Friday, 5 August 2016

On 27th July, in 1916, Sergeant John Adams Cornish died

John Adams Cornish was born towards the end of 1887, the fifth of the six sons of William and Anne (Annie) Cornish. William was the long serving headmaster of the Luckett Board School and it was in the School House at Luckett that John lived for all of his life in the area. In 1911(4th April) he was living in London at 75, Sheen Road, Richmond with his cousin, George Adams and his family. At this time John was an accounts clerk and, given subsequent events, this is likely to have been at the Board of Trade. Sometime after this date he was transferred to the Board of Trade Labour Department (West Midlands Division) in Birmingham and he was there at the outbreak of the war.

When war was declared in August 1914, it did not take long for John Adams Cornish to enlist and he signed up in Birmingham for service. This was into the third of three battalions of Birmingham Pals raised by a Local Recruiting Committee chaired by the Lord Mayor. He was one of the thousands of men who enlisted in the early months of the war, leading to the creation of many new battalions of the so-called Kitchener Army.  All of the men in these units were volunteers and were recruited from specific localities, largely of groups of friends: mates from school, workmates, sports teams, etc. hence the name ‘Pals’ regiments. The folly of creating the Pals battalions was revealed as the war progressed and as town after town heard the news of catastrophic losses among their local units.

Initially known as the 3rd Birmingham Battalion, it first trained at Moseley and while there was given the title 16th (Service) Battalion, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. It then moved to Malvern for continued training, followed by some time at Wharfedale and finally Codford, on Salisbury Plain, where large training and transfer camps were established for the tens of thousands of troops waiting to move to France. The Battalion sailed to France, landing at Boulogne on 21st November 1915, which is the date shown on John Adam’s Medal Roll for his formal entry into the France and Flanders Theatre of War. Initially the 16th Battalion was part of 95th Brigade, 32nd Division but the following month the Division was reorganised by swapping battalions between it and the veteran 5th Division. The idea was to ‘stiffen’ the new troops by mixing them with the veterans (though the 5th Division itself consisted largely of fresh replacements after its mauling in the 2nd Battle of Ypres in the spring of 1915).  The 16th Battalion was transferred to the 15th Brigade in 5th Division. The 14th Battalion went to the 13th Brigade and the 15th Battalion to the 14th Brigade - this placed all three Birmingham Pals battalions in the same unit.

While training in England group photographs were taken of these Battalions and these were later published in 'Birmingham City Battalions Book of Honour'. As an original member of the 16th Battalion John Adams Cornish appears in one of these pictures. This shows that he was in B Company, Platoon VIII and was already a Corporal before leaving England. While the book says who is in each picture it does not say where there are in it. Luckily he was a Corporal then and, as he is the only Corporal in the picture, he can be identified by the two stripes on his sleeve.
16th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, B Company, Platoon VIII.

Corporal John Adams Cornish, 4th from the left, front row.
Corporal John Adams Cornish.
After arriving in France the Battalion moved to Longpré, a few miles south-west of Abbeville where it underwent further training before moving to the Bray sector of the front. It first held trenches near Carnoy from 16th December 1915 and was in the front line over Christmas and New Year, suffering its first casualties during this period. On Christmas Day, men from B Company (John Adam’s Company) were employed digging new support trenches behind Carnoy. The area came under heavy shelling from German 5.9 Howitzers which resulted in nine casualties, mostly from Number VIII Platoon (John Adam’s Platoon). Four men were killed outright and two more died of wounds the same day. On 27th December, the battalion was relieved and returned from the front line to Bray sur Somme, where, presumably, they could open their parcels from home and enjoy their Christmas dinner. However their respite was short-lived as on 30th December, they returned to the ‘C2’ sector of trenches in front of Carnoy. By the time the 16th Battalion were finally relieved on 1st February 1916, the month of January had seen nine men killed and thirteen wounded.

In March 1916 the 16th Battalion moved to the Arras sector, where, over the next few months, it alternated between holding trenches and resting in billets until moving to take part in the Battle of the Somme. The total casualties of the 16th whilst on the Arras front amounted to: nine killed in action, two died of wounds, one died of sickness and forty-one wounded. As it left the Arras front it was still predominantly made up of original volunteers from October 1914.

The Battle of the Somme started on July 1st 1916 and for the first few weeks of the month the 16th were held in reserve, although this did not prevent them sustaining casualties during the persistent bombardment from German shellfire. During the evening of 26th July, the 16th Battalion, as did the rest of the 15th Brigade, prepared to resume the offensive against Longueval and Delville Wood, which was due to begin at 07.10 am the following day. Both sides kept up their heavy artillery barrages and the infantry attack would take place within a curtain of incessant shellfire.  At 06.10 am British artillery was brought to bear on Longueval and Delville Wood and at 07.10 am, Zero Hour, the barrage was to leap forward at three intervals of 90 minutes. The infantry were then to rush forward and consolidate each time until the village and wood were cleared. However, the German defenders had dug in well and emerged from the British barrage to provide withering resistance. It was a day of attrition but, gradually as the day wore on, the 15th Brigade slowly gained more and more of their targeted gains. As the Batallion War Diary shows, the 16th were at the heart of the action and their casualties for the Other Ranks for this action were: 42 killed, 179 wounded and 46 missing. John Adams Cornish was one of those missing, presumed killed in action. His body was never recovered.
John Adams Cornish is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial (
Pier and Face 9A 9B and 10B).
Detail from Thiepval Memorial.
He is also commemorated on the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) ‘virtual’ memorial and on the Board of Trade Roll of Honour. The original of the latter went missing during WW2 and a replacement replica of which is now in place in the main entrance area of the DTI in 1, Victoria Street, London.
Board of Trade Roll of Honour, London.

Detail from the Board of Trade Roll of Honour.
The following notice appeared in the Cornwall and Devon Post on 26th August 1916:
Mr and Mrs W.H. Cornish, the School House, Luckett, have received news that their fifth son (Sergt. John Adams Cornish of the Warwicks), was killed in action on July 27th. He was a Kitchener man and joined the 3rd Birmingham Battalion at the outbreak of war, Previously Sergt. Cornish held a Civil Service appointment in Birmingham. Much sympathy is extended to Mr. and Mrs Cornish, whose youngest son (Second Lieut. Eric Cornish) is now at the front, while two other sons are in the navy.

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