Museum of the Manchester Regiment
The Men Behind the Medals

John Edward Watson

John Edward Watson : Photograph of John in Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre.  Reference: MR1/23/10

Photograph of John in Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre. Reference: MR1/23/10

John Edward Watson : (L to R) Egypt Medal; India General Service Medal (1854) with clasp 'Samana 1891'; Queen's South Africa Medal with clasps 'Elandslaagte', 'Defence of Ladysmith', 'Belfast'; King's South Africa Medal with clasps 'South Africa 1901' and 'South Africa 1902'; British War Medal; Allied Victory Medal; Khedive's Star

(L to R) Egypt Medal; India General Service Medal (1854) with clasp 'Samana 1891'; Queen's South Africa Medal with clasps 'Elandslaagte', 'Defence of Ladysmith', 'Belfast'; King's South Africa Medal with clasps 'South Africa 1901' and 'South Africa 1902'; British War Medal; Allied Victory Medal; Khedive's Star

John was born on the 2nd March 1859 in Wendover, Buckinghamshire. His father was Lieutenant Colonel G. J. Watson and his mother was Louisa Elizabeth. He had an older brother named George Frederick.

John's father had died by 1861. In this year Louisa and her children lived on the High Street in New Egham, Surrey.

John was educated at Bradfield College in Berkshire. After he left school he decided to follow in his father's footsteps. He was admitted to the Royal Military College Sandhurst on the 11th February 1878 to train as an officer.

At Sandhurst John received training in a number of different subjects, including Mathematics, Military Tactics, Riding, and Drill. His conduct was 'Exemplary'. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 96th Regiment of Foot on the 11th May 1878. He was 5 feet 10 inches tall.

The Regiment was based in Chester at this time. On the 13th June 1879 John was promoted to Lieutenant. Also in 1879 he qualified as a Musketry Instructor at a course held at the School of Musketry in Hythe, Kent.

John also served in Manchester and Aldershot with the Regiment. They were sent to Malta on the 11th March 1881.

On the 1st July the 96th Regiment was renamed the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. In August 1882 the battalion went to war in Egypt.

The Anglo-Egyptian War had broken out in June after the pro-British Khedive was deposed. Britain wanted to protect its commercial investments in Egypt, as well as the Suez Canal, which gave access to India.

The 2nd Battalion sailed to Alexandria aboard HMS Euphrates, and arrived on the 17th August. The war ended in September with the British restoring the Khedive to power, but having much more control over the country.

During the war the Royal Navy had fired on the Palace in Alexandria. Whilst he was exploring the grounds John took as a souvenir a bullet from a Gardner Gun. This was an early form of machine gun.

John left Egypt on the 13th October for Multan in what is now Pakistan. The 2nd Battalion was based here until late 1885 or early 1886, when they moved to Agra. John was promoted to Captain in August 1887.

A few months later, in November, John returned to the UK. He was based there until March 1889. We don't know what he did there.

Shortly after John returned to the 2nd Battalion they moved to Sealkote, now Sialkot in Pakistan. In May 1891 a tribal rebellion broke out in the Miranzai Valley on the North West Frontier with Afghanistan. The 2nd Battalion was ordered to supply 300 men to join the Miranzai Expedition. John was one of the officers who led these soldiers. The fighting lasted from the 3rd to the 25th May 1891. Samana is the name of the mountain range that rises out of the Miranzai Valley. The British fought hard to capture it.

After the Miranzai Expedition ended John returned to the rest of the 2nd Battalion at Sialkot. In December 1891 he again returned to the UK. He spent a year at home before rejoining the battalion at Meerut near Delhi.

In March 1893 the 2nd Battalion was sent to Chakrata on the edge of the Himalaya Mountains. It moved further east to Dinapore in November 1893. This would be its station until it left India.

We don't know much about John's time in India. He was able to learn both French and Hindustani. He was also a keen cricketer. He returned to the UK again between March and November 1896.

On the 18th January 1897 John was promoted to Major. That April he left the 2nd Battalion, and India, for the last time. We believe John joined the 1st Battalion in Aldershot, Hampshire. Certainly he was with them by January 1899 when they moved to Gibraltar.

In August 1899 the 1st Battalion was sent to South Africa in case rising tensions between British and Boer settlers in the country led to war. They were stationed in the small town of Ladysmith in Natal when war was declared on the 11th October.

The British tried to stop the Boers from capturing Ladysmith. John took part in one of these attempts, the Battle of Elandslaagte, on the 21st October. Around 350 members of the 1st Battalion took part in this battle. Although it was a victory it had no strategic or tactical importance.

On the 30th John led half the 1st Battalion in action at Lombard's Kop. This was a last-ditch attempt to prevent Ladysmith being surrounded. His men covered British cavalry as they retreated, and were left 'somewhat isolated'. They retreated under Boer shellfire. From then on, Ladysmith was under siege.

John and the 1st Battalion fought hard to stop Boer attempts to take the town. By the end of the siege food was in short supply and disease was widespread. The British relief force reached Ladysmith on the 28th February 1900.

After Ladysmith the British Army tried to force the Boers to face it in battle. They succeeded on the 21st August 1900 at the Battle of Belfast, or Bergendal. John took part in this battle, which lasted until the 27th and ended with the defeat of Boer forces and the capture of their temporary capital, Machadodorp (today called eNtokozweni). The Boers did not surrender; they fought on as guerrillas in small units, so John stayed in South Africa.

There were no battles on the same scale during the rest of the war. The 1st Battalion took part in many smaller operations intended to restrict the Boer's movements and force them to face British soldiers.

The 1st Battalion was often split into 2 'wings' during these operations. John typically commanded one of them. The British strategy was eventually successful and the war ended on the 31st May 1902.

John's conduct during the war was recognised by his superior officers. He was Mentioned in Despatches 3 times, in December 1899, on the 23rd March 1900 and on the 29th November 1900. He was also promoted to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel on the 19th April 1901. This meant he could take jobs that required the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, but was still considered a Major in the 1st Battalion.

The day the war ended John replaced Arthur Curran as Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion. He led them to Singapore in March 1903 and stayed in command until October, when he returned to the UK to lead the 2nd Battalion. He was replaced by Archibald Maxwell. Both Arthur's and John's medals are in the Museum of the Manchester Regiment collection.

The 2nd Battalion was stationed in Aldershot until September 1904. It was then split between the Channel Islands of Alderney and Guernsey. John was based in Guernsey. The battalion was there until October 1907, when it moved to Portsmouth in Hampshire.

During his time in Guernsey John got married. He married Charlotte Julia Nicholls on the 28th April 1906. They would have 2 children; John was born in Guernsey in around 1908, and Nancy Charlotte in York between April and June 1912.

In October 1907 John left the 2nd Battalion. He was placed on half-pay, meaning that he did not have a job, but he was still in the Army. He had been promoted to Brevet Colonel on the 3rd May 1905 and this became a permanent rank on the 27th November 1907.

When the 1911 Census was taken in early April John and his family lived at 'Rother' on Ryder Avenue in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. They employed a cook, a housemaid and a nurse for John.

On the 19th June 1911 John became a Companion (Military Division) of the Order of the Bath. Five days later he returned to duty. He was given command of Number 5 Grouped Regimental District within Northern Command. This administered the Army's activities in a large area of northern England, including Northumberland, North Yorkshire and Durham.

The First World War broke out in August 1914. Hundreds of thousands of men joined the Army, and dozens of new units were created. This must have put a great deal of pressure on John and his staff at Number 5 District.

John's time in York ended in April 1915. He was made a Brigade Commander and promoted to Temporary Brigadier General. Brigades contained 4 battalions of infantry. We believe John commanded the 116th Brigade. This was part of the 39th Division. It trained at Aldershot and at Witley in Surrey until March 1916, when John went to war once more.

It would appear that John was replaced as 116th Brigade Commander on the 14th April 1916. We don't know why this was. After this he served on a Staff, responsible for planning and organising operations, rather than commanding soldiers.

In December 1916 he was General Officer Commanding Troops at Clipstone near Nottingham. We know this because on the 12th he confirmed a punishment given to Thomas Willis, whose medals are also in the Museum of the Manchester Regiment collection.

On the 15th January 1918 John reached the age limit and had to retire. He was granted the honorary rank of Brigadier General.

During the war John and his family had lived at Cedar Lodge in Rugeley, Staffordshire. By late 1919 they had moved to Corn Hill in Rolvenden, Kent. He still lived here when the Manchester Regiment Old Comrade's Association (OCA) was formed in the mid 1920s. The family later moved to 86 South Terrace in Littlehampton, Sussex, and then to Garth House in Mortimer, Berkshire.

John became a familiar sight at Manchester Regiment events, 'invariably wearing a 96th tie and accompanied where possible by Mrs Watson'. In 1931 their silver wedding anniversary clashed with a regimental dinner, so on this occasion John and Charlotte did not attend.

Towards the end of his life John began to suffer from ill-health. He suffered a 'great blow' when Charlotte died suddenly on the 20th December 1950, aged 70. John 'really never recovered'.

John was sent a 'telegram of greeting from the OCA reunion in April' 1951. By this time he was living in The Gables Nursing Home in Horley, Surrey. He replied to the Regimental Gazette saying 'how very pleased I was and how proud I am at being remembered after all these years'.

John died on the 16th June 1951 at The Gables. He was 92 years old.

John's brother and son were also Army officers. George served in the Indian Army and had retired by 1908. John junior joined the 15/19th King's Royal Hussars. They both retired as Majors. John died on the 5th August 1959 after an accident.

John's medals were donated to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in August 1951.

Museum of the Manchester Regiment
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Trustees of the Manchester Regiment Museum & Archive and Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council