Second Lieutenant Thomas Nelson Derby, MC


Thomas Nelson Derby was born on 26 May 1894 at Aughrim, Magherafelt, County Londonderry, the second of four children of retired linen manufacturer and gentleman farmer William John Derby and his wife Elizabeth (nee Nelson). His mother died in childbirth when he was just two years old and his father just before his thirteenth birthday.

Thomas and his two younger brothers William Morrow and Samuel James were educated at the Methodist College Boarding School in Belfast. He then found employment with the Ulster Bank. In 1912 he was living in Strabane and later in Cork.

Derby enlisted in the North Irish Horse at Antrim on 14 March 1916 (No.2128). In November that year he was one of around 100 North Irish Horsemen who volunteered to transfer to the Royal Irish Rifles (No.40865). The formal transfer took place on 7 December, the same day they embarked for France, where they joined the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, on the Somme front.

On 15 September 1917 Derby applied for a commission in the infantry, with a preference for the 12th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Ten days later he left France for officer cadet training and after a short period of leave, reported for duty at No.7 Officer Cadet Battalion, Fermoy, on 9 November. Following training there, he was assessed as having a "good" standard of education, "very fair" military knowledge and power of command and leadership, and "Has done his best".

He was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant on 27 March 1918 and posted to the Royal Irish Regiment. Soon after, he embarked for France, posted to the 2nd Battalion, but instead was attached to the 1st Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers joining that battalion on 24 June.

Derby saw action with this battalion during the early stages of the Advance to Victory offensive. On 4 September 1918, in an operation described in the battalion diary as a 'minor operation', an assault was made on Ploegsteert village. According to the diary it was:

Carried through with the greatest dash & gallantry. Severe casualties suffered from machine gun fire when endeavouring to reach by "Peaceful Penetration" ground laid down as "jumping off" position.

Casualties were one officer killed, one missing and two wounded, 23 other ranks killed, 89 wounded and 14 missing. Second Lieutenant Derby was severely wounded, in the back and right buttock. He was evacuated to the UK a week later, where he was admitted to London's King Edward VII Hospital. He recovered gradually and in November was permitted to move to a hospital in Ireland. A medical board on 13 January 1919 found him "Much improved. Instructed to return to Officers' Hospital Holywood for demobilisation having been over 28 days under continuous treatment." Demobilisation took place ten days later. He relinquished his commission on 1 September 1921.

Derby was awarded a Military Cross for his gallantry during the action on 4 September. In March 1919 the Belfast News-Letter reported the award as follows:

This young officer, though shot through the body by a machine-gun bullet while his platoon was engaged on an attack upon the village of Ploegsteert on 4th September of last year, bravely held his men together and directed them successfully until their objective was gained. The statement of service is as follows:

For conspicuous gallantry during an attack. When his platoon was checked by heavy machine-gun fire he rallied his men, and though severely wounded continued to direct them forward. His splendid pluck and endurance encouraged his men, who successfully took the final objective.

Second-Lieutenant Derby, after lying for five hours in a state of collapse from his wound, was carried to safety under shell-fire by Private Marcus O'Hagan, a Magherafelt man, assisted by two comrades.

Some years later Derby emigrated to Kenya, where he farmed at Kericho. He died at Nairobi in 1971.