What would you want to tell your loved ones if you were killed in action? It must have been a question that many soldiers, sailors and airmen considered during the Great War. This is the story of one Londoner’s last words to his mother.
John William Irons was born in Islington in 1884, the eldest son of John and Mary Irons. By 1901, John senior had died and Mary was working as an office cleaner, living in Lambeth with her 18-year-old daughter Ellen (working as a “fur machinist”), 16-year old John William who was working as an assistant in a stationer’s shop, and two younger sons, Frederick and George. Later that year, Mary married widower Ernest William Collett, who was living in Camberwell. They had three children, one of whom died in infancy. In 1911, Mary, Ernest, their two daughters, Mary’s three sons (Ellen had moved out), and four boarders, were living at 112 Kennington Road – close to the current location of the Imperial War Museum.
John William Irons was listed in the census return as a clerk. By 1914, he was working for Messrs Adams Bros and Shardlow Ltd, a printing firm based at 72 Chiswell Street, London EC. In August 1914, he left the firm to join the army. When he went out to the front in May 1915, the firm sent him gift boxes every fortnight.
The 5th Berkshires were at Noyelles from 27th February 1916 until the 29th, when they moved into the frontline trenches. According to the war diary “C and D [Companies were] in front line A and B Coys in support trenches”. The battalion also received a “Draft of 43 N.C.O’s and Men arrived from Etaples”. On 1 March, one soldier died, but the war diary doesn’t give any details.
On 2 March, the war diary tells us that a “Mine exploded in front of D Coy and Crator [sic] occupied by Coy Bombers Casualties O.R. 3 killed 7 wounded”. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists three men of the battalion who died that day: L/Cpl Victor J Stokes, Pte William E Carter and L/Cpl John William Irons.
A few days later, Mary Collett back in Kennington received a letter from Revd Jospeh O’Reilly. The letter describes Irons having been killed by a shell; whether this was separate from the mine explosion, part of the occupation of the crater, or simply the generic description of death resulting from an explosion (rather than gunfire) is hard to say.
Dear Mrs Collett
Possibly you may have received a telegram recently with news of your son John, but if not it falls to me to inform you that your poor boy has made the Great Sacrifice for God and Country. The letter enclosed was found on him in an envelope upon which was the written request that the finder might past [sic] it to you.
I sincerely simpathise [sic] with you in your sorrow. He was a very good Catholic boy – always receiving the sacraments when opportunity permitted. He was killed by a shell on the night of March 2nd. Death was instantaneous.
I buried him yesterday and possibly I shall be able to have a photo of his last resting place sent to you.
(Revd) Joseph C O’Reilly, CF
36 F[iel]d Amb
The letter Revd O’Reily sent back was addressed to Mary Collett and had clearly been written by L/Cpl Irons when contemplating going into the front line as it is dated “Armentieres, June 7, 1915”, the location and date that the 5th Berkshires went into billets for a week before going into the trenches for the first time:
In case I get bowled out I have scribbled this line to you.
Now, Mum, do not worry about me as I am contented at having done my bit. Keep up your spirit and work on as you have always done. Remember me to all at home, also Nell and Sam, and all my chums when you can.
In is hard to imagine the emotions Mary must have felt when she received that letter from her son. In a letter she sent to the Imperial War Museum, she told them that a “Better son a mother never had”.
Mrs Collett was clearly very proud of her son. She sent information about him and a photo of his grave to the Imperial War Museum in 1918. Possibly this was the same photo sent by Revd O’Reily in 1916:
The grave is in Vermelles British Cemetery, where Irons lies alongside Stokes and Carter. After the war, the Imperial War Graves Commission (as they were then known) offered the families of the fallen the chance to add an inscription to the otherwise-uniform headstones. Mary Collett clearly took her son’s letter to heart when she composed his inscription, which reads:
I AM CONTENT
TO HAVE DONE MY BIT
PRAY FOR ME