This blog post is written by Bill Darbyshire a researcher at Bolton History Centre.
Jack and Bob Thompson were born in Westhoughton (Lancashire); Jack on 18th November 1895 and Bob on 6th Dec 1898 sons of Arthur and Catherine Elizabeth Thompson.
With their elder sister Jane (born 1893) the family moved to Chew Moor, Lostock, living firstly at 71 St John’s Road and then at 228 Tempest Road as the family grew Arthur was born in 1902, Ellen (Nellie) in 1905 and Walter in 1909. All the children were baptised at St Bartholomew’s Church in Westhoughton, went to the village school at St Johns C of E and to the local Wesleyan Church across the road from their house.
The Thompsons still live in Bolton – Bobs son John and his family live in Horwich and Arthurs Daughter Enid and her children and grandchildren live in Heaton.
Arthur (senior) worked as a joiner Heatons mill at Lostock. Nearly the whole family ended up working there with Bob and Arthur working with their Dad in the warehouse as case makers picking up the family trade in joinery. Jane, Jack and Nellie worked on the looms working their way up from piecers to winders and finally to spinners.
The War to End all Wars – In 1914 the First World War started and in the early days there was a great rush to join the services as everyone expected a very short war and “to be home by Christmas”. Lord Kitchener (in charge of the war office) realised this was unlikely and started to raise new armies to support the British Expeditionary Force which had fought bravely during the first years of the war. These new Kitchener Armies K1, K2 and K3 created new “service” battalions to fight alongside the regular and Territorial Army units. Each Army was made up of divisions improvised from battalions of the regular army alongside the Service Battalions which where troops prepared for active service by intensive training. It was to be linked with the old Army by its infantry units being formed as new “service battalions” of the Regular regiments belonging to the districts in which they were recruited. The new battalions would thus inherit some of the traditional esprit de corps of the historic regiment by whose names they were known and whose badges they wore.
Jack volunteered for the Kings Own Royal Lancasters in April 1915 but during the medical at the barracks in Lancaster was found to have a valvular disease of the heart and was discharged within two days of having joined up. His army papers record him as being 19yrs and 164 days old, 5 ft 8 inches with brown eyes, a 34 inch waist and belonging to the Church of England. Having been medically discharged Jack went back to working at Heaton’s cotton mill becoming a skilled spinner and working to support the war effort. He probably suffered terribly at the hands of the local population for not going to war, outwardly he looked perfectly normal and he was able to work long days in the mill.
In December 1916 Bob was due to be 18 and would receive his call up papers, they had heard that a new battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers was being recruited in Bury and Bob and Jack signed up at Wellington Barracks, Jack was drafted to the the 10th (Service) Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers and Bob to the newly formed Machine Gun Corps.
Obviously the 2nd medical overlooked the heart disease recorded when he had signed up previously but the army was getting desperate for men due to the high number of casualties being suffered at the front.
Both men did their training in England to prepare them for trench warfare, Jack was trained near Hull whilst Bob was trained how to use machine guns at Belton Park near Grantham. Its not clear whether the brothers met at the front – there are stories of brothers and friends passing each other on marches and calling out – “hows it going” and “still alive then”.
They shipped to France in 1917 and joined the fighting on the Western Front. By this time the war of attrition with attacks and counter attacks well established and they became familiar with having 3 to 4 days in the trenches with rest periods before going back into battle.
The family recently visited the Fusilier Museum in Bury, their research expert (Phil Mather) was able to fill in more of the story about how Jack was killed in action. He lost his life towards the end of the war on 9th Sept 1918 with only 9 weeks fighting left before the armistice. The British where trying to break down the Hindenburg line – the Germans last major line of defence. Part of this was the push to capture a French village called Gouzeaucourt (10 miles from Cambrai). On the night of 8th of September Jacks Company started to move into position to attack lines of trenches south west of Gouzeaucourt. The approach was very difficult as the night was dark and the German artillery were pouring down explosive and poison gas shells. Despite the chaos all the soldiers where in position by 3.15 in the morning. The order to go over the top came at 4am and the 800 men of the battalion left the relatively safety of their trenches and moved out into no mans land. The Germans knew the attack was coming and the men had to fight their way from shell hole to shell hole in the pitch black, with German machine guns firing and more artillery shells and poison gas dropping all around. The fusiliers fought through the day and managing to take the German trenches but when dawn came Jack was found to be among the dead. The Germans counter-attacked and the Fusiliers where driven back. They returned on the 18th of September to win the trenches for good.
Bob meanwhile fought on pushing the Germans back, he was beginning to realise that being a machine gunner had a real down side. Because their guns could fire hundreds of bullets a minute over thousands of yards the Germans would focus all their efforts to knock them out. The Vickers machine gun was a big heavy piece of kit weighing 30 pounds it had a 40 to 50 pound tripod and needed dozens of boxes of ammo each weighing 22 pounds. The gun had a 4 to 6 man crew to operate it – the gunner, the loader and men to carry the boxes of ammunition.
The gun needed 7 pints of water to keep it cool – Bob tells that when they where desperate to top it up and had no water left they resorted to topping it up with pee. To avoid getting killed they would dismantle the gun into the trench and load it onto a push bike, they would the run down the trench to a new position and set up again to fire a hail of lead at the advancing troops.
Accordiing to the battalion diaries the Battles they fought in included the first and second battles of the Scarpe. In April 1917 and the Capture of Roeux in May 1917. They went on to fight in the first and second battles of Passchendaele in October and November – noted as some of the bloodiest battles of WW1. In 1918 they fought at St. Quentin and Bapaume in March 1918 and on to the battles of the Hindenburg Line at Havrincourt, Epehy and Cambrai
Jack is buried in France in Gouzeaucourt New British Cemetery very near the battlefield were he was killed. Jack is also commemorated on the family gravestone in Deane Cemetery Bolton and on the roll of honor at St John and St Thomas’s Lostock – it reads Pte J R Thompson 10th Bn Lanc Fus, Killed in Action, Sept 9th 1918, Aged 23 yrs.
Bob went on to fight to the end of the war with the British advancing until the Germans surrendered a few weeks later. Bob survived the war and came home to Bolton and he worked at Heatons Mill until he retired. His family still live in Bolton.