Cowbit soldier’s history revealed

The bread label that started it all.
The bread label that started it all.

The poppy will be worn at Remembrance Day services and parades across the district this Sunday.

For one family from Cowbit though it’s a far more humdrum symbol that has sparked memories of a First World War soldier.

It was a Red Cross bread parcel label, sent to Pte William Robert Barnes in a German prisoner of war camp, that has revealed to his family the grandfather they never knew.

A First World War researcher sought the help of this newspaper in tracing Pte Barnes’s relatives when it was discovered that the bread label was the only ‘British’ artefact in The Marinemuseum Dänholm in Germany.

We carried a story and as a result the details of Pte Barnes’ internment and family has emerged.

Researcher Dorothy Jones discovered that William Robert Barnes was born in Cowbit in 1897 and was most probably working as a farm labourer when war broke out.

He enlisted aged 18 and his service medal and award roll lists him as having been in the 2nd South Staffordshire regiment, 9th Devonshire regiment and finally the 2nd Devonshire Regiment.

He was taken prisoner on May 27, 1918, during the battle of Bois des Buttes, what Dorothy describes as “the regiment’s bloodiest action during the war” in which 552 members of the 2nd Devons died or were taken prisoner.

Nine weeks after being captured, William ended up at Dänholm – his family was told he had been subjected to a gas attack and suffered shell shock.

All registered prisoners of war were entitled to their own personal Red Cross bread parcels to supplement the German rations and it was the label of one of these that had survived and became a museum exhibit.

Sadly though, William’s grandson Neil Holmes knew nothing about the First World War veteran – William died in 1938 aged 41, before Neil was born.

William returned from war and married Margaret Isabella Prest in 1921. They lived in Spalding with their two daughters, Miriam and Joyce.

Joyce is the mother of Neil and Ian – Ian still lives in Cowbit and Neil moved to South Yorkshire years ago.

Neil says from what his mother told him about her father, William was a “very kind and gentle man” who would make the two-mile walk to church three times on a Sunday.

He also recalled her telling him that in the 1930s William suffered from TB.

Neil said: “I knew he was gassed and been a prisoner of war. Now, I would think he died of respiratory disease and it might have been brought on by TB. She had very fond memories of him.”