My great grampy, the father of my maternal grandfather, was the only great grandparent I ever met, and he died when I was nine years old. Just before he passed away in 1985, he revealed a story of courage and compassion from his time as a soldier in WW1. This post pays tribute to his service, but also to his older brother, Harold. Harold was the only relation I know of who was awarded a gallantry medal. And Harold never came home.
Before the war
Harold John Underwood, the first child of Harry and Eliza Underwood, was born in Tring, Hertfordshire in the summer of 1893. His parents (my 2x great grandparents) were second generation grocers and lived at their shop on Tring’s Western Road. Harold soon had two sisters, Lily May and Marjorie Pearl. And in December 1898, he gained a brother, Harry Neville — my great grandfather — who was known as ‘Neville’. By 1908, the family was complete, with two more girls, Ivy Laura and Kathleen Enid, and between them one more boy, Warren Roy (‘Roy’).
In 1911, the Underwood family was living in the village of St Leonards, near Tring, and Harry senior described himself as an ‘English & Fancy Fruit Salesman (Wholesale)’. Lily was a school monitress, while Neville and his younger siblings were all of school age.
However, Harry and Eliza’s eldest son and daughter had moved away from the family home and business; 17-year-old Harold was a carpet salesman at J Fisk & Sons in St Albans. He lived on site with many other employees, and his 15-year-old sister Marjorie was a live-in cashier’s apprentice at a different store on the same street.
When war broke out in 1914, Harold was employed as a draper at Grose Brothers department store in Walworth, East London. Whatever dreams and ambitions he may have had, they came to an abrupt halt that autumn when Harold enlisted.
When Harold attested (enlisted) in London on 10 Nov 1914 he was 21 years and 4 months old and 5’10 tall. Although a Bucks man, he then went to Winchester where on 12 Nov he joined the historic King’s Royal Rifle Corps 12th Bn (60th Brigade), B Company, as a Private (service number R/6760).
Harold’s younger brother Neville was keen to join up too. But he was only 15, and the minimum age to enlist was 18. So, together with a pal from St Leonards (possibly called Gilbert/Ginger) he ‘ran away’ from home and enlisted in Wiltshire. Neville was a tall man, and perhaps already tall at the age of 15, which may have helped him convince the recruiters that he was old enough. Neville joined the Wiltshire regiment as a Private (service number 36962 or 36963).
Thanks to The Long, Long Trail, I know that Harold would have had his training at Blackdown and Hindhead in Surrey and finally Larkhill on the Salisbury plain in Wiltshire. Perhaps it was Harold’s location in Wilts that prompted his younger brother to head there to enlist. On 22 July 1915 the 12th battalion landed in Boulogne. However, Harold may have arrived in France later as he wasn’t declared fit for foreign service until 6 August.
Harold’s service records reveal very little about his military experiences. However, they do offer information about his health. In March 1916 he was off duty for three days with laryngitis. In September 1916 Harold was wounded at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, part of the Battle of the Somme. His record states that he was at that time in the 9th Bn. C company.
He was admitted to Brook War Hospital in Woolwich with a fractured arm, and later transferred to the auxillary hospital in Bromley, spending 70 days in hospital in total. When he was discharged in December he was granted a furlough to spend his leave in St Leonards. I hope that he was able to spend that Christmas with his family. However, his arm hadn’t fully healed because he was back in hospital for another 43 days in April and May 1917. Finally, he returned to France ready for duty on 5 July 1917.
If Harold returned to the 9th Bn., he would have fought in the Battle of Langemarck in August and the Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, in November. Or, if posted to the 12th Bn. he would also have been fighting at Ypres. Either way, by January 1918 he was with the 12th Bn. once again.
The Military Medal
The K.R.R.C. 12th Battalion’s war diary describes the events leading up to Harold’s act of bravery. On 10 January, 1918, they were in the middle of a six-day tour of duty on the Menin Rd in Ypres, Belgium, at a chateau called Beukenhorst, nicknamed ‘Stirling Castle’. There had been a heavy snowstorm and the ground was frozen. B Company was digging; ‘every available man was at work at night. Three American Officers came to learn the ways of a battalion in the Line: they seemed very interested and anxious to pick up ideas.’ The next day they marched to Manor Halt, and entrained there in three trains for Puzeville Station, arriving in camp at Reninghelst between 10 p.m. and 2.30 a.m. ‘The night was very cold and the men were glad of the hot porridge which was awaiting them’. Although the description of activities mentioned no attacks or enemy engagement, ‘The total casualties during the 6 day tour were 2 killed, 1 died of wounds and 5 wounded.’
On the morning of 13 January there was a voluntary church service, and that afternoon, four different medals were awarded to 18 soldiers. Nine of them received the Military Medal including L/Cpl. Harold Underwood. The Military Medal was created in March 1916 and awarded for ‘acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire’. More than 115,000 were awarded during WW1. Harold may have been promoted to Lance Corporal prior to this award, or perhaps simultaneously.
The diary doesn’t give any details on why the medals were awarded. Instead, the battalion’s losses and honours are immediately followed with reports of yet another night of snow, followed by a morning lecture about trench foot.
As well as the Military Medal, Harold received the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, and Victory Medal — the trio of campaign medals nicknamed ‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’.
Unfortunately, Neville’s service record hasn’t survived. Our knowledge is based on what very little he told his family about his experiences.
It seems that Neville’s company knew that he wasn’t old enough to fight. Even if they believed him to be 18, he had to be 19 to be sent overseas. So, at first, Neville was assigned to looking after horses. He may well already have had experience with horses; I do know that when he was a boy, he and the same friend he enlisted with had once mischievously unharnessed a horse, turned it around, and harnessed it backwards! Neville developed a life-long love of horses, and in later life would attend the Horse of the Year show every year. When I watched War Horse in the theatre a couple of years ago (an incredibly moving show), my great grampy’s experiences were very much on my mind.
Later in the war, Neville was trained to become a Lewis gunner. A Lewis gun was an early light machine gun. In 1915 each battalion only had 4 such guns, but by 1917 each infantry section had its own gunner and backup, totaling 46 guns per battalion. Each Lewis gun required a team of two gunners: one to fire and one to carry ammunition and reload. All of the members of an infantry platoon would be trained in the use of the Lewis gun so that they could take over if the usual gunners were killed or wounded.
In addition to these roles, Neville was also sent out of the trench and into No man’s land at least once. My mum remembers her gramp (Neville) telling her that he had gone over the top, and come face to face with a German, and had to bayonet him, as it was “either him or me.” As a child she couldn’t comprehend how that experience would have affected him. It’s discomforting to realise that when Harry had to take another man’s life (or perhaps more than one) in the line of duty, and for his own survival, he was only really a child himself.
Harold’s death, and a letter from his officer
Harold’s medal award was announced in The Gazette on 19 March (J.R.R. Tolkien’s promotion is listed in the same issue). Tragically, less than a week later, on 24 March 1918, Harold was killed in action.
From 21 March his battalion had been engaged at Offoy in the Somme. Operation Michael was underway in the ‘First Battles of the Somme’ — the British name for the German spring offensive called the Kaiserschlacht, over wasteland at the Somme. On the 22nd, as the Germans attempted to penetrate a gap in the wire in front of them, Lewis gunners successfully held them back. ‘The position, however, was becoming untenable. All the officers had been wounded or killed.’ There was also a dense mist and German planes overhead. On the 23rd, they were ordered to defend a bridge-head. This required them to cross a canal via a bridge that had been blown up. Meanwhile, the enemy was ‘close and organised’. On the day of Harold’s death, B Company (which may still have been his company) was deployed in a counter-attack. ‘It was a great charge. The bayonet was used with wonderful effect.’ However, ‘the Germans came on in greater numbers than before’. Somewhere amid the chaos and intensity of fighting, Harold was one of hundreds killed. He was 24 years old.
On 4 May 1918 the Bucks Herald reported on Harold’s death and memorial service . Thanks to this article, I was able to discover what Harold had done to earn the Military Medal, and how he had died. The piece also included the full text of a letter that Harry’s officer had sent to his mother after his death.
I transcribe the article here in full:
KILLED IN ACTION.
His many friends and neighbours have heard with deep regret that L. Corpl. Harold J. Underwood, M.M., of the K.R.R.C., was killed in action on March 24. Deceased, who was 24 years of age, and the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. H. Underwood, of this village, was prior to the war with Messrs. Grosse Bros. of London, E.C. He answered his country’s call early in November, 1914, and went to France in August, 1915. He was wounded at Fleurs [sic] in September, 1916, and after some months in hospital again went to France in July, 1917, when he won the Military Medal at La Vacquerie, in December, for ‘conspicuous bravery on the field’ and for ‘bringing in the wounded at great personal risk.’ He was home on leave in February, 1918. The greatest sympathy is extended on all sides to Mr. and Mrs. Underwood in their bereavement, especially as it is known that they are terribly anxious about their second son, Neville, who has just been officially reported “Missing: believed to be a prisoner of war.”
A memorial service was held in the Parish Church on Sunday evening, April 28, by the Rev. J. A. Walker, Vicar; it was well attended and most impressive.
The following is a copy of a letter received by his mother from the deceased soldier’s officer, Lieut. A. Cree: — “DEAR MRS. UNDERWOOD, Ere now you may have heard the very sorrowful news I must send you. I have just returned from England to the Company, or I would have written long ago, hard as it is to convey that your boy has been killed in this present great struggle. He died a brave soldier, while doing an important duty. His party came under heavy machine fire, which caught your boy, and, from another lad who was present at the time, I learn he died instantaneously. I cannot hope to tell you how I grieve his loss, for the mere name of ‘Corpl. Underwood’ was a bye-word in the Company for efficient and bravery. He was easily one of the very best boys of a splendid Company, and one who uncomplainingly kept that ideal in mind which many of us are apt to forget—That we are fighting for our own country’s safety and for those whom we love. My sympathy goes out to you in this great trial; but I hope you can be brave and bear the loss, with God’s help, as willingly as your dear boy gave his life for his country’s cause. The battle was at its height at the time he died. Beyond that the information is meagre indeed: but if I can give you any further information please don’t hesitate to write and ask me, as I will only too willingly do anything which may in the slightest help to alleviate your great sorrow.”
Of course, the letter that Harold’s commanding officer had written to his mother was meant to reasssure her that Harold hadn’t suffered, and to fill her with pride that he was highly regarded among his fellow soldiers and doing useful work when he had been killed. Nevertheless, I find it very moving.
Eliza would also have received Harold’s possessions after his death, according to his military will. His hand-written note feels very personal and poignant.
Neville — Prisoner of War
As per the Bucks Herald article, at the same time that news came of Harold’s death, his grieving parents learned that Neville was believed to be a POW. We can only imagine how harrowing this must have been.
Nearly seven decades later, on his deathbed, Neville revealed to his son, my grampy, that he had been a POW in the war, and had worked in the mines. He had escaped with the help of a German soldier, and had made his way across Belgium and Holland to allied territory. On his journey he had been helped by two ladies, who sheltered and hid him in their home for several days. Once back to ‘safety’, he was deployed back to the front lines again! In spite of all of these ordeals, Neville survived the war. It’s an incredible story, which Neville had kept from his children or grandchildren all his life, and his family wondered how much of it was true. Unfortunately, we have only been able to corroborate a small portion of his story.
A POW index card confirmed that Neville was a prisoner of war in Germany. It also filled in a gap by letting us know which battalion he fought with — the 1st Wilts. In spite of the seriousness of Neville’s situation, I smiled when I saw that he had given his birth date as 5.12.1891 – seven years earlier than his actual birth date!
He had been taken prisoner at Vaulx (Vaulx-Vraucourt) on 24 March 1918. The battalion diaries on 23 March describe heavy attacks and note that ‘the Battalion suffered considerable casualties from shellfire’ but also that ‘the Battalion lewis gunners did great execution amongst many parties of the enemy’. The night was ‘somewhat lively owing to the enemy continuously trying to creep up and cut the wire.’ On the morning of the 24th, the whole trench system was shelled by the enemy, aided by ‘hostile aeroplanes’, their own planes meanwhile noticeably absent. The afternoon brought intense bombardment, followed by an assault. During the fighting, they received an order to pull out, but as some battalions returned, they broke, leaving some companies unable to get back to the trenches. They were then ‘practically exterminated by machine gun fire.’ 413 casualties were reported.2 Perhaps Neville was one of those trapped soldiers. If so, he was fortunate to have been taken prisoner, when so many were killed. However, his capture seems to reflect a general trend at that time; according to The Long, Long Trail, more than half of British POWs during WW1 fell into captivity between March and November 1918.
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that Neville had been captured on the same day on which Harold had been killed. At first I wondered if the similarity in their first names (Harold and Harry) could have led to a bureaucratic mix-up. However, the location of Neville’s capture on his index card matches the battalion diary entries that day. It’s a dreadful coincidence that just as Neville was being taken prisoner, his brother was killed in action at Offoy, about 50 km (30 miles) to the south.
The index card shows that Harry’s sister Lily, with an address in London, was the point of contact for news about her missing brother. Communication between Britain and Germany about the location of POWs would have been made by neutral intermediaries, especially the Red Cross.
On 13 June, Neville was at the Münster II camp. This was one of four camps at Münster, on the site of a racecourse. There was indeed mining there. However, POWs could also join an orchestra, participate in theatre shows, play football, write and read a weekly newspaper, and send postcards home. Contemporary inspections found conditions and treatment to be acceptable.
On 20 June he was transferred, for unknown reasons, to one of three camps at Sennelager (Senne I, II, or III), 100 km away. Sennelager was reputed to be the most brutal of Germany’s POW camps. One POW who spent time there wrote of the desperate condition of British wounded, and starvation of POWs. He said ‘Sennelager has the most evil reputation among the German prison camps for systematic brutality and unprecedented ferocity.’ Another prisoner who absent-mindedly went too near the fence, had a bayonet stuck through his shoulder. However, all camps were subject to neutral inspections, so had to meet minimal standards. The Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum has a collection of 200 photos and drawings that belonged to a sergeant who had spent most of his three years as a POW at Sennelager (I’ve shared three of them below). Although most of the men photographed are officers, they look well fed and apparently were free to walk around the camp.
In 1918, a German, Oxford-educated linguist spent time at the Sennelager camps recording audio of British and Commonwealth voices. This one from Bletchingdon in Oxfordshire is the closest I can get to how Neville might have sounded. It’s part of the oldest collection of English dialect recordings in the world, available for free at the British library website (a fascinating rabbit hole!)
During the time that Neville experienced life in the camps he was still just 19. His POW record ends at Senne, so unfortunately we don’t have any evidence of his daring return to his battalion. If he was helped to escape by a German soldier, could it have been because he had heard about his brother’s death and was anxious to get home to his family? I will never know the name of that sympathetic soldier, or the identities of the kind and brave women who helped him on his way.
Neville received the Victory and British medals for his service. At the end of the war, both he and his boyhood friend came home to St Leonards.
Lance Corporal Harold John Underwood is commemorated at Pozières, France (on panel 62.B). This memorial commemorates over 14,000 casualties of the United Kingdom and 300 of the South African Forces who have no known grave and who died on the Somme from 21 March to 7 August 1918.
He’s also commemorated on the War Memorial in St. Leonard’s churchyard, Bucks. Another name on the memorial is also a relation of mine — Fred Osborn (my great grandmother’s cousin).
Harold has a gravestone at St Leonard’s as well, which he shares with his youngest sibling Kathleen. Harold and Kathleen both died on the 24th of the month aged 24. Kathleen was a keen rower, and was killed by a very different deadly enemy — tuberculosis. For years after her death, her beau (possibly fiancé) continued to visit the family home. I wonder if Harold also had a sweetheart in London or back home in St Leonards, whose life was shattered by his death.
After the end of the war, Eliza had to deal with the administration of Harold’s medals, and requested that his Military Medal be sent to them by post. She also completed the necessary paperwork to receive a memorial plaque, hand-calligraphed scroll and King’s message (these were offered to the next of kin of soldiers who had died). All of these items were sent to Harry and Eliza Underwood at Craven Cottage, St Leonards. Sadly, I have no idea where Harold’s medals and plaque have ended up, but I have the scroll and King’s message in their original cardboard postal tube, which is one of my most treasured possessions.
After the war
The Underwood family, like millions of families in Britain and around the world, had to endure a tremendous loss. Eliza lost her eldest son, but also her younger brother, Richard William Maultby, who died at Ypres in 1916. Both Harry and Eliza had experienced many tragedies already in their lives, and these new losses must have been hard to bear. In 1920, 53-year-old Harry Underwood was caught red-handed stealing a pack of cigarettes from a shop in Wendover. The grocer had been his employer and suspected Harry of stealing stock from him over a period of time. Harry protested that he ‘had been about the district for about 20 years, and had nothing against him. He was supposed to have been respected, he believed’.1 However, he was sentenced to 21 days with hard labour. This crime seems completely out of character for Harry, and possibly an indication of how much the loss of his son had impacted him.
When the war ended on 11 November 1918, Neville was still a month shy of turning 18, not yet an adult. I imagine that war had in some ways made him old beyond his years, and yet coming home to his parents and siblings must have been an occasion of joy, comfort and relief. I’m looking forward to seeing his entry in the 1921 census to see what he did next.
In 1925, Harry Neville Underwood married Dorothy Georgina Alexandria Taylor. Their son, my grampy, was born in 1927. The name they chose for him — Neville William Harold Underwood — honoured Neville’s brave brother Harold, the brother who never came home.
Credits, sources and further information
The lead image in this post is a silhouette of the KRRC memorial which faces Winchester Cathedral. Photograph by Dave via Flickr.
- Bucks Herald, 11 September 1920
- Wiltshire Regiment 1st Battalion War Diary, Nov 1915-Jun 1918. National Archives WO-95-2243-3.