In the footsteps® of
Sergeant John William Streets

John William Streets

John William Streets. (Based on NPG x138835)

John William Streets was born on 24th March 1886 to William and Clara Streets, of 16 Portland Street, Whitwell, Derbyshire. Known as "Will" to his family, he was the eldest of 12 children. At the age of 14 Will went to work down the local Whitwell coal mine, having turned down a place at grammar school to help support the large Streets family. He kept up his studies in the evenings with the help of his mentor John Mills.

Soon after war was declared in August 1914 Will Streets signed up as a volunteer at the recruiting office set up in the Corn Exchange, Sheffield. He was one of hundreds of men who went there to join up and enlisted into the 12th (Service) Battalion York & Lancaster Regiment; his regimental number was 12/525.

The 12th (Service) Battalion York & Lancaster Regiment was one of the battalions formed at the beginning of the war from men recruited in a specific area, workplace, profession, etc. These battalions became known as the Pals Battalions. Many of the men recruited into the battalion were professional men and office workers; many of whom had been to public schools and universities. In addition the battalion accepted men from the Pennistone Railway and the local coal mines; Will was one of these miners. The battalion was initially called the Sheffield City Battalion, though later it became known as the Sheffield Pals.

The Sheffield Pals spent the next 15 months training initially at Bramhall Lane, the famous home of Sheffield United Cricket and Football Club before moving to Redmires Camp, just outside of the city, on Saturday 5th December 1914. There the Sheffiled Pals stayed for just over five months, during which time they were assigned to the 94th Brigade in the 31st Division along with the 13th and 14th Battalions, York & Lancaster Regiment, the 1st and 2nd Barnsley Pals, and the 11th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, the Accrington Pals. Preparation for active service continued throughout 1915 with spells at Penkridge Bank Camp near Rugeley, Ripon, where training in small arms began in earnest, and Hurdcott Camp near Salisbury. On 28th September 1915 Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Arthur Crosthwaite, formerly of the Durham Light Infantry, assumed command and two-days later, on 20th December 1915, the Battalion embarked on HMT Nestor at Devonport bound for Alexandria in Egypt. Once there they were tasked with building up the defences to protect the Suez Canal, however, after just two months they along with the rest of the 31st Division were on the move again, this time to France and the Western Front.

On 10th March 1916 the Sheffield Pals embarked on HMT Briton at Port Said for the five-day voyage to Marseilles. Eighteen days after arriving in France, they took over a stretch of the front line opposite the fortified village of Serre. The Battalion's first fatal casualty occurred on 4th April 1916 when Private Alexander McKenzie was killed by a rifle grenade. On the night of 15th/16th May 1916 fifteen of the Battalion were killed and a further 45 wounded when the Germans mounted a trench raid under cover of an intense artillery bombardment. By now the preparations for the coming Somme offensive were progressing and by early June the Sheffield Pals were practising for their planned attack against the enemy at Serre. The 94th Brigade would have the dubious honour of being at the extreme left of the 15 mile front for the main Somme Offensive that stretched south from Serre to Maricourt.

On Saturday, 24th June 1916 the artillery began their planned five-day preparatory bombardment that was intended to destroy the German defences. Each night raiding and wire-examining parties were sent out, but ominously they reported back each night that German wire had not been completely cut. On 28th June 1916 the planned attack was postponed for two-days due to bad weather and a new time for the offensive was set for 07:30 hrs on Saturday, 1st July 1916. That same day Lieutenant Colonel Crosthwaite was taken seriously ill and hospitalised. Major Alfred Plackett was hurriedly recalled from the Divisional School to take over command.

Saturday, 1st July 1916 has gone down in history as the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. At 07:30 hrs approximately 100,000 men went over the top of which 57,470 became casualties of whom 19,240 were either killed or subsequently died of their wounds. It has for many come to represent the futility and sacrifice of the First World War, with lines of infantry walking across No-Man's-Land into the machine guns of the enemy.

Sergeant Will Streets and the men of the Sheffield Pals went over the top in the vicinity of John Copse and Mark Copse, now the Sheffield Memorial Park, to attack against the enemy fortified village of Serre. The first wave of A and Companies moved out into No-Man's Land at 07:20 hrs and lay down about 100 yards in front of their own front line under cover of the artillery barrage. Casualties up to this point were light as the artillery barrage was at its zenith. The cacophony of noise was deafening as the massed guns sent over their deadly payload into the enemy positions; surely nothing could survive the artillery onslaught.

At 07:29 hrs the second wave moved forward to take up positions 30 yards behind the first wave, as they did so the enemy artillery opened fire their barrage creeping forward towards the Sheffield Pals front line. At 07:30 hrs the whistles blew and the first and second waves moved forward; the attack had begun. The British artillery barrage lifted from the enemy's front line and the German soldiers began emerging from their shelters and dugouts. The third and fourth waves climbed over the parapet of the frontline trench and followed on behind the leading two waves. The Sheffield Pals advanced as if they were on parade into the German artillery barrage and machine-guns.

A few men from A and C Companies managed to get through the wire and reach the enemy's frontline, but most fell before they reached the wire or got hung up on the wire where they were shot by the defending German soldiers. In the face of this ferocious onslaught those that were still alive took shelter in the shell holes where they remained until they could make their way back to their own lines under cover of darkness. It was a bloodbath.

Within minutes it was as if the Sheffield Pals had been wiped off the face of the earth. Lance Corporal Albert Outram, a signaller in the Sheffield Pals, recalled that as far as the eye could see, the last two men left standing on the battlefield were himself and another signaller, Private Archie Brammer. They signalled to each other; Albert Outram turned his head for a moment, and when he looked back Brammer had gone. Lance Corporal Albert Outram became a Prisoner of War.

On the right of the Sheffield City Battalion, the Accrington Pals made greater inroads into the German trenches but were unable to hold on to the hard-won gains. The battle for Serre was lost.

The Sheffield Pals sustained 513 casualties: 8 officers and 246 other ranks killed, 9 officers and 237 other ranks wounded, and 2 other ranks taken prisoner. 201 of the other ranks killed were reported missing on 1st July 1917 and Will Streets was one of them. His body lay in No-Man's Land for 10 months before it was identified. On 1st May 1917 Sergeant John William Streets was officially listed as "Killed". He was 31 years-old and is remembered with honour at Euston Road Cemetery, Colincamps on Special Memorial. A.6.

A Selection of Poems by John William Streets

Commenting on his poems, Will Streets said: "They were inspired while I was in the trenches, where I have been so busy I have had little time to polish them. I have tried to picture some thoughts that pass through a man's brain when he dies. I may not see the end of the the poems, but hope to live to do so. We soldiers have our views of life to express, though the boom of death is in our ears. We try to convey something of what we feel in this great conflict to those who think of us, and sometimes, alas! mourn our loss. We desire to let them know that in the midst of our keenest sadness for the joy of life we leave behind, we go to meet death grim-lipped, clear-eyed, and resolute-hearted."

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Last updated: 15th December 2018