John Henry Armes was born in Cannock, Staffordshire in 1881. One of eight children to Richard and Mary Armes, his father was a colliery worker and labourer. After their mother’s untimely death in 1890, this was a trade into which his three boys – Richard Jr, John and Alfred – followed.
The 1901 census finds John living with his widowed father and working as a coal hewer. A year later, he married Caroline Caldwell and, by the outbreak of the war, the couple were living in Ilkeston, Derbyshire with their growing family of seven children.
Records of John’s enrolment are not evident, but it is likely to have been later in the war, rather than earlier, given that his trade was one of those protected from enlistment.
By 1915, Caroline had given birth to the couple’s seventh child and John had signed up to the King’s Royal Rifles, stationed at the fort in Grain, North Kent.
Rifleman Armes’ pension record shows that he was accidentally killed on active service, and the contemporary media pick up the story.
[He] had been on outpost duty. On coming off duty about half-past seven on Monday morning he placed his rifle in a rack in a hut, and went to breakfast. Another rifleman names John Bathams Olliff, picked up the rifle to unload it, but having trouble with the extractor he took the magazine of the rifle out, and then thinking all the cartridges were in the magazine he pressed the trigger to close the bolt of the rifle, and a shot went off. At that moment Rifleman Armes came round the door of the hut and received a bullet in the chest.
Exclaiming, “My God, Armes is here,” Olliff rushed to his assistance, and Armes said “I am done for. It was an accident.” Medical aid was telephoned for, but Armes died shortly after the doctor arrived.Est Kent Gazette: Saturday 5th February 1916
An inquest was held, which found that the two Johns were great friends and had asked to serve together. The jury exonerated John Olliff from blame and recorded a verdict of accidental death.
John Henry Armes died at the age of 34, likely without seeing his youngest child. He lies at rest in St James’ Churchyard in the village of Grain in Kent, close to the barracks where he lost his life.
There are a couple of other protagonists in this story.
John’s widow, Caroline, married again later in 1916, to a George Chapman. She went on to live to the age of 77, outliving three of her children and both of her husbands.
John Battams Olliff, who had accidentally shot John, was born in London in 1880. The son of a butcher, he had emigrated to Canada in 1911. John returned to the UK to fight in the war, joining the King’s Royal Rifles in May 1915. Little information about his post-war survives, but it appears that he remained in England. There is no record of him marrying, but he died in 1938, at 58 years old.