Honouring South African World War 1 heroes who have won the Victoria Cross for Valour, the ‘VC’, the highest British decoration for bravery. When it comes to Victoria Crosses, the British government (and VC Trust) recognises ‘South African’ Victoria Crosses as those VC decorations won by South Africans in South Africa’s own Armed Forces (pre Republic) or recipients from other countries who won the VC whilst under South African Command, or recipients born in South Africa, or those recipients who made South Africa their home prior to the start of the war.
As to the last definition, this officer’s ‘South African’ VC is something else, as a senior officer, a Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col.), he led from the front single handily taking out machine gun nests and setting a supreme example of bravery and leadership to his men – and he did this time and again.
His story dispenses with a typical myth surrounding WW1, that the officers sat behind the lines in safety and comfort as their men ‘went over the top’ and chewed through lead and barbed wire fighting in the blood and mud on the western front. The opposite is in fact true, British and Commonwealth commissioned officers, senior and junior, fought and died in their droves advancing on German defences side by side with their men. In fact your chances of surviving the war were significantly less if you were an officer. This is the story of one of these officers, Lt Col. Harry Greenwood VC, DSO & Bar, OBE, MC.
Henry “Harry” Greenwood (1881-1948) was born on 25th November 1881 in Victoria Barracks, Windsor Castle, England, where his father was serving with the Grenadier Guards. He was the eldest of nine children born to Charles Greenwood of Nottingham and Margaret Abernethy, who hailed from County Tipperary, Ireland.
He enlisted in the British Army in 1899 to take part in the 2nd-Anglo Boer War 1899-1902 (The ‘South African War), arriving in South Africa from January 1900. After the Boer war ended, he returned to the United Kingdom demobilised and then headed straight back to South Africa to make a new life, whilst in South Africa he put his military skills to use and he joined the South African Constabulary.
At the outbreak of the First World War, he returned to the United Kingdom and re-enlisted in the Army as a Reservist officer joining the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.
Harry Greenwood was to serve in the front-lines on the Western Front literally from the outbreak of the war to the end of it. In his time he took part in just about every offensive The Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry took part in – from the Battle for Loos to the final battles in 1918 and along the way he was wounded three times – missing the odd offensive to recover, he was mentioned in dispatches three times and he also managed to pick up a number of gallantry decorations including amongst others – the Victoria Cross.
His string of remarkable acts of bravery began when he was awarded the Military Cross (MC) in January 1916, recognising his gallant actions on 26th September 1915 during the Battle of Loos (25 September – 8 October 1915) near Hill 70, Loos, France.
His MC was followed up with higher acclaim – the DSO (Distinguished Service Order). In July 1918, he was awarded his DSO for devotion to duty during two heavy attacks by the German on The Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry’s positions.
The enemy attack was made under cover of mist and it was repulsed by the British, however a hostile enemy machine-gun detachment succeeded in getting within 50 yards of the British line causing significant carnage and sending machine gunners, officers and men into cover.
Harry Greenwood’s battalion was by this stage very short of machine gunners owing to casualties, Harry Greenwood, along with an Non-Commissioned Officer rushed out from their defences with total disregard to the incoming enemy fire, he found a fellow British officer and some men hiding in a hollow with a heavy machine-gun, Greenwood then ordered them to carry it back to his lines, being all the time under intense fire. The gun was then used on the enemy to very great effect.
Bar to his DSO
Harry Greenwood DSO, MC was to win the Distinguished Service Order again (Bar to his first DSO), again taking on enemy machine gun nests. His Bar to his DSO (London Gazette, 2nd December 1918) was for conspicuous gallantry during an attack. Although ill, Greenwood refused to leave his battalion and led the first line to the attack.
During the attack, when capturing he first objective he was injured by a shell burst. Carrying the injury he elected to continue and take the second objective of the attack. On reaching the second objective he re-organised his battalion along with another battalion, and took up a defensive position from which he beat off two enemy counter-attacks.
He continued to hold his ground until relieved. The very next day, the British advance was held up by very heavy machine-gun fire, he made a daring individual reconnaissance of the enemy positions, spotting a weakness he returned and then inspired his men by successfully leading them around the enemy’s flank.
Over two days of fighting from 23rd to 24th October 1918, Lt Col. Harry Greenwood was to win the Victoria Cross. His battalion was to advance eastwards towards Ovillers in northern France – the target was Dukes Wood. Early in the morning of 23rd the Harry Greenwood’s Battalion advance was stalled by an enemy machine gun post which had not been mopped up by the advancing unit on the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry – 9th. battalion’s right flank, and the battalion started taking heavy casualties from the German machine gunners.
At this point Harry Greenwood decided enough was enough and he jumped up and single-handed rushed the German machine gun post which was firing at point-blank range, he then proceeded to kill all four of the machine gun’s crew.
With the machine gun out nest of the way the advance was back on again, Harry Greenwood’s battalion arrived at the village of Ovillers where they encountered yet another enemy machine gun post at the entrance of the village, which again held up the advance. Once again Lt Col. Harry Greenwood rushed the machine gun, with two of his men this time, and they proceeded to kill all the gun’s crew.
On reaching the objective, Dukes Wood, Harry’s 9th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry had lost contact with the two units advancing on their left and right flank. Lt Col. Greenwood and 250 of him men found themselves isolated and surrounded by enemy machine gun posts of significant strength.
The Germans, upon seeing Lt Col. Harry Greenwood’s force almost isolated immediatly counter attacked on the right flank and succeeded to getting within 40 yards of Harry’s battalion’s position before the attack was broken up by the besieged British.
Lt Col. Greenwood then inspired his men, who were now well in advance of their own covering artillery barrage, to push through and take the final objective – they swept forward cheering as they went and took German positions in Dukes Wood. In taking the German defences they captured 150 prisoners, 8 machine guns and one field gun.
Not resting on their laurels of Victory for too long, the very next day the 9th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry was back in the thick of it, and so to Lt Col Harry Greenwood – there’s more to his Victoria Cross than the 23rd October 1918.
On the 24th October, the 9th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry were given the objective of taking a ‘Green line’ south of Poix Du Nord. Once gain as the Battalion advanced they were held up withering fire from enemy inter-crossing ‘wired’ machine gun posts positioned along a ridge.
Lt Col. Greenwood decided to do a personal reconnaissance and he discovered that a part of the ridge that was held by one enemy machine gun only. Again, he demonstrates unbelievable bravery when he once again rushes this machine gun nest single-handedly and kills all the gun’s crew, so close and perilous was this individual charge that they were firing at him at a range of just 20 yards.
Lt Col. Greenwood then advances his men into this gap he now created by disabling the machine gun nest. The whole flank of machine gun posts on the ridge was turned and the British advance proceeded through Poix Du Norn, with Lt Col Greenwood’s Battalion sweeping aside a further line of machine gun posts that were encountered just north of the town.
Upon finally reaching their objective, the Battalion came under intense enemy machine gun and artillery fire. The Battalion started to take heavy casualties and their line position and line ‘wavered’ under the intense enemy counter-attack. However Harry Greenwood was going to hold his ground and in full view of the enemy and under withering enemy machine gun fire he jumped up and walked up and down his line, encouraging his men to hold their line and beat off the counter-attack which they subsequently did.
During the afternoon of the 24th October, Harry’s Battalion was given another objective on Grand Gay Farm Road, and once again his advanced was hampered by heavy machine gun posts not cleared up by Battalions advancing on his battalion’s flanks. He pushed his men to take their objective and silence the machine guns in front of him and then swung the battalion to the right flank to take the machine guns allocated as the objective of his flanking battalion – thus securing his objective and that of the right flank for the Division.
For his example set during the two days fighting Lt Col. Greenwood’s utter contempt for danger, bravery and inspiring leadership won him the Victoria Cross. London Gazette, 26th December 1918.
Lt Col. Henry (Harry) Greenwood VC, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, Ovillers, France 1918.
When the advance of his battalion on the 23rd October was checked, and many casualties caused by an enemy machine-gun post, Lieutenant Colonel Greenwood single-handed rushed the post and killed the crew. At the entrance to the village of Ovillers, accompanied by two battalion runners, he again rushed a machine-gun post and killed the occupants. On reaching the objective west of Duke’s Wood his command was almost surrounded by hostile machine-gun posts, and the enemy at once attacked his isolated force. The attack was repulsed and, led by Lieutenant Colonel Greenwood, his troops swept forward and captured the last objective, with 150 prisoners, 8 machine-guns and one field gun. During the attack on the Green Line south of Poix Du Nord, on 24th October, he again displayed the greatest gallantry in rushing a machine-gun post, and he showed conspicuously good leadership in the handling of his command in the face of heavy fire. He inspired his men in the highest degree, with the result that the objective was captured, and, in spite of heavy casualties, the line was held. During the further advance on Grand Gay Farm Road, on the afternoon of 24th October, the skilful and bold handling of his battalion was productive of most important results, not only on securing the flank of his brigade, but also in safeguarding the flank of the division. His valour and leading during 2 days of fighting were beyond all praise.
Second World War
Harry Greenwood was invested with the Victoria Cross, and the Bar to his DSO, by King George V at Buckingham Palace on the 8th May 1919. In 1919, Lt. Col. Greenwood retired from the Army, having been wounded in action three times and mentioned in despatches three times, and resumed his career as a company director, however when World War 2 broke out their was still more soldering in this Anglo Boer War, South African Police, First World War veteran and he but served with the Pioneer Corps during the Second World War.
For his service in the Second World War, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1944.
Harry Greenwood died in his house just after WW2 at 77 Home Park Road, in Wimbledon, South London on 5th May 1948, and was buried in Putney Vale Cemetery.
Because of his history in South Africa prior to World War 1 and the specifications surrounding the Victoria Cross, Harry Greenwood’s VC is shared by both the United Kingdom and South Africa.
In 2013, in order to correctly address South Africa’s Victoria Cross winners, as the issue of South African VC winners in British Regiments had taken a back seat whilst the Afrikaner Nationalists were in power. It was bad enough for the Nationalists to recognise VC winners, but worse still to recognise those South Africans winning it in British units – so in all – of all the South African VC’s won in World War 1 and World War 2, the government of the day at the time would only recognise 4 recipients, that is, only those who served in South African Regiments/Units – out of a total of 20 South African VC winners in all. In the UK the lack of South Africa’s resolve to promote and remember all thier VC winners (unlike Australia and Canada) led to a gradual decline and loss of the historic record.
To clear up the matter, and honour VC winners of South African heritage or those who had made South Africa their home prior to the war, The Victoria Cross Trust and the UK government approached South African Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to confirm the number of South Africans that were awarded the Victoria Cross during World War One.
To correct the matter, the British then officially listed all recognised South African Victoria Cross winners on a special VC commemoration plaque which they shipped to South Africa. The plaque was unveiled by the British High Commission at a ceremony in Cape Town in late 2014 at the Cape Town Castle, where it is proudly still accessible to the public – and it includes the name of Lt Col Harry Greenwood VC.
In the United Kingdom, Harry Greenwood VC is recognised with a Blue Plaque at his place of birth, it’s located in Windsor at the Victoria Barracks in Sheet Street and reads “Lt. Col. Harry Greenwood VC DSO OBE MC 1881-1948 Born in Victoria Barracks Awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery at Ovillers, France in 1918 serving with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry”.
Even more recently in the United Kingdom, special Victoria Cross stones honouring recipients at their places of birth have been installed in ceremonies all over the country in the lead up to the centenary of World War 1.
They are unveiled in public spaces by the respective councils on the day that the VC was won exactly 100 years. Harry Greenwood’s ceremony took place a couple of weeks ago, his Victoria Cross citation was read out by Colonel Dan Reeve MC, late of the Rifles. Then the vice-Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire Jeffery Branch unveiled the stone. Harry Greenwood’s great-nephew Michael Greenwood read out a list of names of members of his ancestor’s battalion who died over those two days in 1918. He described his great-uncle as someone who never stayed behind as his men went over the top but went with them, doing his best to protect them.
At a small ceremony held in Doncaster on the 17th July 2002, the family of Lieutenant Colonel Harry Greenwood donated his Victoria Cross medal group to the Regimental Museum of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in Doncaster.
His medal group consisting of the VC, DSO and Bar, OBE, MC, Queens South Africa Medal 1899-1902 with four clasps, King’s South Africa Medal 1902 with two clasps, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 with Mentioned in Despatches oakleaf, Defence Medal 1939-45, War Medal 1939-45, King George V Silver Jubilee Medal 1935 and King George VI Coronation Medal 1937.
Story Researched and Written by Peter Dickens
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Large extracts published with the kind permission of The VC and the GC, The Complete History, published by Methuen and The VC and GC Association in 2013. with sincere thanks to Charles Ross from The South African Legion. Additional Reference and extracts – The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria Cross and George Cross – on-line. Images copyright Imperial War Museum where indicated. The recommendation by Brigade commander C V Edwards for Temporary Major (acting Lt-Colonel) Harry Greenwood DSO, MC. Mike Swift and Francis Batt artickle from the Royal Borough Observer. Much thanks to the Michael Greenwood and the Greenwood family for the use of images of Harry Greenwood VC.