yeovil at War

John Hancock

Died of wounds, as a prisoner of war in Germany


John Hancock was born in Yeovil, possibly the son of railway porter John Hancock (b1840) of 1 Kiddles Lane (today's Eastland Road). Sadly nothing else is known of John's early life but it appears that he moved to south Wales while his family, certainly a sister, remained in Yeovil.

Although the date is unknown, John enlisted at Port Talbot joining the 9th (Service) Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers. His Service Number 37947 suggesting he enlisted during the summer of 1917.

The 9th (Service) Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers was raised at Wrexham on the 9 September 1914 as part of Kitchener's Second New Army and joined 58th Brigade, 19th (Western) Division. They trained at to Tidworth, spending the winter in billets in Basingstoke, they returned to Tidworth in March 1915 for final training and proceeded to France, landing at Boulogne on the 19th of July 1915.

Their first action was at Pietre, in a diversionary action supporting the Battle of Loos. In 1916 They were in action during the Battle of the Somme, capturing La Boisselle and being involved in The attacks on High Wood, The Battles of Pozieres Ridge, the Ancre Heights and the Ancre.

In 1917 the 9th Battalion were in action in The Battle of Messines and the Third Battles of Ypres.

1918 saw the return of the war of movement and the 9th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers took part in the Battle of St Quentin.

The Battle of St Quentin began the German's Spring Offensive on 21 March 1918 and lasted until 23 March. It was launched from the Hindenburg Line, in the vicinity of Saint-Quentin, France. Its goal was to break through the Allied lines and advance in a north-westerly direction to seize the Channel ports, which supplied the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and to drive the BEF into the sea. Two days later General Ludendorff, the Chief of the German General Staff, changed his plan and pushed for an offensive due west, along the whole of the British front north of the River Somme. This was designed to separate the French and British Armies and crush the British forces by pushing them into the sea. The offensive ended at Villers-Bretonneux, to the east of the Allied communications centre at Amiens, where the Allies managed to halt the German advance; the German Armies had suffered many casualties and were unable to maintain supplies to the advancing troops. Much of the ground fought over was the wilderness left by the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The action was therefore officially named by the British Battles Nomenclature Committee as The First Battles of the Somme, 1918.

The following day the battalion was involved in the First Battle of Bapaume. In the late evening of 24 March, after enduring unceasing shelling, Bapaume was evacuated and then occupied by German forces on the following day. After three days the infantry was exhausted and the advance bogged down, as it became increasingly difficult to move artillery and supplies over the Somme battlefield of 1916 and the wasteland of the 1917 German retreat to the Hindenburg Line. On 25th the troops were ordered to withdraw and reorganise.

The 9th (Service) Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers were next engaged in the Battle of the Lys (7–29 April 1918). Also known as the Lys Offensive, the Fourth Battle of Ypres, the Fourth Battle of Flanders and Operation Georgette, this was part of the 1918 German offensive in Flanders, also known as the Spring Offensive. It was originally planned by General Ludendorff as Operation George but was reduced to Operation Georgette, with the objective of capturing Ypres, forcing the British forces back to the channel ports and out of the war. In planning, execution and effects, Georgette was similar to (although smaller than) Operation Michael, earlier in the Spring Offensive.

During the battle John Hancock was shot in the leg, fracturing his right thigh. He was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Germany. He died from his wounds on 6 June 1918 at Cologne, Germany.

The Western Gazette, in its edition of 6 September 1918 reported "News has been received by Miss M Hancock of Lyncroft, The Park, of the death of her brother Private Hancock, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He died on the 6th June at Cologne, Germany, from shot wounds which fractured his right thigh. Private Hancock joined from South Wales, but was well-known in this district. He was wounded and taken prisoner in France on the 10th of April 1918.

John Hancock was interred in Cologne Southern Cemetery, Germany - Grave VII.B.27. His name is inscribed on the War Memorial in the Borough.




The Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone for John Hancock.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission certificate in memory of John Hancock.


Cologne Southern Cemetery, Germany.

More than 1,000 Allied prisoners and dozens of German servicemen were buried in Cologne Southern Cemetery during the First World War. Commonwealth forces entered Cologne on 6 December 1918, less than a month after the Armistice, and the city was occupied under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles until January 1926. During this period the cemetery was used by the occupying garrison. In 1922 it was decided that the graves of Commonwealth servicemen who had died all over Germany should be brought together into four permanent cemeteries at Kassel, Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne. Over the course of the following year, graves were transferred to Cologne Southern Cemetery from over 180 different burial grounds in Hanover, Hessen, the Rhine and Westphalia. There are now almost 2,500 First World War servicemen buried or commemorated in the Commonwealth plots at Cologne. The Cologne Memorial, located inside the shelter building at the entrance to the Commonwealth plots, commemorates 25 British and Irish servicemen who died in Germany and who have no known grave. Of these, 19 are known to have died as prisoners but their places of burial are not recorded. The remaining six died after the Armistice by drowning and their bodies were not recovered. The Commonwealth section of the cemetery also contains over 130 Second World War graves, mostly those of servicemen who died with the occupying forces. In addition, the Commission maintains in this section 676 non-war graves, 30 graves of other nationalities and the graves of 4 members of the Commission staff. Commonwealth Prisoners of War in Germany during the First World War Between the outbreak of war in August 1914 and the Armistice of November 1918, the German forces captured almost 300,000 Commonwealth servicemen on the Western Front. Approximately one third of these prisoners were held in German occupied territory in France and Belgium, but most were transported to camps located throughout Germany. In common with the other belligerent states, Germany was poorly equipped to house, feed and clothe large numbers of enemy troops, but prisoners of war had been granted certain rights under international agreements established at Geneva in 1864 and at The Hague in 1899 and 1907. The Red Cross also monitored conditions in the camps and ensured that food, clothing, and personal correspondence sent from Britain was safely delivered to prisoners. In June 1917, and again in July 1918, the British and German governments agreed to exchange prisoners who were too badly wounded to fight again, and hundreds of prisoners were repatriated through the Netherlands. Finally, the fear that the thousands of German prisoners in Britain and France would be mistreated in retaliation meant that Allied POWs often enjoyed quite humane treatment. This was especially the case for officer prisoners, who were segregated into separate camps and not forced to work. Despite these various checks on the mistreatment of prisoners, conditions in German camps varied widely and as many as 12,000 Commonwealth servicemen died in captivity. Some of these men were badly wounded when taken prisoner and died shortly after arriving in Germany. Some prisoners also died as a result of violence perpetrated by their captors, but although violence was common, particularly during the first year of the war, the killing of prisoners was rare. Non-commissioned officers and privates were often forced to work and some died of exhaustion or accidents while labouring in coalmines, stone quarries or steel works. Yet by far the most common cause of prisoner death in wartime Germany was disease. Prisoners weakened by wounds, poor diet, or fatigue were particularly susceptible to the effects of disease and an outbreak of typhus in 1915 and the influenza epidemic of 1918 had a devastating effect on the Allied prisoner population. The Cologne Memorial takes the form of panels set inside the north shelter building at the entrance to the Commonwealth plots in Cologne Southern Cemetery. It commemorates 25 servicemen of the United Kingdom who died in Germany and who have no known grave. Of these, 19 are known to have died as prisoners and their places of burial are not recorded. The other six died after the Armistice by drowning and their bodies were not recovered.