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Thomas Woodcock VC, part 3

TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY

Triumph: The Homecoming

On Feb 27th 1918 L/Cpl Thomas Woodcock was granted two weeks’ leave and prepared to return home to see his family.

At 0600 on Saturday, March 2nd, the London train pulled into Wigan North Western station; aboard was L/Cpl Woodcock, home after 33 months at the front. Thinking he could arrive without any fanfare, Thomas was in for a huge surprise. Word had got back, and awaiting his train were the Mayor, A.E. Baucher, Mrs Baucher, other dignitaries and town council members. Men and women (mill and munitions workers, miners etc.) going to work were at first curious, but then, realizing what was happening, began to gather. Before long there was a throng of Wiganers waiting to see their hero.

Shortly after six o’clock a couple of engine lights became visible in the distance, and five or ten seconds later a long passenger express train was slowing down. The occupants of the leading carriages looked out of the windows, half curious, half asleep, at the waiting crowd, while those in the centre wondered what was ‘in the wind’ when they saw the rush from compartment to compartment of excited people apparently seeking someone inside the train.

In their eagerness, most of the ‘hunters’ had passed a khaki-clad figure who had quietly stepped out with his rifle and kit loosely held, and it was whilst he was collecting his gear that one of his friends spotted him. "Here he is!" was the shout, and immediately the soldier was surrounded by an excited throng. This welcome was altogether unexpected, and had the NCO found himself suddenly surprised and surrounded by a battalion of the enemy he could not have been more taken aback.

His Worship the Mayor was afforded free passage in the direction of Wigan’s VC, and after a warm and cordial handshake three deafening cheers were heard. The railway train from end to end was now a scene of heads and necks craning through windows and doors, and when the munitions workers took up the cheering the passengers, the vast majority of whom were also soldiers, joined in. L/Cpl Woodcock had been travelling from Thursday up to six o'clock on Saturday morning, and, in his own words, was "dead beat". But, led by the Mayor, who climbed onto a four-wheeled luggage truck, he, too, mounted the improvised platform, and the loud hurrahs continued.

Great as the crowd on the platform had so quickly grown, there was an even bigger assemblage at the entrance to the station. The police had kept the immediate area of the cab rank clear, but in Wallgate there was a dense crowd. Tramway men, miners, mill workers and others had congregated to give their welcome to the brave Wiganer. A four-wheeler cab had been provided, and as the vehicle left the station premises there was yet more acclamation.

The cab drew up at the end of Teck Street, in Scholes, at Corporal Woodcock's home. A quiet intimation was given to Mrs Woodcock, who, with her three children, was anxiously awaiting her heroic husband's return. There was an embrace between husband and wife, then a silently loving hug for his three young children as each in turn rose in response to their mother’s exclamation, "Here's your daddy".

The next day, Sunday March 3rd, a special town council meeting was convened at which the entire family were present to receive the resolution of congratulations passed. L/Cpl Woodcock's leave was extended to March 18th, and on the evening of St Patrick's Day he boarded the London-bound train and went back to the Front, his last words in his home town being, "I am going back tonight, to do a little bit more for the King".

Tragedy: Death of a Hero.

Less than two weeks after L/Cpl Woodcock departed, a rumour started to circulate to the effect that he had been killed. "Unbelievable" was the cry, "He can't be dead, he was just here", but the rumour persisted. Then, on April 3rd, Mary Woodcock received a letter from Sgt Timothy Murray of the Irish Guards, who wrote, in most sympathetic terms, "Dear Mrs Woodcock - sorry to relate the death of your beloved husband, killed in action on 27th March. Oh, what a striking blow to me to part with such a splendid soldier. He was a real gentleman indeed, and I hope he is much happier. May he rest in peace. I am glad to inform you that your husband had no pain dying. All the men in my platoon join in loving sympathy for you and his little children. In conclusion, I hope you will bear your troubles with patience, but I know it is hard work, and he in dear old Blighty a few days ago, and awarded such a decoration. But such is life in wartime. I can never forget your dear husband."

So it was true, our town’s hero was dead. But how, and where? The official record states that he was killed on 27th March at Bullecourt, in northern France, but I thought that strange, since his final resting place is in Douchy-les-Ayette, more than 20 miles from Bullecourt, and as there are many Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries around Bullecourt, in which he could have been interred, it seemed even stranger. In order to find out more we would have to follow 2nd Battalion Irish Guards in those fateful days in March 1918.

On Feb 8th the British Army did what the French and German armies had done two years before: reduce its divisional strength from twelve to nine battalions. The 4th Guards Brigade was formed, consisting of 2nd Irish Guards, 3rd Coldstream Guards and 4th Grenadier Guards. The newly-formed 4th Brigade was re-assigned to the 31st Infantry Division, 3rd Army, and the men marched out of Arras on Feb 12th to join their new command. When L/Cpl Woodcock rejoined his battalion on March 19th they were stationed just south-west of Vimy Ridge; elsewhere, storm clouds were gathering.

On Dec 3rd 1917 Leninist Russia had signed an armistice with Germany which effectively ended the war in the East. This allowed the Germans to transport over 1.25 million battle-hardened troops to the Western Front. Germany was suffering from the British naval blockade and the homeland civilian population was on the point of starvation (in the winter of 1917/1918, the so-called ‘Turnip Winter’, people were dying from lack of nutrition). The Kaiser decided to launch one last great offensive on the Western Front to try to defeat the Allies before the Americans, who had joined the war in 1917, arrived in force.

On March 21st the Germans launched their attack (Operation Michael) and storm troopers quickly broke through the thin Allied lines. 4th Guards Brigade were ordered from Vimy to St Leger, about twelve miles away, to stem the attack, only to find the enemy already in possession of the town. They were then ordered to dig in between the villages of Hamelincourt and St Leger and await the inevitable attack; this was on March 23rd.

The attack duly came and was beaten off with heavy casualties to the enemy. But, with their flanks collapsing, 4th Guards Brigade were ordered back, first through Hamelincourt, then through Courcelles and finally through Moyennville. On March 26th the battalion dug in behind the village of Ayette, about eight miles south of Arras. With the enemy now in Moyennville, a company was detached to the fields in front of Ayette to dig and man a trench line. In the afternoon this company was attacked by enemy storm troopers and lost one officer and 16 men. It was in this engagement that I believe L/Cpl Woodcock was killed, either dying outright or succumbing to his wounds after being evacuated back to the village.

Thomas Woodcock was buried near Ayette on March 27th. After the war his body was exhumed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and taken a few hundred yards to his final resting place at Douchy-les-Ayette, where he lies in peace to this day.

L/Cpl Woodcock was gone, but that was not the last of the Woodcock family’s tragedy. In July 1918 his seven-year-old daughter Nora died from pneumonia, and a few days later his father Henry also passed away. Mary Woodcock, poverty-stricken like so many of her generation, struggled to raise her remaining two children on a war widow’s pension; in 1938 her youngest daughter May died after a difficult childbirth in which her newborn son also perished. Finally, on Dec 9th 1940 her last remaining child, John, passed away (cause unknown). Mary Woodcock had survived not only her husband, but also her three children. Broken-hearted, she herself departed this life in March 1945.

PS. Though Thomas Woodcock is the only VC recipient from the town of Wigan, there were three other VC recipients from the district.

With great admiration and respect I also salute the heroism of,

Jack Grimshaw from Abram.
Bill Kenealy from Ashton in Makerfield.
Alfred Wilkinson from Leigh.

Lest we forget.

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