Nothing is known for certain of John’s early life but he was probably born in the Stockport area in the late spring of 1884. The first definite reference to him that has been found for this project is 17 June 1905. This is the day when he married 19 year old Florence Cumston at St Thomas’ Church, Stockport. He was then working as a collier and living at 17 Hempshaw Lane. His father, William, had died by this time. Florence was the sister of James Cumston who also married at the church.
By the time of the Great War, the couple were living at 33 Back Water Street. For some reason, John decided to travel to Chester to enlist into the army, rather than joining up at Stockport. It’s possible that he wanted to try and ensure he was assigned to the Cheshire Regiment by enlisting at its Headquarters. However, it was to no avail and he found himself with the Middlesex.
The 18th Battalion was formed in January 1915 but John’s service number suggests he was a later recruit and may not have been overseas for very long before he died. The unit was a Pioneer Battalion, comprised of trained fighting men, but whose role was mainly in the construction of defences. The Battle of the Somme had started on 1 July 1916 and the British troops had moved slowly forward over the coming weeks. John and his comrades would have usually been part of the final wave of any attack and, once a position had been secured, they would quickly prepare it for defence and incorporate it into the British trench system, making it the new front line.
On 23 October, the Battalion marched to the east of the village of Guillemont and dug an new communication trench, connecting the front line with the support trenches to the rear. The next day, work started on constructing new dug-outs. This continued on the 25th and the Battalion’s War Diary, held at the National Archives, records “Great difficulty was experienced in getting up timber, pack mules being the only practicable means. Wagons with timber left bivouac at 4.45pm did not reach Ginchy until midnight and then the timber had to be carried 2000 yards much of the way through mud knee-deep.” The Diary notes that three men were wounded during the day.
On the 26th, “A” and “B” Companies continued work on the dug-outs, Mud continued to be a great problem and several loads of timber simply had to be abandoned. “C” and “D” Companies started work digging a new trench. One man was wounded.
John was one of the four men injured over the two days. He was evacuated to one of the two field hospitals (34th or 2/2 London Casualty Clearing Stations) then based at Meaulte, about 13 kilometres to the rear. There, military surgeons would have done all they could for John, but without success.
The following year, Florence married Myers Watson in a civil ceremony registered at Stockport and they went to live at 32 Hill Street, Portwood.