This blog post was written by Lois Dean, a volunteer at Bolton History Centre.
Bolton medic Dr John Johnston was based at Queen Mary’s Military Hospital near Whalley during the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 and he writes movingly in his diary of the injured soldiers who were brought in by convoy trains.
He is recognized by young soldiers from Bolton and relays their conversations in his diary pages as the men describe the horror of the ‘Big Push’.
Particularly poignant is a copy of a letter written on the eve of battle by Private George Priestley Townend, who Dr Johnston delivered in Bolton in 1893, sent to him by George’s parents, Alfred and Annie (Hannah).
27th June 1916
My Dear Father,
Probably this will be my last letter to you. If so, by the time you receive this, you will have read in the papers of the great advance the British are making. We are taking part in this…in fact our platoon is the second over the parapet. You will know full well what this means. I need say no more.
If by any chance the worst comes to the worst, do not worry, dear Father. Many men have gone under in the cause for which we are all fighting…many men who were far better than myself.
I am not in the least afraid, and if I do go under, make it as easy as possible for Mother. I know you will both feel it, buy Mother needs cheering up, you know; and always remember it will be anything but a disgraceful ending.
I know I am your only child, but there are many, many others; and always remember I tried to do my Duty to my Country.
At first you will feel the loss, but trust in God, dear Father, and He will pull you through.
The whole thing is one gigantic gamble, and I am and always have been ready for a gamble. I really think I shall come through, and I hope you never receive this. However, I am taking full precautions. We are all going into it with light hearts, and full of confidence in our powers to squash the ‘Hun’.
You in England have, I know, been waiting for this great advance. It comes tomorrow (28th inst) Your Birthday. Let us pray this is a good omen. We hope and think this will end the War, and I am one of the many who is content to do my Bit for the Old Country. Buck up the Mater, Dearest Father. At the same time I pray that this will not be necessary.
With much love to Mother and yourself…and keep smiling.
Always your loving son,
George Priestley Townend of the 15th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment was killed in action on 1st July 1916. He is buried in Serre Road Cemetery no. 1, Pas de Calais, France.
Copy of letter inserted in Dr Johnston’s diary (ZJO 1/37), Bolton Archives.