John Gavin was born at the Warley Barracks in Brentwood, Essex in 1880. His parents were John and Jane. John snr. was a regular soldier in the British Army and had seen service abroad, John & Jane's eldest child Eliza was born in Aden. After John snr left the army the family found themselves living in Royton - not too far from John & Jane's original hometown of Stalybridge. John snr worked in one of the local mills, something his son also went on to do before joining the colours himself on December 11th 1903. As a member of the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, John was variously stationed in England and Ireland after that date.
Nearly 11 years into John's life as a peacetime regular war broke out and the 2nd Manchesters left Ireland on August 14th and landed at Le Havre two days later.They had hard marching ahead of them over the next few days as they hurried up towards the front as the German Army pushed through Belgium. On August 22nd they reached Hainin on the Belgian side of the border with France and reports of the approach of the Germans began to come in. The 14th Brigade, of which the 2nd Manchesters were one of it's four infantry battalions, received orders to hold the line along the Mons-Conde Canal due west of Mons. When the Brigade took up it's positions the Manchesters were in the second line along the Hainin River which was a half mile to a mile from the canal. Further ahead contact had been made by British units with the Germans and as these fell back and the 14th Brigade's flank was threatened on the afternoon of August 23rd the two battalions at the canal fell back to the defences held by the 2nd Manchesters. It was now that John's battalion was to face it's first action of the war. Their machine guns and those of the 1st Battalion East Surrey Regiment took quite a toll on the German infantry attempting to get across the canal. The line was held until 23:00 when orders were received to fall back. An officer of the battalion recorded in his diary describes the chaos the men found during their retreat:
"...all our friends who had shown us so much hospitality when we advanced only a few days before, were now fleeing southward with what few belongings they had been able hurriedly to collect. The road was blocked, not only by the inhabitants but by de Lisle's cavalry, by guns, and by every conceivable form of military impedimenta which could not be moved southward earlier in the evening. Very old men and women were being hurried along by the younger generation, children and babies in arms, together with perambulators containing household goods, provisions and clothing, carts loaded with people belonging to them and forage both for the horse and ox-teams were mixed up with the troops on the road. The cry - 'the Germans are coming' - was heard incessantly along the route....the sadness of it all I shall never forget, as the advance of only 48 hours or so previously was so marked by the joy of the populace on the arrival of l'armee anglaise."
Battalions of the British Army would stand and fight for spells to hold back the Germans while the general withdrawal took place. The 2nd Manchesters took relatively few casualties during this period and arrived at Le Cateau in France on the evening of August 25th. The orders from High Command were for the British to continue to fall back but the commander of the Second Corps, General Smith-Dorrien, decided to make a stand at Le Cateau. The exhausted British units who made that stand included amongst their number the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment.
The Manchesters were in support behind the Suffolks. At about 10:00 on August 26th the Germans hit the line held by the Suffolks and the Manchesters were sent up to reinforce the line. For the first hour or so it seemed that the men were holding their own but casualties soon began to mount up alarmingly and it became visibly apparent that German columns were pressing forward and beginning to outflank them. The retirement from their positions began at 16:00 with many dead and wounded left behind. The battalion's casualty list was 353 killed, wounded and missing. One of the wounded was John Buckley who was sent back home to England. The retreat continued and at Maretz a roll call was made and it was found only 8 officers and 339 other ranks were present, other men who had become detached from the battalion in the fighting and confusion were to rejoin later. By August 30th, still in full retreat, the situation of the battalion was described by the officer as:
"The hungry and exhausted men plodded along in a hopeless way, many men lying down by the roadside utterly worn out and broken, and every carriage was crowded with wounded, the artillery outriders and even the horses of the teams being used to carry them. To make matters worse a steady rain set in and continued through the pitch dark night".
The battalion arrived around Tournan, only 15 miles from Paris, at 08:00 on September 5th. It must have been with some joy that later that day the men discovered that their long and seemingly never ending retreat was finally at an end. That day the Allied counteroffensive began, the beginning of the Battle of the Marne. No doubt nearing complete exhaustion the men of the Manchesters were back on the march the following day at 07:00 back towards the battle and the now retreating Germans. The Battalion was again in action on September 9th when they came under German artillery fire before clashing with their infantry around the woods near Prisseloup, the Germans broke off contact during the night and retired. The battalion was involved in further fighting near St.Marguerite in mid September incurring a few fair casualties.
On October 13th a general attack was ordered and the battalion advanced on Richebourg l'Avoue, but the going was slow - with the Germans making the British fight for every hamlet and every house. The western end of the village was occupied, and here the battalion dug in for the night with the Germans doing the same some 200-250 yards in front. The casualties that day were 10 killed and 43 wounded. On the 14th and 15th there was little change in the situation with 8 men being injured on the 14th, one dying of his wounds. On the 16th forward patrols indicated the Germans had fallen back so the Manchesters advanced once more. On the 20th of October though enemy reinforcements started to arrive, freed up from the fall of the Belgian city of Antwerp, and the whole British line was violently attacked. A Company of the 2nd Manchesters launched two bayonet attacks on the Germans but were caught by enfilading fire and lost considerably. Fighting went on until dusk until the Manchesters withdrew to support trenches. During the fighting from October 18th to 20th the battalion had lost 11 killed, 130 wounded and 72 missing. It was around this period that John Saxon from Royton was wounded and sent back to England.
There was to be little respite for the 2nd Manchesters and the rest of the British Expeditionary Force and the men of John Gavin's battalion fought on through to the end of October. A notable event at this time was a German assault on the Manchesters positions on October 29th in which the enemy took part of the forward trench but were later repulsed. During this fighting two men particularly distinguished themselves - Roytoner Sergeant John Hogan and Lieutenant James Leach. Their citation read:
"For conspicuous bravery near Festubert on 29 October, when, after their trench had been taken by the Germans, and after two attempts at recapture had filed, they voluntarily decided on the afternoon of the same day to recover the trench themselves, and, working from traverse to traverse at close quarters with great bravery, they gradually succeeded in regaining position, killing eight of the enemy, wounding two, and making sixteen prisoners"
They suffered over 100 casualties in the period October 21st to 29th. At the end of the month the 5th Division, of which the 2nd Manchesters 14th Brigade was part of, was sent to the Ypres area where the Germans had launched an offensive on October 19th. The First Battle of Ypres ended on November 22nd without the 2nd Manchesters seeing any great action or casualties.
There had beem rumours in Royton at around this time that John had been killed. His mother and sister were greatly relieved when they received the following letter - after a silence of six weeks - penned by John on November 10th:
"I hope you are in good health, as I am at present. I received your very welcome letter and was glad to hear you are all right. I have very little to tell you about the war more than you will see in the newspapers. We are having a rest now after coming out of the firing line, but we expect to be back again in the trenches shortly. I am having pretty good health up to the present but the weather is getting very cold. I hope the mills are doing good time at home. You say they have all enlisted in Royton, but I have not seen any Roytonians out here only one, and he has since gone home wounded. I don't think the war will last long now, at least I hope not, and then we can be together again".
John was incorrect and there were other men from Royton amongst the battalion. It's not known if the wounded man he mentioned was John Buckley, John Saxon, Allan Martin or someone else.
On December 5th they were sent into trenches in a very waterlogged area, east of Wulverghem. The German held Messines Ridge overlooked the whole area and made movement by day a very dangerous affair. On December 14th during an artillery bombardment, Royton man William Mills France was killed along with six others.
Shortly afterwards on December 19th John Gavin wrote:
"Just a line or two to let you know that I'm in good health and all right up to now. I received your kind and welcome letter and parcel yesterday containing the muffler and cigarettes and also those cards from the children. They were very nice, and I shall not forget them as long as I live. I hope mother is all right and is taking everything in the best of spirits. I am surprised to hear of those you mention having come to the front, and perhaps I shall be dropping across them. I am very sorry we cannot be together this Christmas, but with good luck we shall have a happy time when I come home, which it is to be hoped will not be long. You ask me if there is anything I want. I wish you would send me a thick pair of gloves, and also a few sheets of writing paper and envelopes as they are so difficult to get out here. I hope your Christmas will be as enjoyable as possible under the circumstances and think of me"
The winter of 1914/15 was very cold and wet and the men of John Gavin's battalion lived in trenches knee deep in mud and water and many men fell victim to trenchfoot. There was little in the way of fighting, the Western Front was now settling down to the trench warfare but casualties were almost a daily affair.
The first three months of 1915 saw the battalion in and out of the front line with little to report in way of action but in March the battalion lost 8 men killed and 29 wounded. One of those to die was Allan Martin, dying of his wounds at a medical post in Wulvergham after being shot by a sniper.
There was something of a period of rest for the battalion during the first three months of 1915 before, in April, they were moved to the Ypres Salient. Casualties then became a daily occurrence once more. Four days before John's death another Royton man in the unit, William Southworth was killed along with five other men, and in the three days following that there were another four killed and twenty two injured.
The unit's war diary entry for April 23rd 1915 just states, "casualties:4 killed, 8 wounded". One of those wounded must have shortly thereafter died as the CWGC has five men dying that day. All are buried at the Chester Farm Cemetery.
The other men were:
BURTON WILLIAM 44 Private 2362 from Chelmsford
HAMBLETT RICHARD 36 Serjeant 6473 from Warrington
RYAN MICHAEL Private 2147 from Manchester
TUNNICLIFFE HERBERT 35 Serjeant 5538 born Buxton,lived Dublin.Boer War veteran
After John's death the Oldham Chronicle reported that he had written home regularly and that his letters had always been cheerful. In his last letter though he had stated that he'd had many narrow escapes, and that he'd gone through a deal more than he'd told them.
Date of Death:23/04/1915
Cemetery:Chester Farm Cemetery