2nd Lieutenant James Furniss
was born on 13th November 1888 in Cheshire, North West England, the eldest son of English parents, John E and Ellen Furniss. John was a Mine Manager. In 1901, the family were living in house 6, Straid, Ballynure, Co. Antrim. He was raised as Church of Ireland along with his siblings, John Edward (b. 1891), George (b. 1893) and Herbert (b. 1897). Schooling for James was at Skerry's College, 143 Royal Avenue, Belfast. The school is described as one that prepares candidates for the Civil Service.
On 10th April 1905, he joined Northern Bank, firstly going to Head Office, Victoria Street, Belfast. Over the next 10 years, James saw service in Newry, Grafton Street, Head Office and back again to Grafton Street.
In 1911, James is boarding in house 26, Parnell Place, Rathmines and Rathgar West, Dublin. A Northern Bank colleague, John Andrew McNutt (b. 1887) is also boarding in this house. Both have their occupations described as Bank Officials. Whilst working in Dublin, Furniss joined the Clontarf Cricket and Football Club, Castle Avenue, Clontarf, Co. Dublin. There is one newspaper report of James taking part in a cricket match in 1913. This appears to have been the only match he played in that year. There were to be no further matches in the period 1914 to 1919. During the war the club was closed, as most members had gone to war and the land was cultivated as part of the national food security, the war-time food economy.
On ‘Ulster Day’, Saturday, 28th September 1912, George, Herbert and John Furniss signed the Ulster Covenant at Straid and Ballyboley (Herbert). Ellen signed the Women’s Ulster Declaration at Ballyclare.
Whilst the war had started in 1914, Furniss decided to wait until 1916 before volunteering for military service. Although he was working in Grafton Street, Dublin, James travelled to London to enlist into the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps (OTC).
James Furniss enlisted for war service on 9th February 1916 into the Inns of Court OTC at Stone's Building, London. This address was probably a recruiting office. His contract would have been counter-signed by an Ensign (who would probably have been a 2nd Lieutenant), a Justice of the Peace or an Officer or other authorised person permitted to certify recruits, as well as a witness.
There was a medical examination on the same day. It says that James Furniss’ age was 27 years and one month. He was 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 146 lbs. His vision was 6 / 6 and his general physical condition was described as ‘good’. The medical examination was summarised as ‘fit for service in the Inns of Court OTC’.
Furniss was adopted for service at the Inns of Court Officer OTC as a private with a Service Number of 9404. The document states that he is unmarried, a British citizen and has shown good morals. The latter was certified on 29th July 1916 by two people. They were the vicar of Holy Orders in Ballynure who testified that James Furniss had a good morale in the last 25 years and a person named Logan who resided in Co. Antrim who testified that James Furniss had shown good morality throughout life. It further says that James Furniss has sufficient civilian training to become an officer, as attested by the Principal, John W. Renshaw, Shaftesbury House, Botanic Avenue, Belfast. This was a Tutorial College in Belfast.
No. 9404, Private James Furniss, Inns of Court OTC was ordered to appear for service on 3rd November 1916 at No. 7 Officer Cadet Battalion in Moore Park, Fermoy. He trained there until 28th February 1917 when he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and posted to the Royal Irish Rifles. His training grade was rated ‘Good’.
A document from the Ministry of War (War Office) dated 2nd April 1917 appointed James Furniss to 2nd Lieutenant in the Special Reserve of Officers (4th Bn. Royal Irish Rifles). It is signed by Colonel M D Graham, Assistant Military Secretary, with a copy to be sent to the responsible officer at the 4th Bn. Royal Irish Rifles, Sunny Lands, Carrickfergus. As is usual with officer’s promotions, the appointment is also announced in the London Gazette.
Furniss served in this regiment until the spring of 1917 when he was posted to the 1st Bn. Royal Irish Rifles, which then belonged to the 8th Division.
The 25th Brigade, which the 1st Royal Irish Rifles was attached to on this occasion, had the task of passing through the 23rd and 24th Brigades at the height of the Westhoek Ridge, which ran between Frezenberg and Westhoek Road. The goal was to reach the "Green" line which was an imaginary line in the terrain that ran from Zonnebeke in the west to the left edge of Polygon Wood. This second phase of the attack was carried out by three battalions, the 2nd Lincolnshire to the right, the 1st Royal Irish Rifles in the middle and the 2nd Rifle Brigade on the left.
At 06.00 hours in the morning, the battalion moved from the Halfway House and half an hour later there came reports that said that the 23rd and 24th Brigades attack had been a complete success. Furniss’ battalion was then ordered to advance towards Westhoek Ridge in so called artillery formation. This was a formation that meant that the battalion was advancing according to a specific pattern in which squads were scattered in order to be less vulnerable to artillery fire.
When they approached the Westhoek Ridge at 08:30 hours, it quickly became apparent that the situation was not what they expected. The advancing brigades had in itself made a successful advance, but they had not managed to occupy positions in "The Black Line" on Westhoek Ridge adjacent to the Polygon Wood, as the officers had previously thought.
Whilst the British artillery opened the new barrage against the German positions, Furniss’ battalion went into the attack in perfect formation. It was then just after 10:00 hours (Zero hour + 6 hours 20 minutes with zero hour being 03:50 hours).
The Battalion's left company, D Company, had met with declining fire from machine guns and snipers, both directly in front of them and from their right flank, when they began their advance from the Black Line. D Company was forced soon after to the ground by the enemy machine-gun fire that came from German positions just west of the area that had recently been exposed to the barrages. The D Company Commander then gave orders that they would attack in sections, but losses the first minute were so terrible that they immediately had to stop the attack and retreated to their original positions and hold them. This company got in touch with the 2nd Rifle Brigade which at that time was on their left. ‘A’ Company to the right had been stopped by the same reason. The Battalion middle Company, B, managed to move up all the way to Hannebeke Brook, a truly magnificent feat under the circumstances. But it turned out after a while that it was impossible for them to defend these new positions as the enemy worked their way around their right flank, so even this company was forced to retreat. The Company Commander gave orders to retreat until each flank was secured and had established contact with each company off both their right and left side. Colonel Reid, who had command of the battalion only a short time had won the affection and confidence of officers and ranks at all levels, was killed shortly after the attack began. 2nd Lieutenant James Furniss also died at this time and at the same place as Reid.
They managed to beat back a few minor counterattacks on the German side, but at 15:00 hours the situation became more serious when the Germans brought up reinforcements. It was later reported from their observers that the Germans brought in new fresh troops by truck from Zonnebeke. The entire weight of the counter case fell on the Lincolnshire and Royal Irish Rifles middle Company, B, and in some places reached the enemy in their trenches. The surviving soldiers who had been pushed back rounded up by the few remaining officers and soldiers and went to counterattack. They managed to push back the Germans in a powerful counter-attack, which left behind lots of dead. A machine-gun was also captured. The German counter-offensive was definitely broken and the ground gained by the 23rd and 24th Brigades during their past successes, could be held.
2nd Lieutenant James Furniss died on Tuesday, 31st July 1917, on the first day of the Third battle of Ypres. The weather report that day was overcast and the temperature was nearly 70 degrees Fahrenheit with nearly 1 inch of rain falling late in the afternoon. Earlier in the day had been overcast with fog in the morning, but dry. [This data was derived from notes in the Meteorological Office archives].
The Belfast News Letter of 10th August 1917 reports:
When James Furniss died, the army advised the family that he had saved a total of £6 18s 1d. The money was sent to his brother, the Rev. George Furniss through a law firm based at 9 Chichester Street, Belfast.
His body was never found.
His brother, George Furniss married Miss Elizabeth Mary Chapman in 1923. She was the daughter of William Chapman from the Magheralave area in Lisburn. George ministered at Christ Church, Derriaghy; St. Paul’s, Belfast; Drumgooland and St. Patrick's, Newry before retiring in 1936. He died the following year, 1937.
Another brother, Herbert also worked for the Belfast Banking Company.
2nd Lieutenant James Furniss is commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium. He was also awarded the British Victory Medal and the British War Medal. He is also commemorated on the Roll of Honour of the Clontarf Cricket and Football Clubs. During the Great War, 129 members of the club served with 24 paying the supreme sacrifice.
The other brother, Captain John Edward Furniss MC served with the 12th Bn. and the 4th Bn. Royal Irish Rifles. He was a recipient of the Military Cross and survived the war although badly wounded.