Under deadly fire he directed his tanks to their objective … on foot! Clement Robertson VC

Honouring South African WW1 heroes who have won the Victoria Cross for Valour, the highest British decoration for bravery. This South African qualifies to stand head and shoulders above his countrymen – Captain Clement Robertson VC. Here is his story.

10451890_396153847221020_4866528425500856967_nEarly Life

Clement Robertson was born on 15 December 1890 (15 November 1889 is indicated in the Haileybury school register) in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa as the son of Major John Albert Robertson Royal Artillery and Frances Octavia Caroline (nee Wynne). Clement was one of five brothers (William Cairnes, Albert John, Frederick Wynne and Charles Wyndham).

Clement was later educated at Hill House School, Filsham Road, Hastings, at the East India Company College (Haileybury College) from 1904-1906 and Trinity College, Dublin (BA BAI Engineering 1909). He and his four brothers were keen golfers and were founder members of the Delgany Golf Club. Clement won the President’s Cup in the first year it was played for in 1908. In 1911, he was a boarder at Croft House, part of Cotherston, Darlington while an articled pupil to a civil engineer engaged on waterworks. He was employed as a civil engineer with the Egyptian Irrigation Service for three years and returned to England on the outbreak of war.

World War 1

He enlisted in 19th Royal Fusiliers (2nd Public Schools) on 8th October 1914 and joined at Epsom. He applied for a commission on 30th December 1914 and was commissioned on 16th January 1915 in 3rd (Reserve) Battalion, The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). He was attached to the Royal Engineers from June 1916 to February 1917, then the Heavy Branch, Machine Gun Corps from March 1917 and was attached to the Tank Corps from September 1917 as a Tank Commander.

During the Battle of Messines in Belgium Clement had a narrow escape when on 7th June 1917, his tank A56 was hit by a 5.9” shell, which killed Sergeant Clegg and wounded two other crew. Although A56 was badly damaged, he brought it back to base and was later appointed to command 12 Section in 3 Company and made an Acting Captain of A Battalion.

Victoria Cross

In the British advance on 4th October 1917 at Zonnebeke, Belgium, Captain Robertson led four British tanks of 12 Section in attack under heavy shelling as they pushed forward east of Polygon Wood towards Reutel, between Zonnebeke and Gheluvelt.

Robertson, was Section Commander of 12 Section. The advance would need to cross the Reutelbeek. Although only a small stream it posed a formidable obstacle for the tanks.

Conditions on the battlefields of Passchendaele were terrible. Thick mud made any kind of movement difficult, and shelling had badly damaged most of the roads. When they’d been used earlier in the battle many tanks had ended up hopelessly bogged.

Robertson was determined this wouldn’t happen. For three days prior to the assault from Sunday 30th September onwards Captain Robertson and his ‘batman’, Private Cyril Allen, worked tirelessly to mark a safe route up to the front line for the 28 ton tanks. They struggled across the shattered ground under constant shellfire to lay out lengths of cotton tape for the crews to follow. They successfully finished the job and returned to the tanks late on the evening of the 3rd October.

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The type of tape used by Captain Robertson and Private Allen to guide the tank assault.

Almost immediately Robertson turned round and began moving forwards again, leading the tanks to their starting points. They were in position by 3am on the 4th of October.

The attack began at 6am. The ground in No Man’s Land was just as bad, so Robertson, accompanied by Allen, broke cover from the armour and continued on foot, walking in front of the tanks to guide them forwards. The German artillery, machine gun and rifle fire was intense, but he refused to take cover, as he knew his tank crews needed to be able to see him.

The tanks were to cross the Reutelbeek using a narrow bridge. One by one Robertson guided them safely across. As they continued forwards Robertson was shot and killed. His tanks fought on, helping to successfully drive the Germans back.

In so guiding these four tanks carefully towards their objective he must have known that this action would almost certainly cost him his life, however his skilful leadership had already ensured success, and for this he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.  

For his brave actions in support of Captain Robertson, Pvt. Cyril Allen received the  Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and was tragically killed later in the war on 20th November 1917, Cyril Allen’s DCM citation reads; “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He twice marked out routes under heavy enemy barrages, though on the first occasion he was blown up and badly shaken. Later he accompanied the tanks into action on foot, showing magnificent courage and contempt of danger”.

tank 2

A knocked out British tank half submerged in mud and water near St Julien, 12 October 1917. IWM Copyright

Captain Roberts’ Victoria Cross Citation:

For most conspicuous bravery in leading his tanks in attack under heavy shell, machine-gun and rifle fire, over ground which had been heavily ploughed by shell fire. Captain Robertson, knowing the risk of the Tanks missing the way, continued to lead them on foot, guiding them carefully and patiently towards their objective, although he must have known that his action would almost inevitably cost him his life. This gallant officer was killed after his objective had been reached, but his skilful leading had already ensured successful action. His utter disregard of danger and devotion to duty afford an example of outstanding valour.

Death and Remembrance 

Clement’s body was recovered and he was buried in Oxford Road Cemetery, Ypres. As he never married, his VC was presented to his mother by Brigadier General C Williams CB, Commanding Dublin District, at the Royal Barracks Dublin on 27th March 1918. In addition to the VC, he was awarded the British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19. His medals are held privately.

Captain Robertson VC is commemorated on the Haileybury College Memorial, his photo is in the Tank Museum, Bovington, Dorset while there is also a memorial plaque in the Christ Church, Delgany.

Captain Robertson is also remembered in a Tank Corps flag raising ceremony in Ypres which takes place every year on 4 October at the Tank Memorial Ypres Salient.


Researched by Peter Dickens

Related Work and Links:

Reginald Hayward VC  “Superhuman powers of endurance and courage” Reginald Hayward VC

William F. Faulds VC Taking gallantry at Delville Wood to a whole new level; William Faulds VC MC

Sherwood Kelly VC “…. a Herculean of Irish-South African origin with a quite remarkable disregard for danger”.

Percy Hansen VC One Lucky Charm wins the Victoria Cross; Percy Hansen VC, DSO, MC

Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC ‘Proccy’ – South Africa’s ‘Bravest of the Brave’

William Hewitt VC “There’s fifteen in there Sir, and they’ve all had it” destroying a German Pillbox single-handedly – William Hewitt VC

Extract 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. Also with reference to a large extract from Victoria Cross and George Cross, a complete history on-line, Tank 100 Tank Museum on-line , thanks also to Charles Ross from the South African Legion.

“There’s fifteen in there Sir, and they’ve all had it” destroying a German Pillbox single-handedly – William Hewitt VC

Lance Corporal William Henry Hewitt VC, (aged 33) of 2nd South African Infantry Regiment is a very special South African, seen here he maintains his traditional wry smile, he had lost some teeth in heroic actions which earned him the Victoria Cross and he figured women wouldn’t think him attractive if he smiled. All we can say is smile, you of all people really earned it!

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L/Cpl William Hewitt VC – Note his two ‘wound stripes’ on his sleeve

William was an exceptionally brave man, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for action near Ypres, Belgium, on September 20, 1917.  These extracts from “The Comprehensive Guide to Victoria Crosses” and “How I won the Victoria Cross” the story of Major William Hewitt from the Hermanus historical society outline a very colourful life and the depth of character that was William Hewitt VC, read on and learn about one very remarkable South African.

Consider his own recollection of the action that earned him the Victoria Cross and you’ll have the measure of the man and his off the cuff ‘dark’ military humour:

William Hewitt’s platoon was ordered to demolish a German pillbox, manned by 15 enemy soldiers. Within a minute of advancing his entire platoon was killed by an artillery shell, William was luckily the sole survivor. He advanced alone and threw a grenade into the pillbox. A “jampot” (Improvised Explosive Device) was thrown at him and hit him in the face. Of the resulting explosion he said:

‘Apart from blowing off my gasmask and half my clothes, knocking out four teeth, breaking my nose, giving me a couple of black eyes, with a lot of little cuts here and there and knocking me backwards into a convenient shell-hole, it didn’t really do any damage – only made me damn mad’.

William Hewitt went round the back of the pillbox and pushed his last grenade though a breathing hole. It exploded inside, killing all the occupants. He ran around the front to deal with any survivors, only to hear a Sergeant of a relieving platoon say: ‘There’s fifteen in there Sir, and they’ve all had it.’

The “jampot” is what would now be regarded as a IED – an improvised explosive device in a modern context, back in World War 1, it was exactly that. Literally, it was a jam pot (or tin), taken out of the rubbish dump, filled with nuts and bolts, with an explosive device and then thrown at the enemy if all else had failed.

Menin 1

A wounded South African soldier is given a hot drink by a padre after the attack on ‘Potsdam’, a German stronghold near Zonnebeke, during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge near Potijze, 20 September 1917 (same day and attack in which William Hewitt won his VC).

Now that is some account to earn a Victoria Cross, let’s have a look at this man and how he came to taking out a pillbox single-handedly.

Origins

William Henry Hewitt (1884-1966) was born on 19th June 1884 at Copdock, near Ipswich, Suffolk. His father, also William Henry Hewitt, was born in London, and was a farmer of 80 acres at Preston Farm, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Middlesex. William (junior) had six siblings, including a brother George, who was killed serving in the Boer War in South Africa in 1900.

 William Hewitt (junior) emigrated to South Africa in 1905 and served in the South Africa Constabulary and later the Natal Police, including during the Zulu Rebellion in 1906. He later became a farmer in Natal.

World War 1

William volunteered to take part in World War 1 and enlisted in the Union of South Africa Defence Force on 24th November 1915. He went to France on 12th July 1916 and joined the 2nd South African Infantry Regiment on 15th July.

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He fought at the very deadly Battle of Delville Wood were he was very lucky to survive and later he also fought at the Butte de Warlencourt as a Lewis Gunner in 2 Platoon, B Company. Having been wounded in the leg on 12th October, he was evacuated to England on 24th October, where he was treated at Tooting Military Hospital. He returned to France in April 1917 and was promoted to Lance Corporal the following month.

Victoria Cross

On 20th September 1917 east of Ypres, the 2nd South African Infantry Regiment (2nd SAI) had to ‘leapfrog’ the 4th South African Infantry Regiment and advanced towards Bremen Redoubt. The 2nd SAI came under enfilading fire from Hill 37 and Tulip Cottages. In the meantime, the terrain became a quagmire, with men struggling waist deep in the mud. It was during this second stage in the battle that L/Cpl William Henry Hewitt captured a pillbox single-handedly.

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Destroyed strong concrete redoubt, in the Ypres sector in Belgium, during the battle on 20 September 1917. Same day and same attack that William Hewitt won his VC.

He threw a grenade into a doorway, but the Germans threw a improvised bomb back at him that blew off Hewitt’s gas-mask and knocked out four of his teeth. He was furious because he was engaged to be married and now feared that his fiancée might no longer find him attractive, Hewitt reached the rear of the pillbox. He tried to lob a bomb through a loophole, but missed and had to dive for cover. With only one bomb remaining, Hewitt crept right up to the loophole and, from beneath it, pushed the grenade through, receiving a shot in his hand as he did so. He eventually succeeded in arresting a number of Germans. Fifteen others lay dead in the pillbox.  William, a simple farmer from Natal had earned the Victoria Cross.

William Hewitt was evacuated due to his wounds on 1st October, and was presented with the VC by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 16th January 1918 and was appointed Acting Sergeant on 1st April.  His Victoria Cross Citation reads:

“For most conspicuous bravery during operations. Lance Corporal Hewitt attacked a pill-box with his section and tried to rush the doorway. The enemy garrison, however, proved very stubborn, and in the attempt this non-commissioned officer received a severe wound. Nevertheless, he proceeded to the loophole of the pill-box where, in his attempts to put a bomb into it, he was again wounded in the arm. Undeterred, however, he eventually managed to get a bomb inside, which caused the occupants to dislodge, and they were successfully and speedily dealt with by the remainder of section.”

Menin 2

Three German prisoners, one wounded, captured in the attack on Vampire Farm near Potijze by South African and British forces, during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, 20 September 1917 (same day and attack in which William Hewitt won his VC).

A life less ordinary

William married Lily Ollett in October 1918. She was a shorthand typist. They had met when he was a patient at Tooting Military Hospital in October 1916. William returned to South Africa on RMS Durham Castle on 22nd April 1919 and was discharged the following day. He continued farming until 1925, when they moved to East Africa. He ran a coffee farm there until he sold it in 1939 to rejoin The South African Union Defence Force as a Commissioned Officer at the on-set of World War 2. 

During World War II, William Hewitt VC, now promoted to a Major fought the next World War in Mombasa, East Africa were he acted as a liaison officer and later as an assistant provost-marshal.

William and Lily were living in Nairobi in 1952. When his health started to fail in 1950, he retired to Hermanus on the Cape Coast and finally became a South African citizen in 1955. He returned to Britain to attend the 1956 VC Centenary Celebrations in Hyde Park, London. In the late 1950s, he had been diagnosed with cancer of the larynx and had to have his larynx removed in Cape Town. In the operation, they found shrapnel embedded there. Shortly after the operation, he developed Parkinson’s Disease

Lily brought him back to Britain in 1961 in an attempt to find a cure with a Parkinson’s specialist in Edinburgh. He fell badly twice in his later years and had two severe bouts of pneumonia. Although crippled, unable to speak and almost helpless, he continued the best he could.

William died at Delancey Hospital, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire on 7th December 1966. He was cremated at Cheltenham Crematorium on 10th December and his ashes were returned to South Africa where they were scattered at sea off the beautiful Hermanus Cliffs in South Africa on 2nd January 1974, this scenic location is famous for whale-wacthing and annually South Africa’s migrating Southern Right Whales are seen close to the cliffs as they calve.  It is also the appropriate location for Hermanus’ war memorial.

What a fitting place for one of South Africa’s bravest to laid to rest.

William Hewitt VC – medals

In addition to his Victoria Cross (VC) , William was also awarded the Natal Rebellion Medal 1906, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, 1939-45 Star, Africa Star, War Medal 1939-45, George VI Coronation Medal 1937, and Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953. The VC was presented to Framlingham College by his widow in May 1967. It was held in the Chapel until the College loaned it indefinitely to the Imperial War Museum on 23rd April 2004. It is displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery. The Castle Military Museum in Cape Town owns four of his campaign medals. The other medals’ location are unknown.”

Related Work and Links:

Reginald Hayward VC  “Superhuman powers of endurance and courage” Reginald Hayward VC

William F. Faulds VC Taking gallantry at Delville Wood to a whole new level; William Faulds VC MC

Sherwood Kelly VC “…. a Herculean of Irish-South African origin with a quite remarkable disregard for danger”.

Percy Hansen VC One Lucky Charm wins the Victoria Cross; Percy Hansen VC, DSO, MC

Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC ‘Proccy’ – South Africa’s ‘Bravest of the Brave’


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

Extracts from “How I won the Victoria Cross – Story of Major William Hewitt” – Hermanus Historical Society and Dr Robert Lee.  Image of L/Cpl Hewitt copyright IWM Colour Image Colourised by Doug UK. Extracts and later images of William Hewitt taken from ‘The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria and George Cross’ on-line.  Images as shown copyright Imperial War Museum.

 

South Africa was represented at the Great Pilgrimage 90

G and wreathOn the Wednesday, 8th August 2018, The Royal British Legion recreated its 1928 pilgrimage to World War 1 battlefields for thousands of Legion members (90 years on). Great Pilgrimage 90 (GP90) was the Legion’s biggest membership event in modern history. This Great Pilgrimage ended with in a Remembrance Parade held at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.  The South African sacrifice was acknowledged and remembered at the Great Pilgrimage by the Royal British Legion – South African Branch who laid a special national wreath on behalf of the South African nation as a whole.

To see the original Royal British Legion Great Pilgrimage of 8th August 1928 held 90 years ago, here is an old Pathé ‘silent movie’ newsreel of it (movies did not have sound in 1928), when viewing it note the extent that the Royal British Legion has grown since then:

Menin Gate Parade – GP90

The South African branch of the Royal British Legion was up-front and present in a massive march past, in this sea of standards The South African Branch standard flying proudly with its Churchill Cup scrolls. A special ‘South Africa’ wreath was laid on behalf of South Africa at the Menin Gate itself.

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is a war memorial dedicated to the British, South African and other Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient in World War 1 and whose graves are unknown.

There are 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers’ names etched into the gate acknowledging the ‘missing’ who were never found or lie in a grave known only unto God, of which 564 are from South Africa’s forces.

A commemorative service at the Gate mark the centenary of the start of the series of battles that claimed thousands of British, Commonwealth, Allied, enemy and civilian lives during the ‘Last 100 Days’ of the First World War.

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The branch received special permission from the Royal British Legion to lay their wreath on behalf of the country South Africa, as a national wreath (and not a branch wreath). The South Africa wreath was laid in a wreath laying ceremony which saw 1,152 Royal British Legion branch representatives lay a wreath, each containing a message from their community.

38536411_1628560113922305_3087323600189915136_nThe South African wreath contained a message which read “we will always remember them” in some of the key languages of South Africa on the message (space permitting) – English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, North Sotho, South Sotho and Siswati.

The wreaths were arranged into a display within the Menin Gate grounds and will remain in place for public viewing for at least two months. Prominent in the parade were The Last Post Association (LPA), which was also founded in 1928. From that day its members have performed the Last Post at Menin Gate. The only interruption to this homage to the fallen of the First World War was during the Second World War. Everyday, the Last Post Association’s buglers sound the last post at the memorial. It was most fitting  that they lead the GP90 service with ‘the last post’.

Following the parade, everyone there were encouraged to join together to take part in an afternoon of comradeship and entertainment in the Great Square, where there were tableaux, stalls, exhibits & music.

38735944_1846743388736513_606755359960334336_nFor those who did not see it live this video will give you an idea of just how prestigious the parade at Menin Gate was and what a military veteran’s association of magnitude in full colour looks like on parade.

Note: There are over 1,100 Standards from various Royal British Legion Districts, Counties and Branches on parade, a statement of remembrance like this has yet to be replicated on this scale by any single military veterans association anywhere in the world, it’s simply stunning.

It is with immense pride that South Africa was represented and the branch can now add the coveted ‘Ypres 2018’ scroll to the South African Branch Standard.

Battlefield Pilgrimage – Delville Wood Parade No. 1

Prior to the Remembrance Parade at Menin Gate, the Royal British Legion conducted a guided Battlefield tour for all participating members and family.  Over the two days prior to Wednesday’s march (described above). They visited two different general areas, Ypres and the Somme.

Whilst on the Somme the Royal British Legion visited the Delville Wood battlefield, the same wood which saw such tremendous South African sacrifice and bravery when they were ordered to ‘hold it at all costs’.

It was with great honour that Royal British Legion South African branch was able to conduct two small parades in honour of South African sacrifice.

Battlefield Pilgrimage – Parade No.1 at Delville Wood

The first parade was conducted by the South Africans themselves in honour of South African and Rhodesian sacrifice in the wood. The Exhortation and Kohima epitaph was conducted by Robert Perkins from the RBL Gloucestershire County District and RBL Gloucester City Branch.  Graeme Scott attended Standard Bearing duties.

Once again a special wreath was made for the South African branch’s parade at the Delville Wood.  The wreath was laid by Major Herb Cameron from the Royal Logistics Corps and a member of RBL Wotton-Under-Edge Branch.  Maj. Cameron was born and educated in Bulawayo and Plumtree, Zimbabwe to Shona and British heritage.

The message on the wreath says a lot about the sacrifice at Delville Wood and Remembrance, it was an extract from “A Soldiers Song” by Lt. Frederick C. Cornell and it reads:

wreathSleep soft, ye dead,
for God is good –
And peace has
come to Delville Wood!

Battlefield Pilgrimage – Parade No.2 at Delville Wood

The second parade was conducted by four Royal British Legion branches at Delville Wood who asked the South African branch to participate with them in their parade, which they were deeply honoured to do.  Delville Wood remains a key site for British sacrifice as after the South Africans were withdrawn from the wood was handed to British regiments to hold.

In this parade the Parade Marshal was Tony Eglin from RBL Ulverston Branch, ex 4th Bn Kings Own Royal Border Regiment. The bugler was Andy Edgar from RBL Kendal branch, ex 7th Parachute regiment, Royal Horse Artillery.

The Standards on parade – left to right – Rod Eglin from RBL Bransty branch, Janet Eglin from RBL Ulverston Branch and Graeme Scott from the RBL South African Branch.  It is appropriate that we end the battlefield tour by this most prestigious remembrance organisation with a two minutes of silence at Delville Wood from a video taken at this parade.

The Royal British Legion is a sister organisation of The South African Legion and we share a common root as founders of the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League.

As Branch Chairman of The Royal British Legion South African branch I would like to express my sincere thanks to Graeme Scott and Merle McArdle who represented the branch – Graeme proudly carried the Standard and Merle laid the wreath. Bravo Zulu to you both. Graeme is also a proud Legionnaire of The South African Legion.  Also thanks go out to Tony Povey, the Vice Chairman, David Watt, the Secretary and Paul Gladwin, the Treasurer for their hard work behind the scenes.  In addition thanks to Lawrence Butler-Perks, the National Branches District Secretary for his hard work and the support of the National Branches District, especially the National Memorial Arboretum Branch for their exceptional support.

You have all done a nation proud.


Written by Peter Dickens – Branch Chairman, Royal British Legion South African Branch

Related work and links:

Delville Wood 100 Centenary: ‘Springbok Valour’… Somme 100 & the Delville Wood Centenary

In Flanders Fields – Afrikaans: In Vlaandere se Velde

The common root between the Royal British Legion and The South African Legion: Legions and Poppies … and their South African root

Video taken by Johan Moors on YouTube.  Images copyright Royal British Legion, original movie copyright Pathé news.  Video of SA Parade at Delville Wood taken by Alf Forrester, RBL Hardwick and district branch.  Second parade video at Delville Wood taken by Merle Scott of the RBL South African Branch.

“…. a Herculean of Irish-South African origin with a quite remarkable disregard for danger”.

This is arguably one of the most highest decorated and bravest South African characters you’ll ever meet, a man with a true warrior’s heart.

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Lt. Col John Sherwood Kelly VC, CMG, DSO.

Lieutenant Colonel John “Jack” Sherwood Kelly VC CMG DSO joined the Kings Own Scottish Borderers in July 1915 when he was a Major.  The entry into the Regimental history reflects an extraordinary character and neatly sums him up:

“A new Major has joined us. The new Major was a Herculean of Irish-South African origin with a quite remarkable disregard for danger”.

The four-times-wounded Kelly was not a Regular officer but a formidable and experienced commander with a combat record going back to the 1896 Matabele Revolt. During his military career he achieved fame and notoriety for his mixture of heroic exploits and explosive temperament.

His Story, the early years.

The twin sons John Sherwood Kelly and Hubert Henry Kelly were born on 13 January 1880 in Lady Frere in the Cape Colony in South Africa as the son of James Kelly of Irish decent. James Kelly was at one time mayor of Lady Frere and believed in justice for all and was himself a hero. On 08 December 1876 James Kelly saved the lives of 25 people when the Italian ship, SS Nova Bella, ran into trouble at the St John’s river mouth.

John (also called “Jack”) attended the Queenstown Grammar School, Dale College in King William’s Town and St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown. At school John was keener on the outdoor activities such as horse riding and boxing, in which he excelled, than school work. During this period John first lost his mother, with whom he had a very close relationship, when he was only 12 and a year later in 1893 he lost his twin brother Hubert in a riding accident.

The 2nd Anglo-Boer War and the Matabele Revolt

In 1896, age 16, John enlisted in the British South Africa Police (BSAP) and saw action in the Matabele revolt in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). With the outbreak of the 2nd Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902) he enlisted in the Southern Rhodesia Volunteers and saw action as a Trooper in the Relief of Mafeking as a Private in Colonel Plumer’s Column.

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Boer Forces with a 94 Pounder ‘Long Tom’ besieging Mafeking

On 08 January 1901 John was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Imperial Light Horse (ILH) and later joined Kitchener’s Fighting Scouts as a Lieutenant and saw action in Rhodesia, Orange Free State and Transvaal. He was twice mentioned in despatches during this time.

After the Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902) John returned to civilian life were he worked in his father’s store, but this was not what John had in mind, he was a warrior at heart  – and what he does next is an extraordinary journey which sees him take part in battles all over the world.

Somaliland 

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The ‘Mad’ Mullah

Having resigned his commission he volunteered to serve with the British forces again in Somaliland for the 3rd Expedition against Haji Muhammad Abdullah Hassan (known to the British as Mad Mullah) over the period November 1902 to July 1903.

South Africa sent a British Mounted Infantry Company (141 men) from the 4th Bn The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, commanded by Captain G.C. Shakerley, and a Boer Mounted Infantry Company, known as the Somaliland Burgher Corps (100 men) commanded by Captain W. Bonham DSO.   The men brought their own horses and 50% spares for remounts.  In a strange twist, John Sherwood-Kelly joined the Boer Corps. During the period he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.

In 1904 he was reduced to a Trooper again and returned to South Africa where he worked at first as a trader and later as a recruiter of native labour in the Transkei. In 1905/6 he again saw action during the Zululand Bambatha Rebellion.

Over the period 1906 to 1912 John was involved in the family business in Butterworth which was involved in the recruiting labour for the mines.

The Irish ‘Home Rule’ Crisis 

Finding a lasting solution for the Irish crisis remained a challenge for the British and in 1910 another attempt failed. The situation deteriorated and by 1912/13 the call went out for “all unionists” to return to Ireland. Being from Irish descent John and another brother of his, Edward answered the call and travelled to Ireland where they both joined the Ulster Volunteer Force.

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Ulster Unionists gather during the Home Rule Crisis in 1910

With war clouds gathering over Europe late 1913 and early 1914 the Irish crisis dropped on the list of priorities and by July 1914 John and Edward travelled to London. John being a man that liked adventure saw the gathering of war clouds as an opportunity for him to become involved.

John soon joined the 2nd Battalion King Edward’s Horse as a Private. With a chest full of medals it was not long before John was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. During this time John met Nellie Green and soon John and Nellie were active in the London social life.

Gallipoli Campaign and his DSO

During the Gallipoli campaign a Jack Sherwood-Kelly, would command the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and would be decorated with a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his actions.

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Kings Own Scottish Borderers on the offensive during the Gallipoli Campaign

On 21 October 1915 John’s lungs got badly burned by gas from the Turks and he was evacuated to the hospital, but returned to the frontline on 28 October. After his return John led his men to in a frontal attack to capture a Turkish trench that was threatening his own forces. Only 6 men returned and John was wounded three times. For this John was awarded the Distinguish Service Order (DSO). The first South African to be awarded the DSO during World War One.

During his leave to recover his wounds, John married Nellie on 22 April 1916. Early May 1916 saw John recalled to the front once again in command of a battalion, this time the 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers as part of the 29th Division preparing for the upcoming Battle of the Somme.

The Somme Offensive

In France, leading his Battalion from the front during the fighting in the Beaumont Hamel sector John was shot through the lung and he was saved by Jack Johnson until he could be evacuated back to London.

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Officers of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers take a tea break during the Somme Offensive

During July 1916 John and his wife Nellie embarked on a recruiting tour to South Africa where John was received as hero. On his return to England in September 1916 John immediately reported for duty. John remained in England and on 29 November 1916 received his Distinguish Service Order (DSO) from King George V.

During November 1916 John was posted to the 3rd Battalion Kings Own Scottish Borderers as a Major. Very soon after arrival requested to be transferred to the 10th Norfolk Reserve Battalion

On 01 January 1917 John Sherwood Kelly was awarded the Distinguished Order of St Micheal and St George, Third Class or Companion, post nominal CMG. It is awarded for service to the Empire, partly for his recruiting drive in South Africa.

Ypres and Passchendaele

In February 1917 John was again posted to the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers as Officer Commanding. Early part of 1917 saw a new British offensive in Vimmy and Arras which was followed by offensives in Ypres and Passchendaele. A smaller offensive was planned for November 1917 in the Cambrai sector, using the new weapon “the Mark 1 Tank”.

On 20 November 1917, the opening day of the first Battle of Cambrai, 87th Brigade advanced on Marcoing, three miles south-west of Cambrai. 1st Battalion, The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, crossed the Canal de St Quentin by the lock east of Marcoing copse.

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Men of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers advancing in the Cambrai sector 20th November 1917

For his gallantry during the crossing of the canal and in leading the attack against the enemy defences on the far side, Acting Lieutenant Colonel John Sherwood-Kelly was awarded the highest accolade for bravery – the Victoria Cross. (VC)

Two companies of 1st Battalion, The Border Regiment, crossed the canal by the railway bridge at Marcoing and one at the lock by the railway station at the north-eastern outskirts of the town. During the action Sergeant C. E .Spackman was awarded the VC for attacking a machine-gun which threatened this advance.

In the same action John was also awarded the Victoria Cross (VC). His citation reads as follows:

“For most conspicuous bravery and fearless leading when a party of men of another unit detailed to cover the passage of the canal by his battalion were held up on the near side of the canal by heavy rifle fire directed on the bridge. Lieutenant Colonel Sherwood-Kelly at once ordered covering fire, personally led the leading company of his battalion across the canal and, after crossing, reconnoitred under heavy rifle fire and machine gun fire the high ground held by the enemy.

The left flank of his battalion advancing to the assault of this objective was held up by a thick belt of wire, where upon he crossed to that flank, and with a Lewis gun team, forced his way under heavy fire through obstacles, got the gun into position on the far side, and covered the advance of his battalion through the wire, thereby enabling them to capture the position.

Later, he personally led a charge against some pits from which a heavy fire was being directed on his men, captured the pits, together with five machine guns and forty six prisoners, and killed a large number of the enemy.

The great gallantry displayed by this officer throughout the day inspired the greatest confidence in his men, and it was mainly due to his example and devotion to duty that his battalion was enabled to capture and hold their objective”.

The Germans launched a counter attack which was successfully repelled by the 29th Division during which time Acting Captain A. M. Lascelles, another South African hero, of the 14th Durham Light Infantry who was also awarded a Victoria Cross (VC). John returned to a hospital in London having been gassed again.

On 11 January 1918 the London Gazette reported that John had been awarded the Victoria Cross which he received from King George on 23 January 1918 at Buckingham Palace.

North Russia

After the end of World War 1, John Sherwood-Kelly took command of the second Battalion of the Hampsire Regiment in the North Russian Campaign in July 1919.  Here he came under criticism from the British Command in Russia, firstly for withdrawing his troops from an attack against the Bolsheviks at Trotsia, he cited improper terrain to attack (it was a mash), no communication and stiff resistance from the Bolsheviks.

But the criticism did not stop there, in 1919 the British developed a new and more effective gas, they chose to trial it on the Bolsheviks. John Sherwood-Kelly was now in command of a very mixed outfit on the railway front as part of the Vologda Force, and he was ordered to carry out the attack on the Bolsheviks under the cover of a large ground discharge of this new poisonous gas.  John objected, possibly because of his experience of gas and wounds he had sustained from it, but also because he felt the objects of the raid could be achieved by other means which did not put his men to overt risk.

russia

Troops of the Hampshire Regiment in Vladivostok 1919

The gas attack did not take place, and John was relieved of his command and returned to Britain.  On arrival, he promptly went to the press and publicly criticised the British campaign in North Russia in the Daily Express and Sunday Express.

Incensed that such a highly decorated officer should be so critical, Churchill wanted an example made, and against all advise not to , John Sherwood Kelly was court marshalled on the 6th October 1919 on the grounds of contravening The Kings Regulations (which restricted officers from dealing with the media on military matters).

John pleaded guilty, but also entered a plea in mitigation, which read:

“I plead with you to believe that the action I took was to protect my men’s lives against needless sacrifice and to save the country from squandering wealth it could ill afford.”

He was found guilty and severely reprimanded. A man of very strong principle he resigned from the Army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel just two weeks later and entered politics.

Politics

John Kelly-Sherwood stood for the Conservative Party and took part in two General Elections for the constituency of Clay Cross in Derbyshire. His controversial and outspoken style even struck a chord among hardened socialist supporters in this largely mining seat. He was defeated in the 1923 elections and again in 1924. However, true to his character, during the election rallies, Kelly again hit the national headlines having thrashed some hecklers at Langwith.

In later years, Kelly worked for Bolivia Concessions Limited building roads and railways across Bolivia and went big game hunting in Africa where he contracted malaria and died on the 18th August 1931.  He was granted a full military funeral and is buried at Brookwood Military cemetery in Surrey, England.

An incredibly brave man who stood head and shoulders above his peers, his military career and military exploits are nothing short of impressive, a proper leader of men and a pure South African warrior of the highest order. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg for anyone who wants to learn more about South Africa’s finest.


Researched by Peter Dickens with extract from The VC and the GC, The Complete History, published by Methuen, The VC and GC Association in 2013, Wikipedia and Charles Ross’ article for The South African Legion with grateful thanks. Image copyrights – Imperial War Museum.