Saturday, 4 February 2017

Remembered 100 years on

During WWI John Kerr my granduncle was in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), Drake Battalion of the Royal Naval Division (RND). Today marks the 100th anniversary of his death in France on 4th February 1917.
John was born either during February or August 1897 (more on this later) in Camelon, Falkirk, Scotland. As one of large family of ten children he was the older brother by 8 years to my grandmother Elizabeth Kerr.
Within my family, John is one of five who fought during WWI and WWII. Of those five who went off to war, only one returned home. Tragically the lone survivor from WWI later lost his only son (Hugh Wright) to WWII. 

It was while working as a moulder in a local foundry, John made his application to join the Royal Naval Division (RND) on the 31 May 1915 at the Falkirk Labour Exchange. The RND was established under the direction of Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty at the outbreak of WWI in 1914. The division was composed largely of surplus reserves of the Royal Navy who were not required at sea and formed around a cadre of Royal Marines.
He was initially drafted into the Royal Naval Division 3rd Reserve Battalion Blandford before being transferred during October 1915 to the Drake Battalion of the RND. His service record states that on 20 May 1916, he disembarked from the cargo/passenger ship Minnewaska at Marseilles in the South of France having left the Aegean Island of Mudros five days earlier. I can only assume from this information and other sources that John may have seen action along with Australians and New Zealanders at Gallipoli, Turkey. Or alternatively he may have been part of mixed garrison duties in the Aegean Sea to which the heavily depleted RND were sent after their horrific and devastating losses during the Gallipoli campaign.
His military record although brief gives a description of John, as a blue eyed, fresh faced, dark haired young man who stood only 5’ 2½”. Quoting further, I know that on 15 October 1916, John was sent to a Rest Camp in Ault in Northern France. Later on 16 December he was admitted to the 2nd Field Ambulance with a scalded left foot, which is said to have happened while off duty. On Boxing Day 1916 he was moved onto a Stationary Hospital in Abbeville. Later on the 11th January 1917 he was sent to a Base Depot before rejoining his battalion on January 28th. The final entry to this unique and special insight is the conclusive words written on 4th February 1917 “killed in action”.
I have no idea of the circumstances of his death. My grandmother mentioned many years ago that John was part of a group who were killed in an accident while transporting ammunition or explosives to the front. This is further confirmed on a remembrance card printed for a memorial service held for John probably in his home town of Camelon, which said “Accidentally killed in France on the 4th day of February, 1917 aged 19 years and 6 months”.
A question has risen from the age quoted on John Kerr’s remembrance card. The assumption would be that John’s parents would know his correct and accurate age to have it printed on the card, but his military record states his birth date as 9th February 1897. He was killed on 4 February 1917, so according to the military records he would have died five days before his 20th birthday. If one is to believe the information written on the remembrance card as accurate then he would was actually have been born in August 1897. I cannot recall where I got the information, but my own hand written family tree records from the early 1980’s states John’s birth as August 1897.
His military record indicates that John joined up on 1st June 1915. So according to available information he was one of two possible ages at that time either 18 years and 4 months or 17 years and 10 months. Since the minimum age to join the military was 18 it now seems very likely that John like so many of that generation lied about his age to join the military. This theory is possibly further supported by his military papers recording his sister Maggie Kerr as his next of kin and not as one would presume either his mother or father, perhaps indicating a related dispute with his parents.

During April 2000 I made a visit to John's grave in France. He is buried in Hamel Military Cemetery deep within the peaceful, consecrated ground of the Somme. The journey to Hamel Village took me on many narrow remote winding roads that were often interrupted with what can be best described as casual small intersections. At those stops on the road there are basic signposts with arrows pointing in all directions indicating Commonwealth War Grave Commission sites. Often those signposts were supplemented with words Canadian, British, South African, Australian or New Zealand indicating the dominant nationality at each site. When taking direction from those signposts one can clearly see in the distance the rolling landscape gently broken with the presence of walled cemeteries. Each with their perfectly lined white gravestones, all places of peace, beauty and serene contrast with the events which brought them into being. Some of the sites could be described as small and intimate having a dozen or so casualties while others large and awesome with many thousands, a truly incredible and unforgettable site.
Hamel Military Cemetery at its creation was known by the names of "Brook Street Trench" and "White City". It was established by Commonwealth fighting and field ambulances units in August 1915 and carried on for full use until June 1917. Additional burials were made after the capture of Hamel village in 1918. It was finally enlarged to its present size after the Armistice of November 11th 1918 by the concentration of 48 temporary graves from surrounding areas. In later years a number of French and German military graves were removed to other burial grounds leaving almost 500 casualties commemorated at the site of which nearly 80 are unidentified ~ Known Unto God.
John is buried beside a number of his RND comrades who were all been killed on the same day. In one far corner of the cemetery there are special memorials erected to four soldiers from the United Kingdom who as the memorial states, “are believed to be buried within this cemetery”, this the consequence I suppose of the large number of casualties to which he Somme produced and the logistic nightmare and confusion that it later caused.
The inscription on John’s gravestones located at Plot 1, Row B, Grave No. 6.
4TH FEBRUARY 1917      AGE 19

Hamel Military Cemetery, Somme, France
My great-grandparents James Kerr and Agnes Caldwell Guthrie at the grave of their son John Kerr during the early 1920's

John Kerr's “New Testament for Service Men”, presented by Agnes E. Weston of the Royal Sailors’ Rest

John Kerr's signature dated 26 September 1915 along with a message from Agnes Weston inside the New Testament

A Memorial Card for a service for John Kerr, which took place at the Salvation Army Citadel located on Bank Street, Falkirk

John’s name is inscribed on the new Camelon War Memorial along with 257 other casualties of WWI and WWII. This new memorial was unveiled on the 26th April 2016.

The new Camelon War Memorial

The new Camelon War Memorial

CWGC Documents ~

Page from Hamel Military Cemetery Register

Grave Registration Report Form 

Gravestone Details

Gravestone Details

Other war related blogs ~

Hugh Wright

The Lost Voices of WWII RAF/RCAF Greenwood


The Lost Voices of WWI Middleton and District


Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth ..


One of many, remembered today …


WWII RAF Ferry Command, Newfoundland


Remembrance Day 2016 ~ Halifax


Remembrance Day 2017 ~ Lunenburg


Remembrance Day 2019 ~ Bridgewater


Remembrance Day 2020 ~ Bridgewater

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