When John Farrer enlisted at Carlisle in April 1915, the results of his medical were duly entered on a form: aged 31, 5’3″ tall, 129 lbs, some lost and decayed teeth, born in Cumbernauld, two vaccinations received as a baby, generally in good health, occupation a coal miner. He had married his wife Mary, who worked as a domestic servant, on Christmas Day 1906, and they were living in Carlisle with their daughter and son. Their second daughter would be born two months later.
John was one of the first to join the 11th Service Battalion, Border Regiment. They were nicknamed the ‘Lonsdales’ after Lord Lonsdale, who had organised this particular drive to recruit members of the same communities into pals battalions. The residents of Carlisle sent off the troops with an exuberant farewell – an indication perhaps of local pressures to enlist and also of the prevailing optimism and excitement about their war adventure.
In November the Lonsdales were posted to France. By early June 1916 they were on the Somme, preparing for battle. They conducted a raid on enemy lines to gather intelligence on their defences, including diagrams of dug-outs and trench systems in preparation for the coming attack. On the day, however, it was not enough.
On the 1st of July 1916, John Farrer and his Lonsdale comrades went over the top in the infamous infantry assault that launched the Battle of the Somme. They came under fire almost immediately. Of the 800 troops and 28 officers who charged into No Man’s Land that day, 23 officers and more than 500 men failed to attend roll call the next morning. John was among them. He was probably killed on that first day – one of over a million men from both sides who would be wounded or killed during the five months the battle raged.
The surviving members of the battalion spent the next several days recovering the bodies of the dead and wounded from No Man’s Land, sorting out their comrades’ belongings and repairing the trenches. A week later, when they were again ordered over the top to launch a fresh assault on enemy lines, they balked. The medic on duty, George Kirkwood, diagnosed them all with shell shock and certified them as unfit to fight – the first such mass diagnosis of the war.
It was another 13 months before John’s family were informed by telegram of his demise. His obituary, published in the Cumbernauld News in August 1917, read in part:
We little thought when he left home he would no more return
And he so soon in death would sleep and leave us here to mourn.
Mary received her husband’s war medal, back pay of £3, 1 shilling and 8 pence and a war gratuity of £4, 10 shillings.
John Farrer’s body was never recovered. His name is on the Thiepval Memorial dedicated to 72,246 British Empire servicemen who were lost in the battle and whose grave is unknown.
Words and research by Emily Allison