Country boy Jack: our own unsung hero, like soldiers in film ‘1917’
- Credit: Archant
Brave Suffolk soldier spent 18 hours dodging artillery fire, machine-gun bullets and snipers during critical mission
It's a cracking and emotional tale, Sam Mendes's film "1917". A story of two brave young soldiers handed an almost-impossible mission, there's little wonder it's been nominated for 10 Oscars.
The First World War epic is based partly on a tale told to the director and co-writer by his grandfather. The young comrades are sent deep into hazardous territory, to deliver a message designed to stop 1,600 British soldiers being ambushed.
For Gerald Main, the film has echoes of a young man from rural East Anglia no less brave than the pair depicted on-screen.
"While researching the names engraved on the Hintlesham War Memorial, I discovered a similar, but entirely true, story of Private Jack Gant, who was born in Whatfield and grew up in Hintlesham and Chattisham," says Gerald.
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"He was a true hero... a soldier who despite his injuries and disability managed to dodge bullets for 18 hours and deliver orders and instructions.
"If ever there were an unsung hero, it is Jack."
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Targeted by snipers
Shepherd's son Jack's given name was actually John. He was the child of John senior and Laura Gant, of Mill Farm, Hintlesham. He went to school in the village and became a labourer.
At 25, a couple of years or so before war broke out, Jack emigrated to Canowindra, New South Wales, Australia.
He enlisted on March 25, 1916. Following a medical, he was described as having a "fresh" complexion and was five feet six-and-a-quarter inches tall, with grey eyes and brown hair.
His medical record also reveals that his left big toe over-lapped his other toes.
Jack left Sydney on September 9, 1916 - travelling on a transport ship, HMAT A14 Euripides. This had been requisitioned by the Australian government in 1914.
The vessel called at Plymouth after a seven-week voyage, and then arrived in France on December 13.
Jack "served on the Western Front and was wounded in the left thigh on 3 March 1917, resulting in his transfer back to England, and was admitted to a hospital in Wandsworth, London," reports Gerald.
"In June 1917 Jack returned to France and in the summer of 1918 was awarded the Military Medal for bravery."
The citation reads: "During the attack on Mont St Quentin, near Peronne, on 31st August 1918, this man was a company runner. The successful communication of the company with flanks and battalion Headquarters was absolutely dependent on runners, as owing to enemy pressure it was impossible to lay telephone wires.
"He worked incessantly for 18 hours, through heavy and continuous artillery and machine gun fire, and never once failed to deliver his message to the front line, although time and again sniped at by the enemy, who overlooked the position from 100 yards' distance."
Gerald says: "This is all the more remarkable, given that Jack had a deformed foot and a thigh with a gunshot wound."
Peace... and tragedy
On October 3, 1918, Jack was again hurt in action - this time suffering a gunshot wound to his head and injuries to his shoulder.
He was treated at a hospital in Le Havre but died of pneumonia, eight days after the Armistice, on November 19.
The soldier with the 17th Battalion Australian Infantry Corps was 31 years old.
Jack is buried at Sainte-Marie Cemetery, Le Havre. He is also commemorated on the Australian National Memorial in Canberra.
His death was a further blow for a family that lost his younger brother in 1916. Thomas was just 19 when killed on the Somme.
"Each night, names of Australia's fallen are projected onto the National Memorial in Canberra. At 1.28am on Sunday, January 19, it will be the turn of Suffolk's hero, John 'Jack' Gant."
Truly epic and heroic
Gerald began researching the names on the Hintlesham war memorial seven or eight years ago. "The aim is to try and tell something about their lives so they aren't just names on a slab of marble. These were real people with real lives.
"It's sad, but true, that those killed in war leave a bigger footprint than those who came home and never spoke of their experiences.
"Just before Christmas, my wife, Jean, and I visited Flanders and northern France to see the graves and memorials of many of the men listed on the Hintlesham memorial. It's both sad and humbling to see these 'corners of foreign fields' that are forever Suffolk."
With Jack, the former editor of BBC Radio Suffolk garnered most details from Australia's National Archive.
"As a former broadcast journalist, I love sharing stories - and Jack's story needs telling. I hope to visit his grave in Le Havre later this year.
"One of the trickiest aspects was navigating through the different spellings of Hintlesham. In the Australian archives it turns up in a variety of spellings, including Hunklesham and Hindlesham."
Gerald has seen "1917". "The film is a simple story told brilliantly and, having read the reviews, I was keen to see for myself. It's a film to be seen on a big screen - 1917 certainly deserves its Oscar nominations.
"As I was watching the film I thought, 'Hello, this story has a familiar ring.' I can't see Hollywood coming to Hintlesham, but Jack's story was truly epic and heroic."
Gerald's website: www.HintleshamWarMemorial.com