From ‘Akerdock Cottage’ to the Somme

July 22nd, 2016

We remembered the start of the Battle of the Somme 100 years ago on 1st July but the fighting went on long after that, until November, with more than 1 million men wounded or killed. There are many stories to be told about Derbyshire men who tragically lost their lives during this time.  One such story has been written about Jess Fletcher of Cromford.  John Fletcher, Jess’s nephew decided to investigate his family history and in particular that of the uncle he’d never met.

Jess was born on 14th July 1892 at the Aqueduct Cottage, on Cromford Canal. He was baptised Josiah after his maternal Grandfather, but was always known as Jess. The cottage’s name was changed to ‘Akerdock Cottage’ within the family, presumably by the children’s attempts to pronounce the word ‘aqueduct’.

By 1911 Jess was working in John Smedley’s textile mill at Lea Bridge. When war was declared on 4th August 1914, there immediately began a call for men to join up to serve their country.  On Tuesday 25 August, at Derby Recruitment Office Jess enlisted as a Private in the 9th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters.  His enlistment form states this was not his first application, having previously been rejected because of “bad teeth”.  Obviously whatever had been wrong with his teeth had been resolved although it was noted that he had “slight varicose veins in his left calf”. Jess set off for training, first in Derby and later in Lincolnshire.  But those varicose veins were going to pose a problem, as only weeks later in October 1914, Jess was discharged from the Army as “unlikely to become an efficient soldier” as he was “unable to march”, with the note “Discharged on account of varicose veins”.

So it was back to the mill for Jess.  It must have been hard coming back so soon and to cope no doubt with comments from his workmates (many of them female) as to the cause.  As the war progressed there were constant calls for men to enlist and even though Jess had an official exemption on health grounds he faced just as much pressure, including one incident when possibly a female work colleague handed him a white feather.

Recruitment for the 16th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, known as the  ‘Chatsworth Rifles’, began in April 1915 and Jess was one of the first to enlist.  Although he mentioned his previous army service during his medical examination, no other mention seems to have been made. A period of training began and on 6th March 1916 the battalion left the UK to begin active service on the Western Front. Life of a soldier at war began and it was less than 4 months later that they were involved in the Battle of the Somme.

Battalions new to the horrors of the Front were often first set ‘carrying duties’.  This involved ferrying supplies, rations and ammunition to the Front Line, meaning journeys across No Man’s Land. The men were obviously easy targets for shelling and snipers.  This was what Jess found himself doing on 3rd September 1916.  The battalion’s war diary (which can be found on Ancestry in your local Derbyshire library) says: “The 16th Battalion Sherwood Foresters were employed chiefly as carrying parties for the two assaulting Battalions.  Several of these carrying parties reached the German lines, in some instances making several journeys across No Mans Land.  Others were engaged as Trench Control Posts and supplying forward dumps. This work was carried out under a very heavy hostile artillery barrage.”

The diary goes on to describe the events of that 3rd September:

“The first salvo was fired away in the valley behind us…. pandemonium was loosed… the din was appalling and incredible… Never had I imagined such noise… Shrapnel was screaming over our heads and jagged fragments and splinters flew about… the rain of high explosive was changing the face of the landscape of the trench system before my eyes… [my] platoon had vanished utterly into thin air… only Fear was a very close companion…all sense of direction went… This was the first stage of that wild morning…

Mist and the smoke of the bombardment prevented observation; No Man’s Land was swept by fire of all kinds, so it was difficult for runners to get back with reports of the situation.”

At some stage during that day Jess joined the number of men seriously wounded and was moved to one of the nearby Casualty Clearing Stations.  There is no record of exactly what his wounds were but a fellow soldier on the same day suffered head wounds after being caught in the blast of an exploding shell. Two days later on Tuesday 5th September 1916 Jess died of his wounds, just six months after leaving British shores.

John Fletcher’s book about his uncle, ‘Jess Fletcher was a Derbyshire lad from ‘Akerdock Cottage’ on the Cromford Canal’ is a fascinating read.  John only produced a small number of copies for his family but very generously donated one to the Derbyshire Record Office, where he carried out some of his research.   You will find the book in the Local Studies reference collection and it’s well worth a read.