2Lt John SOWERBY 149 Trench Mortar Battery Northumberland Fusiliers.
Formerly R/16841 Sgt SOWERBY 21st KRRC.
Prisoner of War May 1918.
John SOWERBY was born at Lancaster on the 19th October 1890. He would become a fully trained school teacher in civilian life having completed his training at the St Mary’s Training College, Brook Green, Hammersmith, Fulham.
John is stood top right in this college photo.
Aged 25 and a single man John attested at the Old Town Hall, Lancaster on 14th November 1915. His given address at the time is 42 Windermere Road, Lancaster and his occupation as trained school teacher.
He would join ‘C’ Coy, 21st Service battalion ( Yeoman Rifles ) of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps as R/16841 Pte SOWERBY. This battalion consisted mainly of men having an agricultural background from Yorkshire, Northumberland, Durham, Lincoln, Leicestershire and Norfolk. 1915 based at Duncombe Park, Helmsley, Yorkshire and then in 1916 to Aldershot as part of the 124th Brigade, 41st Division. He would travel to France and the Western Theatre of operations on the 4th May 1916 presumably as a Corporal with the Kings Royal Rifle Corps as the next day he is promoted to Sergeant, in the field, on 5th May 1916.
In the above photograph signed by John he wears the rank of Corporal and the rear of the card indicates it is a studio of Walshams Ltd, 60 Doughty Street, St & Provinces.
On the Western Front the 21st Battalion KRRC had been situated in the areas of Hazebrouck and Bailleul. During the time John was with the battalion they had taken part in the battle for Flers Courcelette on the Somme between 15th – 22nd September 1916, the battle for Transloy Ridges, Somme between 1st – 20th October 1916 and the battle of Messines, Ypres salient 7th – 14th June 1917.
On the 4th July 1917 John returns to the UK for the purpose of commission and was appointed 2Lt on the 27th November 2017. He was then transferred to the 3rd Northumberland Fusiliers and placed in charge of a trench mortar team with the 149th Trench Mortar Battery. His papers now show his home address to be 24 Dumbarton Road, Lancaster.
Johns officer cadet section above.
By the 21st March 1918 John is back on the Western Front and it is now that the germans launch what was known as their spring offensive consisting of 3 phases of attack. The third of these being BLUCHER YORCK began in the early hours of the 27th May 1918. A massive artillery bombardment preceded the dispersal of poisonous gas. Once the gas had lifted the German infantry poured forwards overwhelming the allied positions. The Germans smashed through 40 kilometres of allied held territory before being beset by fatigue and logistical problems. The allies rallied and began to launch counter attacks bringing the German offensive to a halt. On the first night of this offensive John was in front line trenches at Bois De Buttes commanding a Trench Mortar Battery section and it is here that he was captured by the enemy and held at the Karlsruhe prisoner of war camp. We know precisely the circumstances of his capture as his personal hand written account survives along with his account to the board of enquiry upon his repatriation.
The STOKES TRENCH MORTAR
Here is John’s account transcribed:-
May 26th ‘ Very Quiet day – had —– at 8pm – Message which says that might be attack at 1am on 27th – All 8 guns put into position – To remain at Bois De Buttes ‘
May 27th ‘ Terrific bombardment opens out upon us – minies 5/9 8″ shell calibre’s – It was intense and all expected to go West sooner or later – bombardment continues – send three messages to my O.C. but receive no answer. At 3.30am Mr TOLKIEN arrives from line – gives me news that enemy has broken through and that he was using tanks. We go out to reconnoitre, we proceed down trench through clouds of sulphurous smoke, made our way to observation post and there see enemy advancing in artillery formation. Decide to link BOYAN to AVINES. We feel our way through BOYAN to AVINES. First we were entrapped, Mr TOLKIEN at head of party makes the way through small machine gun emplacement. It takes long for us to get through and before myself and 2 men have time to get through the enemy are on all sides of the machine gun emplacement. Looked around to see if we could escape, ran around reverse and found trench blocked by wire and fallen earth. We decided to give in for the enemy was much too superior in number and we had very short field of fire. Only a few yards. We proceeded along TRAMWAY. I was stopped by enemy Sgt Major who threatened to shoot me. I said nothing. He raved and seemed to be cursing and swearing but I remained mute. He eventually made my men carry wounded Bosche to field station. Whilst on journey 2 of our shells dropped within 10 yards of us. Stayed at field station 1/2 hour. Then ordered to go on working party – would not go – eventually officers showed me the way to the rear. Passed through Bosche lines to engineers camp. There met party of 6th battalion officers – proceeded on to dressing station. Then to field at Arlfontaine – there searched – name and regiment given – then marched to cage – lay on wire bed for night ‘
28th ‘ Next morning marched to Lappoire 13Km – received 1/10th loaf – first food for 50 hours ‘.
29th ‘ Slept on boards – received coffee substitute and then marched to Lislet 13Km – cage – at night 9pm received 1/5th loaf and some potato water ‘.
30th ‘ Coffee substitute for breakfast – flour and potato water at night – had 1st shave and wash. 1/3rd loaf ‘.
31st ‘ Marched to Hirson – through Monternet ——- Plomion and Bouse – 29km – had nothing to eat until 1pm at night and then received 1/5th loaf, slept on straw ‘.
1st June ‘ Coffee in the morning – soup at 12pm, were billeted in rooms of a large disused house. Awaiting wash and shave – Bread 1/5th loaf – coffee subs – soup and lay about on grass ‘.
2nd June ‘ Coffee (bread 1/5th loaf for day) soup 11.30. Parade 12.15pm. Marched to station and entrained at 2.15pm. Moved at 2.30pm. Train journey lasted 38 hours and passed through Luxembourg – Sedan – Innsbruck St Ingburt Landau, Germeshein – Karlsruhe to Rastatt. At Germeshein and Sedan receive food in the form of soup. Passed through absolutely delightful and beautiful country. Towns well pleasant and clean and beautiful. Chief industry on route was iron industry ‘.
4th June ‘ Around 4.30 at Rastatt, marched to Fort at 12 – given soup – waited in queue 5 hours to fill in form. Sent to another part of fort. Surroundings much cleaner and brighter – given soup and cheese at 3.30pm – find room to sleep in, 15 beds in room – 2 beds ok. Sleep the sleep of the ———— ‘.
5th June ‘ Kaffee subs and 1/5th loaf breakfast. 2 roll calls per day – have wash in canteen and no grub to be bought – soup at 12 – tea sub out – 4pm and camp at 7 ‘.
6th June ‘ Kaffee sub – roll call at 9am. Phy perks at 9.30 – 10.30. Bought some castings biscuits at Kantine – soup at 12 “.
Here are his original handwritten notes:-
As a prisoner of war John was expected by the enemy to observe a certain code of conduct, demonstrated by the card below:-
John was repatriated on the 10th December 1918 when an enquiry was held into the circumstances of his capture. This is the account he gave to the enquiry :-
” Received orders from Lt Col BENSON O.C. 149 T.M.B. who was stationed at headquarters 6th Batt Northumberland Fusiliers at 12pm on night of May 26/27 1918. To remain at Battery Headquarters which were situated on North Western side of Bois De Buttes. At 1am on 27th again received message from O.C. stating I was to remain at Battery H.Q. until I received further orders from him. I was in touch with him until 5.15am. Sent 2 runners but they did not return. About 6am enemy broke between 6th Batt North Fus H.Q. and my position. At 6.15 enemy broke through on my right. By 6.30am we were completely cut off. We held our position for nearly an hour then tried to force our way back but were unsuccessful for enemy were far superior in numbers to us who were but 6 rifles ”
On the 16th June 1919 John was found in no way to blame for being captured and was praised for his conduct.
During the German offensive some 50,000 allied men were captured by the enemy.
Here are some images of Karlsruhe Officers prisoner of war camp in Germany 1918.
The officer in the trench with John at the time has been identified as 2Lt Charles TOLKIEN of the 8th Northumberland Fusiliers also attached to Trench Mortar Battery. He was also listed missing and reported captured the same date.
Here are the International Red Cross record cards relating to both John and Charles.
Emotive items John saved from his war time experience
After the war John would relinquish his commission and return to civilian life as a teacher. He had married Alice BARBER in 1917 and they would have 4 children Barbara, Joan, Anthony and Brian.
Here is John in later life enjoying a game of bowls, he stands far right of those actually on the green.
John passed away 0n the 6th November 1966 and is buried in Morecambe Lancs.