In early 1996, whilst researching my family's military history, I discovered the letters, photographs, documents and memorials of my great uncle Jack, who was assumed to have died of wounds on the Somme on the 13th of November 1916. All this material has been kept faithfully by our family for over 80 years. Before passing to me, it had resided the last 60 years at No.20 Park Grove, Barnsley.
The following is a shortened history, based upon his thoughts and feelings in letters written to his mother and family.
John Clegg (known as Jack) was born on 20th February 1896 at 28 Silver St, Dodworth, Barnsley, the 4th son of Charles and Elizabeth Ann. Jack had three brothers, Charlie, Harry and Frank; and three sisters, Annie, Christiana and Alice. All the male members of Jack's family were miners & Jack also worked in the mines as an Electrician. When war was declared in August 1914 Jack was 18 & in November chose to enlist in the Royal Marines Light Infantry along with some pals.
He signed up for long service (12 years) with the Chatham Division RMLI at the Admiralty Recruitment Office, Deansgate, Manchester on the 10th of November 1914. However, his pals joined for short service. Some think it unusual that he enlisted for long service, when the Marines had just introduced short service engagement of 3 years or the duration of the war. This may be attributed to a desire to escape from the mining tradition within his family, the war being only a circumstance which prompted the move for a career in the Royal Marines, as well as wishing to "do his bit" for King and Country. Jack's trade on enlistment was given as Electrician (at Church Lane Colliery, Barnsley), his address as 19 Crompton Ave, Racecommon Rd, Barnsley.
Jack was sent to the recruit depot at Deal in Kent for his basic training. For a regular Marine the training was a year long and included artillery training for sea service and infantry training for land service. The training courses were shortened to six months due to the war. In his first letter Jack states the conditions he was in:- Mid November 1914. "I have got into a barrack room as you will see by my address. We are overcrowded. The room is supposed to hold 18 fellows. There are 41 in it now all sleeping on the floor."
The physical drill was quite strenuous as the instructors were given a free hand in trying to whip the recruits into shape & Jack commented on the "incessant scrambling and fighting for food." He mentioned that "I never see those other Barnsley Chaps." This refers to two pals in particular; Val Littlewood and Harold Benfell. Harold had enlisted in Manchester the same day as Jack and Val a week later. However, both these lads enlisted for short service & were sent to join the Plymouth Division RMLI at Plymouth Stonehouse Barracks for their basic training. (PLY/610/S L/Cpl. C.H. Benfell & PLY/674/S Pte. V. Littlewood).
In late November 1914 the weather was worsening and Jack described a storm in which a ship was holed and ran aground outside the barracks at Walmer and the trips by the lifeboat to get the men off. (SS Batjan) He also stated that there were now extensive trenches from Dover to Deal. "I can tell you the fear of invasion is felt more acutely down here than anyone in Yorkshire would think. I was on the cliffs on Sunday & watching the sailors dig trenches & mount maxims. It wasn't just for practice either."
Jack grew a moustache & was refused permission to shave. It was common practice for facial hair to be permitted and Marines with beards were not uncommon. It also helped to disguise the youth of the Marine recruits. Jack was progressing now, he was learning infantry work and signalling. He had been in six weeks and he had heard from Harold that he was due for the front in another six weeks.Short service Marines only learnt infantry skills and had a 12 week training!
On April 21st 1915 Jack was sent to his divisional depot at Chatham. Here he awaited his posting: "I don't know where I'm going to be shoved yet. Ship most likely although I've put my name in for the Battalion. They have the non-swimmers in there though." Jack was posted to the Royal Naval Division, for service as a despatch rider with the RM Cyclist Company; a small unit of just over 200 men attached to the RND HQ. Late in July 1915 he was sent to Plymouth for the trip to Gallipoli. He describes the scene at Chatham for the party leaving:-
Plymouth 31st July 1915.
"I have seen a few battalions leave Chatham but none got a send off like we did. The General bid us goodbye & we were provided with flags & directly we moved everybody in the barracks cheered like the dickens & the guard turned out & blew us a general salute. We had the band to the station. Every station we stopped at on the way down girls came round the carriages trying to pinch our badges. A chap in our mob lost his rifle coming down and another lost half his ammunition. I've never enjoyed myself so much in my life and we are loafing about here doing nothing and are allowed to go about town without belts or shirts or anything. We are forbidden to clean boots or buttons. As a matter of fact I haven't many buttons to clean. I got most of them cut off on the way down and my RMLI's have gone west."
Jack left for Gallipoli on H.M.Transport "Royal George" 1st August 1915. On the 20th of August, Jack joined the RM Cyclist Coy. at Cape Helles, Gallipoli, & met his two pals again for the first time since joining up.
"Dear Mother, Just a line to let you know that I'm still in the pink & incidentally in the trenches also. I've seen Val Littlewood. Saw him the first day I came off the ship. You wouldn't know him now he's got a little moustache & beard. He's come out of the firing line for two hours to get some eggs & water for the boys. I hardly knew him when he came in my dugout. Harold Benfell is still in the firing line. Old Val seems fed up with it... I've been dished out with a bike. The only thing we use them for is riding down to the beach for a swim before breakfast."
Val was serving with the 1st RM Battalion (ex-Deal Bn.) & Harold with the 2nd RM Bn. (ex-Plymouth Bn.) Both Val and Harold had been on the Gallipoli Peninsular since the first landings in April 1915; in fact Harold had been in action before then, with a landing party of Marines at Sedd-ul-Bahr 4/3/15.
Jack's next letter went on to say:-
"Val is not far off me now. He has come over into our part to go through a course of bomb throwing. I am going through that too. I've also seen H. Benfell. He's got a square number. He's cook to about ten A.S.C. men. I'm doing well out of Val. He keeps bringing eggs across & soap, jam, etc. He's gone down the nick. I've been lucky so far. I haven't had to go into the firing line. I suppose my turn will come before long though... I'll bet you'd find a difference in the smart, tiddly Marine who came home & the chap with a dirty & torn uniform & about a fortnights beard on. I don't feel any worse though."
The Cyclist Coy. was utilised for the establishment of the first Bombing School on the Peninsular, to train RND personnel for their respective battalion's Grenade Companies. The Cyclists were also trained in the use of catapult bomb throwers & trench mortar weapons.
Jack also wrote about difficulties with his mother's allowance:-
"According to your letter you are receiving 7/6 & are under the impression that I'm contributing 5/- of it. If that is the case you are being swindled out of 2/6 per week which is no uncommon thing with our admirable Government - I suppose they think I'm out of the way now so they can do as they like with my money." That is the way they do things in England - a man comes out to do his bit & directly his back is turned they rob the people they should be supporting while he's doing their dirty work."
Jack was not afraid to speak his mind in criticism of his superiors. Something of a 'barrack room lawyer' in this respect. By the 31st of August 1915 Jack was feeling the effects of the climate and active service:-
"We live in dugouts you know because we are under shellfire. Lets hope this job will be finished before long. I don't think anybody will be sorry to be back in old England. I'm losing weight rapidly I might tell you but I feel all right. Val's gone up in the firing line again. This climate seems to take all the life out of a chap."
On the 15th of September 1915 Jack was admitted to hospital at Cape Helles, then evacuated from Gallipoli to Cairo suffering from dysentery. The RND Records Office wrote to his mother saying he was suffering from Jaundice. Jack wrote to his mother from hospital in Cairo:-
"You will be no doubt very much surprised to receive a letter from me from here. As a matter of fact I'm in hospital. I'm better now though except for weakness. The after effects of Dysentery. I was in an awful state though on the Peninsular. I should have gone sick long before I did but I had a nice job as orderly carrying messages about the Peninsular. I got so weak though I couldn't sit on my bike. Everybody has got dysentery out here. They are sending shiploads off with it. There were ten cyclists came out with me. I make the ninth to get taken off so you can guess how prevalent it is & it leaves you as weak as a kitten for weeks after. It's like heaven coming off the peninsular. As soon as we landed there it seemed to take effect on us. I don't know what it is. Perhaps the water- what there is of it."
And of his first taste of action at Gallipoli:
"Anyway I think I killed my Turk before I came off. The first day I was in the line we spotted a Turk's rifle over the parapet & the Captain told me to fetch him out with a bomb. It was the first time I'd fired a trench mortar but more by luck than anything else the bomb dropped exactly in the trench & we saw the rifle blown up in the air so the man must have just about been blown to bits. There was a terrible bombardment the next night. We all got buried by a shell whilst having our teas & I was sat down on the ground eating & I had my left hand on the floor with the fingers spread out & a splinter of shell came & stuck fairly in between my fingers without touching me. We soon get used to that though. They can shell as much as they like if I can only keep in good health. But that place & the grub gets on my nerves."
After recovering Jack was transferred to the Mustapha barracks at Alexandria to await drafting back to Gallipoli. In late October, Jack was back on the peninsular. He was now navvying; curiously, returned dysentery patients were put onto digging duties. It was getting cold and thigh boots and mackintoshes were being issued.
Early November 1915 and the weather was changing:
"It's dinner time & just beginning to rain. I hope it will clear up before night. I've only one waterproof sheet & I had a night out last week. My dugout was flooded & my blankets wet through." With this letter he also sent some heather back: "I'm enclosing you a sprig of Peninsular heather. Where we are now reminds me of the Yorkshire moors. I wouldn't mind being on them again."
Jack was evacuated from Gallipoli when the campaign was abandoned in early January 1916. The RND were marooned at Mudros, on the island of Lemnos, 55 miles SW of the Gallipoli Peninsular. Morale was getting low at this point, due to their feeling of isolation in having to garrison a run down base area in mid-winter. After hard service at Gallipoli they were expecting leave:-
"They've offered us fourteen days at Malta & everyone has refused it. Proper thing too. The RND & Marines have been everybody's mugs since they came on the Peninsular. Doing all the dirty work but when it comes to leave, everybody else can go but we must stay & garrison this mouldy, benighted hole. You know of course that we are at Mudros. I wonder how long it will be before the people at home wake up & start asking questions."
This feeling was common in all RND battalions. The Drake Battalion's AB Thomas MacMillan (CZ/2377) wrote that the Hood battalion blew raspberries at General Paris when he announced leave to Malta for the men and leave to England for the officers. The General turned pink & in a fit of rage cancelled all leave and confined all ranks to barracks for seven days. By the middle of February 1916 the situation at Mudros appeared rather tense:-
"I've just finished dinner. A pint of wishy washy stuff called soup. Not enough to keep a sparrow alive. It's a curious thing that because it costs the Government less, we are under the Navy as regards separation allowance. When it comes to food we are on Army rations, also because it costs the Government less. Taking these things into consideration, I'd very much like to know what I belong to, the Army or Navy."
Jack's comments sum up what many in the RND were wondering. Though essentially Naval personnel, they were now, to all intents & purposes, a land based Army formation.
Val Littlewood was one of the few Marines going on leave to England aboard the SS "Olympic". Only 100 men from the 1st RM Battalion, (out of the total of 2000 Marines, formerly of Chatham & Deal Battalions) had managed to served continuously without being wounded or sick since April 1915. In a letter smuggled home by Val, Jack told of the unrest and mutiny in some units:-
"I am at last able to write without my letter being read by the censor. I'm taking this across to Val tonight. I got pulled up you know the other day for putting too much in my letter. I put in that we were practically starving & so we were. However our O.C. pulled me up & played pop about it. (Major A.H. French DSO RMLI) I notice the rations have increased considerably since then though. That's one good thing. You see how it is with us. Winston Churchill formed the RND, joined the Marines up with them, & now he's chucked them out here & gone to France nobody will have anything to do with them. In fact nobody owns them. We're just mugs for anybody. The Marines did all the most dangerous & dirty work on the peninsula. If anything went wrong it was Marines to the front. Anybody I think even the Australians will give the Marines a good name. If the people at home take my tip they will write to John Bull or any of the other papers asking what's become of the RND & in fact kick up a general row. That's the only way to get us home. In my opinion they have been paid to give leave to the RND before now because of all the chaps K.I.A. One of the chaps here got court-martialled for putting in a letter that if they took the RND in action again before giving them leave there would be mutiny in the ranks. It was quite right though. There's been mutiny here in some of the battalions & they took all their ammunition away & made a lot of prisoners. I've signed on for twelve years but if they get away a year after the war is over they'll be extremely lucky". (RND War Diary records 14/2/1916: Disturbance in Greek Labour Corps this morning, a guard from the Cyclists Coy. was sent for and order restored)
The 22nd of February 1916 also saw the two Marine battalions embark for Salonica, while Jack remained at Mudros with the Cyclists. By early April 1916 the Cyclist Company had been given different tasks; some 50 men were allocated to AA guns, whilst the majority of the remaining 150 men training as field artillery. Jack however, had been learning signalling and was transferred (booted out) to the Depot Company at Mudros:-
"I've got something to occupy my mind at last. I'm going through a course of signalling. Morse code and all that. The Cyclist Co. is a washout now you know. They've turned the Co. into a twelve pounder battery and I've got chucked out of that."
In May 1916 the RND was transferred to France. Jack embarked aboard the HMT "Franconia" with the Depot Coy. on the 18th of May & arrived at Marseille on the 24th. From there he was sent with 240 Marines to found the new RND Infantry Training Base at Beaumaris, Calais. Some time in June/July 1916 he shifted to the notorious Army base depot at Etaples, to await his posting to 1RM & joined the 12th Platoon of 'C' Coy. 1st RM Bn. on the 28th of August 1916. His letters from France are very brief and frequently repetitive, reflecting the monotony of life in and out of the trenches. It was August 1916 before Jack heard of the bloody battle on the Somme in which the "Barnsley Pals" had suffered heavily:-
"I heard all about the local battalions from Harry. Hard luck for them to get cut up like that but somebody has to do it. I'll bet they gave a good account of themselves before they went west".
Jack had lost contact with his two pals Val and Harold. He had last seen Val at Mudros in Feb. 1916. Harold had been invalided to England aboard the "Aquitania" in October 1915, having suffered recurrent bouts of dysentery. Jack never saw Harold again, he was posted to the RM Garrison at Queenstown, Ireland, for the remainder of the war. Val rejoined 1RM in France in early June 1916, then did two months mining with the 2nd Field Coy. RND Engineers. Many ex-miners amongst the ranks of 1 & 2RM were attached to the "Deep Dug Out Platoon" or "Tunnelling Coy." from July to September 1916. Val rejoined 1RM 19/9/16, where he and Jack met once more. By the end of October the RND were being readied for their assault on the Ancre - UK leave still hadn't been granted to many:-
"Apparently the powers that be don't consider us entitled. There are fellows in my Battalion who have been out for a year and eight months so they come before me. It is hardly calculated to give the troops good heart for scrapping is it. Keeping them out here all this time".
On the 6th of November, seven days before the attack, Val was taken ill with Trench Fever and shipped back to England; saved from the terrible battle which was to account for so many Marines. Jack never did get leave to England, for the Battle for Beaumont Hamel began on 13th November and he was initially reported wounded. Then a telegram arrived stating he was wounded and missing. His mother & family made great efforts to find out what had happened to him & in June 1917 a letter arrived, via the Red Cross, in which a Marine in Jack's Platoon (CH/18879 Pte. Walter George Holmes) reported seeing Jack hit in the legs by shrapnel & being picked up by the stretcher-bearers. Holmes went on to say that another Marine, a signaller chum of Jack's based at a Dressing-Station, later told him that Jack had died of his wounds, although this was later strenuously denied by this Marine (CH/522/S Pte. Bernard Strachan Holt).
In July 1917 the Admiralty made the inevitable assumption that Jack had died of wounds on the 13th of November 1916.
Jack's body was never found and his name was inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial to the men who died on the Somme and have no known grave.
Val Littlewood & Harold Benfell survived the war.
Harold served in Ireland until May 1919 and was demobilized in June, emigrating to New Zealand in 1921. He died a J.P. in N.Z. in 1959.
Val recovered from his fever & returned to France, this time with 2RM in July 1917. Falling ill again in Jan. 1918 he was again invalided to England in late Feb. After recovering once more he was posted to the RM Base in Bermuda (Aug.1918), returning to the UK in December 1918 and was demobilized in Feb. 1919. Val died in Barnsley, 10th December 1981 age 88.
Val & Nellie Littlewood (photo taken in the 1950s)
(1) All the items shown here are in the safe keeping of Jack's faithful family.