John Barker’s death was not reported in local newspapers and, apart form his commemoration on the Stockport War Memorial, very little is known about him.
Regimental records published after the War indicate he was born in Heaton Norris and was living in Reddish when he enlisted into the army at Stockport. Family history websites record the birth of John Edward Barker in Heaton Norris in 1886. This is probably the man who, from his service number, must have joined up around the autumn of 1914. However, there is also a birth registration of John William Barker, also in Heaton Norris in 1899. This would have made him just 15 when he enlisted. Whilst underage enlistment certainly took place, it was not as common as popularly thought, particularly for someone volunteering to join one of the battalions of the regular army.
The South Lancashires were not in action on 1 July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. However, after the losses of that day, the Battalion was moved forward from reserve positions and arrived near the battlefield during the afternoon of the 2nd. They went into bivouacs at the village of Martinsart and, during the evening, received orders for an attack on German positions south of Thiepval. They moved to assembly positions east of the River Ancre.
Zero hour was set for 6am. The Battalion was on the left of the Brigade’s four attacking units and occupied a frontage of 250 yards. They “went over the top” on schedule. “C” and “D” Companies were in the front line, supported by “A” a little way to the rear. “B” Company was held in reserve.An hour later, Battalion HQ had still not received any news of how the attack had gone but, by 9.30, Colonel Cotton was able to report to Brigade – “The attack is unsuccessful and we hold no portion of the enemy’s line. The attack was led by “D” Company on a frontage of two platoons. This Company entered the German trenches in good style but were subsequently held up by machine gun fire. All the officers of the Company are missing. Of the second Company to advance, I can only account for 1 officer, 3 NCOs and about 25 men. They were apparently held up by machine gun fire. Of the third Company, I can only account for 1 officer, 1 sergeant and 30 men. Of the remaining Company, I have 2 officers left. This Company has only sustained a few casualties.”
Colonel Cotton continued “At the moment, I have no men in reserve or support. Am re-organising front line and holding it in the usual manner……Please issue instructions as to supports on my front.” Just before sending the message, he added “Officer commanding my leading Company, Captain Whitlake, has just crawled in, badly wounded. Also 2 men.”
Shortly after this, the few South Lancashires still over on the German side of No Man’s Land had no alternative but to retire back to their own trenches. Over 300 soldiers were dead, wounded or missing. The attacks to push the Germans back would continue until the autumn. It was only then that it was safe enough to recover the thousands of bodies still in No Man’s Land. By that time, many had disappeared, buried as the ground was churned up by artillery shelling. Many more were no longer in a condition to be identified. John, like many of his comrades, has no known grave and is commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval.