John Whitworth Davidson was born in Ecclesall Bierlow, Sheffield, on 17th November 1894, the younger son of Albert Davidson and his wife Alice Maude Davidson [née Hatfield]. However, tragedy struck the family and three weeks after his birth John’s mother died at the age of 23. Albert Davidson later re-married Emma Birks in 1896 and this marriage produced three half-brothers for John.
John was educated at Wellington College and Sheffield University where he studied Engineering. He served in the Officers Training Corps [OTC] at both establishments attaining the rank of Sergeant at the latter.
Just prior to the outbreak of war John was living in Sidmouth, Devon and on 5th August he made his application for an appointment to a commission in the Special Reserve of Officers. Whilst his preference was to serve in a Scottish regiment: either the Highland Light Infantry or The Seaforth Highlanders, his wish was not to be granted. On 15th August 1914 John was commissioned as a Second-Lieutenant in the 4th (Extra Reserve) Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment) at their base in Sunderland where he carried out his initial training.
It was to be over a year before John was to see active service and he arrived in RENINGHELST in Belgium on 4th September 1915 with a draft of men from England who had been posted to the 10th Battalion and was immediately sent to SCOTTISH WOOD to work there. On 10th March 1916 John was promoted to First-Lieutenant.
On 1st July 1916 the 50th Brigade, 17th (Northern) Division had been instructed to make an assault on the village of FRICOURT, which was heavily fortified and a key focus of the German army’s defence of the area. At its rear were three heavily wired trenches; LOZENGE TRENCH, BOTTOM ALLEY and RAILWAY ALLEY. Further to their rear was a formidable trench system, with numerous supporting structures, known as QUADRANGLE TRENCH interspersed with wooded areas full of camouflaged Machine Gun [MG] emplacements. It was here that the 10th Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters played a major role in the capture of elements of these fortifications.
They had moved up from Morlancourt, with ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies deployed to BECOURT and ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies deployed to BONTE REDOUBT. The advance by 50th Brigade had reached FRICOURT FARM but the enemy still held on at CRUCIFIX TRENCH and RAILWAY ALLEY, both heavily wired, from where they poured vast quantities of MG fire into the British occupying FRICOURT FARM.
As dusk fell on 2nd July heavy fighting was still taking place in front of CRUCIFIX TRENCH and the bombers of ‘A’ Company were involved in an attack along this trench which led eastwards from the farm itself 170 yards of which was captured.
The Battalion War Diary1 entry for 3rd July 1916.
On the morning of the 3rd orders for an attack on RAILWAY ALLEY at 9am were received. 7th BORDER Regt to attack with 7th LINCOLNS in support and 10th SHERWOOD FORESTERS in reserve.
The attacking troops were late in arriving and the result was only a partial success, the right flank passing through RAILWAY ALLEY and penetrating BOTTOM WOOD. The bombers of 10th SHERWOOD FORESTERS assisted the attack by bombing down the trench from the West and the line from […] to FRICOURT FARM inclusive on the left was made good.
A further attack at noon was ordered by ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies of the SHERWOOD FORESTERS. The attack was however in every way successful and the casualties comparatively slight. Meanwhile ‘A’ coy on the left brought heavy fire to bear on the trench 200 yards N.E .of FRICOURT FARM and CRUCIFIX TRENCH. The garrison of the former of these trenches soon showed the white flag & surrendered and our troops pushed on to CRUCIFIX TRENCH and occupied it. A mixed bombing squad was pushed down the C.T. leading from this trench and the result was the surrender of an entire battalion- 3rd Battn, 186th Regt – including the Commanding Officer. A small patrol pushed forward found RAILWAY COPSE unoccupied.
At 7pm orders were received to take up the line of the hedge from the N.W. corner of BOTTOM WOOD to N.E. corner of SHELTER WOOD; SHERWOOD FORESTERS on the right, S STAFFS on the left, an approximate frontage of 400 yards each. Battalion H.Q. established in a dugout in RAILWAY COPSE. The night was spent in consolidating and patrol work, the latter considerably hampered by a sniper and a Machine Gun neither of which could definitely be located.
Rain seriously interfered with the afternoon of the 4th and guns shooting over N.W. corner of BOTTOM WOOD were hitting our forward line which was withdrawn to the line of the hedge.
The following booty was captured during these operations: 2 Field Guns, 4 Machine Guns with 9 spare barrels, 1 artillery periscope, numerous rifles, bayonets and other equipment, 25,000 rounds […] many maps and documents.
In a letter home to his mother, a Private Frank Bower wrote:
We had spent the night in the wood crouching in shell holes to avoid snipers, who were all over the place. At daybreak the birds began to sing as though nothing was wrong, but it was a sight. The wood was practically blasted away, and a village near was laid flat, when the order came. Away we went and the first soldier down was the one next to me. Then I saw Ronald Howe bleeding from the legs, but we had to push on. I don't know how I came through, but I did. When we got into the trenches the Germans surrendered in scores. They put up their hands and yelled ‘Mercy! Comrades.' Some of our chaps gave them mercy with the cold steel.
After the War Private Leonard Robinson of ‘C’ Company gave his account of the action.
On the following night, we were marched through Albert to Fricourt Wood and we went in the Wood in single file. The order was passed down very quietly all fags out and we were told only to talk in whispers as the enemy was not far away. You may rest or sleep if you can but for heavens sake do it quietly. Sentries were posted to keep a sharp look out. We, the troops didn't know a thing of how the land lay in front of us - everything seemed so uncanny. It was very quiet. I tried to snatch a few winks but was unable, then just before dawn we were roused and we went quietly in single file to the edge of the Wood and spread out in extended order waiting for the order to advance and as soon as we left the cover of the wood we were met with terrific rifle and machine gun fire.
We advanced on and as soon as a line of men rushed forward a few yards at a time the machine guns simply mowed men down like nine pins. When the final assault was made the Jerries which was the 111th Reg. wearing the round cloth cap grey with red piping seemed more than ready to surrender, I think they were a Pioneer Regt. I'm not sure. After consolidating our position we advanced further to what was called Happy Valley and dug in. There we found some deep dugouts absolutely shell proof and the occupants had to be winkled out with grenades. Many of my pals fell in the attack before we reached the German front line. When we were relieved the following day there was a roll call and only 26 men and NCOs and 3 officers answered out of a company of 250 strong.
He went on to say:
The night was spent in consolidating and patrol work, the latter considerably hampered by a sniper and a Machine Gun, neither of which could be definitely located.
We were in the trenches which we had taken from the Germans and the rain was coming down in torrents. We had no shelter and were drenched when the Germans commenced to shell us with their big guns. Our gunners soon silenced them but not before they had laid me out with the trench on top of me.
Lieutenant John Davidson, who was commanding the 51st Trench Mortar Battery on the morning of the 4th July, had only the previous day been at MAMETZ: The Battle of Albert, where he had been seconded to 20th Brigade. On his return to FRICOURT he received a bullet wound in the left elbow [just above the joint] with the projectile passing through the arm itself where it splintered a portion of bone above the joint on exit. During the course of the day John was evacuated back from the front line and removed to the Duchess of Westminster Hospital at Le Touquet. From here on 6th July he was repatriated via hospital ship from Calais to Dover and then by train to London. He was admitted to The London Hospital in Whitechapel.
On 9th July, when John Davidson was already in hospital his father received the following telegram.