b. 06/02/1891 Springhead, Yorkshire. d. 11/07/1978 Springhead, Yorkshire
Thomas Steele (1891-1978) was born on 6th February 1891 at Claytons, Springhead, Saddleworth, Yorkshire, though he was originally from Scottish ancestry. He was the eldest of three sons of Elizabeth and Harry Steele, a motor constructor. The other sons were Samuel, born in 1893, and William, born in 1898. There was a daughter, Emily. Thomas was educated at Austerlands Day School, Yorkshire, and Shelderslow Sunday School. On leaving school Thomas began work as a bobbin carrier at the Rome Mill, close to his home at Springhead. Later, and tiring of working in a factory, he decided to enlist in the Army, which he did on 16th August 1911, becoming a Private in the 1st Seaforth Highlanders.
After initial training and a month’s leave, he was sent to serve in India and was stationed there from 19th December 1912. On the outbreak of war, he was with his Battalion at Agra and left with the 7th (Meerut) Division on 20th September as a member of the Indian Expeditionary Force. They arrived at Marseilles on 12th October for service on the Western Front.
Steele took part in most of the Battalion’s earlier engagements at Ypres, La Bassee, Neuve Chapelle and Loos, and was appointed Lance Corporal on 10th October 1915. He was then given about 24 hours leave before leaving France with the 7th (Meerut) Division for Mesopotamia on 26th November. The Seaforths, now part of 19th Indian Brigade, were sent there as part of the force which was endeavouring to relieve General Townsend’s force at Kut-el-Amara. He was promoted to Sergeant on 7th January 1917, and suffered repeated bouts of malaria.
On 22nd February 1917 near Sanna-y-Yat, Mesopotamia, at a critical moment when a strong enemy counter-attack had temporarily regained some of the captured trenches, Sergeant Steele helped a comrade to carry a machine-gun into position. He kept this gun in action until relieved and was mainly instrumental in keeping the rest of the line intact. Some hours later another counter-attack enabled the enemy to reoccupy a portion of the captured trenches and Sergeant Steele rallied the troops, encouraging them to remain in their trenches and leading a number of them forward, helped to re-establish our line. On this occasion he was severely wounded.
On 15th August 1917, he was Mentioned in Despatches, and four months later, left the Persian Gulf in December 1917 and served in Egypt and Palestine from January 1918 to February 1919. On the 8th March 1918, he received his VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace. Though wounded in the war, he recovered enough to play professional rugby league with Broughton Rangers and various amateur teams for several seasons. He rejoined the Army in April 1921, and for some of the 1920s, his history is unclear.
In 1931, he married Bertha, and kept up his military links when enlisting in the Leicester Regiment on 29th March 1932 and was a sergeant in C Company. The Battalion became a Searchlight Battalion and in 1936, he transferred to the Royal Artillery. He was called up for service in 1939, and became a Sergeant Major with his Searchlight Unit in Lincoln. In 1941, he was posted to Leicester, and on account of his age, served with the Home Guard and ARP. He was discharged on 23rd April 1942, and took employment as a telephone clerk and then worked for a car sales firm until 1956. He then attended the VC Centenary Celebrations in Hyde Park, and in 1958, attended the first of four VC/GC dinners.
After the death of his wife, Bertha, he returned to Yorkshire to live with his sister in law in Saddleworth. Thomas died on 11th July 1978 at his home in Springhead, and was cremated on 17th at Hollinwood Crematorium, Oldham. His ashes were buried in the family grave at St Anne’s Church, Oldham. In addition to his VC, he was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 with Mentioned in Despatches oakleaf, Defence Medal 1939-45, War Medal 1939-45, George VI Coronation Medal 1937, Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953 and Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal 1977. They were in private hands until 2009 when they were acquired by Michael Ashcroft and are now in the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: OLDHAM CREMATORIUM, OLDHAM, LANCASHIRE.
ASHES INTERRED IN ST ANNE'S CHURCHYARD, LYDGATE, GREAT MANCHESTER.
Thomas Steele's medals including VC at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London (August 2014).
War Illustrated, 30th June 1917
St Anne's Church, Lydgate, Springhead
(courtesy of John Patterson)