How an old photo sparked a man’s mission to find out more

Don Gill holds up a copy of the picture of his great uncle Gunner J Westby. 180276-1

by ANTONY CLAY

THE discovery of an old picture of his great uncle set a South Yorkshire man on a journey of discovery.

Don Gill, a district correspondent for the Rotherham Advertiser, tracked down a picture of his relative in an old copy of the paper — but the discovery prompted more questions.

Don, of Tickhill, found an image of John Westby in a 1917 edition of the Advertiser in a tribute section marking the deaths of soldiers in battle.

But he was intrigued on reading that John died of fever and set out to find out more — making the surprise discovery that the gunner lost his life not in Europe but in the Middle East.

He has even discovered that his relative is buried in Baghdad.

Don said: “I found out that the name of my great uncle John, who was born in Rotherham in 1894, is engraved on the World War One memorial in Clifton Park.

“I thought that it was likely that the news of his death in 1917 would have appeared in an edition of the Rotherham Advertiser in that year.

“A reporter checked the archives of the paper and sure enough a photograph of 99793 Gunner John Westby of the 136th Trench Mortar Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery appeared in the edition of August 4, 1917, saying simply that John had died of fever.”

John Westby was the brother of Don’s grandmother, Fanny Victoria Westby, who in 1907 married George Gill.

The Westby family lived at 33 Warwick Street, off Wellgate in Rotherham.
After John married his wife Edith in January 1916 at Rotherham Parish Church they lived at number 31 next door to his parents, Don’s great grandfather William Ellis Westby and grandmother Elizabeth Ann Westby.

John was the youngest member of the Westby family and he worked as a warehouse foreman with town glass works company Beatson Clarke.

Don said: “Although small in stature standing five foot six inches tall he obviously had a big heart and in November 1915 at the age 21 years and 10 months he enlisted at the recruiting office in Rotherham to fight for his King and Country.

“In January 1917 he was a member of the British Army Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force that was sent to fight the Turks in the Persian Gulf theatre of war.

“Sadly he contracted malaria that is transmitted by the bite of infected mosquitos and he died in the Number 23 British Stationary Hospital in Baghdad on July 12, 1917.

The picture of John Westby which appeared in the Rotherham Advertiser in 1917

“He was 23 years old and the lad who was born and grew up in Rotherham is buried in the North Gate War Cemetery in far away Baghdad.

“John, whose photograph in his uniform I now have thanks to the Rotherham Advertiser, never again returned to his parents, brothers and sisters back at 33 Warwick Street or to his widow Edith who continued to live at number 31 until her death in August 1924.”

Don said that finding out more about John and his death in Mesopotamia — which roughly correlates to modern-day Iraq and parts of Syria, Turkey, Kuwait and Iran — has had an impact on him.

He said: “I regularly walk passed their red brick terraced homes where they lived when I’m on my way to the New York Stadium to watch Rotherham United and I can only imagine their grief when the news of John’s death reached them over a century ago.

“Like the many Rotherham men who sacrificed their lives fighting for our freedom and whose names are inscribed on the town war memorial, John will not be forgotten.”

Don’s research means he now owns a copy of the attestation form filled in by John when he enlisted in Rotherham.

Don said: “It is in his own handwriting. Many World War One documents were destroyed in the London Blitz in World War Two so it is remarkable that this survived.”

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