Uncovering a lost family story from the First World War

British troops in the trenches during the First Battle of Cambrai in 1917

The stories behind the names on the cenotaph in Shaw and Crompton, a small mill town in the North of England, may have slipped from living memory, but they can still be traced in surprising detail.

I have long been aware that a great, great uncle of mine, John William Barrass, is listed on the cenotaph and I remember my grandma taking me to look at his name when I was small.

My grandparents, the only link I had to John William’s story, have gone now, and I recently started some research to see if there was anything I could find out about him.

John, like many millions of young men, would have left for France and the rain sodden trenches of the Western Front full of a spirit of adventure, and Shaw, which was then a northern cotton spinning mill town at its zenith, would have sent boys to war like it sent out countless bales of yarn from its fifty cotton mills.

I knew the name of his regiment and not much more. John had spent his last years in Shaw, but he was born a Yorkshireman and joined up with the King’s Own Yorkshire Infantry in 1914.

I also knew the day of his death, the 11th of December 1916, twenty three months and nineteen days before the peace of Armistice Day.

Armed with these two facts, I started my research at the National Archives where I found the official war diary of John’s regiment.

War diaries were kept by an officer and record the regiment’s day to day activities. When the King’s Own were in barracks the diary is neatly typed in blue ink, but when they were in the trenches, on active duty, the pages are crumpled and muddy, the words scrawled out in a faint pencil.

I found the entry for the 11th of December 1916 to be in a neatly typed blue. The regiment were training in northern France on the day John died.

J.W.Barrass’ name on the Shaw and Crompton war memorial

I guessed from this that John William had died by accident, in a crash perhaps or from a stray bullet fired by mistake.

I assumed that the trail would then go cold, but some persistent Googling led me to the painstakingly researched website of Pierre Vandervelden, a Frenchman who has documented and photographed a great number of Commonwealth cemeteries in France.

Pierre, it turned out, had visited John’s grave in Cambrai, a town in Hauts-de-France, around 60 miles from the Somme and close to the cathedral of Amiens.

In December 1916, war-torn Cambrai had been in German hands and it was likely, Pierre told me, that John had died in the Parmentier Field Hospital as a prisoner of war.

My next port of call was the Red Cross, which has digitised its prisoner of war records and sure enough there was an entry for John.

He had been captured on the 18th of November and was taken to Parmentier with a gunshot wound to the leg.

I turned back to the King’s Own war diary and found an entry for the 18th written this time in a shaky pencil:

“At 5:15am the battalion was drawn up on an advanced line. The conditions were bad, it started snowing just before the attack and observation was very difficult. At 6:10am our barrage was intense and apparently very effective, consequently the enemy sent up a number of flares. This, with the white ground, lit up all the surroundings.

The war memorial in Shaw and Crompton

The line advanced with Munich Trench as their first objective. The left half of the battalion was able to push forward and reach this first objective, but the right half was held up by intense machine gun fire.”

Somewhere, amid this freezing scene was John, aged just 22 and a long way from home.

Again, I assumed his trail would go cold, but an email to the Local History Office in Oldham returned a cutting from the Weekly Chronicle on John’s capture, which quotes from a letter he sent to his wife, Sarah, back in Shaw.

“I have been wounded and am a prisoner of war but getting along alright” he writes. “My left leg just below the knee has been amputated, but I am getting along nicely.”

It was his last message to her, coming after he had been reported missing and the newspaper describes the postcard’s arrival as being a ‘shock and at the same time a pleasant surprise”.

 It most have rekindled a sense of hope, but it was dashed when Sarah received the official confirmation, a week later, that John had died from his injuries.

Two years on, on Christmas Eve, at Holy Trinity Church in Shaw, Sarah remarried, to a twenty-two-year-old bobbin carrier from Heyside. If you close your eyes you can almost smell the scent of the candles burning and the holly boughs tied with red ribbons to the end of the church pews.

The person who filled out their marriage certificate, in neat black ink, accidentally wrote ‘spinster’ next to Sarah’s name and had to make a hurried correction, in thick lines, inking ‘widow’ over the top.

It’s hard to imagine what they were all thinking in that church on Christmas Eve – happiness at a new marriage one has to suppose – but it could hardly have been an unalloyed happiness. The bloodshed on the fields of France cast a long shadow for a long time over mill towns like Shaw and Crompton.

That shadow is gone now, but Shaw’s war memorial stands as a reminder not only to those killed, but of the psychological toll that war must have taken on those left behind.

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