Darwen historian Tony Foster reveals more about a persistent war hero

THERE were heroes aplenty in the Great War. Most were recognised with a medal; some just faded away. Few were as determined to do their bit as Darwen lad John Farnhill.

He was wounded in the Boer War and struggled with serious illnesses almost throughout the Great War. Not many soldiers would have been discharged as medically unfit three times.

He was just 19 when he signed up with the East Lancs Regiment and saw action in the Boer War. After two years in the thick of the fighting he was discharged as medically unfit for the first time after sustaining a badly deformed left hand from a bullet wound.

He married a Darwen lass, Mary Elizabeth Gavagan, and worked as a labourer at the paper mill close to his home in Astley Street.

But he missed the adventure and the danger.

As soon as the Great War erupted he tried to sign up, but they took one look at his mangled hand and turned him down flat. By the following February things were getting desperate.

Aged 35, he tried again. This time they ignored his disability and a month later he was in France as a driver with the Army Service Corps.

Later that year he was admitted to hospital suffering from severe lumbago and in November he was back in hospital with tuberculosis.

He was very ill for several months before, in June 1916, he was discharged from the Army a second time.

He had been left very weak but his determination to have another crack was undimmed. In late November 1917, he again joined the ASC and a few weeks later he qualified as a lorry driver.

In early April 1918, he began coughing up blood. He was short of breath. He was weak and had lost weight. The TB that had hit him two years earlier had returned.

He was sent back to England in August 1918, as the Germans were on the run after their final offensive earlier that year had collapsed.

John Farnhill wasn’t going anywhere though and he spent several weeks in a military hospital in London where his condition was assessed as being “attributable to active service in France.”

He was discharged from the Army for the third time in early October and spent the next two months at home where he died on December 4, 1918, a couple of weeks after the Armistice. He was 39.

Mary was left to bring up five children. Her sister Margaret had married John’s brother Edward and they had 16 children.

Their great nephew Albert Gavagan, secretary of Darwen Heritage Centre, wrote to the Commonwealth War Graves Commmission who have now agreed that Driver Farnhill should have an official headstone over his grave in Darwen’s old cemetery.

There can’t be many soldiers who have been discharged from the Army three times. He is certainly one hero who shouldn’t be allowed to just fade away.