Fallen hero: Memories of Shaw man whose name and deeds live on

WHILE Remembrance Day annually focuses the mind on those members of the armed forces who gave their lives in the line of duty, they are always in the thoughts of families and friends left behind.Robert Leeming never met his great, great uncle John Barrass. But he is proud of the Shaw lad who gave his life for his country along with millions more during the Great War.

This is Robert’s account of just one of the names on the Shaw and Crompton War Memorial.

THE stories behind the names on the cenotaph in Shaw 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.

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. So, I recently started research to see if there was anything I could find out about him.

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, December 11, 1916, 23 months and 19 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 recorded the regiment’s day to day activities.

When the King’s Own were in barracks the diary is neatly typed in blue ink.

When they were in the trenches though, on active duty, the pages are crumpled and muddy, the words scrawled out in a faint pencil.

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

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

I assumed the trail would then go cold. Instead I was led 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.Pierre told me that in December 1916, war-torn Cambrai had been in German hands and it was likely, 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 November 18 and 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. It read: “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 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, 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, John had died from his injuries.

Two years on, on Christmas Eve, at Holy Trinity Church in Shaw, Sarah was remarried to a 22-year-old bobbin carrier from Heyside.

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, a century on, when looking up at a cold name on a cenotaph facade the very human tragedy that it represents. John’s story is a reminder of why Shaw’s World War One heroes must never be forgotten.

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