Photograph of John in Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre. Reference: MR4/17/320
(L to R) 1914-15 Star; Allied Victory Medal
John was born on the 24th August 1895 in Hyde, which was then in Cheshire. He was named after his father and his mother was called Gertrude. He had an older sister called Florence and 4 younger siblings: Alfred, Thomas, Alice and Mary Helen. The family were members of the Church of England.
John grew up living at 104 Nelson Street. In 1901 John senior worked as a coal merchant. He died shortly afterwards, leaving Gertrude to carry on the business. After a short time her brother or brother in law William took over.
As well as going to school, John had a number of jobs while he was growing up. He had a newspaper round, and sold programmes at Hyde Theatre. After his father died he helped with the coal business and also worked as a removal man, moving scenery from Hyde Theatre to others as far away as Sheffield. He left school at 13 and went to work as a weaver at one of the cotton mills owned by Ashton Brothers and Company.
Outside of work John was involved with football and cricket, as well as being involved with the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon society, a temperance organisation that ran activities as an alternative to drinking. He had also spent time in the Church Lad's Brigade.
The First World War broke out on the 4th August 1914 and John enlisted in the Army before his 19th birthday. This meant he was under age, so when Gertrude found out she was able to get him discharged. During November John and several of his colleagues at Ashton Brothers decided to form a platoon and enlist. They joined the 5th City Battalion that was being formed by the men of Manchester so that they could serve together. John enlisted on the 14th November, along with the rest of the Ashton Brothers Mates Platoon. This would become I Platoon in A Company. The 5th City Battalion would become the 20th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. John was given the service number 17105. He was 5 feet 5 1/2 inches tall when he enlisted.
John's time in the Church Lad's Brigade would serve him well during his early training at Belle Vue in Manchester. He already knew the basics of marching and drill. He had also played the bugle, and volunteered to join the 20th Battalion drum and bugle band. Soon afterwards John was introduced to the trombone. He had never played one before but soon picked it up.
From Belle Vue the 20th Battalion moved to Heaton Park in Manchester, then to Morecambe on the Lancashire coast. They spent 17 weeks there, as John put it 'seventeen good weeks for me'. In August they moved to Belton Park near Grantham in Lincolnshire, and by September they were at Larkhill in Wiltshire. Here John camped 'only about 200 yards from Stonehenge; I spent my nights crawling about on exercises where people pay to go in now'. Although the training was demanding there were sports for entertainment, and the occasional period of leave in Hyde. 'People treated you champion when you came on leave'.
On the 9th November John and the 20th Battalion crossed to France. Soon after they arrived John spent the night in a barn, and after that 'I never slept in a bed for 3 years'. Later that month John entered the front line trenches for the first time.
In February 1916 John moved to the Fricourt area. During this time he became a stretcher bearer, meaning his job would be to recover wounded men either by following advancing troops or searching No-Man's Land between the British and German trenches.
The 20th Battalion took part in the Somme Offensive that began on the 1st July. They attacked towards Fricourt during the afternoon, unsuccessfully. John found it 'impossible to describe what happened on that first day of the Battle of the Somme, but I've never been able to forget it'. The 20th Battalion lost 140 men, with another 171 wounded. John 'had a go at treating everyone, no matter what their wounds were'.
After attacks on the 14th July at Bazentin Wood and on the 3rd September at Ginchy the 20th Battalion only contained 130 original members. Ginchy 'was a horrible place!' In Bazentin the battalion was shelled heavily, which set the wood on fire. 'It looked just like hell...I thought to myself 'I shall have to get out of here''.
After a period out of the line John and the 20th Battalion spent the winter of 1916/17 in the Beaumont Hamel area. 'That area got you down! You were fighting the weather all the time and up to your knees in mud in the trenches. The 1916/17 winter was the worst I ever experienced'. Many of John's comrades fell sick or suffered from trench foot. They were all infested with lice and fleas.
In March 1917 John moved to Bucqouy, where the Germans had abandoned their trenches. John was amazed at the luxury. 'One dugout even had proper spring mattresses on the floor for the officers'.
At some point during this period John was able to go on leave. He returned 4 days late and was charged for the offence. John was confined to barracks (CB) and had his pay stopped for 7 days. After his sentence was read the Regimental Police Sergeant told John to 'forget the CB'.
After around 3 months out of the line the 20th Battalion moved to the Ypres sector in Belgium during late August. They then took part in the Passchendaele Offensive. 'At Ypres you had to put up with muck and the weather was terrible...The ground was a sea of shell holes full of water and some of them were six feet deep. It wasn't clear water either but full of brown rusty shells, dead mules and all sorts of stuff'.
The conditions made it impossible to dig deep trenches, and the British were under constant shell fire. One day John was with a party of 24 men in Zillebeke village when they were shelled. 'Half the party got hit before we arrived...I was in the lead and a piece of shrapnel lodged at the top of my shoulder...it must have hit my water can because I couldn't feel any pain'.
The constant shelling meant that John was kept busy with wounded men. 'You'd see men coming down the line with all sorts of injuries and you never knew whether you were going to get one wound or two or three or four...but if someone was wounded you tried to give them a lift, whatever their nationality'.
The 20th Battalion left Ypres at the end of October and on the 9th November they were sent to Italy. On the 24th October at Caporetto the Italians had suffered a serious defeat in their fight against Austria Hungary, so the British and French sent several units to help them.
John saw very little action during his time in Italy. He took part in a ceremonial parade through Milan then spent 3 weeks marching 'up one road with our steel helmets on one day and down another with our dress caps on, then down another with steel helmets, but camouflaged. We were kidding the enemy there were more troops than there really were'.
The front line for the 20th Battalion was 4000 feet above sea level along the Piave River. 'It was nice up there. It took about three quarters of an hour to go up in a car and the same amount of time to come down on your arse!...I enjoyed my whole time there'.
During August John took part in a firepower demonstration for visiting VIPs. He was 'firing away as fast as I could with hardly time to take real aim...when I got up who do you think had been at the side of me? Edward, Prince of Wales himself!...He was about the same age as me'. Edward would become King Edward VIII on the 20th January 1936 but abdicated on the 10th December.
John had missed an attack by taking part in the demonstration. He was picked to escort the Austrian soldiers captured by his comrades during it, and took them to St Germain near Paris.
In September the 20th Battalion returned to France and joined the Allied offensive that had begun the previous month. John seems to have changed jobs, as 'towards the end of the war I was operating a Lewis Light Machine Gun'. During this period 'the advance was quite rapid because we were crossing open country'.
One night in early November John was near Landrecies. He was sent out to bring in bodies for identification and burial. It was not until the next morning that he realised one of them was also from Hyde; 'Bill Sherry... his father was Mayor at one time [in 1903]... I was glad, when I came home, that I could at least tell his family where he was buried'. This was Lance Corporal 47077 George Frederick Sherry of the 15th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. He had died on the 30th October aged 24. He was buried in Pommereuil British Cemetery.
The war ended on the 11th November and 'we celebrated by having a shower'. John left the Army on the 11th March 1919. He had never been wounded. He received £24: 'it bought me two suits and a pair of shoes!'
John returned to Ashton Brothers and worked there for 42 years until he left 'because of a disagreement with the manager'. He then worked for the Van Heusen clothing company until he retired. He was also involved with Hyde and District Loom Overlooker's Association for 30 years, spending many of these as Treasurer. 'They've asked me to go back to work three times since my retirement but I declined!'
John married Marion Wrigley in nearby Ashton-under-Lyne between July and September 1924. They did not have any children.
John lived with Marion in Hyde for the rest of his life. He died in July 1985 aged 89. Marion died at the age of 90 in September 1992. John's medals were donated to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in April 2003. As well as his 1914-15 Star and Allied Victory Medal, John was also awarded the British War Medal for his Army service.
Shortly before he died John told the story of his time in the Army to Frank Heaton. Frank turned the interview into a booklet entitled 'The Recollections of 3 Manchesters in the Great War', ISBN 0907511902, which was edited by Sue Richardson and published in 1985.