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Russell, J.W., Pte., 1917
The following has been compiled by Brian Sapsed.

John William Russell 1892 - 1917

Born in Durham in 1892, John William Russell was the second child of William Thomas Russell and Florence A Russell. By the time of the 1901 Census his parents were living at No 2 Hallgarth Street in the parish of St Oswald’s, Durham. Situated on the eastern bank of the River Wear the three rooms the family occupied provided a home for not only John but his father William, (age 34), his mother Florence,(age 30), and also his two sisters, Sarah, (age 12), and Florence Mary, (age 5). His father was at that time working as a brickyard labourer although ten years earlier the 1891 Census shows that, before John was born, William was employed as a printer compositor. The couple and Sarah, (age 2), were then residing at 25 Gilesgate in the parish of St Giles to the north of the city.

Little is known about John’s early life but presumably he attended school in Durham and learned to read and write. This is evidenced by his signature on the Attestation papers on joining the 1/8th Territorial Battalion, Durham Light Infantry on 6 April 1908 as number 8/113. The papers show that he had previously been apprenticed to a Mr William Lockerbie, a blacksmith who, according to the 1901 Census, was operating a shop in the same Hallgarth Street at No 20. The one major confusion arising at this time was the fact that John stated his age as 17 years and 8 months which would mean that he had been born in August 1890. The 1891 Census clearly shows that only Sarah had been born into the family at that time and the 1901 Census gives John’s age as 9. This would suggest that when he applied to serve for a period of four years in 1908 he was in fact only 15 years and 8 months old! Why he would possibly want to do this is open to speculation. Maybe he was fed up with the prospect of being an apprentice for several more years or thought that the “glamour” of wearing the King’s uniform was more inviting and the pay better. We will never know but, having been passed “fit” by the medical officer in May 1908, by that July he had clearly been accepted and was undergoing training at Ripon camp.

The next four years of Army life were interspersed with various other annual training camps and must have been happy enough for John as, by March 1912, with his time served about to expire, he applied to stay on for a further year. The same thing happened in March 1913 and yet again in March 1914 which effectively meant that John would already be in uniform when the First World War broke out.

The three months between August 1914 and September 1914 were not only turbulent in world terms but also in the personal life of John Russell as, sometime during these months, his father is recorded as passing away at the early age of just 47. This meant that John had effectively become the “man of the house” although of course he would not be able to do any more than send money home to his mother and sisters from his Army wages.

For the rest of 1914 and until 18 April 1915 John remained in England with his unit but on 19 April 1915 the Durham Light Infantry Brigade, as part of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division moved to France. Within days the relative peace of life in England would have been totally shattered as the 2nd Battle of Ypres had already begun on 18th April and by the 22nd April the 50th Division were being thrown into the affray at the battles of St Julien, Frezenburg and Bellewaarde. The effect on John through this first month of action cannot even start to be imagined but by the 25 May 1915 at least 125 men of the 1/8th Battalion had been killed in action or died of wounds. With the 7 years service that John had already undertaken he must have known many of these men personally and too lose more than one in ten of their original number in just over a month must have left him numb. From then on John and his fellow Territorial’s would have had to cope with the continuous “hell on earth” daily existence not knowing when any of them might be left with painful wounds, loss of limbs, disfigurement or ultimately, death in the mud and filth of trench warfare. Indeed, by the time that John was to return home six months later on 18 April 1916, a further 95 men of the Battalion had lost their lives making a casualty death rate of more than 20%.

Arriving back in England must have given John a mixture of both relief and perhaps guilt over the fact that he had returned home in one piece when many of his pals had not. By now he had served his Country for over eight years and, after two more weeks of hard earned home leave, on 28 April 1916 John presented himself before his commanding officer at the Drill Hall in Durham. The date was a very special one as, having completed a total of eight years, 23 days the 5’ 6” tall, brown haired, brown eyed John William Russell, with D.L.I. tattooed on his left wrist and having an “Exemplary” record, signed his Termination of Engagement papers. In times of peace John might well have felt he was now free to return to an orderly civilian life but by this time the cream of England’s young male population was being decimated on a daily basis so John had to accept he was still a Reservist and liable to be called up again at any time his Country needed him.

Whether conscience or fear of being regarded as a coward or simply the fact that he received the Country’s call to arms again, for whatever reason, less than three months later on the 25th July 1916 John William Russell could be found at the 68th Recruiting Office in Newcastle-On-Tyne. Here he signed his enrolment papers, was issued with a new number of 325862, passed Class A for fitness and stated he had been working for the last few months as a Fitters labourer. The thought of the £15 bounty being added to his allowance for re-enlisting was unlikely to have made him any happier but perhaps he thought that if anything should happen to him then at least his widowed mother and sisters would receive some benefit.
Initially remaining in England, possibly the prospect of returning to the Front and having no doubt read about the catastrophic losses on the Somme in July, John’s attitude appears to have changed as, on the 18th and 19th of August his records show that he was absent without permission. For this he received punishment of one day confined to barracks. Nothing further is recorded until on 4th November he embarked on a troop ship at Folkestone and on the same day disembarked at Bologne. In his re-enlistment papers John had requested to rejoin his pals in the 1st/8th Battalion but possibly to his great disappointment he was actually posted to the 1st/9th Battalion Durham Light Infantry on 16 November. His discipline was again called into question as he again went absent on 22 December. This time his punishment of seven days confined to barracks would mean Christmas 1916 would be a very sombre time.

1917 arrived and possibly the start of a new year and the realization that he was locked into this global conflict had the desired effect on John as there were no further reports of bad behaviour or punishments. Indeed, by August 1917 John would have been caught up in the War for almost 3 years and may have just begun believing that, through all the death and destruction going on around him, he was destined to survive and return to Durham and his family. Cruelly, this was not to be the case.

On 28th September 1917 reports for the 1st/9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry would show that 325228 Private Samuel Hall “died”, 325942 Private Thomas Tavener “died of wounds” and 325682 Private John William Russell was wounded. The casualty report form is noted that he suffered gun shot wounds to the thigh and head. Copies of Post Office Telegraphs received in the Territorial’s Record Office in York on 29th September and again on 3rd October 1917 might have given hope that John would pull through as he condition is noted as “Satisfactory”.

However, this would sadly prove to be a false hope as, on the 7th October 1917, John died of his wounds. Officially he was 26 years of age but if the Census records are to be believed then he would have actually been only 24 when he met his untimely end.

No doubt with the relative military efficiency that the Army enjoyed the fateful telegram to his mother would have probably arrived within days of John’s death. Like many thousands of families up and down the country there would be no body to mourn and no grave in England to visit as repatriation had long ago been ruled out. All the family would be left with was their grief and each other for comfort.

Eight months later the pain of the family’s loss would still have been very real but it would be rudely awakened when a package and letter dated 12th June 1918 would arrive at the Hallgarth residence. In it were the personal effects of John Russell and a request that a receipt should be returned to the York Records Office. The list of items appears both poignant and sad when reflecting the loss of a human life but may have brought some comfort to his mother and sisters. Two identity discs, letters, photo’s cards, small note book, religious book, Army forms, metal watch and strap, match box case, purse, pocket case and strangely enough, one German coin.

Almost two years later in June 1920 the Army office would write yet again, this time to ask his mother to confirm her relationship to John along with that of his sisters. (By now his oldest sister, Sarah, was married and lived at 13, Claypath, Durham as Mrs Hollis). Mrs Russell duly confirmed the details and signed and returned the form on 2 July 1920. Subsequently the family would have received the medals to which John had been entitled and the memorial plaque and scroll to record grateful nations thanks for yet another life sacrificed for freedom.

John William Russell

Medal entitlement

8/113 (325682) Private John William Russell 1914/15 Star
8/113 (325682) “ British War Medal
8/113 (325682) “ Victory Medal
In memoriam
John William Russell Memorial Plaque
John’s grave lies in Bucquoy Road Cemetery, Ficheux, Pas de Calais, Plot II. G . 2. (Over 1900 First World War deaths are commemorated within the cemetery).

Information obtained from:-
1891 Census for England;
1901 Census for England;
England and Wales Death Index;
Commonwealth War Graves Commission;
Soldiers Died in the Great War;
Medal Index Card and Burnt Documents (WO363)

To the memory of John William Russell
Brian Sapsed, 10 March 2007

John William Russell is remembered in Durham on D47.054 and D47.050

The CWGC entry for Private Russell

If you know more about this person, please send the details to janet@newmp.org.uk