John Thomas Bowers enlisted at Biddulph soon after war commenced, joining the 1/5th North Staffordshire Regiment. He was aged 21, a local lad, and a prominent member of Biddulph Unionist Club. He had been born in Biddulph in 1893, the son of ironworker Thomas and his wife Mary. In 1901 the family lived in Well Street but by 1911 they had moved to 4, Cromwell Street. The census of that year tells us that Thomas and Mary were no strangers to tragedy as they had already lost three of their seven children. In this year, John Thomas shared the family home with his younger brother and sister, Alfred and Annie. At 17 years of age, John was employed as a collier.
Saying goodbye to his parents Thomas and Mary at Cromwell Street, John along with his pals started their initial training at Butterton Hall before moving to the Luton/Bishops Stortford area. Here the intensive training began – squad drilling, marching, bayonet and shooting practice.
By March 1915 the 46th North Midlands Division was ready for war. The soldiers embarked at Southampton for France, which was to be for most, their first experience of a foreign country. On their arrival the 1/5th Staffords moved to their concentration area and then on to the Ypres Salient, fighting in July at Hooge.
Whilst in the trenches, Private Bowers wrote to his friends at the Unionist Club, and his letter appeared in the Chronicle:
Just a few lines to let you know that I am in the best of health, hoping to find you all the same. I have just come out of the trenches and have had a jolly time. We are only about 50 yards from them. They got up on the top of their trench and challenged us out for a game of football, but we did not have any. We told them that there was a tin of tobacco if they would come for it, but they shook their heads. We should have answered with ‘fire rapid’ if they had come for it. We have come out without having any killed or wounded this time. I think our chance out here is like me playing Jackson 50 up off a mark. I think this is all this time, with love from the old member.
By late September the division moved south to fight in the Battle of Loos, John Thomas Bowers unlike many of his pals was more fortunate, surviving the terrible attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt on October 13th. Following this battle the battalion were withdrawn to recover.
At some point during 1915, John became ill and wrote from his hospital bed to the local newspaper representative in Biddulph. He had been suffering from an attack of “enteric fever, supervening gastritis, contracted owing to the bad smells in the trenches”. Private Bowers paid tribute to the wonderful care he had received from the nurses in France. At this point he was at the General Hospital at Camberwell Schools, Denmark Hill, London. In a letter to the Biddulph Unionist Club he said “there are many soldiers in the hospital, and they enjoy motor rides three times a week.” Later correspondence from Addlington Park War Hospital, Croydon, from Private Bowers to the Chronicle reported that “thanks to the doctors and sisters in France and England he feels like a new man, and hopes to be home next week.”
By mid-December, 46th Division were ordered to make ready to entrain on the 23rd and John Thomas and his pals would spend Christmas on board French Railways travelling to Marseilles in the south of France. Away from the shelling and in warmer climes the men were to board a troopship for a journey to Egypt. The division arrived on January 13th 1916 and for some reason within a few days their orders were countermanded and the division were to return to France.
Their pleasant adventure and experience was over; the men were returning to the front line and soon the division were to prepare for the Battle of the Somme. They were to be deployed in a diversionary attack at Gommecourt on the opening day of the battle on July 1st 1916. Heavy shelling occurred on the communication trench where the 1/5th Battalion was waiting, and within the first minutes of the attack, Private J.T. Bowers and over 300 brave men were lost.
Almost eleven months later, on May 19th 1917, the Chronicle reported on the death of Private Bowers. It would appear that he had been listed as ‘missing’ and it was not until April 30th 1917 that he was officially reported as dead. A service had been held at St. Lawrence the previous week in memory of Private Bowers. The Chronicle reported on the large congregation which had included representatives of the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows. Hymns sung included ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ and ‘Thy Will be Done’. Private Bowers had been a member of the Bible Class and former Curate, Rev. Cosser spoke of his friendship with John: “It is about nine years ago since I met and knew dear Bowers, now known as Private J.T. Bowers of His Majesty’s Forces, and one of those brave lads, who responding to the call of their country, have made the Great Sacrifice.”
Sadly John Thomas was never recovered from the battlefield and has no known grave being remembered on the Somme at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. His name also appears on the Biddulph memorials.
Mike Turnock & Elaine Heathcote.