery, Bailleul, France. As the unit’s temporary commander, Captain Mahoney-Jones, wrote to Thomas’ wife on 14th January…”we sorrowfully knew that we had laid to rest one of the bravest men who had ever fallen in war.”
On 12th February 1917 came the announcement of the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to Mottershead; while Gower was awarded the Military Cross for his part in the action. The VC was presented to Lilian Mottershead by King George V at Hyde Park, London on 2nd June 1917. When the award was made public in Widnes, the town opened a public fund with the objective of providing money for his widow and son. A sum of nearly £1,000 was soon raised – yet neither widow or son received a penny of the money collected. Indeed, it was over 50 years later that a civil servant found the records of the fund and the money. It was then used to endow the Mottershead Scholarship at Widnes Technical College.
In addition to his VC and DCM, Thomas was awarded the British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19. His medals were purchased privately in 1994 by Michael Ashcroft and are now displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London. A statue will be unveiled to Thomas Mottershead VC, DCM in Victoria Park, Widnes on 1st April 1918, following work by the Sgt Mottershead VC Statue Appeal and Tony Miller.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: BAILLEUL COMMUNAL CEMETERY, BAILLEUL, FRANCE
Thomas Mottershead's medals including VC and DCM on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London (August 2014).
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
PLOT III, ROW A, GRAVE 126
His goggles in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, IWM
St Clements Danes Church, Aldwych
Victoria Park Memorial, Widnes, Cheshire.
Bev Francis portrait courtesy of
Mottershead Statue Appeal
Mottershead Row, Longhedge, Wiltshire
Victoria Park, Widnes (Tony Miller)