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Alfred Wilkinson VC

Alfred Wilkinson VCWigan had been the headquarters of the 5th Battalion Manchester Regiment since 1861 when it was formed as the 21st Lancashire Rifle Volunteers. With the outbreak of war in August 1914 the battalion, together with the other Territorial Battalions of the Manchesters, Lancashire Fusiliers and East Lancashire Regiment composing the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division mobilised immediately and within a few days had volunteered for overseas service. On 9th September the Division entrained for Southampton and on the following day embarked for the Middle East and their great adventure. 

As with the other five Manchester Territorial Battalions reserve battalions were formed immediately and the 2/5th Battalion was formed at Wigan during September. Recruiting for these second line battalions began immediately and quickly new recruits were sworn in and provided with uniforms and equipment. Alfred Wilkinson was soon to be one of these and enlisted at Atherton, near Wigan on 14 December 1914, age 18 years and 11 months. Height 5’ 7 1/2 “. He was given the Regimental number 3120.

Alfred Robert Wilkinson was born in Leigh, near Wigan, on 5 December 1896; the eldest son of Alfred and Sarah Wilkinson (nee Swift). His father was a cotton spinner and the family lived at 1 Brideoake Street, later moving to 59 Bradshawgate. Young Alfred was baptized at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church on 13 December 1896 and later attended the infant school at St Joseph’s. He had an older sister Beatrice born 1894, a younger brother Henry born in 1898 and two younger sisters Alice and Agnes. He attended the Junior School at St Joseph’s between 1903 and 1909 and then went to work with his father at the Mather Lane Spinning Company No. 3 Mill in Leigh where he was employed as a cotton piecer. This was a hazardous job, usually carried out by children and young people, requiring the piecer to lean over the rapidly moving spinning machines in order to repair broken thread.

The 2/5th became a part of 199 Brigade, 66 Division and Wilkinson joined them at Southport where the battalion remained until May 1915 when it moved to Sussex, with companies based in Crowborough, Cuckfield and Peaspottage. He carried on training with the battalion when it moved once again to Colchester in March 1916. On 30 July 1916, now re-numbered as Private 43839, he was posted as one of the large number of reinforcements sent to France to join the 18th Manchesters. The 18th had been in France since early November 1915 and had already been involved in much fighting at Peronne and Trones Wood. They had just taken part in the attack on Guillemont of 30/31 July, described by Conan Doyle as ‘one of the tragic episodes of the great Somme battle’. Their casualties amounted to four hundred and seventy men killed, wounded or missing, and of sixteen company officers who took part in the attack only one returned. The 18th Battalion’s total casualties for the month of July numbered about thirty-two officers and 1,300 men. The battalion history records that after several days the battalion marched to Busnes where a draft of 507 men joined from the base. It is probable that Alfred Wilkinson was one of these. Alfred Wilkinson VC as a young man

August and early September were spent training and providing working parties; back in the line for much of September and early October. On 12 October the 18th Manchesters, as part of 30th Division, attacked the German position south of Ligny-Thilloy. Again there were considerable casualties in the ranks of the battalion and out of a rifle strength of three hundred and fifty who went ‘over the top’ two hundred and fifty were killed, wounded or missing. After the attack the battalion withdrew and marched back to bivouac in Marlborough Wood. Here for some days it provided working parties on improving the roads to Longueval. It remained in support at Bellacourt until 6 November when it relieved 16th Manchesters in the trenches in the sub-sector east of Brettoncourt. On 8 November 1916 Wilkinson was admitted to the 43rd Casualty Clearing Station with a sprained ankle. His injury must have been rather more severe than a sprained ankle as on 13 November he was admitted to the 16th General Hospital at Etaples and it was not until 23 December 1916 that he rejoined the battalion.

January 1917 found the 18th Battalion in Brigade reserve at Bailleulval. The rest of the month and February were relatively quiet and most of the time was spent in training or providing working parties. March and April were spent in and out of the trenches and were particularly trying on account of the severe weather – frost, snow and heavy rain. On 27 March the battalion marched to Arras, entrained for St Pol and then marched to billets in Croisette, where it remained until the beginning of May, training, reorganising and refitting. The remainder of May and early June was spent moving between various locations by bus, train and marching until on 14 June it relieved 17th Manchesters in the left Hooge sector.

At the end of June the battalion moved to Dickebusch where it was occupied in working and carrying parties involved in digging assembly trenches. This was followed by periods of intermittent action until in the early hours of 31July the battalion advanced across Sanctuary Wood and by 5.30 am succeeded in capturing its final objective, the Blue Line, east of Stirling Castle. August and September found the battalion on the move from place to place; in the trenches, patrolling and in reserve.

October and November were spent in various parts of the Passchendaele Front until 25 November when they moved to camp at Swan Chateau, remaining there until 11 December. They were then under heavy infantry attack for several days and suffered heavy casualties, one hundred and twenty killed, wounded and missing. 1917 ended with the battalion in training at Forrester Camp. On 29 January the battalion left Chauny Sud and moved to the trenches to relieve the 15th French Cavalry Regiment. This turned out to be a quiet sector and remained this way until they were relieved on 9 February. The 17th February found the battalion in billets at Lanquevoisin.

Changes were about to be made. The tremendous casualty rate in the 1917 fighting had made some reorganisation of the Army necessary and it was decided to adopt the German formation of three battalions to a brigade and nine to a division. This affected the 18th, the junior battalion of 90th Brigade, and it fell to their lot to be disbanded on 19 February 1918. The majority of the men were transferred to the 17th Entrenching Battalion but somehow Wilkinson was fortunate enough to be posted to his parent battalion, which had been in France since arriving from the battlefields of Gallipoli and Egypt in March 1917.

Wilkinson joined 5th Manchesters, part of 127th Brigade, shortly before the great German offensive began at dawn on 21 March 1918. 42nd Division had been in reserve for several weeks undergoing training and sports but all this now came to an end following a terrific bombardment along more than fifty miles of the British front, from east of Arras to south of St Quentin. More than 100 German divisions were launched against less than fifty Allied. On the morning of 23 March the infantry brigades of 42nd Division, packed into hundreds of motor-buses and lorries, pressed southwards through St Pol, with 127th Brigade eventually debussing shortly before midnight on the Ayette-Douchy road, a few miles south-east of Adinfer.

Twenty four hours later 127 Brigade was in position, facing south-east, with outposts on the Bihucourt-Sagignies road. Stragglers from other divisions passed through giving conflicting information as to what had happened and what was happening. The enemy attacked at dawn on the 25th supported by field artillery and machine-guns. The battle moved forward and backwards with the village of Sagignies changing hands on two occasions. Shortly after the Germans had regained the village they began to push forward but were met by the 5th Manchesters and driven back into the village. It was then that Captain S L Bridgford of 6th Manchesters led his company in a counter-attack against great numerical superiority. After desperate hand to hand fighting the survivors of the company were driven back. Bridgford made another gallant effort but was severely wounded and died in the enemy’s hands.

At 11 pm the Division was still fighting on the ground it had taken up the previous night. Tragically during the day the Manchester Regiment lost one of its finest regular army officers when Lieutenant Colonel Philip Holberton, commanding 5th Lancashire Fusiliers of 125 Brigade, was shot through the heart and killed. Fighting continued until on the night of 29/30 March the Division was relieved by the 41st Division and given a couple of days in the second-line trenches. They returned to the front line on 1 April and continued their role in the constant warfare of the following two months.

There were no actions of great importance in June and a severe epidemic of influenza diminished the strength of 42nd Division during the month. Offensive operations were mainly confined to harassing the enemy by frequent raids into their trenches. On 9 July Lieutenant Frost and seven other ranks from 5th Manchesters raided a post in Watling Street and having killed all the occupants, next attacked a working party. Altogether they killed fifteen of the enemy. All returned safely. On the night of 30/31 July a patrol of the battalion came under a very hot fire and the officer was killed. Corporal Melling took command and withdrew the patrol successfully, and though under very heavy fire he managed to carry the body of his officer back a distance of 600 yards in the open.

The sixteen days between 21 August to 5 September was a period of continuous victory for the advance of the Division in which every unit shared. Troops, long accustomed to static trench warfare, quickly adapted themselves to open warfare. Along the entire front from the Belgian coast to Alsace the Allied advance progressed with vigour and speed. From 22 to 26 September the front was quiet, activity being confined to the artillery and infantry patrolling.

In two days of incessant fighting on 27/28 September 42nd Division pierced the Hindenburg Line to a depth of 5,000 yards. Following this success the pursuit of the enemy was carried out with such vigour that the Germans were unable to make a determined stand. On 9 October the Division marched out of their rest area and after three days halted at Fontainie-au-Pir and Beauvois. The advance continued with constant attacks and counter-attacks until eventually the River Selle was successfully crossed on the night of the 19th.

The advance was resumed in the early hours of 20 October and at 7am 127th Brigade passed through the 126th, 5th Manchesters on the right, 6th on the left and the 7th in support. At the outset 5th Manchesters were badly knocked about by enfilading machine-gun fire from their right flank, catching the advancing waves on the bare high ground, south of Marou and west of Maison Rouge, which had to be crossed. The deadliness of this enfilading fire was due to the fact that very strong German counter-attacks had forced the division on the right to withdraw temporarily, so the right flank of the Wigan men was exposed. Both 6th and 7th Manchesters entered the fray but the enfilading fire continued to be very destructive.

During the hottest part of the fighting the company to which Wilkinson belonged, commanded by Lieutenant Lucas, was pinned down by enemy firing from 50 yards away hidden in a sunken road. The Wigan soldiers had already had several casualties and were now completely held up by heavy machine-gun fire from their front and right flanks. Lucas, realising that they could go no further without reinforcements asked for volunteers to go back to headquarters with his request. Four men, one after the other, went out with the request for reinforcements. All were killed as they tried to cross the 600 yards of open country which lay between them and their reserve line. Although Wilkinson had seen his four comrades killed, and therefore knew how slight his chance of escape would be, he volunteered to try himself. Off he went taking fifteen minutes to carefully cross the short distance but somehow he got through and delivered his message. Then, again running the gauntlet of the open field, he rejoined his Company, once more without being hit although scores of bullets missed him by inches. Throughout the remainder of the day Wilkinson was reported as having continued to do splendid work. The night of 20 October closed with all the Division’s objectives achieved. For his bravery Wilkinson was immediately recommended for the award of the Victoria Cross.

After the battle 42nd Division withdrew west of the Selle and on 24 October concentrated in Beauvois where good billets were enjoyed for the first time since March. Ten days were spent relaxing at Beauvois with company training usually occupying the mornings and specialist training classes in the afternoons. This came to an end and during the night of 5 November the Division began its move forward to relieve the New Zealand Division in the Foret de Mormal. In August 1914 the forest, covering about twenty-four square miles, had caused difficulties to the BEF; now four years later it was to do the same. The initial fighting in the forest was relatively severe but probably more demanding were the long marches at night in bad weather over boggy forest track, under spasmodic artillery fire and little or no shelter.

The town of Hautmont was finally captured on 8 November after much street fighting and in the early hours of the 9th the final objectives on the front had been occupied.

On the morning of 11 November 1918 the following order was issued:

Hostilities will cease at 11am today. Troops will stand fast on line reached at that hour. Defensive precautions will be maintained. There will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy.

The award of the Victoria Cross to Albert Wilkinson was announced in the London Gazette of 9 January 1919. The citation reads:

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty on 20th October 1918, during the attack on Marou, when four runners in succession having been killed in an endeavour to deliver a message to the supporting company, Private Wilkinson volunteered for the duty. He succeeded in delivering the message, thought the journey involved exposure to extremely heavy machine-gun and shell fire for 600 yards. He showed magnificent courage and complete indifference to danger, thinking only of the needs of the company and entirely disregarding any consideration for personal safety. Throughout the remainder of the day Private Wilkinson continued to do splendid work.Alfred Wilkinson VC with his Mother and brother Henrt

On 8 February 1919 Wilkinson was given 14 days special leave to return to the UK to receive his award. On arrival at Leigh railway station the Mayor, his own family and townspeople were there to give him a great welcome. He was driven in an open landau to the Town Hall escorted by mounted and foot police, a detachment of soldiers from the guard at the Leigh prisoner-of-war camp, Boy Scouts, the St John’s brass band together with a number of discharged soldiers and sailors. At the reception that followed he was presented with an illuminated address, 500 War Savings certificates and £50 in cash. Subsequently he received many other gifts including a gold watch from the members of the St Joseph’s Boys and Young Mens Society and an illuminated address from the directors of the Mather Lane Spinning Company.

On 22 February 1919, now promoted Lance Corporal, he travelled to London with his Mother and brother Henry, then serving with the South Lancashire Regiment, to receive the Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace. After the ceremony he returned to Belgium to rejoin what was left of his old battalion.

Shortly afterwards, on 28 March 1919, the cadre of the 1/5th Manchesters left Charleroi, Belgium together with the cadres of the other battalions of 127 Brigade. That of the Wigan Battalion consisted of Lieutenant Colonel H C Darlington, Captain W O Edwards, Captain Anderson, Lieutenants Holmes, Sobee and Lawton, together with Lance Corporal Wilkinson and 49 other ranks. Antwerp was reached in a snowstorm on the following day and the night was spent in a rest camp. On 1 April they embarked aboard Sicilian, anchored of the Hook of Holland for the night, transport ships not being allowed to pass through the mine-swept passage to England in the dark, and disembarked at Southampton on 3 April.

Then by train to Oswestry where transport and equipment were handed in and on the 7th the Wigan cadre, complete with the Regimental Colours, arrived at Wigan to be welcomed by the Mayor and townspeople. Many of their old comrades were present, as were members of the Boy Scouts and the Church Lads Brigade. The cadre then marched through a town packed with enthusiastic welcoming townspeople. The Mayor gave a few words of welcome after which they were entertained to a hot-pot meal in the Wigan drill hall. The soldiers were then able to disperse to their own homes and families.

Wilkinson’s last act as a soldier, of which he must have been very proud, was to take part in the Victory Parade in London on 19 July 1919 when the Colours of the 1/5th Battalion were carried. The Colour Party consisted of Captain C P Brown, Lieutenant Holmes, RQMS Christie DCM and Lance Corporal Wilkinson VC.

His eldest brother John and his youngest brother Francis had both been killed in action during the war. His father, also Alfred, had died during the war on 19 October 1916.Alfred Wilkinson VC and brothers

Alfred Wilkinson was a quiet reserved man who, despite his recently acquired fame, on the whole declined to take part in any public affairs. After the war he was employed by the Leigh Operating Spinner’s Association. Together with seven other holders of the Victoria Cross from the Manchester Regiment he attended the VC commemorative dinner in the House of Lords in 1930. On 26 October 1932 he married Grace Davies at the church of The Twelve Apostles in Leigh. They had one daughter. The Wilkinsons acquired a sweets and tobacconists shop at 34 Leigh Road. In 1938 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Leigh and Wilkinson was one of the local citizens presented to them.

Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 the family had given up their shop and moved to 113 Etherstone Street in Leigh. Wilkinson joined the Bickershaw Colliery in Leigh as a laboratory technician in the surveyors’ laboratory. After the outbreak of war in September 1939 he joined the Local Defence Force, later to be renamed as the Home Guard. He also became a Special Constable. However he was keen to play a more active part in the war and the 44 year old applied for a commission in the Pioneer Corps. On 16 October he attended the wedding of his surviving brother Henry,

On the morning of 18 October 1940 he received a letter with official notification that he had been granted a commission in the Pioneer Corps. He then left home at 6.30 am to go to his work at the colliery. At 8.15 Colin Smith, a laboratory apprentice, went into the room where Wilkinson was sitting and thought that he looked ill. Wilkinson told him that he had a headache, opened the door and later said that if he did not feel any better he would ask to go home. Smith later remembered that two Bunsen burners were alight in the room as well as a firebrick oven, described as a furnace. Smith then left to go down the pit about half an hour later. At about mid-day Harold Webb, a brickworks clerk at the colliery went to an outside water tap below the window of the laboratory and saw Wilkinson reclining in a chair with his head thrown back and his legs outstretched. He immediately assumed that Wilkinson was ill and went inside, finding him unconscious. He sent for breathing apparatus and artificial respiration was carried out before Wilkinson was taken to the Bolton Royal Infirmary where Dr MacFaul pronounced him dead.

An inquest was held on the following Tuesday when the cause of death was confirmed by Dr G Banning, pathologist at Bolton Royal Infirmary, as carbon-monoxide poisoning. Harry Oughton, the colliery chief surveyor, told the coroner that after Wilkinson had been taken to the Infirmary he went to the laboratory to test the fittings. He tried all the apparatus with regard to gas and found it in order. It had then been decided to remove a 2” flue pipe leading from the furnace to the outside atmosphere to make sure it was clear. To do this it had been necessary to remove a ‘T’ junction which was on the outside wall. On being removed it was given a knock to remove any shavings of rust or dirt. ‘Then some feathers were noticed and on the pipe being given another knock the body of a sparrow fell out. The bird, which was in a fresh condition, was in the down section and required a hard knock to remove it’.

A requiem mass was held at St Joseph’s Church, Leigh attended by a large Alfred Wilkinson's funeralcongregation. From there to the cemetery the streets of Leigh were lined with spectators paying their respects, at some points three deep. The Knights of St Columba, the Special Constabulary and the British Legion had each asked for the honour of carrying the remains of their comrade to his last resting place and, to the satisfaction of all concerned, the Knights had carried the coffin into the church on the previous evening. Special constables carried from the altar to the hearse and members of the British Legion acted as bearers at Leigh cemetery. The cortege must have been an impressive sight. Members of the Home Guard led the procession with ‘arms reversed’, followed by the Bickershaw Colliery brass band, members of the British Legion and the Special Constables.

Alfred Wilkinson VC's Gravestone in Leigh CemeteryHe was buried in the same grave (plot IU 99) as his father who had died in January 1916. A headstone, in the form of a cross of black marble, was later erected on his grave, provided jointly by The Manchester Regiment and Wigan Borough Council. His name and citation are recorded in the VC Book of Honour in the Manchester Regiment Chapel in Manchester Cathedral. A plaque to his memory was unveiled in Leigh Town Hall on 27 January 2005 and a similar plaque is positioned in Wigan Town Hall.

For many years his Victoria Cross, British War Medal, Victory Medal and Coronation Medal (KGVI) were in the possession of a private collector in Ontario, Canada. They were sold at auction by Dix Noonan Webb of London on 29 June 2006 for the sum of £110,000 and were bought on behalf of the Michael Ashcroft Trust, the holding institution for Lord Ashcroft’s VC collection.

By Captain R. A. Bonner

Kindly reproduced from 'The Journal of the Victoria Cross Society' 14th Edition, March 2009