JOHN WILLIE PRIESTLEY

Private 156542, 19th Battalion Machine Gun Corps (Infantry)

Killed in Action 7th September 1918 aged 32

Buried Chocques Military Cemetery near Bethune, France

Husband of Martha Ellen Priestley

Lived 13, Milton Square, Heckmondwike


In 1901 John married Martha Ellen Schofield.  By 1911 John aged 25 and Martha aged 26 had two daughters: Mildred born 22 March 1908 and Nellie, just 3 months old.  Their address was 8, Omar Street, Heckmondwike and John worked as a Rag Grinder.  They had two more daughters: Annie born in 1914 and Lilian born in 1916.

Few military records have come to light, but it was later reported in the local newspaper that John had joined the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) and went to France on 29 November 1916.  His service number was 23648.  At some point Private Priestley was transferred to the Machine Gun Corps.  Equipped with Vickers machine guns, the Corps closely supported the infantry in both defence and attack, with a team of 6 soldiers needed to operate each gun.

In early September 1918 the Battalion was in action during an attack near to the Canal d’Aire to the North of Bethune.  The threat posed by the machine gun teams often meant that they were a particular target for retaliatory artillery fire from the Germans.  In the course of the war around one third of the soldiers in the Corps became casualties.  On the 5 September the Battalion had 25 soldiers wounded in a gas shell attack and on the day Private Priestley was killed, 7 September, the entry in the war diary has just one line: "1 OR [other rank] killed and 2 OR’s wounded".

His body was buried in the Military Cemetery to the West of Bethune about 5 miles from where he was killed.  In 1920 the cemetery was transformed into the style and layout we see today.  The War Graves Commission records for this time are noted ‘original burials’ which suggests that no re-interment of his remains was needed.  With the passage of time the standard wording on the headstone has become worn.

Payments made to Mrs Priestley following her husband’s death are more complex than usual.  On 29 January 1919 outstanding pay of £2 6s 11d was sent to Mrs Priestley, followed on 4 December 1919 by a war gratuity of £9 3s 1d.  This unusual sum (war gratuities were normally in multiples of 10 shillings) suggests that an earlier service grant had already been made. The Corps appears to have claimed 13s 1d from any monies due to Mrs Priestley.

In 1918 Mrs Priestley was left a widow in her thirties with daughters aged around 10; 7; 4 and 2.  Though no records exist specifically for Mrs Priestley, the normal weekly pension would have been: 13s for a widow; 5s for the first daughter; 4s 2d for the second; 3s 4d for the third and 2s 6d for the youngest; a total of £1 8s 9d.   It is understandable in those circumstances that Mrs Priestley could not afford the additional cost of 3½d a letter for an additional personal message to be carved onto her husband’s headstone.  The Victory Medal and British War Medal were sent to Mrs Priestley in 1920.  John Priestley’s nephew, Thomas Lindsay, died of wounds on 27 October 1918 whilst serving with the Duke Of Wellington’s Regiment.
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