The birth of John Barnett Slack was registered at Congleton in 1891. He was the son of Henry and Sarah Ann Slack. Henry had married Sarah A. Barnett at St. John’s, Buglawton in 1883. By 1891 the couple lived on Bridge Street, Biddulph with their daughter Elizabeth Alice and son, Henry Brindley Slack. Henry senior was a pattern maker who had been born in Buglawton. Sarah and their children were all Biddulph born.
Ten years later the family resided at 66, Tunstall Road. Henry’s occupation was given as “mechanical pattern maker” and eldest son Henry, then aged 14, was a chair maker. The family had increased and now included John and his younger sister, Mary.
By 1911 the family had moved yet again although only a few doors away to 90, Tunstall Road. Again Henry was described as a mechanic and 19 year old John Barnett Slack was a “no. checker – North Staffordshire Railway”. A year later he was a policeman in Manchester.
Before enlisting in the army, John had served as a policeman at Old Trafford, Manchester since 1912. Local sources say he joined the Royal Engineers in November 1915 and after training went to France on January 16th 1916 serving with this unit in Flanders. Though the medal card of John shows he served in the Leicestershire Regiment with a service number of 37869, his battalion is unknown. In January 1917 he again transferred units when he was seconded to the 28th Battalion Artist Rifles (15th Officer Training Battalion). This may well have been at St. Omer in France where the unit had their HQ. John gained his commission and became Second Lieutenant J.B. Slack.
John now returned to the front being posted to the 1/5th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers (the Fighting Fifth) attached to the 50th Division. He found his new battalion in the Ypres Salient. They had been fighting in the Third Battle of Ypres from July to November 1917. Here the division was decimated during the actions to take the Passchendaele Ridge. John commenced his service with the battalion on November 27th 1917 soon after the battle came to an end. The division spent a cold wet winter holding their front line trenches until early in 1918 when the division was in action again at St. Quentin and the Battle of Lys. In March, as part of five divisions of exhausted battle disabled troops, they were ordered south for recoup and refit.
A long slow journey by rail was undertaken travelling in cattle trucks of the French railway. Their destination was an area between Soissons and Rheims; a quiet area in beautiful countryside in the valley of the River Aisne and far from the horrors of Passchendaele. The soldiers were to spend two months at rest in this relatively safe and relaxed French sector of the Western Front. The enemy were aware of this and were to take advantage of the situation, for beyond the high ridge of the Chemin-des-Dames, the Germans were secretly amassing a large army.
At 1.00am on May 27th 1918 the enemy bombardment opened with devastating results on the resting troops. At 4.00am the enemy infantry attacked. John’s battalion in the 50th Division, who were in position between Craonne and Pontavent, endured a terrible ordeal. Most of these men were already battle exhausted. What an awful twist of fate! This supposedly safe area became the Battlefield of the Third Aisne. The Northumberland Fusiliers bravely held their lines at first but soon dense waves of enemy troops overwhelmed them. It became a nightmare with many men lost including John.
Memorial Plot - Kipling Memorial
To the memory of these two British soldiers killed in action on May 27th 1918 and buried at the time in Pontavent German Cemetery, whose graves are now lost. “Their glory shall not be blotted out”.
On May 27th 1918, at the age of 26, Second Lieutenant John Barnett Slack sadly fell on the battlefield. Originally he was buried by the Germans in their Cemetery at Pontavent and later after the armistice he was remembered in the Ville-Aux-Bois British Cemetery. The CWGC have records which state, “John is remembered along with a fellow officer, Second Lieutenant James MacMeeken of the same regiment, their headstones lie side by side on the wall of the cemetery.”
In this cemetery many of the graves are of 50th Division troops and the cemetery is close to the remains of the WW1 Berry-au-Bois airfield.
The Staffordshire Weekly Sentinel reported on the death of Second Lieutenant Slack.
SEC.–LIEUT. J.B. SLACK, BIDDULPH KILLED IN ACTION
“The sad news reached Mr. and Mrs. Henry Slack, 90, Tunstall Road, Biddulph, on Saturday that their second son, Sec.–Lieut. J.B. Slack, Northumberland Fusiliers, was killed in action on May 27th. Lieut. Slack, who was in his 27th year, enlisted in November 1915 in the Royal Engineers as a Private. Previously he was, for two years, with the County Police, Old Trafford, Manchester. In January 1917, he went to the front, but came home in June to take a commission. He joined the Cadet Corps of the Artists Rifles, and was gazetted second-lieutenant in November.
Mr. and Mrs. Slack’s eldest son, Private Harry Slack, Niagara Rangers, is on active service, having come over with the Canadians. Previous to enlisting he was engaged in farming in Canada, where he had been since 1913.”
John Barnett Slack is remembered on the memorials at St. Lawrence and also the cenotaph in Albert Square, Biddulph.
Michael Turnock and Elaine Heathcote.