25th March 1886 - 15th May 1917. A chorister at St Paul's Cathedral who served in WWI with the Honourable Artillery Company and fell at Bullecourt.
Having sailed on the SS Westmeath to France on 18th September 1914, John disembarked at St Nazaire and started his war career. He was relatively old at the age of 28. Initially there was a lot of marching and travelling by motor buses and en route an incident was recorded concerning JHP. They had stopped at Bailleul and John was cleaning his rifle when he let it off by mistake, sending a bullet into the floor below just missing the man below. There was much ribbing about this and the story was recorded by one of his fellow officers.
At the start, the main business of war was digging trenches while trying to avoid being shelled by the Germans. Often this digging was done in full view of the enemy which didn’t help matters. Trenches were not just on the frontline; there were communication trenches and back trenches where the men could rest having spent a few days in the thick of it. Not every day was spent on the Frontline, the idea was to rotate the men. The Germans had built much more sophisticated trenches and certainly at this stage were more ‘entrenched’ in the area. We were coming in on the back foot and having to catch up.
The standard uniform is what you see in this photograph taken in 1914, absolutely hopeless when it came to any protection from bullets and the thick mud and waist high water logged trenches that the men were going to encounter.
It was while digging trenches that the HAC met up with another battalion who, on hearing they were all volunteers, said “Oh yes, you’re all volunteers and paid two guineas to come out. You must be blooming well barmy”
26th November 1914 The Company was at Neuve Eglise when John was injured. I don’t know what the nature of this particular injury was, however it was not serious enough for him to be sent home. Snipers were set up on both sides to take pot shots at any unfortunate man who poked his head above the line of the trenches and many injuries occurred this way. What becomes clear is that the trenches of both sides were often very close. There are stories of the smells of breakfast wafting over trenches and they could often hear the other men talking and tales of jokes between both sides. These men were youngsters, sent to fight in a war they didn’t understand or have any heart in, hence the now famous football match on Christmas Day.
In December of that year. King George V visited the troupes and he went to talk with the sergeants in their hut. One assumes that JHP was in that room at the time.
1915 stalemate By now, the war had not ended at Christmas and life in the trenches was starting to take effect. Many men fell ill; the food was in short supply; morale was low – although it was the job of the officers to keep morale up. Worst of all, supplies of ammunition were seriously depleted. There is a story about the officers opening up the box of ammo to find it completely empty
Although life was tough, it brought about the sort of camaderie that many men had not experienced before. In the recreational moments, men found time to relax, play cards, write letters home, play football and even give concerts.
1st March 1915 One such concert is recorded in the War Diaries as being very successful. It was given in a school room in Loker near where they had the headquarters, now at Chapel, near Kemmel. (The location is wrongly given as Loere in the War Diaries). There were many musicians, John of course amongst them, and when they found deserted buildings which still had pianos in them, more often than not, they moved the pianos to a back trench where they could use it for recreation. Anything to keep spirits up.
The area in Belgium where they now occupied suffered particularly heavy bombardment at Spanbroekmoelen during this time and it was here that John suffered an injury that was to take him home.
16th March 1915 - Injury John was hit in the neck and the wound was sufficiently bad that he was invalided home on 21st March and hospitalised.
23rd June 1915 When he recovered, he was moved to the relatively new 2nd battalion and promoted to Second Lieutenant on June 23rd 1915 within this battalion. By now, many fine, trained officers had been lost and the army needed men who had battlefield experience and could train others. For a while this was John’s role.
The war had started to bite back home now. Men had returned with serious injuries and people began to question the propaganda that kept saying how well we were doing and that kept the true horrors away from the public. Most men on leave found it too difficult to begin to describe the conditions they were living in, so tended to slip into a different role when home and field away any topic to do with what is was ‘really’ like on the Front. There was now huge pride in the boys who were fighting for the country and any man who had not gone to war was seen as a coward and very quickly found himself targeted.
Into this fray stepped John and Ernest (who was on leave with John at one point during this time). After John had recovered sufficiently, they went to a concert in Eastbourne, while staying with their mother, and decided to wear ‘civvies’. Now they were indistinguishable from the men who stayed at home. They suffered the consequences, each being given a white feather, the symbol of cowardice!
16th September 1915 John decided to have a ceremonial sword made for him by the best sword maker around at the time, Wilkinson. It was proofed at the factory on 16th September and while it is unlikely that this sword went to war, it was a personal possession of John’s and he clearly took pride in it, having his initials set into the blade. None of us knew about its existence until 2012, nearly 100 years later.
The bomb motif is particular to the HAC on the handle of the sword.
The 2nd battalion moved to the Tower of London and John was given the opportunity to stay and further help train officers, but for John, like many men, the war was happening in France, their colleagues and friends were there and they were needed back at the Front. In a fateful decision, John refused the offer of a desk job. The battalion were due to set off for France on October 1st. Sometime before this, and it is said it was the night before he left, John visited his mother and sisters at their home in Cambridge Terrace. Presumably he had dinner with them and he then played and sang at the piano, which was his and was housed there. He chose to sing a setting of the Tennyson poem ‘Crossing the Bar’. Parry had created a popular and very beautiful hymn on those words entitled ‘Sunset and Evening Star’. The poem was a favourite of John’s and he owned a copy of the words.
1st October 1916 At 6am the second battalion marched out over Tower Bridge. The HAC war diaries describe the next few days at Ploegsteerte Wood – commonly known as Plug Wood, where the ground was waterlogged. There was often heavy shelling and many inspections of the barbed wire carried out by officers crawling on their stomachs through the mud, open to enemy fire at any point. Any movement was seen as suspicious and on one of these occasions Captain Bower was inspecting the wire when he was fired on by the British, thinking he was German. Thankfully he was able to shout out assurances and save his life! Shortly after this the battalion were ordered to the Somme.
3rd-5th November 1916 The man were stationed at Steenwerke billets, Heavy rain meant men were under water in no time, all up to knees and soon the barracks were cut off from the rest of the field. Despite repeated requests from Colonel Ward, permission to move to higher lying barracks was refused. This story is told in graphic detail in the War Diaries and it was only the desperation of Col Ward for his men which saved them from drowning.
It was with rotting boots, exhaustion and certain illness that these men had to march to the Somme. They spent November and December at Beaumont-Hamel where on December 22nd Major Nesham fell ill and John took over as temporary Major. This was not at all unusual amongst officers who often had to step up to command units when somebody got killed, or was taken ill, as in this case.
The London Gazette would publish each alteration and today it is seen as a store house of war activity to the extent that if you were not ‘gazetted’, then it probably wasn’t a fact.
The winter of 1917 was one the worst on record, bitter temperatures and freezing conditions with 30 degrees of frost at night and the men were sleeping in barns. Christmas day was once again in the trenches.
2th March 1917 All soldiers were required to make a will and many of these were done in haste on the frontline. Whether John had made one before is unclear, but he made one on this date leaving his possessions to 'my dearly loved brother, Ernest'. It was Ernest who emigrated after the war to America and took some of John’s belongings with him, notably the ceremonial sword.
In April John became Acting Captain, having relinquished his temporary captaincy and the battalion moved down to the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt.
3rd May 1917 It took two attempts to capture Bullecourt - the first attack took place, as decided, and at 10.30pm on the night of May 3rd, the 2HAC battalion, along with the Royal Welch Fusiliers lead the advance 300 yard across No Man's Land.
Acting Captain Pritchard advanced into the village but they got held up due to the resistance on offer. A and B companies who had eventually got into the German trench and used hand on hand combat and bayonets, requested more ammunition at 1am on May 4th. When other men went to the box containing bomb, the box was empty, which immediately isolated the troops in a precarious position. With the Germans counter attacking, by 2.30am, both companies had been driven out of the trench
It was now just as difficult to withdraw as they were pinned down by German machine gun fire. Men had to crawl on their stomachs through dirt, dust and over comrades dead bodies. There were terrible losses and morale was low. Although some British troops were now in Bullecourt, due to the advances made, the South Western part of the village, called Red Patch, was still in German hands and this was the next target.
The image shows Bullecourt before the second attack
13th May 1917 2/HAC received orders that they would be moving back up to Bullecourt that night to arrive at 9pm. Colonel Ward rode ahead to detail relief of the South Staffs Regiment. By 11.30pm there was no sign of the Battalion and the Colonel then heard that they had been told not to proceed until further orders. By the time these came through, it was already 11pm. By 12.30am, the Battalion had still not arrived. The Royal Welch Fusilliers were about to attack at 2am so it was too dangerous to have relief parties arriving under attack, therefore Colonel Ward, in consultation with other officers took it upon himself to turn his men back to Ecoust.
14th May 1917 It was suggested that they start again the following day although Colonel Ward pointed out that the Battalion was now down to just 250 men.
Lambert-Ward made his reservations known to Brigade commander Colonel Norman. He later reported that ‘I pointed out to Colonel Norman that the strength of my Battalion was only 250 with 11 Lewis Guns, and it would not be advisable to take over that length of line with so few men’. (National Archives: WO 95/1661: 22nd Brigade War Diary).
It made no difference. Major Hubert Gough was very task orientated and was adamant that this village was taken to support the Australians.
JHP was transferred to lead C company now.
15th May 1917 At 4am on this morning, the enemy attacked once more. A, B and D Companies managed to stave off the attack. John was in charge of C company who were on the left of the Battalion. They were surrounded by the enemy and driven back a little way.
Over head the Royal Flying Corps were acting as decoys for the enemy and it is suggested that Ernest was involved during that night - unbeknown to him his brother was being attacked below.
C Company were holding a Salient at that moment - this is when the soldiers project into enemy territory and are surrounded by enemy accordingly. They arrived at what is now Dider’s field and the Germans who were using the cellars of previously erected house, came around the company and surrounded them. The Company were practically annihilated and Acting Captain, John Heriot (as he styled himself) Pritchard lost his life.
The very next day, Bullecourt was successfully defended and what was left of the Battalion moved on to Paschendale
John Harold Pritchard