John Arthur Burnett 1899 - 1967
Looking at the six faces on that 1917 family photograph, perhaps the most compulsive is that of my Uncle John. In his face we see something of the uncertainty of a young man about to go to war, a young man just about to cross the very threshold to adulthood. Looking through the various photographs I have of Uncle John I have only just realised that this is the only one where he wasn't smiling. Knowing what he was to face within a year of the photograph being taken, he cannot be blamed for his pensive look. If it had been me, I would have been terrified.
John Arthur was born in the last year of the nineteenth century, the eldest child of Enoch and Harriet Ellen Burnett. He was brought up in a working class district of Bradford and is listed in the 1911 census as a "school usher". As he was only 12 at the time it would appear that this was one of those unpaid supervisory posts you gave to kids in their final years before leaving school and starting work - what in my day was called a school prefect. By the time he joined the army in 1917 - at the age of 18 - he was listed in his British Army Service Record as a warehouseman. John joined the West Yorkshire Regiment almost as soon as he was of age and following a period of initial training in England he was posted to the Western Front in February 1918. According to his war record he seems to have managed to keep his head down - that is until the battle of Aisne/Chemin Des Dames in May 1918. On the 27th of May, amidst heavy fighting, he was captured by the Germans just outside the village of Pontavert. He was held prisoner in Stuttgart and didn't find his way back to England until January 1919. The service record provides a detailed chronology - he was reported missing in action on the 5th June 1918 and it wasn't until December that it emerged he had been taken as a prisoner of war. It must have been a chronology of misery for my grandparents - six months of hoping for the best but fearing the worst.
By 1920 John was married and has started a family. He was now working as a wagon driver and - in typical Burnett fashion - he would happily spend his time under the bonnet of his wagon trying to work out how it worked or, more likely, why it didn't work. I know little of his married life, little was ever said in the family. But the marriage must have had problems because by 1936 he had left his wife and family and returned to live at home in Arctic Parade, Bradford. No contact with his children was maintained and therefore I never knew the only three first cousins I had. A few years ago I was contacted by e-mail by the son of one of those cousin's who was doing research into his family and we were able to exchange information and reconnect two parts of the family seventy years after the split had taken place.
John married again in 1946 however his marriage to Doris produced no further children. But he was a happy man, with a well-developed sense of fun. When I was quite young he once took me to a football match to watch Bradford Park Avenue play Halifax Town and fed me with boiled sweets throughout the match. His life and mine - connected by our shared memories - span the centuries in a way that is almost beyond belief. He was born in the nineteenth century, fought in the First World War, drove ancient wagons during the 1920s, fed boiled sweets to his young nephew in the 1950s. And here he is - in the twenty first century - on the web.
Parts of this post are based on earlier posts dating back to 2007. If you have read the earlier posts I apologise for the repetitions (but admire the way you have stayed loyal to the blog over the years!). To read the earlier installments of this "Family Six Pack" mini-series you can follow these links: