Joseph Prophett.  A Soldier of the Great War, 1914-18

Tony & Beryl Winterton

The inheritance of Joseph Prophett’s war medals by his great niece, Beryl Winterton, and my interest in military history, have led us to research Joseph’s war history, and to visit sites on the Western Front, from the Somme to Ypres, culminating in a visit to his grave on the 80th anniversary of the day he died in action.

An entry in the Weekly Sentinel of 21st January, 1917, noting his death, also records that prior to enlisting he was in partnership with his brother, Charles Prophett, as plumbers and decorators, at Chapel St, Bignall End.  Sadly, there is no-one in the family old enough to remember him and though we have scoured all the family albums we have not found a photograph of him.

The  medals gave us his army number, and his regiment as the North Staffordshire.  But the regimental archives do not include individual service records.  Our approach to the Army Records Department of the Ministry of Defence to obtain a copy of his war record drew a similar blank.  Ironically, his records were destroyed by enemy action in the Second World War.

We knew, of course, that many servicemen who died in the war have no known grave, being remembered on huge memorials such as those at Thiepval and the Menin Gate, so we didn’t yet know even if a grave existed for us to visit.  But an approach to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was the first breakthrough.  There is a known grave and headstone, just outside Ypres, and we learned of his death and also which battalion of the North Staffs (the 1st) he was serving in.  So we determined to visit the grave on the approaching 80th anniversary and also to visit other sites of his involvement, if we could determine his earlier war career.

The North Staffs’ regimental archives supplied a photocopy of the regimental history from the beginning of the war to the time of Joseph’s death.  So if we could find his date of enlisting, this history would probably be the nearest we would get to his personal war.  The Star Medal is the 1914/15 Star (as opposed to the 1915 Star), so Joseph enlisted in 1914, very early in the war.  By this time we were using a company, Sunset Militaria, specialising in researching the existing ‘peripheral’ first war records, such as pay rolls, medal rolls, newspaper reports and so on.  They were able to define the date of Joseph’s initial entry into the theatre of war, along with location and in which battalion.

Unfortunately, this battalion was the 7th, not the one his war ended with - an unexpected complication.  The relevant sections of the history of the 7th Bn were obtained from the North Staffs Regimental Headquarters.  The questions now were, when did the transfer occur, and were there other transfers?  Other documents provided by Sunset Militaria show that only one transfer occurred - the 7th Bn history shows a transfer of men to other battalions.  The North Staffs Regimental HQ then came up with a detailed history of a soldier joining up with the 7th Bn, going out to Gallipoli at the same time as Joseph Prophett, and transferring to the 1st North Staffs in April 1916.  Their opinion is that it is almost certain that he was transferred then.

So this final piece of the jigsaw enabled the war record to be constructed.  With his personal records destroyed, we cannot be certain that the central period is correct (there is no doubt about the beginning and the end) and also we do not know if he was wounded or sick at any time.  But with that caveat, it is most likely that the record covers Joseph Prophett’s journey from late 1914 to June 13th 1917.

Late 1914

Enlisted.  Joined the 7th Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment.  Training at Salisbury Plain, Basingstoke, Aldershot.  7th Bn North Staffs combined with 3 other battalions to form the 39th Infantry Brigade, part of the 13th Division.



20th June

Embarkation at Avonmouth; sailed via Malta & Alexandria.

11th July

Landed at Cape Helles on the Gallipoli peninsula.


Invalided home with dysentery.  Whether he returned to the Dardenelles, or resumed his front-line service on transferring to the 1st Bn North Staffs, next April, we do not know. But the campaign, which had commenced


in April 1915, continued until early Jan. 1916, when the position was abandoned.  Withdrawal to Port Said completed on 9th January, leaving some 200,000 dead, including probably half of the original 7th North Staffs strength.


Transferred to 1st Bn, North Staffs, part of 72 Brigade, 24th Division.


Wolverghem trenches.  Several gas (chlorine) attacks.

20th July

Moved into billets on the Somme.

9th August

Gillemont trenches.  Attack on Gillemont

30th August

Front line at Delville Wood.

6th Sept

Relieved; moved out of Somme sector

10th October

Vimy Ridge, front line

24th October

Loos sector, in support

31st October

Hulloch sector, front line. (On Christmas Day, 1916, the Allied Command ordered a continuous bombardment to prevent any risk of  the fraternisation that had occurred at previous Christmases



15th March

Lens sector during German withdrawal

14th May

Zillerbek sector at Ypres.

4th June

Night march to Poperinghe for the long-planned battle to take Messines Ridge.  72nd Brigade in corps reserve

7th June

At 3.10 a.m. 19 mines of the 20 planted, containing one million pounds of TNT were exploded, creating what was then the biggest man-made explosion - it was heard in London.  The objectives were rapidly taken, and the 72nd Brigade moved up into the battle line, between Battle Wood and Mount Sorrel.

9th June

The 72nd Brigade took over the Mount Sorrel observatory trenches, with the 1st North Staffs in captured trenches in front of Mount Sorrel.

9th-17th June

During the period of consolidation and rebuilding in the captured, but very damaged, trenches, 103 officers and men of the 1st North Staffs were killed or wounded.

13th June

Joseph Prophett died.

He was 34 years old.  The Weekly Sentinel entry records that he had twice been gassed, suffered from shell shock, and had also been (otherwise!) wounded

His grave and headstone are at Railway Dugouts Burial Ground Cemetery, just outside Ypres.  He is buried along with several other officers and men of the 1st North Staffs who were killed in action on that same day.


We spent four days on the Western Front from 10-13th June 1997.  We followed Joseph Prophett’s route from Delville Wood on the Somme through into Belgium to the fields of the Messines Ridge where he fought his last battle.  We located his grave and paid our respects and on the last evening joined the Last Post  ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres on the 80th anniversary of his death.

Our only other memento of  Joseph is an oil painting done by himself.  We understand that he was a student at a local art school before he enlisted.

Oil painting by Joseph Prophett.