John Barclay was a Cumbrian, born and bred in Penrith. In 1891, his parents, William and Barbara Barclay, lived in Albert Terrace and later in William Street in the town where William was a watchmaker. John was their eldest son, born on 5 October 1889; two brothers Thomas (who served with the R.F.C. in the war) and Frederick followed in 1893 and 1895.
The Penrith Observer notes that John was educated at the Boys’ National School in Penrith – he later returned to this school as a pupil teacher. In 1901, Barclay received ‘First Class’ in the Diocesan Scripture examinations, and in 1902 a book prize for his results in the Scholarship examinations when he was aged 12. Penrith Grammar School was his destination in September 1905, and his own education no doubt fostered his ambition to become a teacher himself and his eventual study at Bede College. In 1909, when he took his leave of the St Andrew’s Boys’ Sunday School in Penrith he was presented with a writing case by the Superintendent and the teachers as a memento of their esteem.
Following a period of pre-training at his old school in Penrith as a pupil teacher and at Brunswick Street School as an unqualified assistant teacher, in September 1909 Barclay joined Bede College in Durham and spent two years training for the teaching profession. Upon graduating he was appointed to West Auckland Church of England School as a Certified Assistant Master. Whilst teaching in West Auckland he took an active interest in school football as well as entering into local life as a member of St Helen’s Auckland church choir. He also joined West Auckland Cricket Club and captained the local Church Lads’ Brigade.
When war was declared in 1914 John Barclay was amongst the first to volunteer. He joined 1/8th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, where he would meet many other men with a similar history to his own – the 8th being regarded as the Bede Battalion. Indeed the 1914 Bede students were at annual camp as the war declaration was made and as a body they enlisted into the 8th. The Bede magazine reported regularly on alumni and in June 1915 it noted that Private John Barclay had disembarked in France on 19/20 April and fought at Gravenstafel Ridge on 25 April during the 2nd Battle of Ypres.
In A Record of the War Service of Bede Men (1921) Major F.G. Harvey describes the Bede men’s experience of 25 April 1915. Having been transported to the front by a fleet of London buses, the battalion found itself in the thick of the chaotic action. Reading Harvey’s account, straightaway it becomes clear that the use of chlorine gas was totally unexpected, (so much so that it was not immediately recognised); that communications at the front were difficult if not impossible, and that the men’s equipment was inadequate. The then Captain Harvey remarks that he met a Canadian major as the D.L.I. men were going forward. The 8th were without machine guns, so he [the Canadian Major] left his machine gun section with them. Perhaps it was this action which influenced Barclay’s later decision to become a machine-gunner! As a first experience of front-line warfare and within five days of arriving in France the fighting at Gravenstafel Ridge must have come as a complete shock to Harvey and his men. He concludes his article with the comment that “[t]he Battalion marched up at full strength, and was reduced to less than ten officers and under four hundred men.”
In June 1916 John Barclay is reported by The Bede as still with 8th D.L.I., but he is now reported as a private in 151st Machine Gun Company (moved 1 March 1918 into 50th Battalion, C Company). The 8th Battalion saw action throughout the Battle of the Somme: being in reserve at Mametz Wood in September 1916; fighting there in late October; suffering heavy losses in the attack on the Butte de Warlencourt before again being at Mametz Wood in November. During this exceptionally wet year, official histories note that men had to pull each other out of the mud before advances could be made. Barclay himself notes in his diary on 22 February 1917 that the trenches in his sector were “waist deep in mud & water at places” (Ref: D/DLI 7/41/3).
Later reports in the Penrith Observer tell of John Barclay’s interest in the history and traditions of the towns of France and Flanders which he saw during his service. He seems to have spent nearly four years traversing the district and will have been well aware of the destruction caused but also of the beauty and landscape of the area. Three diaries of Barclay’s survive from this period (1915-1917), held today in the archives of the Durham Light Infantry: images and transcripts from his June-July 1916 and February 1917 diaries are published online by the County Record Office.
The Bede magazine in April 1918 reported that Barclay and a man named Archbold were the only two Bede men remaining with the Brigade. However, the August 1918 edition of the magazine noted Archbold had been wounded on 27 May and was now missing. “John Barclay alone remains unhurt.” Barclay was the only member of the original Bede contingent who joined 8th D.L.I. in 1914 remaining with the battalion. His eventual rank was Orderly Room Sergeant.
It seems cruelly ironic then that four years of overseas service, often under desperate conditions, should end at home in Penrith in December 1918, when Sergeant Barclay died of pneumonia, aged 29. As the war ended, the so-called Spanish ‘flu was spreading in France and John Barclay fell ill. However, he was anxious to return home on a previously planned leave and opting not to report sick he arrived in Penrith on 1 December. Unfortunately, his condition deteriorated and he died on 14 December. His funeral was at Penrith St Andrew’s, where his father was a church-warden. At the request of his family it was not a military funeral, but six soldiers on home leave volunteered as bearers. He is buried in Penrith Cemetery.
His service and sacrifice are commemorated in the various towns in which he lived and worked: in his home town of Penrith, on the war memorial cross in St Andrew’s churchyard and on memorial tablets inside the church and in Castle Park; in Durham, on the Durham County Council war memorial in County Hall, and on 1914-1918 cross, plaque and roll of honour at Bede College; in West Auckland, on the village war memorial and on the roll of honour at the West Auckland Methodist chapel. The West Auckland school log book also records his death, as does the National Union of Teachers War Record 1914-1919 (1920). At Penrith National School a photographic memorial of the 49 Old Boys and 2 masters killed in the First World War was unveiled in 1920, but is now lost.