John Brooks

Name: John Brooks1
Rank:
Private
Unit/Regiment: 1st Battalion, The King’s Own Scottish Borderers
Service Number:
20429
Date of Death:
1 July 1916
Cemetery: Knightsbridge Cemetery, Mesnil-Martinsart, Somme, France

John Brooks

John Brooks, the son of Lawrence2 and Susannah Brooks (née Farrar) was born in Batley on 20 March 1895 and baptised at St Mary of the Angels on 14 April 1895.

His Dublin-born father settled in Batley in the 1870s, his family being drawn to the area by a combination of family connections and job opportunities in the textile industry. It was the shoddy trade, the backbone of Batley’s industrial development, which provided Lawrence with employment. He undertook the tough, dusty, arduous and pivotal industry role of a rag grinder, whereby he fed sorted rags into a machine – aptly named a devil. This tore into them, breaking them down as part of the process to produce shoddy yarn and cloth.

Lawrence married local girl Susannah Farrar in 1893. She too worked in the town’s textile mills, as a woollen weaver. Although she was born in Batley, with lifelong connections to St Mary’s, her mother came from Ireland.

John was the second of Lawrence and Susannah’s six children. His siblings included Mary Ellen (born in 1894), Agnes (born in 1898), twins Annie and Catherine/Kitty (born in 1900) and youngest child Joseph (born in 1903). One of the twins, Annie, died in May 1902.

In the 1901 census the family were living in a three-roomed house in New Street, Batley. Lawrence, Susannah and their, at this stage, five children shared their home with a boarder, Harry Parr.3 Lawrence’s rag grinding employment was not well paid, particularly when supporting a young, growing family. In fact, in this first decade of the 20th century, agitation built to increase the wages of rag grinders to 25s a week. So doubtless Harry Parr’s contribution to the family income proved most welcome.

Young John attended St Mary’s school. He was one of the children who had a role in St Mary’s controversial participation in the huge Batley schools pageant at Mount Pleasant in August 1907. This pageant was organised to celebrate the raising of money to build an extension to Batley Hospital. John was one of the group of 20 St Mary’s haymakers. He and his fellow haymakers, dressed in linen smocks and rush hats, carried implements for the hayfield, such as rakes, etc.4 Many of the boys in this group only a few years later were to fight for King and country and some, including John, were to lay down their lives. More details about the controversy surrounding the Catholic children’s involvement in the pageant is here.

Besides his association with the religious observances at church and school, John was also a member of the St Mary’s Church Boy’s Brigade. He was also a keen football player, highly esteemed by his fellow players at Batley Albion Association Football Club.

By the 1911 census the family were living in Peel Street.5 Again the house had three rooms. Lawrence still worked as a rag grinder. But they had no need of boarders now, for in this census three other wage earners were listed in the household. Susannah and eldest daughter Mary Ellen had employment as rag sorters – the precursor to the rag-grinding process. 16-year-old John also worked in the woollen industry as a piecer. A Dictionary of Occupational Terms describes this as follows:

Piecer, piecener; mule piecer, spinner’s piecer, spinning piecer, spinning mule piecer, spinning mill piecer; pieces, or joins together, by hand, threads broken in spinning; keeps mule clear of waste; sometimes adjusts temper weights, collects full cops of yarn from spindles, and assists spinner q.v. generally.6

Before enlisting, John was employed at Messrs Wrigley and Parker’s Valley Mills. Located on Field Lane, Batley, only a small, unprepossessing portion of these former substantial mills remain.

Valley Mills, Batley – Photo by Jane Roberts

John enlisted in June 1915, serving as a Private with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB), under service number 20429.

It was not long before he went overseas. In the autumn of 1915 he was posted to Gallipoli, part of a batch of reinforcements for the 1st Battalion KOSB who had suffered heavy losses both in fighting and through sickness since they first landed there in April 1915. He was to be one of four Batley lads serving with the 1st Battalion, the others being James Edward Brook, Percy Whiteley and William Balmforth.

John disembarked on 3 October 1915, and the Unit War Diary notes a delayed draft of men arriving to join them on the 9 October.7

It was an ill-fated campaign which drew to a close with the evacuation of Allied troops in January 1916. The KOSB Unit War Diary notes their phased withdrawal from the firing line over the course of 8 January 1916, with the final men pulling out just before midnight. From there they made their way to the shore, embarking on a number of battleships and destroyers bound for the port of Mudros on the island of Lemnos. Once there they set sail for Alexandria, Egypt, arriving on the 14 January, before boarding trains which arrived at Suez the following day.8

They remained in Egypt until March 1916, when they were redeployed to the Western Front. The Unit War Diary notes they departed from Port Said on 11 and 12 March on board the troop ships Megantic and Wandilla, arriving at Marseilles on the 17 and 18 March.9

In April 1916 the battalion moved up to the Somme, initially to Mailly-Maillet, then Louvencourt for training and acclimatising to the new conditions, with intermittent spells in the front line. Part of the 87th Brigade of the 29th Division, their training intensified in June with practice attacks now part of the mix in preparation for the major offensive planned for the end of the month.

On 23 June they moved to Acheux Wood in readiness for the attack, scheduled for 29 June. The following day, the 24 June, the British artillery bombardment up and down the enemy line commenced. The aim of this massive bombardment was to destroy the German barbed wire defences, neutralise their artillery, destroy their trenches and strong points, shatter German morale and render them ineffective as a fighting force, enabling the British troops to easily cross no man’s land and occupy the German trenches. And it was in the afternoon that, while detonating bombs, an accident took place in which nine men were wounded. This was the only event of note in the War Diary, other than the recording day after day of the continuing bombardment.10

The diary does not note the weather. However, from other records we do have details. Following the thunderstorms on the 23 June, the next day was dull with low cloud and heavy rain. The 25 June provided a temporary respite before the unfavourable conditions once more returned with the 27 and 28 June being particularly inclement, with thick mist and heavy rain. The 87th Infantry Brigade War Diary for the 28 June notes “Very heavy rain all day.11

In view of the bad weather, which also hampered observation of the effect of the shelling, a last-minute decision was made to postpone the attack by 48 hours. It led to hastily issued orders. The KOSB Unit War Diary on the afternoon of 28 June noted:

B[attalio]n preparing to march out. Telegram received postponing operations 48 hours.12

The diary notes that 30 June, the eve of the rescheduled attack, was a quiet day. At 9pm that evening the battalion paraded and moved off to the trenches, taking a route from Acheux Wood via the outskirts of Engelbelmer.

Extract of Trench Map 57D.SE, Scale: 1:20000 Edition: 2B Published: 1916. Trenches corrected to 28 April 1916, showing 1st KOSB positions on 30 June and early morning of 1 July 1916
National Library of Scotland, Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) licence.

The KOSB, along with the rest of the 29th Division, would the next day be facing the formidable German defences at Beaumont-Hamel, and the experienced German troops of the 119th (Reserve) Infantry Regiment who had been manning this line for 20 months.

Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain
Map of the Ancre River sector of the Somme battlefield on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. British front line is shown in red. German trenches are shown in blue. German barbed wire is shown as dotted blue lines.
Own Work by Gsl. Based on a British Ordnance Survey 1916 map (trenches as of 28 April 1916) held by the Liddle Collection. Units based on Map 9, The First Day on the Somme, Martin Middlebrook, 1971 and The Somme, Gary Sheffield, 2003.

The KOSB were lined up in trenches south-west of Beaumont Hamel behind Mary Redan, a defence position in our front line, in the vicinity of what today is the entrance to Newfoundland Memorial Park. They were to be part of the second wave of the attack, behind the 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. The KOSB’s orders were to leave the trenches as soon as the last wave of the leading battalions had reached the enemy’s wire. They were tasked with assaulting Beaucourt village.

It was to be a disaster.

The preceding several days of artillery bombardment had failed to destroy large swathes of the German defences, and the German troops remained largely protected in their deep dugouts. Additionally, the 7.20am detonation of the Hawthorn Ridge mine forewarned the Germans of the impending attack.

The 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusilers went “over the top” only to be confronted by devastating German machine gun fire. Under heavy artillery fire themselves the KOSB watched on as the men in this first wave attack fell, knowing that they would be next in line to go over. The KOSB’s War Diary notes these events, and their subsequent attack, in straightforward terms, belying the horror of the slaughter being witnessed:

07.33 1/ Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers commenced attack from front line trenches. B[attalio]n to advance when last wave of 1/ R.I.F. reached German wire.
07.40 1/ R.I.F. held up by Machine gun fire.
07.52 1/ R.I.F. attack not progressing. B[attalio]n moved out under heavy machine gun fire.
08.10 Our attack not progressing owing to intense enemy machine gun fire. Attack on left observed to be equally unsuccessful.
08.31 Advance still going on but being constantly checked.
08.30 Enemy heavily shelled MARY REDAN.
08.45 The attack ceased.13

The 87th Infantry Brigade War Diary commentary on the events that day painted a similarly bleak picture:

The 1st K.O.S.B. and 1st Border Regiment left their assembly trenches at about 7:35 a.m. and advancing under very heavy machine gun fire failed to get as far as the leading battalions with the exception of the leading sections of the 1st Border Regiment which got as far as the German wire.14

Throughout the day the carnage continued, until at 4pm the battalion received their relief orders. By 5.30pm this was complete, and what remained of the 1st KOSB assembled at Fort Jackson.

Their Diary notes on 1 July 1916 11 officers and 83 other ranks were killed; 9 officers and 406 other ranks had been wounded; and 59 other ranks were missing.15

The Diary also has the following chillingly simple entry to end the 1 July 1916:

23.00 1 Officer and 20 men digging a grave at KNIGHTSBRIDGE.16

Initially John was amongst those reported missing, but his family, now living at Cobden Street, had to wait until early August for the Hamilton records office to officially confirm his death.

He is buried at Knightsbridge Cemetery, a cemetery named after a communication trench with which John would have been familiar – one the KOSB had used in the month leading up to the battle; and this is the cemetery in which the battalion War Diary noted their men had been involved in grave digging on the evening of that first day of the Battle of the Somme.

John Brooks’ Headstone, Knightsbridge Cemetery – Photo by Peter Bennett

John was awarded the 1914-15 Star, Victory Medal and British War Medal.

In addition to St Mary’s, he is also remembered on the Batley War Memorial.


Further tragedy hit the Brooks family over the next two years. John’s father never recovered from the blow of losing his son. Within months of John’s death, in December 1916 whilst attending morning mass at St Mary’s, he died. In October 1917 John’s maternal uncle, Matthew Farrar, was killed whilst serving in France with the Border Regiment. Then, within days of the Armistice declaration of November 1918, John’s mother, Susannah, also passed away.


As a postscript I mentioned John was one of four Batley pals with the 1st KOSBs. Only one survived those early days of the Battle of the Somme. James Edward Brook was killed on 1 July; Percy Whiteley’s death is recorded as 3 July;17 only William Balmforth, although wounded in the battle, survived the war.


Footnotes:
1. Some records use the Brooke surname spelling;
2. Sometimes the spelling is Laurence;
3. 1901 England & Wales Census, The National Archives (TNA), Ref RG13/4255/78/21;
4. Batley News, 30 August 1907;
5. 1911 England & Wales Census, TNA, Ref RG14/27243;
6. A Dictionary of Occupational Terms: Ministry of Labour. Based on the Classification of Occupations Used in the Census of POPULATION, 1921. His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1927;
7. 1st KOSB Unit War Diary, TNA, Ref WO95/4311;
8. Ibid;
9. 1st KOSB Unit War Diary, TNA, Ref WO95/2304/1;
10. Ibid;
11. 87th Infantry Brigade War Diary, TNA, Ref WO95/2303/1;
12. 1st KOSB Unit War Diary, TNA, Ref WO95/2304/1;
13. Ibid;
14. 87th Infantry Brigade War Diary, TNA, Ref WO95/2303/1;
15. 1st KOSB Unit War Diary, TNA, Ref WO95/2304/1;
16. Ibid;
17. See Batley’s Roll of Honour website for more details, http://www.batleysrollofhonour.com/


Other Sources:
• 1881-1911 England & Wales Census
;
Batley Cemetery Records;
• Batley News,
12 August 1916;
• Batley Reporter and Guardian,
11 August 1916;
• Commonwealth War Graves Commission
;
GRO Indexes;
• King’s Own Scottish Borderers website, History, https://www.kosb.co.uk/
Medal Award Rolls, TNA, Refs WO329/1114 and WO329/2697
Medal Index Card;
National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995;
Parish Register baptisms;
Soldiers’ Effects Register, Accession Number: 1991-02-333; Record Number Ranges: 308501-310000; Reference: 158;
Soldiers Died in the Great War;
The Long, Long Trail website – https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/;
Veterans Affairs Canada website, The Opening Day, Battle of the Somme, 1916, https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/overseas/first-world-war/france/beaumonthamel/somme
• Vivien Tomlinson’s Family History website, https://vivientomlinson.com/batley/;
• Western Front Association Pension Record Cards and Ledgers,
Refs 013/0054/BRO-BRO and 031/0116/BRO-BRO.