Mansfield man’s search for the truth about World War One hero

A Mansfield man has corrected official war records after discovering the truth about his great uncle who was killed in action in World War One .

Nick Bennett’s painstaking investigation began while he was researching his family tree in 2007 and he first heard the name of John William Wright while interviewing an elderly relative.

Nick (36), a Labour councillor on Mansfield District Council, said: “Lily Kent, a cousin, was talking about different people and mentioned my great uncle. I had never heard of him before.

“He was 17 years-old and lied about his age to sign up to fight in World War One. He wanted to fight for his country and for Mansfield.”

Nick’s research ultimately enabled him to update the official records with John William’s full name and correct age. He was born 1st May 1896 and was only 18 when he died - and not 20 as the official record had it.

But his search was nearly over before it began when he faced his first problem.

Between six and seven million soldiers served with the British Army in the First World War and each soldier’s record of service was stored by the War Office after the First World War was over.

Unfortunately about 60 per cent of the records were irretrievably damaged or lost completely as a result of enemy bombing in 1940 during the Second World War. The exact number of serving British soldiers is not known because of the loss of the records.

Amazingly the records Nick wanted survived the blast - but then he was faced with the problem of sorting out the right John William Wright from the hundreds of thousands of names.

“It was a practically impossible task,” he said.

Luckily Nick was able to identify the right John William Wright because he knew his address - 47 Montague Street - which has been the family home for 100 years and the house where Nick himself lives to this day.

The war record noted that Private number 2243 John William Wright of the 1st/8th battalion Sherwood Foresters, died on 20th April 1915 in Belgium at the age of 18. It also included information about his height and the colour of his eyes.

Nick began consulting local newspaper archives and unearthed information from The Mansfield and North Notts Advertiser and the back pages of Chad forerunner the Mansfield Chronicle Advertiser, which carried the tragic news of John William’s death.

The article quoted from a ‘very sympathetic’ letter from Captain M.C. Martyn, John William’s commanding officer: “He was killed by a rifle bullet on April 20th. It may be some consolation to you to know that he died doing his duty in action.

“At 4.30am we were subjected to considerable bombardment from grenades, and your son was at the time doing his duty as sentry and at the same time observing where our own grenades were falling in the enemy’s trench; without hesitation he pluckily observed all our grenades but unfortunately was observed by the enemy and shot. I was close by his side at the time, and can assure you that his death was instantaneous; he could not have suffered any pain whatever...

“You son’s death will be felt by many of the company, and personally I feel that I lost an excellent man, as he was always the first to come forward for any work, which he always did cheerfully and in a smart way.”

Nick said: “He was killed by an enemy sniper at the age of 18 on hill 60 at the Battle of Ypres - he had only been over there for two weeks.

“His dad was a sergeant major and before he went to war he was a pony boy at Bilsthorpe Colliery.”

The majority of casualties sustained in this period would have been from either German snipers or German artillery. These casualties were referred to as ‘trench wastage.’

The Battalion history records that work in the trenches consisted mainly of strengthening or rebuilding the parapet, and in putting out barbed wire defences.

“The barbed wire defences were very poor... Bosche snipers did execution by night as well as day, and made themselves very objectionable.”

Nick said: “I tracked him down to his birthplace in Bilsthorpe. The war graves commission said he was 20 but I found out that he was only 17 when he signed up.”

As well as building up a painstaking body of research, Nick also unearthed a list of things that John William was carrying at the time of his death - including a prayer book.

John William’s original medals were stolen during a break-in. Dogged Nick tried to find them on eBay but eventually resorted to having the Victory medal, the British Medal, the 1915 Victory Star and the death penny re-struck.

He also recruited Sir Alan Meale who helped him find out that John William was buried in Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery.

Nick said: “As far as I know none of his relatives have ever visited his grave. The ultimate goal is to go over and see his grave. I want to take soil from his back garden and put it on his grave.

“When he walked out of 47 Montague Street he thought he was coming back but he never did.

“I think my great grandparents, Joseph Wallhead Wright and Florence (nee Leary) Wright, would be proud of me. It’s more than money can buy.

“Family research never ends. His memory will hopefully now live on because of the research I have done.

“This was a living, breathing lad who was fighting for his country and who was murdered in a horrible way.”