[Above: the action of the night of 20th/21st April 1915 which led to the award of the VC to 2nd Lieutenant Geoffrey Woolley]
The extraordinary thing about indulging in a hobby passion such as WW1 research is how often another piece of the jigsaw falls at your feet.
Last night I arrived on the south coast to join my father – we have a big day ahead of us coming up in London today – and before long, over our first tinctures of the evening, we found ourselves watching the BBC South News at 6.30pm.
This flagged up in its introduction that they would be featuring a visit by his son to the place in Belgium where his father, then a young officer, had won the VC one hundred years ago … and, as they showed some footage of said cove walking about on top of a short rise, my eyes and ears began twitching.
“I could easily be mistaken …” I said to my father, “…but I think that looks like Hill 60 … [a famous landmark not far from Ypres].
Said trailer, naturally, had us hooked and we watched the entire programme, waiting for the piece concerned, which was played out as the very last item, after the weather.
The location of the piece was indeed Hill 60.
I was vaguely aware that two WW1 VCs had been won there – a tiny, pock-marked rise in the landscape to the east of Ypres which was so vital at the time because it gave the occupier a perfect view – and indeed perfect artillery-fire range – towards the town of Ypres, which had become a war-long symbol of British resistance to the German advance.
Said rise in the ground was fought over for years, with the Germans and British successively taking possession and then being beaten off it, again and again. The term ‘killing ground’ could have originated at Hill 60.
Last night’s piece on the BBC South programme was about the VC won on the night of 20th/21st April 1915 by 22 year-old 2nd Lieutenant Geoffrey Woolley of the Queen Victoria Rifles.
It was the first VC in the war won by a member of a territorial unit – i.e. those established separately from the regular army and intended to be deployed only in ‘home defence’. At the time, territorial units were only deployed on the Western Front if 75% of their men had volunteered to serve abroad. Woolley had only been serving with them for a few months before they departed for Flanders.
Woolley’s son took part in the filming because he was presenting his father’s medals, including the VC and MC, to his old regiment for safe-keeping. It was a fascinating watch.
By way of further explanation, I attach below a brief article – taken from a website devoted to the Essex Regiment – which sets out the circumstances of Woolley’s winning of the VC:
2nd LIEUTENANT GEOFFREY HAROLD WOOLLEY VC MC
He attended Queens College at Oxford with the intention of taking holy orders but at the outbreak of war George joined up.
As he was was living at Old Riffhams, Danbury, he joined the 5th Essex battalion on 4 August 1914 where he was an officer in E company.
On 8th August 1914 He acted as subaltern of the colour party when the colours of the 5th Essex were brought to Chelmsford Cathedral.
In September 1914 he joined the 9th (County of London) Queen Victoria’s Rifles who were shortly to leave for France and did so in November 1914
The Queen Victoria Rifles were used in the battle for Ypres in April 1915 when attempts were made to take Hill 60 which was considered of key importance.
On 20 April 1915 two companies made an attack but were pinned down in trenches by heavy German fire. Woolley was in the rear trench but when he heard that both officers in the forward trench had been killed he went forward by crawling and running over open ground to reach the forward trench. Despite the fact that most of his men became incapacitated he resisted German attacks until he was relieved.
By the time that happened, of the two officers and 150 men in the forward trench at the start of the attack only two NCO’s and one man were fit for roll call.
He was in a poor state from Gas poisoning and exhaustion and was taken out of the front line for medical treatment.
The immediate reward for his bravery was promotion to Captain on the following day and then later he became the first Territorial soldier to be awarded a VC.
The VC was presented personally by the King at Buckingham Palace on 6 July 1915. The King is reported to have greeted Captain Woolley with great cordiality, shook hands with him and personally pinned on the Victoria Cross.
The citation for his VC read
For conspicuous bravery on Hill 60 during the night of 20-21st April 1915.
Although the only officer on the hill at the time, and with very few men, he successfully resisted all attacks on his trench, and continued throwing bombs and encouraging his men until relieved.
His trench during this time was being heavily shelled and bombed and was subjected to heavy machine gun fire from the enemy.
After a period of recuperation he returned to the front where he served on the staff of Third Army HQ and at HQ 17th Division.
On 8 July 1918 in Danbury Parish Church, Captain Woolley married Mrs Janet Beatrix Culme-Seymour nee Orr-Ewing who was the widow of Captain George Culme-Seymour late of the 60th Rifles.
On 30 May 1919 Captain Woolley was awarded the Military Cross
In 1920 Geoffrey Woolley followed his father in taking holy orders.
In September 1923 when the memorial to officers and men of the Queen Victoria Rifles was unveiled the chosen spot was Hill 60 and the newly ordained Rev G H Woolley was able to officiate at the dedication service.
He was an assistant master at Rugby and Harrow and Vicar of Monk Sherborne until the start of the Second World War when he once again joined up serving as a chaplain in North Africa.
For his services in the second world war he was awarded an OBE.
After the war he held the livings at Harrow and West Grinstead.
His wide Janet died on 14 February 1943 and he remarried Miss Elcie Elisabeth Nicholls of Harrow in the Hill in 1945.
Rev Woolley died on 10 December 1968 and is buried at St Mary’s Churchyard, West Chiltington, Sussex.