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This blog post has been written by one of our volunteers, Chris Irvine. If you have any stories of local ancestors who contributed to the First World War, please share them with us!

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My great grandfather, Harry Russelbury Wenlock was born in Wheaton Aston on 27th February 1873, the son of a farm labourer, William Wenlock and his wife Mary.

Emma Theresa Wenlock (nee Blakemore)

Emma Theresa Wenlock (nee Blakemore)

In 1891 he was a farm servant at Kidmore Villa Farm and two years later in October 1893 he married Emma Teresa Blakemore at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Brewood and was working as a carter. During this period of his life he was in trouble with the law on a number of occasions for poaching and trespass. It is perhaps no coincidence that each of his six convictions for offenses of this kind were during the winter months when work would have been scarce. Court records note that he could only read and write ‘imperfectly’.

At some time between 1898 and 1901 the family moved to Heath Town, Wolverhampton and Harry found work as a coal miner. Family testimony from one of his daughters stated that he missed the country life and often went back to the Wheaton Aston area to help with the harvest. It must also have been between 1901 and 1914 that he first joined the army. He rose to become a sergeant in the 2nd Battalion of the South Staffs Regiment and his army number was 10485. This may account for his non-inclusion in the family’s census entry for 1911 by when the family were living in Old Heath.

In any event Harry had left the army by the time war broke out in 1914 and was working as a mine overseer, quite likely at one of the gin pits off Deans Road. He was by then 41 years of age and his eldest son, also called Harry Russelbury (or Russelberry on some sources) was in the army as were his nephews William Wenlock and Joseph Blakemore, whilst another son, Francis (Frank) also joined up. Family sources state that Harry was not prepared to stay at home whilst his sons fought in the war and as reservist in the South Staffordshire regiment he quickly re-enlisted despite his wife’s pleading that he should not go as he was ‘too old’. In February 1915 eight new Tunnelling Companies were formed as part of the Royal Engineers, including the 170th Tunnelling Company which made up of men from a nucleus of civilian sewer workers from Manchester reinforced by men from other regiments, including the South Staffs, who had particular expertise in mining or tunnelling. As an experienced soldier and a mine overseer Harry was readily signed up for the 170th Tunnelling Company,  despite his age. These new companies were urgently needed and were sent almost immediately to Givenchy in France for operations to counter enemy activity.

The work of the Tunnelling Companies (nicknamed The Moles) has only recently become better recognised and celebrated. It was highly dangerous work even within the context of trench warfare and involved tunnelling below enemy lines and often working within yards of German tunnellers, engaged in the same activity with the intention of blowing up enemy trenches. The 170th Company were in action at Givenchy till June 1915 when they were relieved by the 176th Company and transferred to operations near Cuinchy, under the command of the 2nd Division. It was at this time, on the night of 21st and 22nd August 1915 that Sapper Harry Russelbury Wenlock, Army Number 79705, won the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The citation from the London Gazette, 9th October 1915 reads as follows,

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on the night of the 21st-22nd August, 1915, at Cuinchy, when he sank a shaft, 4 feet deep, in the No. 7th Mine, in 2 hours, knowing that the Germans were working within a few feet of him. Twelve men had already lost their lives at different times in the same mine only a few days previously.

Private Wenlock never hesitated to carry out his task, owing to his bravery and determination the enemy were successfully forestalled.”

This account is borne out by a Company War Diary which recounts the Company’s exploits and tells the story of how a group of tunellers including Private Wenlock worked through the day and night of 21st and 22nd August in an attempt to tunnel beneath enemy lines and set explosions to blow up their trenches whilst the Germans worked only yards away on a similar attempt to blow up British positions. Harry Wenlock and his comrade Sapper J. W. Wood are each commended for their good work during this action and both were awarded a DCM. Harry was due to be presented with his medal by Wednesfield District Council but in fact was killed before this could happen and the medal was sent to his widow.

After the incident on 21st and 22nd August Harry and the Company continued to see action and in September 1915 blew up two mines at the Hohenzollern Redoubt at the opening of the Battle of Loos. Harry was promoted to 2nd Corporal and a family story relates how he became a victim of a poison gas attack in May 1916 when he insisted on making sure that men working with him were evacuated from the tunnel they were working in before he himself would come out. He was transferred to a Field Casualty Station and died of gas poisoning on Sunday 22nd May. He is buried at Noeux-Les-Mines Communal Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France, 6 kilometres south of Bethune and near where he say action and subsequently died.

The Express and Star reported that DCM Sergeant (sic) Wenlock was “a credit to his Country and died a hero”. His widow, Emma Theresa Wenlock also lost her son Francis in February 1917, who was a driver with the Royal Field Artillery and died in Mesopotamia, being commemorated on the Basra Wall and her nephews William Wenlock and Joseph Blakemore. Joseph is buried in Heath Town Churchyard and family stories state that Emma had his body returned from Ireland where he served at the Athone Garrison. All four are commemorated on the Heath Town War Memorial and on the lichgate at Holy Trinity Church, Heath Town whilst Joseph also has a serving soldier gravestone. Emma and Harry’s eldest son, also called Harry Russelbury survived the war and is my grandfather. His eldest son was also called Harry and my father was his second son and was named Francis Joseph. Emma also had five daughters, Elsie, Phyllis, Doris, Beatrice and Hilda (Lil). Some of the stories from the family were told me by my father and others by my Great Aunt Phyllis.

As a child I met Emma Wenlock, my great grandmother who died in 1959 at the age of 90 also at Holy Trinity Churchyard in Heath Town although she remained a Catholic all her life and received a catholic burial service at Holy Trinity School, as she had requested. Harry Russelbury DCM is also commemorated on her grave. She is said never to have recovered from her husband’s death and was often heard to say, when speaking of him “he was too old; he did not need to go”. The service he and his family gave to their country was rewarded with a medal and a hard life, only made easier after the Second World War with the advent of the Welfare State.

The medal was sold in about 1978 and if anyone knows its whereabouts or comes across it I would be most interested.

I attach a photo of Emma Wenlock but have no photograph of Harry Russelbury Wenlock and again if anyone has a photograph or more information please let me know.

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