Private John Edward Powell
Died: 29 October 1918
John Edward Powell was born on the 14th January 1899 to James and Mary Ann Powell who were living in Brockton. Their son was christened in Shipton church on the 26th February 1899.
James and Mary had 3 other children, William Henry, Alfred James and their youngest was a daughter Florence May. As a child, John moved around a lot as can be seen from the 1901 and 1911 census and his school admission records:
1901 census – the family are living at Stone cottage in Condover.
30th March 1904 John enrols at Cruckmeole school and the family’s address is Cruckmeole.
1911 census – 1 Upper Berwick wharf Atcham.
9 October 1911 he enrols at Coleham school and the family’s address is 44 Old Coleham but he leaves on the 11th November a month after enrolling. The record also states that he had previously been at Berwick school.
13 November 1911 he is registering at Ford school and the family’s address is Benthall Cottages
12 April 1912 John registers at Smethcott school and their address is at Betchcott.
Throughout, his father’s occupation is listed as a labourer/waggoner and although they didn’t move far, the family’s nomadic lifestyle indicates the difficulty unskilled workers had in finding and maintaining employment.
John initially signed up with the Army Services Corp (No. M/302459) who were responsible for supply of provisions. The ‘M’ in his number indicates that he was with the mechanical transport unit which worked within the “Lines of Communication” and so did not take orders from one division. They would have had a wide range of roles including providing ambulances, working with heavy artillery and working with bridges and pontoons. John later joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps but we don’t know when this occurred. It was usual, as regiments issued their own numbers, for an individual to be issued with a different number, in this case A/205134. He was a rifleman within the 9th (Service) Battalion.
He is remembered at Church Stretton and the Stapleton war memorial at Smethcote. The Roll of Honour states that he died of disease on the 29th October 1918 and is buried at the Sarralbe military cemetery. The description of the Sarralbe cemetery says that it contains only the graves of commonwealth prisoners of war. A search of the website for the International Red Cross reveals the records of John’s internment which show that he was captured on the 21st March 1918 at Benay, a village south of St. Quentin close to the Somme.
General Haigh in his “Sixth Despatch” states that on the 21st March “at least sixty-four German divisions took part in the operations of the first day of the battle, a number considerably exceeding the total forces composing the entire British Army in France”. This was the start of Operation Michael a major German offensive known as “Kaiserschlacht” (Kaiser’s Battle) which led to a retreat by the British and French armies and eventually, the Battle of the Somme in the following July which was the Allies attempt to regain the land. General Haigh goes on to describe the German attack,
“Shortly before 5 a.m. on the 21st March, a bombardment of great intensity, with gas and high explosive shell from all natures of artillery and trench mortars was opened against practically the whole fronts…..Until 1 p.m. the fog made it impossible to see more than 50 yards in any direction and the machine guns and forward field guns which had been disposed so as to cover this zone with their fire were robbed almost entirely of their effect. The detachments holding the outpost positions were consequently overwhelmed or surrounded, in many cases before they were able to pass back information concerning the enemy’s attack…….. So intense was the enemy’s bombardment that at an early hour our communications were severed, and so swift was his advance under the covering blanket of the mist that certain of our more advanced batteries found the German infantry close upon them before they had received warning from their own infantry that the expected attack had been launched. Many gallant deeds were performed by the personnel of such batteries, and on numerous occasions heavy losses were inflicted on bodies of hostile troops by guns firing over open sights at point blank range……”
He goes on to describe how by 4pm the Germans had made progress at Benay where John was captured. Estimates at the time said that over 225,000 Allied men were killed, captured or wounded in the two days of battle on 21/22 March.
Image from: ICRC archives [ACICR C G1]
From this record we can see that he was registered at Stendal camp which was in the middle of Germany. However since he is buried near Strasbourg, it can be assumed that he was actually held in another camp near to where he died. This was quite common and made communication with and monitoring of PoW’s welfare difficult.
In the summer of 1918, the German command was becoming concerned about the welfare of prisoners, partly due to concerns about the treatment of their own men held by the Allies, as well as concerns over what would happen to Germany at the end of the war when it was shown that they had breached the Hague Convention. Starvation, over-work and contagious diseases were widespread and led to many deaths. It is not known how many combatants who are still reported today as missing in fact died in prisoner of war camps.
As in other cases, the bodies of the deceased were moved to Sarralbe cemetery after the war. The words on his gravestone were decided upon by his father.
Sources: International Red Cross,
National Archives via Ancestry.com