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JOHN WILLIAM BARKER

Service Number : 5448
Rank : Private
Regiment : Scots Guards
Unit / Ship / Squadron : F Company, 2nd Battalion
Date of death : 18/12/1914
Where : Fromelles, France
Age : 32

Wife :

Ethel Barker
1, Malvern Villas, Rectory Road, Farnborough

Parents :

John and Eliza Barker

William Barker was not a native of Cove or the local area, he was a Yorkshireman born in Bramley – a small industrial town between Leeds and Bradford – in the last quarter of 1882. [[1]]  His birth was registered as John William Barker but he was also known as William.  He was the youngest child of John and Eliza Barker. [[2],[3]]  John, who was an iron puddler (a skilled trade associated with the manufacture of wrought or ‘puddled’ iron), died in 1884 [[4]] and Eliza later married a widower Henry Ferguson, [[5]] a tanner by trade [3] – and a brave man to take on a family of 7 step-children!.  William is unaccounted for in the 1901 census but was probably working in the area because in May 1904 he enlisted in the Scots Guards at Leeds. [[6],[7]]  After training at the Guards depot at Caterham, Surrey, he would have joined the 1st battalion at North Camp, Aldershot, where they were stationed from 1903 – 6. [[8]]  One of the barrack rooms of Oudenarde Barracks, which the battalion occupied in 1905 ‑ 6, has been preserved as part of the Aldershot Military Museum.

The battalion were back in Aldershot from 1909 – 10 [8] and on 4 June 1910 William married Ethel Gertrude Allnatt, daughter of Francis St John Allnatt (deceased), who was living with her mother Thirza Annie and step-father Charles Ede at Laundry Cottage near Oak Farm in Prospect Road, Cove. [[9]]  William remained with his regiment until 1912 while Ethel continued to live at Laundry Cottage [[10]] where their first child, a son, William Charles, was born in October 1910. [[11]]  A daughter, Winifred Evelyn Constance, was born in June 1913 [[12]] after William had transferred to the Reserve and the family were now living at 2 Amelia Cottages, Farnborough Street.  After the war, certainly for the period 1919 through 1921, Ethel, now widowed, lived at Grange Cottage, Prospect Road; and sometime after 1921 she moved to 1 Malvern Villas, later to be renumbered, first as 60 and now 107, Rectory Road, Farnborough [[13]].

A small party of the 1st Battalion, Scots Guards, took part in the famous Siege of Sydney Street in January 1911 and then in February the battalion was posted to Cairo, Egypt where it remained until January 1913 before returning once again to Aldershot.  William would have completed seven years ‘with the Colours’ in May 1911 and had he been at home would then have been transferred to the Reserve to complete the remaining five years of his engagement; however being overseas meant that the regiment could delay this transfer for up to a year and William probably returned to England and transferred to the Reserve sometime in the Spring of 1912.  In the 1911 census (the first to detail British soldiers serving overseas) William’s occupation was noted as carpenter [[14]] so on his return and transfer to the Reserve he might perhaps have found work in the building trade in the local Cove area.

Both the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Scots Guards served on the Western Front from 1914 until the Armistice in 1918.  The 1st Battalion mobilised at Aldershot and sailed for Le Havre on 13 August as part of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division.  The division took part in Battle of Mons and the subsequent retreat but the battalion appears to have played only a minor role in the battle and suffered only 2 men wounded.   William did not arrive in France until 2 September [[15]] and probably joined the battalion on 5 September as part of the first draft of reinforcements.  The next day the Allies went back on the offensive at the Battle of the Marne (6 – 12 September) driving the Germans back from Paris to the River Aisne where the Germans made a stand; both sides dug in – the beginnings of the Western Front.  The battalion appear to have been only lightly involved in the fighting on the Marne but suffered significant losses on the Aisne – the war diary records 41 killed, 162 wounded and 12 missing (killed or captured).

On 16/17 October the battalion moved by train north to Hazebrouck near the Belgian border.  This was part of the repositioning of the BEF to shorten supply lines as both sides engaged in the ‘Race to the Sea’ – each side attempting to outflank the other and in the process extending the front north to the North Sea.  From 22 to 25 September the battalion were involved in fighting at Bixschoote just north of Ypres and then moved south-east to Gheluvelt on the Menin road just east of Ypres; here they were involved in heavy fighting for many days and were finally withdrawn from the front for ‘rest and refitment’ on 16 November.  The fighting around Ypres represented a last, unsuccessful attempt by the Germans to break through the Allied lines and resume their encirclement of the French forces – the original objective of the August march into Belgium.  Total British casualties during the First Battle of Ypres were nearly 8,000 killed in action, 30,000 wounded and 18,000 missing.  The 1st Battalion Scots Guards suffered severely with 114 killed, 158 wounded and 435 missing (out of a nominal battalion strength of just over 1000 men).  They remained in reserve until 20 December.

It is not clear how or when William transferred from the 1st to the 2nd Battalion.  The latter left England a few weeks after the 1st Battalion, landing at Zeebrugge on 7 October as part of the 20th Brigade of the 7th Division.  It seems most unlikely that any soldiers would have been deliberately transferred while the 1st Battalion was involved in the fighting at Ypres.  Perhaps more likely is that William was taken ill or lightly wounded and was posted to the 2nd Battalion when he was again fit for duty.  This is certainly what happened to Lieutenant Sir Edward Hulse of the 1st Battalion, whose letters to his mother were published privately after his death. [[16]]  After a period at a reception camp in France while he convalesced, Sir Edward was posted, rather to his annoyance, to the 2nd Battalion, joining them on 12 November.  The 2nd Battalion had also been involved in heavy fighting at Ypres, losing 21 officers and 515 other ranks up to 5 November when they too had been withdrawn for rest and refitment.  However their period in reserve was shorter than 1st Battalion and after only 9 days they were back in the trenches at Sailly, about 12 miles south of Ypres.  During their period in reserve the battalion had received two drafts of replacement soldiers, 12 officers (including Lieut Hulse) and 535 other ranks; they had also received a visit from Field Marshal Sir John French, commanding the BEF, who complimented the Corps on their fine work at Ypres. [[17]]

The background to the attack in which Private Barker was killed can be understood from the sixth despatch sent by Field-Marshal Sir John French to the War Office [[18]] and from a book he wrote after the war of events in 1914. [[19]]  The following are extracts from the despatch:

“During the early days of December certain indications along the whole front of the Allied Line induced the French Commanders and myself to believe that the enemy had withdrawn considerable forces from the Western Theatre. Arrangements were made with the Commander of the 8th French Army for an attack to be commenced on the morning of December 14th.”

“From the 15th to the 17th December the offensive operations which were commenced on the 14th were continued, but were confined chiefly to artillery bombardment.”

“On the 17th it was agreed that the plan of attack as arranged should be modified; but I was requested to continue demonstrations along my line in order to assist and support certain French operations which were being conducted elsewhere.”

As part of these ‘demonstrations’, 20th Brigade attacked on a front of 500 yards from the Sailly-Fromelles road Eastward with two companies of the Scots Guards on the right and two of the Borders on the left. The following report by Captain Loder of what happened comes from the war diary of the 2nd Battalion: [17]

“On Friday Dec 18th I was ordered by Captain PAYNTER to lead an attack on the German trenches with 2 Companies of the 2 Bn Scots Guards. The right of the attack to rest on the FROMELLES – SAILLY Road, the left of our line approximately 400 yards E of this point where the Border Regt joined our lines in No 2 Sub. Section. This Regiment was to carry on from this point. I was ordered to meet Capt ASKEW and arrange details with him at 3.45pm. The attack was timed for 6pm. It was arranged that at 6pm the men should be posted over the parapet and to crawl out under the wire fence, and lie down. When this was done I was to blow my whistle and the line was then to move forward together, and walk as far as they could until the Germans opened fire and then rush the front line trenches. Having reached the trench, I was to try and hold it if occupied, and if unoccupied to push on to the second line. The men carried spades and sandbags. F Coy Captain Sir F Fitzwygram LF Captain H Taylor. At about three minutes to 6pm the men were hoisted over the parapet and lay down. I blew my whistle as loud as I could, but owing to the noise of our gun fire it appears that it was not generally heard. F Coy being on the right and LF on the left we began to move forward. After advancing about 60 yards. I could see that in several places the line was not being maintained; some men moving forward faster than others. I could see this by the flash from the guns. I collected the men nearest to me, and I found myself practically on the parapet before the Germans opened fire.

“There was no wire entanglement at this point. We bayoneted and killed all the Germans we could see in the trench and then jumped down into it. There was a certain amount of shouting and confusion. I could not see far to my right or left or tell what was happening on either flank. The position of the trench in which I found myself was not traversed for a distance of at least 25 yards. I ordered the men to make firing positions in the rear face of the trench. This was not easily done owing to the depth of the trench. I also told off some men to watch the flanks and if the enemy appeared to make traverses. I remained in the trench some time about one hour, and then thought I had better try and see what had happened at other places in the line. I got out of the trench which I left in charge of LIEUT SAUMAREZ and told him to hang on. I found it impossible to get any information, but could see a good many dead bodies lying close to the German Parapet.

“I decided to come back to report to Captain PAYNTER and explain what the situation was and suggest that, if the trench was to be held, reinforcements would have to be sent up. This he reported to the Brigadier.  As it then became apparent that the attack of the border Regt had failed and also that F Coys right had only succeeded in getting into the trench in a few places he was ordered not to send forward the remaining two Companies which were in reserve. I was then ordered to organise a digging party to sap to the German trench. This was attempted but, owing to a continuous German fire it soon became clear that the distance 180 yards was too much. About 3AM Lieut WARNER and a party of 10 men were led forward [by Cpl JONES] to the section of the German trench which was still in tact. He reached it all right and found LIEUT SAUMAREZ wounded [in the hand and that a stretcher was sent out and with great difficulty LIEUT SAUMAREZ was removed]. LIEUT WARNER was ordered to withdraw just before dawn. He accomplished this without loss. Shortly after the attack was launched Lt OTTLEY and a party from G Company were sent up to reinforce LIEUT HANBURY TRACY. While at the head of his men he was mortally wounded before reaching the German trench and the rest of the party don’t appear to have been able to reach the trench. Cpl MITCHELL with great courage brought back Lt OTTLEY (Lt OTTLEY was awarded a DSO).

“During this attack the Germans don’t appear to have used any bombs or hand grenades. The cross fire from well placed German Machine guns played a big part, and this accounts for our very heavy casualties amounting to nearly 50% about 180 men being killed or wounded. Among the officers:

Killed: Captain H TAYLOR, LF Coy; Lieut Hon HANBURY TRACY F Coy
Missing: Lieut NUGENT LF Coy [believed to have been killed]
Wounded: Lieut SAUMAREZ LF Coy; Captain Sir F FITZWYGRAM F Coy
Died of wounds: 2/Lieut OTTLEY G Coy

“Captain LODER was the only officer who returned unwounded. Pte CLARKSON has an Iron Cross which he found on a dead German officer.”

Another account can be found in ‘The Seventh Division 1914 – 1918’ by C.T. Atkinson (pages 118 to 126, Chapter V) and the following are extracts:

“Of the battle-casualties of the month two-thirds occurred in a not very happily conceived enterprise undertaken on the night of December 18th/19th by orders from G.H.Q. With an optimism which did not indicate any very close acquaintance either with the state of the ground or with the general conditions in the front line, or any very accurate appreciation of the difficulties of attacking entrenched positions defended by modern rifles and machine-guns and protected by belts of barbed wire, the higher authorities of both the British and the French forces had decided upon resuming offensive operations, partly with the idea of profiting by the withdrawal, which had now become known, of several German divisions to the Russian front. The first stage in these operations was aimed at recovering the Messines Ridge. The Third Division attacked there in concert with the French on its left, but neither French nor British could make any serious progress, and General Joffre soon found himself compelled to abandon his offensive in Flanders, but decided to continue it North of Arras and begged Sir John French to do all he could to assist. Orders were therefore issued for local activities at various points in the British line to distract the attention of the Germans and, if possible, make small local gains. A year later these diversions would have taken the form of raids, but in December 1914 the raid had not yet been developed into a definite form of offensive, and in selecting objectives for his attacks General Capper had to think of retaining anything he reached. ……….”

“……….. The 20th Brigade also, if more successful at first, could make no lasting gain. It attacked on a front of 500 yards from the Sailly-Fromelles road Eastward with two companies of the Scots Guards on the right, two of the Borders on the left. Unluckily the Borders do not seem to have heard the signal for the assault, which was given by whistle by the Scots Guards, and the two battalions did not go forward together. The Scots Guards, advancing with great dash and enjoying the advantage of surprise—the absence of the preliminary bombardment proved a real benefit, for that which had preceded the 22nd Brigade’s attack had merely put the enemy on the alert—managed to effect a lodgment, though their right ran into thick and uncut wire and lost heavily from machine-guns. Elsewhere, however, the wire, which varied greatly in strength, being quite weak and thin in places, proved less of an obstacle, and Captain Loder, who led the attack, was able to effect a surprise, most of the defenders being bayoneted and others shot down as they bolted. He promptly set to work to consolidate his position in the German line, blocking the ends of the portion taken, though there were gaps between some of his parties where bits of stronger wire had held up the attackers, and not all these could be connected up. Unluckily, too, the great depth of the German trenches made it impossible for the men to see to shoot out of them, and they had to climb out and lie on the parapet to get a fire position. Attacks were not slow to begin, and the Scots Guards were soon hard beset to maintain their ground. Efforts were being made by Captain Paynter, their C.O., to get a communication trench dug across No Man’s Land, and some reinforcements were sent across, but on the left flank the Borders had failed to get in and the Scots Guards were therefore quite isolated………”

“…….. The effort of the Scots Guards to maintain themselves in the German line looked for a time like meeting with more success. Though strongly counter-attacked they held on stoutly, and though driven out from some points maintained a hold until long after midnight on the centre of the line taken. But it was evident that No Man’s Land was too wide—nearly 200 yards—for a trench to be opened up across it in time, and shortly before daylight the last section held was successfully evacuated, a wounded officer being got safely away (The Scots Guards had 3 officers and 112 men killed and missing, 3 officers and 76 men wounded; the Borders 2 officers and 71 men killed and missing, 2 officers and 40 men wounded).”

William Barker was almost certainly one of the soldiers of F Company killed in the attack.

A few days later an informal Christmas truce developed along parts of the front, including the section where the attack had taken place.  The trenches immediately east of the Sailly-Fromelles road where the Scots Guards had attacked was now manned by the Gordon Highlanders and they arranged with the Germans opposite to bury those who had been killed in the attack on the night of the 18th and whose bodies had remained in no-man’s land. [[20]]  The Scots Guards were now the other side of the Sailly-Fromelle road but Captain Loder observed what was happening and walked half a mile along the line to the scene where he talked with some Germans and ensured that the soldiers of the Scots Guards, 29 in all, were also buried.  The war diary records what happened in some detail.  Here is an extract: [17]

“Further down the line we were able to make arrangements to bury the dead who had been killed on Dec 18 – 19 and were still lying between the trenches.  The Germans brought the bodies to a half way line and we buried them.  Detachments of British and Germans formed in line and a German and English Chaplain said some prayers alternately.  The whole of this was done in great solemnity and reverence.  It was heartrending to see some of the chaps one knew so well, and who had started out in such good spirits on Dec 18th lying there dead, some with terrible wounds due to the explosive action of the high velocity bullet at short range.”

Various photographs still exist of the truce, including one taken while the graves were being dug.  It seems likely that Private Barker’s body was one of those buried in this makeshift cemetery in no-man’s land just to the east of the Sailly-Fromelles road.  Coincidentally the approximate points at which the German and Allied lines crossed the Sailly-Fromelles road are now marked by an Australian Memorial and Cemetery respectively and so the position of the attack by F Company and the approximate location of the subsequent burials can be readily identified.  Later this area was the scene of heavy fighting and the location of the graves has evidently been lost.

Private William Barker is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial (Panel 1), near Ieper (Ypres), Belgium.

[1] GRO Index, Oct – Dec 1882, Bramley registration district, vol. 9b, page 347
[2] 1881 Census, RG11/4500, folio 21, page 10
[3] 1891 Census, RG12/3673, folio 20A, page 6
[4] GRO Index, Oct – Dec 1884, Bramley registration district, vol. 9b, page 244
[5] GRO Index, Jul-Sep 1888, Bramley registration district, vol. 9b, page 532
[6] Date of enlistment based on service number (5426 attested 18 May 1904 and 5453 attested 1 June 1904)
[7] Place of enlistment recorded in database created from the HMSO publication Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914–1919
[8] Records held by the Aldershot Military Museum
[9] Marriage Certificate, GRO Index, Apr – Jun 1910, Hartley Wintney registration district, vol. 2c, page 398
[10] 1911 Census, RG14/6258, household schedule no. 3
[11] Birth certificate, Farnham registration district
[12] Birth certificate, Farnham registration district
[13] Family input from William’s grandson, Nigel Barker
[14] 1911 Census, RG14/34994, registration district no. 641 (Egypt)
[15] Medal Index card, The National Archives, WO 372/1/235326
[16] Letters written from the English Front in France between September 1914 and March 1915 by Captain Sir Edward Hamilton Westrow Hulse, Hardpress Publishing, 2012
[17] War diary of 2nd Battalion Scots Guards, The National Archives, WO/95/1657
[18] The sixth despatch of Field Marshal Sir John French was printed in the Second Supplement to the London Gazette of 16 February 1915
[19] 1914: The Early Campaigns of the Great War by the British Commander by Sir John French, Published by Leonaur, 2009
[20] Christmas Truce by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, Pan Books, 2001