Lance Sergeant Joseph Hancock

15619 9th Bn (Pioneers) North Staffordshire Regiment killed in action April 9th 1917 Age 26

 

Joseph Hancock was born in Brown Edge in 1890, one of the 12 children born to Joseph and Sarah Ann (two of whom had died by 1911). In 1901 he was living with the family in 31, South Street, Norton-le-Moors with his parents and six of his siblings. In 1911 his parents had moved to 7, Thomas Street, Packmoor.

Joseph married Harriet Owen in 1909. In 1911 they were living at 3, Turnhurst Road, with two daughters, Alice born 1909 and Doris May born 1910. They had two more daughters, Lily born in 1910 and Olive born in 1915. At the time of his death the family were living at 23, James (Carr) Street, Packmoor.

None of Joseph’s military service records have survived and so it is not known exactly when he enlisted but it is recorded that he enlisted at Tunstall. Before enlistment Joseph was a coal miner, like his father before him. Many miners were allocated to the Pioneer Corps where their skills could be utilised. At some point Joseph joined the 9th Service Battalion (Pioneers), 37th Division of the North Staffordshire Regiment. His medal record has survived and seems to indicate that he also saw service in the Balkans.

At times research doesn’t always go as expected and the story of this soldier is one such time. A soldier whose service records haven’t survived deprives us of vital details. A soldier whose military service appears to be shared over two active battalions of the same regiment, but how and why the changeover took place remains a mystery. Unless a newspaper article or family letter is found to throw light on the story we may never know for certain and can at this stage only offer our opinion as to the reason.

The medal card of Joseph shows he went to war in Gallipoli with the North Staffordshire Regiment. The only battalion of the regiment to do so was the 7th battalion, who served throughout the war in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, but never served on the Western Front. However CWGC and Soldiers Died both show he died whilst serving near Arras France in the 9th battalion. A mystery!

So what are the known facts. Neither battalion served in both Gallipoli and the Western Front. William we know went to Gallipoli and he died in the Arras area in 1917. This mirrors the story told by the family.

The following is the story that we believe may well have taken place.

Joseph enlisted at Tunstall in 1914. He joined the 7th battalion North Staffordshire Regiment. This battalion trained at Tidworth in 1914 and then in January 1915 went by train to Basingstoke where the battalion had their billets in the town. A route march to Aldershot followed, and then later in March going to Blackdown, Salisbury Plain. Training complete and now attached to the 39th Brigade, 13th Western Division, orders were received to embark for war.

The division sailed from Avonmouth Bristol on June 20th 1915, through the Bay of Biscay and into a hot Mediterranean, with a stop off in Malta, the threat of mines making it a dangerous journey. Their destination was Alexandria in Egypt. The division then sailed on to the Dardanelles landing at Mudros in July and then forward to the Gallipoli Peninsula. The 13th Division was there to relieve the 29th Division at Cape Helles on July 11th where Joseph and his mates were met by an immediate baptism of fire being shelled on landing.

Actions at Achi Baba saw the 7th North Staffords suffer many casualties, then sailing on a short sea trip that brought the battalion to Anzac Cove in early August and the costly battles at Sari Bar, Russell Top and Hill 60 at the end of the month. The terrain was very hilly and inhospitable. The war in Gallipoli had now been raging since April with deteriorating and abysmal conditions, torrential storms causing rivers from the surrounding hills to flood and destroy many of the trenches. This left many brave soldiers to drown or die from exposure.

Early September found a move to Suvla Bay and whilst here a Biddulph soldier, Tom Lancaster, arrived in a replacement draft. Reconstruction of the defences were carried out before December 19th 1915. The lads were then withdrawn for a seven day well deserved rest in the Helles area.

By this time the battalion was reduced to 300 men before a further draft arrived to strengthen their ranks. At the start of 1916 there were terrible blizzard conditions and on January 7th 1916 the enemy made their last attack of the campaign. A few days later the 13th Division were evacuated from Helles and by January 21st had left Gallipoli and sailed aboard HMT Varova to Port Said in Egypt. The battalion now enjoyed bathing and good food to restore their vigour and morale. For a short period the battalion were then used in the defence of the Suez Canal until orders came to transfer the division to Mesopotamia.

We know Joseph did not stay with the 7th battalion on their move to Mesopotamia. Had he been wounded or taken seriously ill and after treatment in the military hospitals of Malta returned to England for further treatment and recuperation? On recovery was he then transferred to the 9th battalion Pioneers, North Staffordshire Regiment attached to the 37th Division, joining this new unit in the field? We believe this may have happened and the dates the family story tells tallies with this move.

In Flanders the pioneers’ tasks included building roads for field guns and tracks for the infantry and there were always trenches to be dug. In 1916 the pioneers were preparing for the forthcoming Battle of the Somme. The division were in action in the Ancre sector. Here Joe and his mates came under heavy enemy shell fire and bravely carried on with their work although the casualties mounted. They were not only trained as Pioneers, but when required they put down their tools and took up their rifles and Lewis guns, as they did whilst following the 13th Rifle Brigade into an attack, having already connected the many shell holes to form a trench. The 9th North Staffords were then ordered to attack the enemy and in doing so took about 40 German prisoners.

To give a flavour of the pioneers work the following is an extract from the 9th battalion Pioneers War Diary. “Work carried out included new trenches in Becourt Wood and Pozeries areas, at Gordon Dump, and on a new road up Sausage Valley leading to the front line. To Bresle, Fricourt Wood.....”

In the Arras Offensive of April 1917 the 37th Division were ordered into action in the Battle of Scarpe where they captured Monchy-le-Preux. On April 9th 1917 the Pioneers were carrying out repairs on the Arras to Cambrai road working under heavy enemy shellfire. Joseph and one other man, who came from Oakamoor, were sadly killed and seven were wounded. The British Legion document states that he was killed between 3.45 and 4.30. It is not known if this was morning or evening. Private Joseph Hancock was 26 years old and now rests in the Tilloy British Cemetery, Tilloy-les-Mofflaines, situated on the outskirts of Arras.

The British Legion citation says that Joseph is remembered on the Newchapel Methodist Chapel memorial but this is erroneous. At the end of the war a memorial service was held at St. James’, Newchapel and the families given a ribbon in remembrance. Joseph’s family received his medals, Victory, British and 15 Star.

Joseph is not commemorated on any of the Biddulph area memorials.

Elaine Bryan and Michael Turnock.

 

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