Bancrofts from Silsden in The Great War

John Henry Bancroft with son Fred

This article is somewhat longer than normal, but very occasionally I come across a story, which is so moving and sad that it just has to be told in full. It concerns the family of John Henry Bancroft and his wife Agnes Ann, who lived at Oakworth near Keighley and then Ickornshaw near Cowling before moving to 14 Walker Place in Silsden near Keighley around the time of the First World War.

Agnes Ann Bancroft
  They had a large family of fifteen children, and had their five eldest sons away fighting in France in the First World War. What a time of pain, anguish and despair these poor people must have endured, having two sons wounded and then another two sons killed during the war. It’s hard to imagine what must have been going through their minds as there received the many letters from their sons when they were away, and then the letters that all families dread from the authorities, informing them about the deaths of their two sons. Here are some details about these five brave men, some of which are rather sketchy, whilst others are more details thanks to the many letters they send home from the front to their friends and family. These letters paint a vivid picture of their day-to-day activities during their times in France, and the dangers they faced in the war.

John Bancroft, born 1897 at Ickornshaw, near Cowling joined up at the age of 23 in May 1918,and was in the Cavalry Reserve Regiment at Newbridge Camp Ireland. He seems to have survived the war largely unscathed.

Fred Bancroft, born in 1896 at Ickornshaw, and enlisted in January 1916 in the West Riding Regiment and went out to France in March of that year. He won the Military Medal, and the background to this was reported in the local press in September 1917 and can be read by clicking here.

Willie Bancroft, was born in 1899 at Ickornshaw and it is understood that he enlisted as soon as war broke out, even though he was only fifteen years old at the time. It was eighteen months later when this was discovered and he was immediately discharged, only to enlist again when reaching eighteen years old. It was reported that he was wounded in April 1918 whilst serving in the West Riding Regiment, and was discharged. In later life he was a leader of the Home Guard in Silsden during the Second Word War, and later became a founder member of the Silsden branch of the British Legion. In 1959 he was given life membership of this organisation in recognition of his services to the branch. He was also instrumental in setting up the British Legion Club, of which he was President at the time of his death. The local newspaper reported on his death on 16th November 1973 stated :
“ He was the British Legion Standard Bearer every year in Remembrance Day parades, and his smartness and military precision set an example to the more youthful members”

Sam Bancroft & daughter

Sam Bancroft

Sam Bancroft was the eldest of the family, born in 1890 at Oakworth and joined up in 1914 into the Royal Engineers. Prior to the outbreak of war he was a member of the Territorials, and was also a prominent ambulance worker before enlisting.
In correspondence to his family in January 1915 he wrote saying:
“ I received the parcel and all the men of Silsden wish me to thank all who have contributed on their behalf. The cloths will keep us very warm during the winter. I have got into trouble going home without leave from Birstall. I fairly caught it when I got back, but I was not alone. There were 84 of us, and we all got 21 days pay stopped, which is rather hard lines. However we broke one of the Army laws so we must keep on smiling. It was our own fault, so we must just stand it, although it is hard lines”.
In a letter received by a friend from Addingham in May 1915, he said :
"I am in the best of health, and have been in the trenches for three days and could count on one hand the number of men who had been killed or wounded. We have been shelled out of a village. The second night in the trenches we had all the wires broken, and the officer and myself had gone out to repair them. It was not a very nice job, but had to be done so that they could get the news through”.
A further letter received by his family in February 1916 says:
“We are fine, and are now enjoying a well earned rest. We must have earned it or we should not have got one. It feels grand to be away from the trenches for a while. I suppose Silsden will be quiet now as all the young men who are medically fit will be soldiers, it not they ought to be. How long do you think the war is going on? It can’t last forever, as we can hold out longer than the Germans. We do know that the Germans are getting worse off, so let us hope that before long they will give it up as a bad job”.
His wife received a letter saying that on 11th October 1918 he was dangerously wounded by a shell, and that it had been necessary to amputate a limb, which had resulted in his death.

He left a wife and a baby daughter and was buried at The Duisans British Cemetery, Etrun, France [pictured above]

Joe Bancroft was born in 1892 also in Oakworth, and also joined up in 1915. He originally went out to France in April 1915, serving in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and was both wounded and gassed while there. We are fortunate that he wrote many letters back to his friends and family, and here are some of the things he mentioned.
In a letter received in May 1915 by an Addingham friend he says,
“Our platoon in the 4th Battalion was fetching rations one day and it was a very risky job, going about a mile under fire with no cover. We are just getting used to it, and we have only had one killed so far even though we have been here ten days. I am enjoying myself… “If only we had more Woodbines!”
In a letter to his parents, dated 12th May 1915 he says,
“ We got through the big battle all right. We were kept in the reserve trenches all night and the next day, and then they took us up to the front line when the battle had been on all day. We were at it all night, and in the morning our trench was shelled and we had two killed and some wounded with one shell, but it was a sight when the big battle was on. The guns started at five o’clock in the morning and the noise was enough to make anyone deaf. Then in two hours the infantry charged after which there were wounded men coming down all day. At the beginning of the charge a General got on top of the trench to give the men the word to come on, and was shot dead. Some regiments had hardly any men left. We have now had a month in the trenches and have I have just had my cloths off once since I came, and had one bath, but someone has to put up with it. They keep saying the war cannot last long. We shall be glad to get away from here”
In another letter sent to his parents dated 18th May 1915 after coming out of the trenches after six days he says
“ Yesterday was the anniversary of Waterloo and we had flags up on top of the trenches all day. At daybreak we waited to see what the Germans would do. About dinnertime they put up two black flags in front of us, but soon put them down. At night when we took the flags down some of them had half-a-dozen holes in them. We have recently done a bit of haymaking in front of our trench during the night because the grass was about five feet high, and it had to be cut to enable us to see across”.
He sent word to his parents in a letter received in July 1915, that he was in hospital in France, but did not give the cause of his being there. He said he had been in the trenches for several months.
A letter sent by him to his parents in August 1916, informed them that he had been wounded, and was currently in hospital in France. He said:
“ I have bad news for you this time: I was hit last night with a piece of shell at the back of my shoulder. We were making a night attack, and had just got back to the trench when a shell dropped amongst my half of the platoon. Only two of us were hit, and I think I got off lucky”
In a letter received the day before he was wounded he had said,
“ I have been promoted to full Corporal, so you see I am not doing so very bad”
By January 1917, he had been awarded the Military Medal for ‘meritorious conduct on the battlefield’, and in a communication from the Major-General of the 49th West Riding Division it was stated that :
“He had distinguished himself in the field from 18th to 22nd January 1917 during which time an officer was shot through the head and Sergeant Bancroft assisted in bringing him back to the trenches”
An article in the local press dated 29th March 1918 reported that Sergeant Joe Bancroft of the West Riding Regiment had been wounded in the head.
His parents received official news that he had been killed in action on 4th May 1918. The letter went on to state
“ I am awfully grieved to tell you of your son’s death. He along with others was left in the line to assist a famous foreign battalion and it appears that he was accidentally killed by a shell. There are thousands of very brave men out here, but I have to say I have never seen a man so utterly indifferent and regardless of personal danger as your son. After one German attack, which was repulsed with very heavy losses to the enemy, your son went out about eight times on patrol close to the enemy’s position. He had already gained the Military Medal and I have recommended him for the DCM for great gallantry, and I sincerely hope it will be awarded. I can ill afford to loose such men as your son, as his influence on his comrades was great, and enabled them to hold out in many a tight corner. You and your family can be proud all your life of your son’s record in this terrible war, and I can say most sincerely that I never came across a braver man”.
Joe was 25 years old when he died, and was buried at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium. [Shown below]

He was awarded the DCM posthumously, and in the London Gazette of 1st October 1918 it was reported as follows:
“His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal for the following officer…
200453 Sjt J Bancroft M.M,
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. After the enemy had been driven off with severe loss by the rifle fire of his company, Sjt Bancroft the same afternoon and three times the next day took out a patrol and went over 800 yards securing identifications from enemy dead, and bringing back valuable information regarding the enemy’s dispositions. He had only recently been wounded, and set a splendid example of devotion to duty.”

The picture above shows Silsden Cenotaph, which has Joe and Sam Bancroft’s names listed on it. In June 1918, a service of memory was held at Silsden Parish Church, to honour the sixty-nine men of the Silsden who were killed in action, or later died from their wounds. On behalf of the village the Vicar offered to the relatives and friends of these brave men their deepest sympathy and their most sincere and heartfelt gratitude for what they had done. He said he was touched beyond expression by the courage which the women of the parish had shown in these awful times, for they had shown themselves to be worthy mothers and wives of heroes who had given their all. He also expressed the wish that as long as a church remained in the village, it would be the custom once a year to commemorate all these men who had fallen in the war. He finished with the question….“Shall we betray their trust and take their deaths in vain?”

As a postscript to this sad family story, Mr & Mrs John Henry Bancroft were selected from a large number of applicants to be present at the opening ceremony of the Menin Gate in 1927. This memorial was build by the British Government at Ypres in Flanders to commemorate all the missing soldiers, …those who had no known grave. The Menin Gate, shown above, marks the main road out of the town where tens of thousands of men went towards the front line.
I just want to finish this article by quoting the following words from a speech by Lord Plumer of Messines at the unveiling ceremony of the Menin Gate.
"One of the most tragic features of the Great War was the number of casualties reported as, "missing, believed killed." ....... when peace came, and the last ray of hope had been extinguished, the void seemed deeper and the outlook more forlorn for those who had no grave to visit, no place where they could lay tokens of loving remembrance........and it was resolved that here at Ypres, where so many of the missing are known to have fallen, there should be erected a memorial worthy of them which should give expression to the nation's gratitude for their sacrifice and their sympathy with those who mourned them. This memorial has been erected which, in its simple grandeur, fulfils this object, and now it can be said of each one in whose honour we are assembled here today…..He is not missing; he is here!"

I am grateful to the following two websites, which provided some of the information for this article:
Men of Worth:
Craven’s part in The Great War:

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