COLIN Johnson and his wife Elsie have worshipped at St John’s Church for the past 45 years.
They started attending when their sons were baptised there and they soon became part of the fabric of church life, with Elsie teaching at the Sunday School and Colin acting as a sidesman.
Colin has very strong links with the church, as his dad, William Johnson, was one of the Accrington Pals.
To help our appeal, Colin has spoken about his memories of his dad and what he knew of his time in the Pals.
William Johnson was born in 1897. At the age of 17, he was among the thousands being affected by the East Lancashire recession.
With Howard and Bullough’s closed and 4,500 men and their families living on strike or lock-out pay, the prospect of pay and billeting allowances of around £1 a week was all the encouragement they needed to join up.
So William joined the hundreds of other young men queuing at the local recruiting office, which was at 5 Whalley Road, to enlist in the Accrington Pals battalion.
Following this, medicals were held at the Sunday School in Willow Street.
In Bill Turner’s book, The Accrington Pals, we learn that the Pals left the valedictory service at St John’s on 23 February 1915.
They marched to the station and boarded trains for Caernarvon. They spent a few months in the barracks there, then moved to Rugeley Camp in Staffordshire on 12 May 1915.
Colin recalled his dad saying they had to build their own accommodation on arrival.
Intensive military training followed, including a spell at South Camp, Ripon, for musketry training.
In December they received the call-up for Egypt. They boarded the TSS Ionic at Devonport, Plymouth, and set sail on 19 December 1915. On 31 December, south east of Crete, they had a very narrow escape from an enemy torpedo. William told Colin just how terrifying this was, but they still had to try and defend themselves – rifles against torpedoes.
It really hit home just how lucky they had been when they arrived at Port Said. They witnessed the arrival of some of the survivors of the sinking of the SS Persia, leaving 334 dead – probably by the same enemy submarine that had tried to torpedo them.
They set sail for France in March 1916. It was time for preparations and trench building ready for the "big push" on 1 July 1916 at Serre.
The first day of battle began at 7.20am on a beautiful summer’s morning. They were optimistic, as they had been told that the wires had been cut on the enemy lines and that the British bombardment would have weakened or even obliterated the German defences.
In less than 20 minutes 235 Pals were killed and 350 wounded.
Colin’s dad lived to tell the tale of trenches filled with dead and wounded, and rats eating the bodies.
William was suffering from shell shock and he was moved to a hospital in London
Understandably he didn’t talk about this time often. Colin remembers the periods where his dad would be quiet or would break down.
We can only imagine what he had seen and lived through, which these days we would term post- traumatic stress.
From London, William was transferred to Bowden House, Manchester. There was a happy twist to the tale as it was here that William met Kitty Ratchford who was in service there. She was to go on to become his wife and they raised a family together. Colin was born in 1930.
When William returned to Accrington he approached Howard and Bullough about returning to his job. They refused, saying the symptoms of his shell shock might cause him to fall into the machinery.
His father bought him a newsagent’s at 15 Park Street amd he ran this until he died in 1956 at the age of 59.
William was also a member of the Home Guard until it formally stood down on 3 December 1944 and finally disbanded on 31 December 1945.
Then he went on to become an officer with the Army Cadets until he became ill.
He was also Colin’s officer as Colin spent six years in the Army Cadets until he went to complete his National Service aged 18.
A particularly poignant memory Colin has is of the Armistice Day Parade, marching from Union Street to the top of Little Blackburn Road and onto the Cenotaph.
Colin can remember standing watching his dad marching with three other Pals in a group of four and the clink of medals as they marched by, wearing hard hats and morning suits.
Colin and Elsie currently worship at St Christopher’s High School which is being used temporarily while St John’s is closed. But feelings run high regarding the fate of the church.
He commented that you can see the spire all across the town – and indeed you can. The church rises up from the houses around it acting as a reminder of all who went before us and a compelling reason to support our appeal.