JOHN VERNON DOUTHWAITE 1892-1917
42224 Rifleman John Vernon Douthwaite, 13th Battalion, The Royal Irish Rifles was killed in action 16 August 1917, aged 25. He is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial, Belgium1 and the Witton Park War Memorials.
John Vernon Douthwaite was born 1892,2 at Bishop Auckland, the son of Frederick and Dorothy Douthwaite. In 1901, Frederick and Dorothy lived at Frederick Street, Bishop Auckland with the children:
- John V. aged 7
- Walter aged 6
- Olive aged 5
- Lillie aged 3
- Margaret aged 2
- William aged 3 months
All children were born at Bishop Auckland and 29 years old Frederick was employed as a, “bricklayer”.3
By 1911, the family lived at High King Street, Witton Park where Frederick still worked as a bricklayer. John now 17 years old and Walter now 16, both worked as coal miners.4 John joined the Army in March 1911.
In February 1914 John V. Douthwaite married Mabel Pearce, registered at Middlesbrough. 5 They had 2 children:
- 18 August 1914: John George was born at Middlesbrough.6
- 25 January 1916: Winifred May was born at Middlesbrough.7
The family later lived at 11 North Street, Middlesbrough.
March 1911, John Vernon Douthwaite joined the Northumberland Fusiliers and was given the service number 3043. He was 18 years 10 months old and had worked as a miner.8 He was 5’6” tall and weighed 126 lbs. His complexion was, “fresh”, eyes were, “brown” and hair was, “brown”. He underwent, 10 March 1911, a medical examination and was certified, “fit for service in the Northumberland Fusiliers”.9 However, he was discharged after only 21 days – 29 March 1911, “in consequence of his not being likely to become an efficient soldier. Para 390 (iii)( c ) Kings Regulations”.10
2 September 1914: John Douthwaite, aged 21 years 4 months, attempted to enlist into the Rifle Brigade. He then worked as a labourer and lived at 107 Russell Street, Middlesbrough. At question 13 regarding whether he had been rejected as unfit for the Military, he stated “No”. It appears that he enlisted into the 6th Battalion, The Rifle Brigade and was given service number Z2557.11 At this time, he was 5’8½” tall and weighed 136 lbs. and certified “fit” for service with the Kings Royal Rifles.12 However, it appears that he was discharged after 42 days, 13 October 1914 – “Not likely to become an efficient soldier – on medical grounds Para 392 (iii)( c ) K.R.”13 A Medical History signed, 13 October 1914, by the Lt. Colonel Commanding 6th Bn., The Rifle Brigade confirmed that, “Not likely to become an efficient soldier on medical grounds”. 14 The medical condition is unexplained in the reports.
Despite being rejected twice on medical grounds, John V. Douthwaite was accepted for service with the Army Service Corps since he was recorded as a, “Driver” with service number MT/156122 then he appears to have been transferred to the 13th Battalion, the Royal Irish Rifles, with a service number of 42224.He did not enter France until after 31 December 1915. 15
The 13th (Service) Battalion (1st County Down) Royal Irish Rifles was formed in September 1914 in County Down from the Down Volunteers. It moved to Clandeboye and came under the orders of the 108th Brigade, 36 (Ulster) Division. It landed in Boulogne in October 1915.16 Other infantry battalions in the 108th Brigade were the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, 11th 12th and 13th Royal Irish Rifles.17
The Division took part in the Battle of the Somme when the Division suffered some 5,104 casualties (approx. 2069 died) on the first day. It was relieved on the 2nd July 1916. After receiving drafts, and being refitted, it took part in the Battle of Messines, 7 – 14 June 1917 when it took Wytschaete and then the Battle of Langemarck 16 – 18 August 1917. It is assumed that Rifleman J.V. Douthwaite was transferred from the ASC to 13/RIR sometime in 1917.
The Battle of Messines: 7 June 1917 18
In order to break the deadlock on the Western Front, a major campaign in Flanders was devised for the summer of 1917. The French effort, known as the Nivelle Offensive had collapsed in May 1917 and the French army had been seriously weakened by mutiny during April – May 1917 so there was increased pressure on the British to attack the German lines. The Third Battle of Ypres was aimed to recapture the Belgian ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge and the German submarine bases there. The plan was for the British Second and Fifth Armies to break out of the Ypres Salient which was surrounded by the German army occupying the higher ground to the east, advance several miles and then attack Ostend and Zeebrugge from the rear. Once this objective had been achieved then the British would drive the Germans out of Belgium. As a prelude to the campaign, the German held Wytschaete-Messines Ridge had to be captured since it overlooked the whole area.
In early 1916, meticulous plans were put in place to take the ridge. In preparing for the Messines battle, General Plummer authorised the laying of 22 mine shafts underneath German lines all along the ridge – work began some 18 months before the offensive. Tunnels from 200 to 2,000 feet in length at a depth of 100 feet had been laid. All 22 mines were to be detonated then the infantry would attack supported by an artillery bombardment, tanks and the use of gas.
The 11th Division together with the 16th, 19th and 36th Divisions made up the IX Corps which attacked with the X Corps and the 2nd ANZAC’s.
21 May: a heavy preliminary bombardment was commenced. It involved 2,300 guns and 300 heavy mortars delivering 3.5 million shells.
7 June 1917: the bombardment ceased at 02:50 then at zero hour 03:10, the order was given to detonate the mines. 19 exploded, 600 tons of explosive blew the crest off the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge. The noise of the explosion was heard in Downing Street. The effect upon the German defenders was devastating. Some 10,000 men were killed during the explosion alone. The 9 Divisions of infantry including the 6th Yorkshire Regiment advanced under protection of a creeping artillery barrage and tanks. Gas canisters using the new Livens projectors, were thrown directly into the enemy trenches.
All initial objectives were taken within 3 hours and by mid-afternoon Reserves from General Gough’s Fifth Army and the French First Army reached their final objectives.
8 June: the German troops counter-attacked without success and this action diminished. By 14 June, the entire Messines salient was in Allied hands. The Battle of Messines Ridge, greatly boosted morale among the Allied troops and signified for the first time on the Western Front that defensive casualties actually exceeded attacking losses: 25,000 against 17,000. 7,000 prisoners were taken. It was one of the most complete “local” victories of the war and there was no reason to delay the main Flanders campaign.
The Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele)
31 July – 10 November 1917 – an overview 19
The offensive had 8 distinctive phases:
- Battle of Pilckem, 31 July to 2 August
- Battle of Langemarck, 16 to 18 August
- Battle of the Menin Road, 20 to 25 September
- Battle of Polygon Wood, 26 September to 3 October
- Battle of Broodseinde, 4 October
- Battle of Poelcapelle, 9 October
- First Battle of Passchendaele, 12 October
- Second Battle of Passchendaele, 26 October to 10 November
Many Divisions visited the Ypres Salient during the Third Battle of Ypres and on more than one occasion. A total of 54 Divisions were thrown into battle. For example, the 11th Division saw action at Langemarck, Polygon Wood, Broodseinds and Poelcapelle. The offensive cost the British nearly 310,000 casualties, the Germans slightly less and it consumed all of the available reserves. On the 6th November, the village of Passchendaele was entered and the whole campaign ended a few days later when more of the ridge was taken. It achieved none of its objectives although the Germans could no longer look down on the Ypres Salient which had been deepened by about 5 miles and they had been prevented from attacking the French when its army was in disarray following the failure of the Nivelle Offensive.
From the outset, it was obvious to the German Fourth Army that a new attack was being prepared and the previous year they had begun to strengthen their defences. The British did not force home their initial advantage and it was not until the 11th July that an air offensive began.
18 July: a massive artillery bombardment commenced.
31 July: the attack itself began and the British Fifth Army attacked north-east from the Ypres salient. Initially, good progress was made but a strong counter-attack resulted in only a 2-mile advance. Heavy rain fell on the first night flooding the swampy ground whose drainage system had been totally destroyed by the 10-day bombardment. As a result, the whole operation was held up but offensive actions still took place.
A description of the action of August is: 20
“So desolate, so meaningless were these August struggles that the record of them in histories and memoirs fill one with a certain weariness. Listlessly the men assemble at the jumping-off tapes. Behind the same familiar barrage, they advance through the same narrow porridge-like strip of ground. The same hidden machine-guns greet them; the same whiz-bangs open up at them. Here and there a strong-point is captured, a new outpost is reached, to which a few riflemen forlornly cling. Some of these are held, and occasionally the line is advanced a few hundred yards. Brownish masses of German troops slog forward and everywhere nasty hand-to-hand encounters take place. The men on both sides are lacerated and punctured, bleed and die, in numbers that baffle the imagination. Nameless new beings take their place, but nothing else changes.
Gaunt, blackened remnants of trees drip in the one-time forests. The shells of countless batteries burst deafeningly and without ceasing; the dank smell of gunpowder, wet clay, poison gas and polluted water spreads over the battleground and drifts eastward. The men hardly know what they are doing or how affairs in general are progressing. By mid-August they were told even less than soldiers are usually told: move up there; start walking that way; occupy those shell-holes; wait near the barn; surround that pill-box; relieve those chaps (you can’t see them from here) behind the canal and wait for further word. After two weeks such was the status of Haig’s grand offensive which was to have burst out of the Salient, bounded across the ridge, released the prancing cavalry steeds, and with flying banners capture the Channel ports.”
The Battle of Langemarck 16 – 18 August: 21
The 36th Division attacked with 2 brigades:
- 108 Brigade attacked with the 9/RIF and the 13/RIR with 12/RIR in support and 11/RIR in reserve. The assaulting troops came under heavy fire from the blockhouses. Some troops were observed attacking “Gallipoli” on the right and a few were seen on the Green Line but both these positions were impossible to hold. By 10am the Brigade was back at its starting point.
- 109 Brigade attacked with 14/RIR and the 11th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers; the 9/R.Innis.F were in support and the 10th in reserve. The Brigade experienced difficulties similar to those of the 108th Brigade but managed to take Fort Hill=Corn Hill and dug in. No further attacks were launched that day.
Later research records that between 16 and 20 August 1917, the 13th Battalion, The Royal Irish Rifles lost 5 officers and 96 Other Ranks, killed in action or died of wounds. and he was killed in action 16 August 1917. Rifleman J.V. Douthwaite was initially reported wounded 22 then wounded and missing.23 Rifleman J.V. Douthwaite was recorded as, “missing and death presumed” then officially recorded as killed in action.24
John Vernon Douthwaite was awarded he Victory and British War medals.25
Rifleman John Vernon Douthwaite is commemorated at panel 138 to 140, Tyne Cot Memorial, north east of Ypres, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium. The Memorial to the Missing if one of 4 memorials to the missing in Belgian Flanders which cover the area known as the Ypres Salient which stretched from Langermarck in the north to Ploegsteert Wood in the south. The Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing forms the north-eastern boundary of the Tyne Cot Cemetery and bears the names of almost 35,000 officers and men whose graves are unknown. The memorial was unveiled in July 1927.
John Vernon Douthwaite’s wife Mabel was his sole heir and custodian of his pension and effects.27
Despite John V. Douthwaite enlisting twice and being discharged twice due to an unspecified medical condition, he joined the Army Service Corps then the 13th Bn., the Royal Irish Rifles. He was killed in action 17 August 1917 at the Battle of Langemarck, part of the Third Battle of Ypres 1917, otherwise known as Passchendaele. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial along with about 35,000 others. He left a wife and 2 children.
1 Commonwealth War Graves Commission
2 England & Wales Birth Index 1837-1915 Vol.a0a p.226 Auckland 1893 Q2 and Army Form B.265
3 1901 census
4 1911 census
5 England & Wales Marriage Index 1837-1915 Vol.9d p.844 Yorkshire North Riding 1914Q1 and Army Form B.2065 Next of kin, Particulars of Marriage etc.
6 Army Form B.2065 Particulars of children
7 Army Dependants card index
8 Army Form B.265
9 Description on Enlistment
10 Statement of Services
11 Army Form B.2065
12 Description on Enlistment
13 Statement of Services
14 Army Form B.178A and Army Form B.122
15 Medal Roll card index and Roll of Individuals entitled to the Victory and British War medals undated Sheet No.2937
20 “In Flanders Fields” L. Wolffe 1959 p.142-3
21 “The Third Ypres Passchendaele The day by day account”1995 Chris McCarthy p.49-51
22 NLS 1917 WL08 War Office Daily List No.5371 dated 22 September 1917
23 NLS 1917 Wlist14 War Office Daily List No.5405 dated 1 November 1917
24 UK Army Register of Soldiers’ Effects 1901-1922 Record No.666817 and CWGC
25 Medal Roll card index and Roll of Individuals entitled to the Victory and British War medals undated Sheet No.2937
27 UK Army Register of Soldiers’ Effects 1901-1922 Record No.666817 and Pension Recipient card index