Once again time seems to have flown by since my last post, for a number of reasons. Family life and the day job have taken precedence, and a lot of my free time was spent preparing for my role as a battlefield guide on the Royal British Legion’s ‘Great Pilgrimage 90’ tour. The prospect of being asked questions about potentially any aspect of the war was quite daunting, so I probably over-prepared because of this!
Now I have a bit more free time on my hands I can get back doing what I love most – researching. My research focuses primarily on three areas; my family who served, the men named on my local war memorials, and the local regiments (particularly the 1st Queen’s Royal West Surreys). However, pursuing research leads I often find myself side-tracked by interesting stories.
This one starts with the war diary of the 1/7th Battalion Royal Highlanders (The Black Watch). This was the battalion my Great Great Grandfather served with. It went overseas in May 1915 and later that year was posted to the Somme sector, where it took over the line from the French. In November the battalion was based in the village of Authuille, just over a mile from Thiepval. I was reading the battalion war diary, tracking my Great Great Grandfather’s movements, when the entry for 9 November caught my eye:
The enemy shelled PETERHEAD today without effect. Important patrols were sent out this evening to investigate reported working by the enemy in the road opposite the HAMMERHEAD. Capt MHN Graham was in command of the main patrol, and 2nd Lieut AL Millar of the covering patrol. The main patrol was fired on at very close range by a German sentry group, and Capt Graham was seriously wounded in the left arm. When roll was called it was found that Sergt Marnock was missing. Lieut Millar volunteered to lead a patrol search party, but no trace of Sergt Marnock could be found. Weather, dull. Casualties Officers wounded 1, other ranks missing 1.
Hammerhead sap was located at the south east corner of Thiepval wood. If you have ever stood at the 18th Division memorial at Thiepval looking down towards the wood, the sap was just in front of the corner of the wood as you are looking at it.
Attempts were made to locate the missing sergeant the following day:
10th Nov – A search party under Lce Cpl Falconer B Coy went out from the Hammerhead at 1pm but found no trace of their missing comrade.
It was initially presumed that Sergeant Marnock had been taken prisoner. His family cannot have been helped by reports such as that in the Fifeshire Advertiser, 1 January 1916:
While unabated anxiety is felt by his friends as to the fate of Sergt. J. Marnock, 1/7th Black Watch, Kirkcaldy, it is unofficially stated that he is a prisoner of war. Sergeant Wilson, who is home to East Fife from the front, states that Sergeant Marnock is a prisoner in the hands of the Germans.
However enquiries to the International Committee of the Red Cross are marked with the dreaded words ‘negatif envoye’ in May 1916, and again in June 1917. The German record states no details were found.
John’s brother David, serving in the Royal Garrison Artillery, was killed in August 1917; in the report of his death in the Fifeshire Advertiser of 1 September 1917, it states that John has been missing for nearly two years – his family seemingly still unaware of his death.
Whatever the circumstances (and date) of John’s death, it seems that he was originally buried by the Germans at Courcelette Communal Cemetery. Perhaps he died soon after he was captured, hence the ICRC having no records of him. However his original grave was destroyed by shellfire and Marnock is now commemorated at Delville Wood cemetery, on a special memorial. The memorial reads ‘To the memory of these three Soldiers of the British Empire, killed in action in 1915 and buried at the time in Courcelette Communal Cemetery, German extension, whose graves are now lost. Their Glory shall not be blotted out.’
Sergeant John Marnock is commemorated on Kirkcaldy war memorial, along with his brother.
I was recently contacted by the relative of a German soldier who had sketched a picture of John Marnock’s grave, presumably when he was originally buried at Courcelette Communal Cemetery. The picture clearly shows John Marnock’s name on the cross, along with his rank, battalion and regiment, and date of death. The German soldier, Arthur Beyler, had enlisted at the beginning of the war and served until he was captured at Thiepval on the eve of the Battle of the Somme. He saw out the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war at Donington Hall in Leicestershire.