Remembering the First World War fallen - John William Sunter
You won’t find John William Sunter in the “Craven’s Part in the Great War” book which was published in 1920, nor is his name engraved on the Embsay or Skipton war memorials. But he deserves to be remembered as an Embsay man who fought and died in the Great War. [He has since been added to the website of Craven men who died in the First World War - www.cpgw.org.uk]
He was baptised at St Mary’s Church, Embsay on October 7th, 1883, the 4th child of quarryman George Sunter, and his wife Hannah. George Sunter had been living in Eastby and Embsay since at least 1860, when his widowed mother came here from Greenhowhill, near Pateley Bridge, with George, then in his early 20s, and 3 of her daughters. He had married Hannah Murphy (originally from Liverpool) at Embsay church in 1875.
Another 3 younger sisters and a brother were also born in Embsay before the family moved in 1890 – when John was 8 years old - to Nelson, Lancashire, where another brother (James Edward) and 2 sisters were born.
George continued to work as a quarry labourer, and as older siblings went into the cotton factories, John appears to have decided this was not the future for him. At the age of 18, he enlisted in the army, joining the Royal Army Medical Corps, stationed at Aldershot in Hampshire. In 1902 he was serving in the Transvaal, South Africa and earned the Queen’s South Africa Medal (which you can see he is proudly wearing in the photograph above). Having served 12 years, he returned home to Nelson to work at Astley’s Brewery, and became a player at Nelson Football Club. By now his father was very ill, and it was John who filled out the census return for the household in 1911, being the oldest who was still at the family home (George died later that year).
As an experienced veteran soldier, 31 year old John William, still unmarried and living with his widowed mother, was called up immediately on the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, to join the 46th Field Ambulance Unit. His service records describe him at this time as 5ft 8 inches tall, weighing 138 lbs (just under 10 stone), grey eyes and brown hair. He was sent over to the Western Front.
In January 1917 he was promoted to Lance-Corporal. His service records make no mention of him ever having been wounded, ill, nor subject to any disciplinary action. But he was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry at Vimy Ridge in April 1916.
He was wearing the medal ribbon when on the 31st of July 1917, while bringing in some wounded, he was killed. A comrade wrote to John’s mother:
“If ever a man gave his life to save others, Jack did, and I can assure you we have lost one who can never be replaced. He was more than a chum to me.”
The following personal effects were all that were returned to Hannah:
3 medal ribbons, a diary, a case with 2 razors and a strop, one cap badge, a pipe with tinder, and 2 hankerchiefs.
She had already received news, in September 1916, that her youngest boy, James Edward, serving with the East Lancashire Fusiliers, was reported missing, presumed dead.
Thankfully for Hannah Sunter, her eldest son, George, (in the Royal Field Artillery) survived the war.
John William is commemorated at the Menin Gate cemetery, Ypres. The inscription on his headstone, as chosen by his mother, reads:
“A loving son and brother, true and kind. A sweet memory left behind.”
Jane Lunnon, Embsay Research Group