John Duke was born on 30 August 1892, one of eight children of William and Lucy Duke of New Herrington, Durham. He was enrolled to the Durham Johnston School in September 1906 at the age of 14, having previously attended North Skelton Colliery School, his father being a miner. He became a pupil teacher aged 18, before studying at Bede College from 1911-1913. After completing his teacher training in July 1913 and passing the certificate examination, he became a school teacher at Dubmire County School in Houghton-le-Spring.
Duke enlisted at Durham with the 18th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, and is recorded as a corporal in March 1915. He was first involved in coastal defence against German shelling at Hartlepool before continuing to train in the UK until December 1915. At this time, he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant and 18DLI was posted to Egypt, where Duke undertook construction work.
In March 1916, the battalion was sent to France, and took part in fighting around the Ypres area, with Duke acting as a machine-gunner. Subsequently, at some point in the spring or summer of 1916, he transferred to 93rd Company, Machine Gun Corps.
Duke was aged 24 when he was killed by machine gun fire while advancing across no man’s land at Serre on the 1 July 1916, the first day of the First Battle of the Somme. He died alongside many other Bede students, as recorded in Bede Magazine and A Record of the War Service of Bede Men. He was posthumously praised for having demonstrated “soldierly efficiency”. Duke is named on the Thiepval Memorial, which bears the names of 72,000 other men who died in the Somme sector and have no known grave.