Harry Wood, VC, survived the war but not the peace
Published on: 07 Nov 2015
THE SOUTH Devon resort of Teignmouth was an unlucky destination for Bristolians, it appears: earlier in this series inspired by graves at Arnos Vale, we reported the tragic death of five young city dwellers drowned there on a Victorian day trip.
This month we find that the life of a heroic soldier of the First World War also effectively came to an end in Teignmouth – a bitter irony, given that Harry Blanshard Wood had survived the First World War in the trenches.
Harry Wood must have been a remarkable soldier. It’s arguable which is more impressive: that he lived through years of hell on the battlefield, or that near the end of the conflict he was awarded not only the Victoria Cross – the highest decoration for gallantry – but the Military Medal too.
What a tragedy then that he had few years of peacetime to enjoy, and seemingly very little time with the woman he finally married in 1924. It was on his honeymoon that Harry went to Teignmouth from his Bristol home. He lived at 14 Windsor Terrace, Totterdown. He had found a peacetime job through the Corps of Commissionaires – the organisation which sourced employment for ex-soldiers, often as doormen.
Harry worked for the Anglo American Oil Co whose Bristol offices were in Baldwin Street.
Sadly we know nothing about his wife – not even her name. What is clear is that they had not long been married in July 1924 when they went on honeymoon to Teignmouth.
The Bristol Times & Mirror reported after his death: “He was walking with his wife when a motor car mounted the pavement.
“Mrs Wood pushed her husband out of the way, but was herself pinned against the wall. She happily escaped with only light abrasions, but the shock of the mishap was so great to Serge. Wood that he immediately became unconscious.”
We can only speculate on the nature of Harry Wood’s affliction, but the fact that he was taken to the Bristol Mental Hospital shows that his malady was of the mind, not the body. Were his nerves shot to pieces by his time in the trenches? We don’t know, but back in Bristol he spent six weeks in a coma.
The Times & Mirror reported that “he never recovered from his coma till yesterday when, not long before his death, he opened his eyes and showed recognition of his wife.”
His death, said the newspaper, “was the result of a brain affection” – a misprint, surely, which further obscures what really happened.
Harry Wood was born on June 21, 1882, in Newton on Derwent, a small village five miles west of the market town of Pocklington in the East Riding of Yorkshire. His father John was a farm labourer. Later the family moved to York and it was there that Harry found his first job as a cleaner at the railway station.
Harry joined the Scots Guards in 1903. At 5 ft 10in he was relatively tall – a requirement for the Guards. He was described on enlistment as of fresh complexion with blue eyes and brown hair. By 1908 he had worked his way to the rank of lance sergeant but in May of that year he was court martialed for drunkenness and was reduced to the ranks. He left the army as a private in February 1911. When the First World War broke out in 1914 he was a commissionaire for Anglo American Oil – as well as being an army reservist.
Then aged 32, he was recalled to the Guards on August 5, 1914 – the same day Britain declared war on Germany. The full-time army was far too small to cope with the conflict and experienced soldiers were highly valued. Many of them, of course, were mowed down in their first weeks or months of service.
Few indeed survived the whole war in the trenches. Stranger still, Harry wasn’t one to hang back from the fighting: he had a reputation for taking risks. But he seemed to have a charmed life and was never even wounded. Perhaps this was one of the qualities that made men follow him.
He won praise for his exploits long before he won medals. As the Times & Mirror put it, early in the war “he had an exciting adventure, narrowly escaping capture by the Germans.”
Out one night on duty – some accounts say as a sniper – he became detached from the rest of his unit. Dawn came, and he was forced to hide in a ditch, “the country around being infested with enemy troops.”
“While crawling about seeking cover,” the Times & Mirror said, “he came across a Belgian soldier in a similar plight, and for days they lived on turnips and apples they found in field and orchard, having many hairsbreadth escapes from capture by the Germans.”
The pair must have strayed far from the front line, because having found a friendly Belgian cottager, they were supplied with civilian clothes and forged passports, with which they tramped their way out of the area. Accounts published after the war vary but some say at one point the pair were sniffed out by a German dog, which licked them but luckily refrained from barking.
Eventually they reached Holland, and Harry got ship for England. He met his mother in London – who reputedly did not recognise him after the effects of his ordeal.
“Wherever there were dangerous duties to be performed he always sought to be selected for the task, and showed unfailing courage and resource,” said the Times & Mirror.
In 1916 Harry completed 13 years of army service – enough for him to be discharged as having done his duty.
Was he relieved? Surely. In 1915 he had come through the Battle of Loos, one of the war’s hardest campaigns. Staying with his mother in Gloucester, he would have read about the devastation on the Somme, when a million men were killed or wounded. How then did he feel when 11 months later, living in Bristol in January 1917, he was recalled to the army?
He may have hoped to stay in the UK: there is a record that he was on duty as a hospital guard in London in May 1917 when he was reprimanded for not reporting immediately the escape of a prisoner. But the next year there was a drastic shortage of men, and he was sent back to France in March 1918.
Now a lance sergeant again, on August 15, 1918 he led a volunteer detachment of 20 men at Boyelles station near Arras. It was not an ordinary patrol, which was dangerous enough, but a mission to discover which German units were in the line.
Harry dressed his men in black, and had them smear their faces the same colour. Perhaps his men were too hard to see, because half way across No Man’s Land he lost touch with them. But he carried on, and found the German trench in the dark.
He heard German being spoken, but as he did he accidentally kicked a tin can. The noise brought six or seven German soldiers to see Sgt Wood standing there. Assuming he must be part of a bigger force, they shouted for help. But as three more Germans came running up, Harry fired, killing two men and wounding another.
Grabbing the wounded man as a hostage, he ran off into the night, and somehow dragged his prisoner safely to the British line. There it was found that the injured man was carrying papers which gave just the information which was needed about the German dispositions.
For this distinct single-handed success, Harry was awarded the Military Medal.
Less than two months later he was at it again. October 13, 1918, found Harry’s unit, the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards, poised to cross the River Selle at the village of St Python.
As the Guards fought house to house there was heavy fire from concealed mortars and machine guns on the other side of the river.
Harry was with a platoon tasked with fighting their way over the partly destroyed main bridge. But the firing was intense and the platoon’s sergeant was killed, leaving Harry in charge.
Others might have taken cover. Harry was not for cowering. He wrestled a large piece of masonry off the bridge – some accounts call it a large brick, but that wouldn’t have been big enough – and hauled it into the road. Under fire all the time, he positioned himself behind it and fired his rifle at the gunners opposite, urging his men to creep forward as he covered them.
By one account, he also crawled across the bridge himself, and silenced three of the four German machine guns. The he ran back, grabbed a Lewis heavy machine gun, and went back over the bridge, where he took on the remaining German machine guns and silenced them.
Harry and his comrades fought off several counter attacks on their bridgehead until they were relieved later that evening.
“His gallantry and conduct contributed largely to the success of the operation,” said the official account when he was recommended for the VC two months later.
It’s perhaps too easy for us, a century on, to bandy talk of heroism, and pretend we can understand what it was like to behave selflessly under the most extreme conditions humans can experience. The most complete account of Harry’s war in Gun Fire Vol 28, a journal of the First War, says some of the stories told about him cannot be verified, and titles his volume Reluctant Hero.
He was certainly not unscathed: he was given a civic reception in York in February 1919 but in May, when the city was conducting the traditional collection of funds for him, he was in hospital “suffering from the effects of his arduous service”. He was wined and dined frequently, and presented with several gold watches, and later the sum of £138 by the city.
In London in September 1919 he did what many soldiers did: he got drunk. A constable in Buckingham Palace Road found him quarrelling with some military policemen, and he was arrested. “I am not going to spoil the splendid record of man like you,” said the magistrate, and bound him over for good behaviour.
Harry’s wartime experiences may have contributed to his early death. He had myalgia and the Times & Mirror says his health was not good for his last three years.
But we can all wish that he had longer to live in his Totterdown terrace, to get to know his new bride, and even to know how much his actions were valued by his adopted city.
His funeral on August 20, 1924, was like a state occasion. A service in the cathedral was attended by a captain of the Scots Guards, with a party of pipers in kilts. Scores of army officers and dignitaries including the Lord Mayor attended, and College Green was packed with onlookers.
A party of Guards sergeant majors bore Harry’s coffin until it was laid on a gun carriage and drawn by horses of the Royal Field Artillery, escorted by warrant officers and NCOs of the Guards, as it wound its slow way to Arnos Vale, “where there was a very large attendance of the public”. The choir of Holy Trinity, Knowle, was there to sing, then the Last Post was sounded and Scots Wha’ Hae played as a final tribute.
Sgt Harry Wood has a place of honour at the very front of Soldier’s Corner near the entrance to Arnos Vale. No one would begrudge him that.
• Sadly we know nothing of Harry Woods’s wife. She is believed to have remarried. In 1954 his VC medal was auctioned by an anonymous seller at Christie’s. It was bought for a then record £240 for his sister, and presented to York Castle Museum.
Controversially, the price was so high because the Scots Guards Association wanted the medal for their collection, and bid against the family.