You cannot realise what war is like. Belgium – well there is no Belgium now for it is a mass of ruins.
I had begun to feel that the quest was drawing to a close. My sporadic efforts to find out more were all coming up dry and I was slowly resigning myself to the idea that I had found out all it was possible to know about my tragic ancestor.
Then a red letter day rolled around, the 100th anniversary of John Harry’s death. I, of course, could not let such a momentous event pass without paying some sort of tribute. There are a few select Facebook groups to which I belong. One of these, the Machine Gun Corps Old Comrades Association, I have mentioned in a previous post. The other group is the Ye Olde Padiham group where past and former residents of John’s hometown share their memories of how Padiham once was.
I decided that both of these groups would be suitable forums to post tributes to the memory of John Harry.
No sooner had I posted in the Padiham group than one of its members replied with this photograph from the Burnley Express newspaper.
I was floored. This is far and away the best photo that anyone in our family has seen. Unlike the poor quality shot from John’s death notice, this clearly shows what John actually looked like at the time of his service.
The issue it comes from is the January 6th, 1915 edition. However, there was more than just a photograph. A reporter from the Express actually interviewed John. Like a bolt from the blue, John’s own words were suddenly right there before me.
I have previously written that my goal has always been to try to find out who my Great Grandfather actually was. This, on the face of it, would seem a fool’s errand. How can one even guess at the personality traits of a man who has been dead for a century? And yet, his own words have been out there all that time, floating in the ether just waiting for me to stumble by and pick them up.
This interview predates John joining the Machine Gun Corps. At this time he was fighting with the East Lancashire Regiment as was his older brother Tom.
Any major event that a person gets swept up in and which leads to their death is bound to be a harrowing one. This interview brings home just how harrowing. Though the reporter’s style lends the entire conversation an almost casual matter-of-fact air, you can sense trauma behind many of John’s statements.
I also fancy I can feel a growing bitterness in his words at the way the war was being conducted. His experiences in Belgium, in particular, seem to have upset him greatly but these sorts of interviews were largely done for propaganda purposes and I doubt John was able to say all he may have wished to.
Whether he was able to fully express himself or no, I am eternally grateful to have been given this window of insight into the man he was.
The lesson I’ve gleaned from this latest development is that, though it can look like the spigot has run dry, you can never be sure what new and unexpected source may open up ahead of you.
Through all the research and digging, my goal has really been a simple one; to get to know my Great Grandfather. How much of his personality was in my Grandfather, Robert? How much of him is in me, or my own son?
I’m aware that it is impossible to form any true picture of this man who died 100 years ago but I want to get as close as I can. For that reason, I’m finding it hard to stop searching. I keep going back, scouring the web, looking for some small piece of the puzzle I may have missed.
As time passes, the clues are getting fewer and farther between and that has led me to try looking in a slightly different way.
When I first began researching, over thirteen years ago, social media was not really a thing. Forums were the main go to and research sharing could take you a long way in those forums. I discovered so much about the military aspects of John’s life on the Great War Forum, a resource I cannot recommend highly enough.
There were also some useful genealogy sites which provided interesting background texture to John’s home and family life. All of this (along with census information and surviving official documents) provided me with the material I have used to create this blog.
By 2018 (the 100th anniversary of John’s death) the well seems to have largely run dry. Many of the men I had originally been in contact with on the Forums have now passed on and with them any chance to ask those vital questions I wish I’d thought to ask then.
I was beginning to think that my journey was coming to an end.
On a whim, I decided to try a different avenue. As I mentioned, the idea of social media was yet to become a reality for most in 2004/5. I’d never heard of My Space or Facebook and would probably have railed against them if I had.
Skip forward to the present and, like most everyone else, I have become Facebook literate. And so, one fine morning it occurred to me that there might actually be a Facebook group based on the Machine Gun Corps.
That was when I discovered the Machine Gun Corps Old Comrades’ Association (MGC/OCA). This is a group of Machine Gun Corpsmen descendants dedicated to the idea of keeping the memories of those men alive.
Within moments of my making myself known to them, members were able to provide me with copies of two documents I’d never seen before.
The first image is of John’s Medal Roll Index Card (MIC) and the second and third are his entry in the Army Registers of Soldiers Effects.
This was quite a start, two documents I hadn’t even known existed. The group is very active and there are people posting images and info about their own relatives all the time. It’s amazing how much you can learn indirectly in this way.
I’ve also, discovered that one of the members had not one but two relatives in John’s unit (8th Bn, MGC). Things are starting to get interesting again.
A few days ago, Judith, the woman who admins the page, posted this:
For those who aren’t aware. We have a Graves Photographic Project which has run for about 18 years. We have all French and Belgian MGC graves and memorials photographed and those in many other countries. If you don’t have a photo of your relative’s grave, we can provide one.
I, of course, leapt at the offer and just a few hours later was presented with this unbelievable image:
They are hard to read but the headstone on the right is John Harry’s and that on the left, Private F Poole. Both men are 8th Battalion and both died on April 1st, 1918.
From the fact that both are from the same unit and died on the same day (their graves placed side by side), I’m going to conclude that they were probably part of the same gun team and were both hit together.
I don’t mind admitting that I cried when I saw this picture. All the horror and sadness of John’s fate came home to me in a rush and, in that moment, he became a real human being to me, perhaps for the first time.
Not everything can be discovered using direct evidence. Sometimes we must use deductive reasoning to determine the most probable likelihoods and outcomes. My desire to discover to which of the four Companies of 8th Battalion my Great Grandfather belonged has led me back to the period before 8th Bn. even existed.
The Battalion was formed on 20th January 1918 out of four existing MG Companies. ‘A’ Company was formerly the 23rd Company of the 23rd Brigade, ‘B’ Company was 24th Company: 24th Brigade, ‘C’ was 25th Company: 25th Brigade and ‘D’ Company came out of the 218th Company which was the 8th Division Reserve MG Coy.
The 23rd Coy. had been formed on 15.1.15
The 24th Coy. on 17.2.15
The 25th Coy. on 19.1.16
And the 218th Coy. had not formed until 23.3.17
The main engagements they were involved in before becoming 8thBn. were: 31.7 – 1.8.1917 Battle of Pilckem Ridge (II Corps/5 Army), 31.7.1917 Attack on Westhoek, 16 – 18.8.1917 Battle of Langemarck, 2.12.1917 Assault on Southern Redoubt, Passchendaele (VIII Corps/2 Army)
All of the above is fact. Beyond this point, there is only educated speculation on my part.
John Harry had reenlisted on the 23rd of February 1917. When a man had been out for over a year, he was rarely returned to his old unit (in John Harry’s case, the East Lancashires), rather, he was sent where he was most needed.
I believe it was at this time that John (probably not by choice) joined the MGC. And the timing suggests that – having completed his minimum five weeks of training at the MG school at Grantham – he would probably have been placed in the most recently created MG unit.
Of the four Companies that would eventually be formed into 8th Battalion MGC, the only one that fits is 218th Company. As stated, they were formed on the 23.3, exactly a month after John reenlisted. That leads me to the inevitable conclusion that John began his period with the MGC in the reserve MG Company of the 8th Division.
That being the case, I would have to say the most likely candidate for the Coy. that John served with in the 8th Bn. was D Coy (formerly 218th).
Even this is nominal, however. D was the reserve Coy. of the Battalion, which means it was constantly feeding replacements into the other three Coys. as they sustained casualties. And, in the month of March ’18, they sustained a great many casualties. John could well have ended up fighting with any of the other line Coys. but, on paper at least, he was more than likely a member of D Company.
And so, what becomes clear, among all these fragments, is the sequence of random events that led up to John Harry’s death; forced back into the service by an untenable economic situation, being considered of a high enough calibre by the military Bureaucratic machine to be fed into the Machine Gun Corps, sent to the Somme to cover a general retreat, and finally, fatally wounded in an unspecified action.
Even the location of his death and subsequent burial (more than likely at a French rather than British Dressing Station) meant he was not able to be officially identified until some months later; placing undue stress and suffering upon his family.
I doubt his story is unique and many soldiers had it much worse, so may remain unidentified or unlocated, but it still reads like a Kafka novel where the protagonist’s fate is decided by a series of random accidents completely beyond their control.
So, what was it to be a member of the Machine Gun Corps? Was there something special about the men who crewed the lethal death machine known as the Vickers Machine Gun?
In a word, yes.
To Join that elite Corps, a soldier (officer or enlisted) needed to be a cut above the average Infantryman of the time. Beyond his original training, any candidate for the MGC needed a minimum of five weeks intensive training at the Machine Gun Training Center at Belton House in Grantham.
Even soldiers who had already seen action as Infantry Brigade level machine gunners were required (often to their chagrin) to take the five-week course. There they discovered that there was a lot more to the science of machine gunnery than they had hitherto experienced.
The entire point of the formation of the Corps was to develop new tactics and techniques beyond simple Brigade level fire-support. By putting the MG in the hands of highly trained specialists, it was hoped (and eventually proven) that the MG could be used more like artillery, creating screens and barrages to hamper the enemies offensive opportunities.
This is why all members were required to attend the camp at Grantham. Only men with the correct physical requirements and mental aptitude were accepted.
Army Council Instructions No. 1589. 14th August1916
The all-round standard required for a machine gunner is far higher than that necessary for an Infantry soldier. To be well developed and sufficiently strongly built to enable him to work with, and carry, a machine gun / similar weight under adverse conditions, and if necessary, to double or crawl with it. He must have no physical defects that would interfere with this work.
Not less than 19 years, not over 35 years, but the actual age is not so important as the general physical condition of the individual.
Not less than 5 ft 3 ins unless in exceptional cases.
Range of expansion not to be less than 3 ins, but 3 ins is sufficient for untrained recruits.
Without glasses, V=6/9 in at least one eye.
Teeth, inoculations and vaccinations attended to before arrival at the Machine Gun Corps training center.
If these standards don’t seem particularly high to you, you are probably unaware of just how lax the standards for general Infantry were. In his memoir, Goodbye to all that, the Author (and former WWI line Infantry Officer) Robert Graves recounts how his Battalion had not one but two privates serving in the trenches who he estimated were each around 70 years old.
The Machine Gun Training Center at Belton Park and Harrowby Camps had several schools including the Officer School, the NCO School, the Drill School, the Machine Gun School, and Artificers School.
Each soldier, whether officer or enlisted man was required to attend several of the schools. Every member of the 6 man MG team had to be trained in how to fire the gun should it be necessary.
As the Belton Park information package states:
A machine gunner had to learn a lot at the schools over a short period of time. They needed to be able to fire the Vickers Machine Gun accurately and keep it in good condition in the Artificers’ and Machine Gun Schools. Learning Range Finding and recognising enemy aircraft were essential as was soldering, welding and rough carpentry skills as you never knew where you might need to make repairs.
Being able to get to a position in the field quickly and following orders were equally important so map reading and signalling with large and small flags, lamps, heliograph, buzzer and telephone had to be learnt, as well as physical training.
This War brought a new enemy to the battlefield – Gas – so soldiers were drilled for Tear and Poison Gas attacks.
This emphasis on Machine Gunnery as a science surely elevated the feeling, amongst the Corps members, of being part of an elite, specialist force. I had not considered, before embarking on this research, that John Harry might have been anything more than an average man in extraordinary times. I may have done him a disservice in that regard. It appears that in training, courage, and ability, he may well have been far more than average.
For decades, Private John Harry Pate of the 8th Battalion, Machine Gun Corps lay in his final resting place at Namps-Au-Val British Military Cemetery; unvisited and remembered only as a name by his descendants.
By the time I began my research in 2004, nobody living even remembered what he’d looked like; let alone what Unit he’d served with. As his brothers and sisters passed in the years following the wars, his memory receded further and further into the mists of time.
Even the Corps to which he had belonged were largely forgotten. The fire at the MGC HQ in 1920 that destroyed so many vital documents reduced the Corps to a half-remembered ghost. The bombing of London during the blitz leading to the destruction of most of what remained was nearly its coup de grâce.
However, some things refuse to stay dead; some people too. Due to the interest of Military enthusiasts, descendants, and amateur genealogists small crumbs of information have come to the surface and slowly the darkness surrounding those terrible days is being pushed back.
John Harry too is coming back to us slowly. We’ll never know who he was really. Never know what his interests were, the sound of his voice, or even the colour of his eyes. Did he smoke a pipe like his son Robert? Did he love football? Was he a reader? There’s just no way of knowing but we can see some of what he did, what he endured and sacrificed in the service of what he believed to be right. That at least is something.
Padiham remembers him as a name on the Honour Roll housed in his beloved Nazareth Chaple and upon the town’s Memorial to the Fallen.
This episode of Time Team has also done its part in bringing the MGC back from oblivion. It features a good deal of very valuable information about the Machine Gun Training School at Belton Park in Grantham.
All MGC members were required to do an intensive six-week course at the school before qualifying as MG crew, so it is very likely that John Harry spent time there in February/March of 1917 after he reenlisted in the Army.
The section on the YMCA hut is particularly interesting as I’m sure all the soldiers (John Harry included) spent time in that small building. It is also a good introduction to the weapon that was so much a part of his military life; the Vickers MG.
I wrote, in the fourth post, that John Harry shares the tiny cemetery at Namps-Au-Val with a VC recipient. However, their final resting place is not the only commonality between the two men. They died just one day apart and while fighting over the same patch of that vast battlefield.
Lieutenant Gordon Muriel Flowerdew was a Canadian Cavalry officer commanding ‘C’ Squadron, Lord Strathcona’s Horse who, on the 30th of March led one of the last significant cavalry charges in military history against the German forces defending Moreuil Wood.
This wood, which still stands today, is overlooked by the village of Castel. On the 30th, John Harry’s much-reduced Battalion was still en route to Castel but upon their arrival in the afternoon of the following day, were immediately in action supporting the second phase of the battle.
By that time, however, Lieutenant Flowerdew had probably succumbed to his wounds. His squadron’s charge against heavy machine gun fire is recorded in this painting by Alfred Munnings;
Here is how events played out according to, The Battle of Moreuil Wood By Captain J.R. Grodzinski, LdSH(RC);
When Flowerdew met Harvey at the northeast corner of the wood, he halted his three troops in a draw. After conferring with Harvey, he returned to the squadron and led them to higher ground.
Just as they reached the high ground, they found a large group of the Germans, perhaps 300 strong, retiring from the wood. They were from the 101st Grenadier Battalion that were withdrawing and other troops that were approaching.
There was one howitzer and several heavy machine guns with them. In a split second, Flowerdew gave the order: “It’s a charge, boys, it’s a charge!”. The Trumpeter, Reg Longley riding behind Flowerdew raised his trumpet to blow the call, it never sounded. Longley was the first casualty of the charge.
In the excitement, many of the horses simply bolted. Private Dale of 4th Troop, riding behind Longley, had to jump over the trumpeter. He recalled that everything seemed unreal, “the shouting of men, the moans of the wounded, the pitiful crying of the wounded and dying horses….” It was difficult to recall what happened and when.
‘C’ Squadron approached the Germans with sabres raised; sabres against rifles and machine guns. They rode into two lines of Germans. Steel cut into flesh; bayonets and bullets answered. Casualties were high on both sides.
Once the two lines were passed, the surviving horsemen turned back toward the wood. There, through the smoke and enemy was Harvey and his men. The survivors fought furiously to get back to them.
Sergeant Tom MacKay, MM, the Troop Sergeant of 1st Troop was acting troop leader since Lieutenant Harrower was on patrol. The flesh was practically stripped between the knees and thighs of both his legs. The doctors later counted some 59 wounds in one leg alone.
Sergeant Wooster also of 1st Troop, survived charging through both lines of Germans but at the second line forgot his sabre drill, and tried to club a German soldier to death. After bypassing another group of Germans, he moved back to the woods. While doing so, he found a wounded member of 4th Troop, Private Harry Hooker and tried unsuccessfully to assist him. He then made his way to where Seely had spoken to Flowerdew and reported to the General that the squadron had been destroyed in a charge. Seely told him to get some rest and Wooster eventually rejoined the squadron. Other survivors also returned to the wood and joined Harvey and ‘A’ Squadron. After Seely watched them return, he galloped back to his headquarters.
Flowerdew had fallen. Dale saw him go down. He was shot in the chest and legs, but he continued to cheer his men on. Harvey and Harrower tried to drag him into the wood; in the process Harrower was wounded in the foot.
One report states that there were only fourteen survivors of the charge. This figure probably does not include wounded. Men and horses lay strewn about the field. Many were dead, most wounded.
The survivors felt themselves lucky; their squadron was under strength to begin with and had engaged and defeated a superior enemy force.
He goes on to write;
’C’ Squadron likely had 100 men available on 30 March. It provided an Officer Patrol of one subaltern and an unknown number of other ranks, and 2nd Troop under Harvey, remained in the wood during the charge. Assuming that this troop had a strength of 25 all ranks, no more than 75 soldiers could have charged. Seventy-five against 300 Germans. With 24 killed, this leaves 51 survivors including wounded.
Approximately 15 more would die from wounds in the next few weeks. ‘C’ Squadron had suffered grievously.”
The following day, the Germans counter-attacked and recaptured the wood and nearby Rifle Wood a mile to the northeast. Command of the Allied counter-attack was again given to Canadian General Seely. His Brigade attacked in three waves and engaging the enemy in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. Once the German forces were again driven out, they (the German’s) began a heavy artillery bombardment and launched multiple counterattacks; but they could not dislodge the Allied troops.
Sometime in the afternoon of the 31st, the 8th Bn. MGC (John Harry’s Battalion) were in action around Castel and their MGs would almost certainly have been involved in attempting to keep German troops from entering nearby Moreuil Wood.
The following morning, that fateful April 1st, Allied troops entered Rifle wood.
Here is an account from the Fort Gary Horse Regimental website:
On the Morning of April 1st , the Brigade was ordered to carry out a dismounted attack on Rifle Wood just North-East of Moreuil. The Fort Garry Horse detachment of 176 men led the Canadian Cavalry Brigade into the heavily defended wood. Losses were again heavy but the attack was successful. 121 prisoners and 13 machine guns were captured and turned against the enemy. The successful attacks on Moreuil and Rifle woods were credited with stopping the German advance on Amiens and saving the city.
And here is the account of the three days of fighting as told in Nicholson’s official history (note that he mentions several times that the French were in Moreuil at this time. This may explain how John Harry came to be buried in a French cemetery):
As German pressure in the direction of Amiens continued, the 2nd Cavalry Division again came under British command on 29 March in the sector adjoining the French left. When early next morning battalions of the 243rd German Division began occupying Moreuil Wood, a commanding position on the right bank of the River Avre only twelve miles south-east of Amiens, the 3rd Cavalry Division and the Canadian Cavalry Brigades were at once sent to recapture it.
French troops had already fallen back across the Avre. A mile and a quarter long from south to north and flaring to a width of nearly a mile at the northern end, the wood consisted mainly of ash trees. These were not yet in leaf, but close-growing saplings and heavy undergrowth made riding exceedingly difficult.
The Canadian brigade was first on the scene, and the assault was carried out in converging thrusts by three mounted squadrons of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, followed up by attacks-mounted and dismounted – by Lord Strathcona’s Horse. The German infantry resisted stoutly, but by 11:00 a.m., after a considerable amount of hand-to-hand fighting, the northern part of the wood was in Canadian hands. While one squadron of the Fort Garry Horse rode back across the Avre to bring the enemy under enfilade fire, a second joined in a dismounted advance through the remainder of the wood. By midday the wood was clear of Germans.
The enemy soon counter-attacked. Reinforced by dismounted units of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade and a company of British infantry, the Canadians strove to maintain their position; though portions of the wood changed ownership more than once, and some lost ground was not recovered. That night the cavalry, having suffered many casualties, were relieved by three improvised battalions of the British 8th Division.
On the 31st the enemy resumed his attacks, recapturing most of Moreuil Wood and occupying the smaller Rifle Wood, which lay a mile to the north beside the Amiens-Roye road. During the afternoon this was retaken, but only temporarily. A further attack that evening, the artillery support for which included two batteries of the R.C.H.A., partially restored the situation, but left Rifle Wood and all but the north-west corner of Moreuil Wood still in German hands.
On the morning of 1 April dismounted units of the 2nd Cavalry Division attacked Rifle Wood in three waves. It was the third wave, consisting of 488 all ranks of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, which entered and cleared the wood.
John Harry may well have been dead or badly wounded by this point but it is likely that his Battalion was lending fire support to this attack as they had on the previous day’s attack on Moreuil Wood.
Flowerdew received the Victoria Cross posthumously for his action of the 30th. He died of his wounds on March 31st (the day before John Harry) at Number 41 Casualty Clearing Station. Flowerdew would have been interred at Namps-Au-Val soon after his death, whereas, as we have learned, Private Pate was not to find his way there until after the Armistice.