England,  Phoebe,  Western Europe

A Soldiers Cemetery – John William Streets

Behind that long and lonely trenched line
To which men come and go, where brave men die,
There is a yet unmarked and unknown shrine,
A broken plot, a soldier’s cemetery.
There lie the flower of youth, the men who scorn’d
To live (so died) when languished Liberty:
Across their graves flowerless and unadorned
Still scream the shells of each artillery.
When war shall cease this lonely unknown spot
Of many a pilgrimage will be the end,
And flowers will shine in this now barren plot
And fame upon it through the years descend:
But many a heart upon each simple cross
Will hang the grief, the memory of its loss

John William Streets
John William Streets

John William Streets (known as Will) was born in March 1886, to William and Clara, the eldest of their twelve children. Living in Whitwell, Derbyshire on Portland Street, Will was a gifted student, who was offered a place at the local Grammar school but turned down the place in favour of leaving school at fourteen to work in the local coal mine to help support the large family. This would be his employment for the next fourteen years. He kept up his studies after school, excelling in Classics and French, and later took a position as Sunday School Teacher at his local Wesleyan Chapel. He loved to draw and write, and his main subject material was the countryside around his home.

When Will was 28, the Great War broke out, and despite his abhorrence of war, he felt he should do his part. Being a coal miner meant that Will was in one of the priority reserved occupations, exempting him from enlisting. In many circumstances, particularly at the beginning of the war, because of the need of these workers to remain in their employment continuing what was felt to be vital war work, they were actively prevented from enlisting. Later in the war they were permitted into certain specialised companies particularly the “tunnellers” – mining battalions – for which they had the appropriate skills and lack of fear.

Due to the impressive amount of men enlisting in the area, many of whom came from the same areas, working in the same jobs, often living close to each other, special ‘Pals’ Battalions were formed, made up of these men. Each battalion was formed of around 900 men who enlisted in particular areas. Will was placed into the 12th (Service) Battalion Yorks and Lancaster Regiment, or more commonly known as the Sheffield City Battalion. Later it was nicknamed the Sheffield Pals. Many of the men in this battalion were, like Will, miners. They also had a large contingency of rail-workers. There were office workers, and ex-Public schools boys.

Following 15 months of training in various camps around England, in December 1915, Will’s battalion was integrated into the 31st Division. He warned his parents that his inclusion in the war effort could mean he wouldn’t return. The 31st sailed for Egypt. After a couple of months increasing the defences around the Suez Canal, the Pals and the 31st headed for the Western Front, and France. Made up of three brigades, each formed of four battalions, all Pals regiments, the 92nd were all Hull men, the 93rd one Leeds, two Bradford and one Durham and the 94th formed of two Barnsley, the Sheffield City and one Accrington battalion. They were also joined by a Pioneer (miners) battalion of the King Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, from Leeds. Their orders to march on to the rear of the line in the area of the Serre for further training, pending the planned assault on the German lines. The battle was scheduled to commence on June 29th.

The Division were to be positioned at the far north of a 15-mile front facing the German 169th. Part of their line was hidden in the midst of a small group of wooded areas, christened, after the Gospels, Matthew Copse, Mark Copse, Luke Copse and John Copse. Matthew stood alone, whilst the other three were tightly grouped. The men division were tasked with advancing on the enemy, passing their front line, which they should take easily thanks to the constant week long barrag that was settled on the defensive barbed wire, before heading up to the village and turning 90 degrees North to keep up with the 48th Division, to their left.

Sheffield Battalion Memorial in Serre
Sheffield Battalion Memorial in Serre

The attack was delayed by two days, giving a new offensive kick -off on July 1st. As we now know, in many areas the Germans were aware of the planned attack, and were anticipating the barrage from the heavy artillery. The British Headquarters plan of an easy victory assisted by the annihilation of the barbed wire defence, and the continual shelling causing a significant amount of losses to the enemy was tragically unrealistic. The Germans, aware that the increase in artillery meant an offensive was coming, simply retreated into their heavily fortified bunkers and dug-outs to wait it out. The shrapnel shells, thought to be effective against the yards of sharp coiled wire, failed to make any impact whatsoever.

At 7.20 on the morning of the attack, ten minutes before zero hour, the British force sent a smoke screen across no man’s land to give them some cover ready for the attack. This was the signal the Germans had been waiting for. They took up their positions in their line, and laid down their own return machine gun fire, right onto the assembly trenches to the rear of the lines in John Copse, inflicting 30% casualties on the 2nd Barnsley before the whistle even blew and reducing the copse to a pile of debris. The 1st Bradford received similar treatment as they took their own position to the far right, flank, their orders to follow the Leeds in a second wave. 2nd Lt Charles Laxton, ADC to Battalion Commander of the 1st Bradford, Major Guyon, other officers, and the Major were making their way to the front line from the Battalions headquarters, when Major Guyon was shot through the helmet into his forehead.

Despite the grim outlook, Laxton attempted to bandage the Major’s head wound, but he quickly succumbed to the wound. The time was 7.25 am. Following the first day’s battle, his body was never found.
At 7.30 the whistle blew and the men made their way over the top, to advance steadily across no man’s land “as if on a drill parade.” Those that weren’t mown down by the immense machine gun fire from the waiting enemy, managed to reach the barbed wire, to find it remained unscathed from the Allied heavy shelling in the run up to the offensive. Few men made it further. At the end of the day, the division had suffered heavy losses, The Sheffield Pals recorded losses of 483 missing wounded or dead, including 15 Officers. The official records later confirm 248 dead, including 7 officers.

John William Streets, an avid letter writer and amateur poet, wrote several poems, two particularly during the days leading up to the offensive. One was entitled “Matthew Copse”, the other “A Soldier’s Cemetery”. During his battalion’s second wave advance across no man’s land, he was shot and injured. After making his way back towards the British front line for treatment, he was observed going to the assistance of another wounded soldier. He was never seen again.
The Somme has become synonymous with the horror of war. On the first day alone 19240 men became casualties. It has been calculated that during the five-month battle, that two men became casualties, wounded or killed, for every three minutes of the entire offensive which was only intended as a diversionary tactic to distract the Germans from the heavy fighting in other areas particularly Verdun, earlier in the Spring. The battle finally wound down in November 1916, and the survivors moved on. They came back the same way the following year, and at that point several bodies were recovered and buried, particularly from No Man’s Land. Amongst them was John William Streets. After being officially listed on 1st May 1917 as killed in action, his remains were incorporated into Euston Road Cemetery, Colincamps.

Memorial to the Accrington Pals - Sheffield Memorial Park Serre Somme France | by Rob Lovesey
Memorial to the Accrington Pals – Sheffield Memorial Park Serre Somme France | by Rob Lovesey

Visitors to the area today will be unable to see Matthew Copse, which was completely obliterated during the battle. It did not regenerate. The other three copses however have been reclaimed by nature, and amongst them you will find the Accrington Pals memorial in one corner, and Sheffield Park Memorial through the trees which were once the copses. The ground is uneven, formed from the trenches and shell-holes left after the fighting was over.