Historian uncovers story of Bolton soldier who became stretcher-bearer in First World War
AS the nation prepares to commemorate the centenary of the First World Way next year, a young Bolton soldier’s story is a reminder of the conflict. GAYLE McBAIN reports
HISTORIAN Charles Sandbach has uncovered a fascinating story about a brave young Bolton soldier killed in the First World War.
He has the medals awarded to this remarkable young man and now wants Bolton News’ readers to know the soldier’s story.
Mr Sandbach, who was born and brought up in Bolton, said he found “something profoundly significant regarding the story of young John Owens”, a soldier who served with the 1/5th Bolton Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.
He said: “This is because of my own enduring connection with his particular battalion, raised from the town here where I was born, remembered on a special memorial within that town, a memorial greatly forgotten.
“This is the battalion for whose memory and legacies I have campaigned for, the one that means more to me personally than any other for they were the Bolton Infantry of the First World War, the unofficial “Bolton Pals” as they were a classified battalion and not a service one.”
He has campaigned ferociously for more recognition for the sacrifices made by the men of the 5th Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, a regiment he believes has been largely forgotten by the town.
And in November last year the campaign to recognise the “forgotten” Bolton regiment reached its conclusion when a wreath was laid at Queens Park to remember the 1,000 Bolton Loyals killed in the First World War.
When Mr Sandbach managed to get Mr Owens’ medals — to add to his collection of World War One memorabilia — the 47-year-old felt compelled to investigate the soldier’s story.
His story of John Owens starts in January 1897.
Mr Sandbach said: “John Stanley Owens entered the world on January 4, 1897, born out of wedlock to his mother, Elizabeth, and with no father’s name appearing on his birth certificate.
“At that time this wasn’t entirely unusual but horribly stigmatised. His mother, a domestic servant, with a senior position as a cook, had obviously had a relationship that had to be kept quiet and subsequently John grew up without a father. His mother never married.
“John was born at number 5 German Street (later to change its name to Haslam Street during the First World War, for obvious reasons) in the south or central area of Bolton off Derby Street under the shadow of the Haslam family cotton mill.
“Elizabeth was inhabiting a house owned by the mill owners, which could lead to some speculation as to her secret relationship. Elizabeth Owens avoided any kind of officialdom and obviously wanted to keep the truth of her son a secret. As a result neither she, nor her son, appear on any census records.
“Some of John’s army service record still exists and that, along with some other detective work, has enabled me to pick his life up from when he joined the army in 1915.
“John was still in Bolton on the night of September 25-26, 1916, when the town suffered its only ever fatal air raid. This was meted out by the German Imperial Naval Zeppelin “L21” commanded by Kurt Frankenberg.
“The giant German airship dropped a number of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the south and central side of town. At this time John and his mother had moved to John Street that once stood close to the current site of the modern university.
“The street received a direct hit, as did neighbouring streets including Kirk Street — where five people were killed — and Punch Street, In total 13 Boltonians perished during the bombing.
“By the standards of the time John was a small fellow — standing just over five foot two inches tall — below the average height of the day. He joined his local unit as a volunteer on August 28, 1915, stating his age as 19 years and eight months, the legal requirement being 19 years. He lied by adding a year on as he was actually 18 at the time. He hadn’t been the first to do this and he wouldn’t be the last.
“After quite a long period of time in training he finally embarked for France on February 12, 1917.
“John had the qualification of stretcher bearer and would have carried out this hazardous duty on many occasions as well as also playing his part as a front line infantryman.
“It is my opinion that John was allocated the stretcher bearer roll on account of a his small physique and very possibly because he had been a musician in the battalion band — most of the musicians were also stretcher bearers.
“Having examined his hand writing it is very clear that John was an intelligent and creative young man and throughout his entire service he had a totally clean disciplinary record.
“The young Bolton lad was granted professional pay class two in September 1917 and just four days later was wounded in action by enemy gas shelling, a particularly nasty form of chemical warfare. As a result of that he spent 10 weeks in hospital at Boulogne before being declared fit enough to rejoin his unit after the horrors of the Battle of Cambrai that had seen many of his comrades killed or maimed.
“The last time John returned to Bolton was March 1918. He had been granted two weeks leave, which meant he had a week in Bolton.
“He was 21-years-old and had everything to live for — he would see his mother and Bolton though for the last time.
“Only a couple of weeks after his return to the front John was declared sick while on active service and once again sent to hospital.
“On the evening of June 26, during a period of rest, John was playing in a game of football. About 15 minutes into the game he went to head a ball and collided with an attached artillery soldier and as a result broke his nose.
“The incident led to official paperwork having to be filed including John’s written statement. He was declared unfit for service and enjoyed a period of respite before finally being sent to rejoin his unit on September 21, 1918.
“It was over a week before he actually got back to front line duty and he went straight back into the thick of the action as the Bolton Infantry stormed the village of Anneux on September 27.
“It was two days after the initial assault John was back rescuing the dying and wounded at the constant mercy of snipers and artillery fire.
“Just a couple of days later he was killed — his body being retrieved some time later by his stretcher bearer colleagues.
“Elizabeth Owens took receipt of John’s medals in 1922. After he death they were kept together and eventually ended up in the hands of a medals’ dealer in the 1990s.
“John’s medals are now with me, brought up to exhibition standard and treasured.”
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