John Barnetson was born in Skinnet in 1882, son of Alexander Barnetson of Skinnet Talmine and Elizabeth Munro. They were married in Wick in 1879.
He was a regular soldier, who had joined the Royal Scots in Edinburgh in 1905 and in 1906 he was sent to India with his battalion. The Royal Scots carried out garrison duties in India and guarded the famous Northwest Frontier with Afghanistan.
In 1909 the Royal Scots left India for the United Kingdom but John Barnetson remained in India and gained employment as a superintendent in the docks at Bombay. It may have been at this time that he was transferred to the Royal Engineers, which was responsible for all military docks and shipping prior to World WarOne.
At the outbreak of the war he left Bombay, arriving in France in December 1914 where his “sterling worth” soon gained him rapid promotion. He was put in charge of a ‘reprisal’Company of the newly formed Special Battalions, Royal Engineers.
The British Army formed reprisal companies in the Royal Engineers in 1915, responsible for the deployment of gas attacks on the Western Front, following the first German gas attack at Ypres. The sappers of the Royal Engineers were in charge of releasing the gas from canisters in the front line, so that the gas would drift over the enemy and in theory make the attacks easier.
In April 1917 during the attack on the Hindenburg Line east of Arras, Company Quarter Master Sargeant (Warrant Officer Class Two) John Barnetson was in charge of his unit in the front line ready to open up his gas canisters for the attack. As he waited to open the cylinders one of them was burst open by an exploding shell, the gas inside leaking out into the British trench and one hundred men were in danger of being gassed. John Barnetson pushed his way through the troops, yelling and screaming at them to get out of the way until he reached the leaking canister.
He then pressed his leg up to the canister to cover the hole, the suction causing the flesh to be sucked into the hole and sealing it. He held his leg in position until the trench had been evacuated, before he made his way to safety and his comrades found that he was badly wounded. His leg had a terrible burn with the flesh being eaten away to the bone and he was evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station to have his wounds treated.
John Barnetson was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for saving the lives of one hundred men, the soldiers whose lives he had saved said after the incident that ‘Barney’ Barnetson should have received the Victoria Cross.
The citation published in The London Gazzette on the 22 September 1916 stated
'For Conspicious gallantry and initiative during an attack' After taking over from a man who had been incapacitated from his emplacement he discharged all the remaining cylinders himself and dragged one which had not been discharged over the parapet under heavy shellfire and then discharged itwith a rifle bullet.'
He died in Princess Louise Scottish Hospital, Erskine House, Bishopton from the wounds he received in the above action and a complication caused by influenza at the age of thirty-seven, three months after the war was over.
His two brothers served in the Royal Navy, William served on H.M.S. Edin Castle and Hugh on H.M.S. Kent, they both survived the war.