Company Serjeant Major, East Surrey Regiment, 9th Bn.
Service no. 187 (previously 4056)
Died of wounds on 6 August 1917, aged about 41
Remembered Brandhoek New Military Cemetery, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium and at the London & South Western Railway Roll of Honour, Waterloo Station, London
John Tanner was born in 1876 and baptised at St Barnabas, South Lambeth on 16 June, the fourth child of house painter William Tanner and Jane Lightfoot who lived at 7 Wellington Terrace, Horace Street (now renamed Luscombe Street).
John spent all his early life in Lambeth. By 1891, then aged 15, he worked as a cabinet-maker and lived with his parents and six of his 10 siblings at 13 Horace Street. Plans from 1889 to rename and renumber part of Horace Street show the Tanner family’s home to be close to the premises of George Boxall & Co. Ltd and the working man’s refuge, the Surrey Arms public house on the corner of Wilcox Road.
On 13 February 1893, John joined the East Surrey Regiment at Kingston, Surrey. His Army career spanned over 12 years and included two years in Malta and nine years in India. He had extended his service twice while in India and by 1901 was promoted to full Corporal. John reluctantly left the Army at the termination of his period of service on 17 March 1905.
In 1900, while he was in India, John learnt of the death of his father William. His mother Jane was obliged to earn money as a laundress and his married sister Mary Peagam and her husband Frederick, a railway carman, shared her Horace Street home. Following Frederick’s example John began work as a railway goods porter for the London & South Western Railway at the nearby Nine Elms complex. In 1906, John married 23-year-old Ellen Dunn, but he was widowed within a year. On 5 April 1908 he married Ellen May Taylor at St Stephen’s, South Lambeth.
In the 1911 census, John and Ellen were living in three rooms at 57 Dashwood Road in Battersea with their two infant children, Ellen, aged two, and William, one. The property was also home to a family of four living in four rooms. Ellen was pregnant with their third child and John was still working as a railway goods porter. Lucy was born in May 1911, followed by Alice in August 1912 and Winifred in April 1914. By the outbreak of the war, John and family were living in a ‘two up, two down’ property at 11 Ely Place, off the Dorset Road in Stockwell.
At the outbreak of war John Tanner put aside family responsibilities and on 20 August 1914, aged 40, volunteered to rejoin his old regiment. As an former NCO he was welcomed back. His medical was a formality – he was recorded as 5ft 4in tall and weighing 135lbs with a chest size of 37in. He was initially posted to the 3rd reserve battalion based at the Grand Shaft Barracks in Dover, with service number 187. His soldierly qualities were soon recognised and by November 1914 he was promoted to Company Serjeant Major, WO Class 2.
John was part of the effort to train the recruits of Kitchener’s New Army, an all-volunteer (at least initially) portion of the British Army. Only burnt fragments of his service papers have survived but his movements over the following 16 months between Dover, Purfleet, Shoreham and back to Dover indicate he was working with the 10th reserve battalion. When he was sent to France in April 1916, he joined the 9th East Surrey, who were manning trenches near Wulverghem, south of Ypres. The enemy was very active in April and May and casualties were sustained on an almost daily basis until the 9th East Surrey moved south in July and were on the Somme by early August.
An attack on an enemy strongpoint near Guillemont on 16 August lacked effective artillery support and was repulsed with heavy losses. The battalion was to move to new positions on 21 August and while going forward John Tanner was with two ‘D’ company officers when the group was hit by shell-fire. The acting Company Commanding Officer and Second Lieutenant G.C. Rivers was killed, Second Lieutenant G. Lillywhite was wounded and John Tanner was wounded in the neck and hand. He was invalided back to England by 17 August 1916 and admitted to Eastbourne Central Military Hospital. It was his first chance to meet his three-month-old daughter Elsie Maud, who born in May. Nine months later, John was fit to return to active duty.
He rejoined the 9th East Surrey in early May 1917. The battalion had been moved north in anticipation of the coming offensive at Ypres. The ‘big push’ on 31 July would turn into ‘Passchendaele’. Constant rain and shelling had turned the battlefield into a quagmire. According to future playwright, Second Lieutenant R.C. Sherriff of ‘C’ company ,’The shelling had destroyed everything. As far as you could see it was like an ocean of thick brown porridge’. Sherriff was wounded on 2 August as the battalion struggled to take up forward positions which were little better than waterlogged holes in the ground full of slime with rain-soaked sandbags that disintegrated when touched. Between 3 and 7 August constant shelling and an infantry attack on their line caused many casualties. The battalion Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel H.V.M. de la Fontane was hit by a sniper on 5 August after coming forward to encourage his men. The keeper of the battalion’s war diary set out the casualty list in painstaking detail. It stretched over four pages with the names of all ranks killed, wounded or missing arranged in neat columns as if still on parade. On the bottom of the first page, alongside the date of 5 August 1917, is written ‘6/8/17 187 C.S.M. Tanner (died of wounds)’. John Tanner had been evacuated to no. 32 Casualty Clearing Station at Brandhoek, which had been brought as near to the front line as possible. Despite being staffed with some of the best medical teams available, John Tanner succumbed to his wounds and was buried shortly after at Brandhoek.
John left a widow and six children, the eldest Ellen, then aged nine, later recalled hearing of her father’s death: ‘Father was well known in the community. I never cried in front of other people… you are taught that. I waited until I got to bed and then had a good cry, just as I’m sure Mum did when she was on her own.’ Ellen also remembered that for a long time after her mother couldn’t bear to see her husband’s photograph in the dining room and turned it to the wall.
John’s family were living at 39 Hartington Road at the end of the war. His widow Ellen started a new life when she married Robert Carter in 1921. Ellen was living in Lambeth when she passed away in 1950, aged 63.