John had joined the army as a regular soldier at the beginning of 1914 He was the second of three sons of Mrs Ellen Pickford, 161 Chestergate, Stockport. The other two men, Thomas and Willie, would serve in the war with the 12th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment. Before joining up, John had been an active member of the Stockport Sunday School Brotherhood.
The 1st Battalion of the Fusiliers was in Malta when war was declared and returned to Britain at the beginning of September 1914. John will have had time for a brief visit to Stockport before the Battalion left for Belgium on 7 October.
The Battle of Festubert would be fought on the basis of the old adage that attack is the best form of defence. The British artillery opened its barrage on the German positions on 13 May. In the sector to be attacked by the 1st Battalion, the plan was to penetrate some 450 yards into the enemy lines and then change direction to the right to take a communication trench and hold it as a defensive position on the flank of the whole attack. "A" Company would lead the assault, followed by the other three Companies.
Captain Stockwell was commanding "A" Company and his account was published in the Regimental History:
"The Battalion moved into the line on the night of 15th/16th, through Indian Village, and assembled in lines immediately behind the front parapet, and proceeded to dig themselves such cover as they could from the enemy's counter-bombardment. I sent out patrols to cover the putting out of the trench boards and to report on the wire and enemy parapet. The patrols reported that the wire was well cut but, as far as they could see, the front trench was not much damaged. As a matter of fact, practically no damage was done by our guns to the front system: the high-explosive fire was so limited by shortage of shell that even if accurate it would not have accomplished a great deal and it mostly went over the enemy line.
At 2.45am our intense bombardment began. We suffered a fair amount of loss through our own shorts, which kept catching the top of the high breastwork. The enemy's guns opened at 3.05am. At 3.15 I gave the word to "Go" and the first line went over, followed by the second line twenty seconds later. It was extremely dark and the enemy were shelling No Man's Land heavily. We got across the Riviere des Layes all right, but then came under intense machine-gun fire from our right and were opposed by rifle fire from the trenches we were assaulting. The men of my company whom I could see seemed to thin out rapidly, but the remainder went straight on to the enemy trenches, where half an hour's strenuous hand-to-hand fighting took place in a frightful tangled system of trenches."
No Man's Land was 120 yards wide and the following three companies caught the full force of the German artillery shelling as they tried to cross. Few made it. Only three officers of the last two companies got across. Success or failure now depended on the few men of "A" Company engaged in the tough fight in the trenches. Company Sergeant Major Barter collected a few men and they began to work their way down the trenches throwing grenades to clear the way. He would be awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery.
Stockwell, now the only officer left in the Company, was also gathering men - about 80 in total and they moved on towards their final objective. As they did so, they realised that they were unsupported so dug in and consolidated. They held this position until relieved at about 7.30pm.
The Battalion had suffered 578 casualties - killed, wounded or missing. John was amongst the dead, as were two other local men -George Beech and Gilbert Stanton. One of John’s comrades, Private R A Harris, wrote to his mother “I dare say you have heard about the charge at Festubert. It was there your son was killed. He died with his head on my breast – a brave hero, his face disfigured with shrapnel. He has a soldier’s grave with a lot of others.” Over the course of the war, the location of John’s grave must have been lost as he is now commemorated on a memorial to the missing.