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Thomas Woodcock VC, part 1

Wigan's Forgotten Hero

The early years.

The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest award of the United Kingdom's honours system. It is awarded, for "gallantry in the face of the enemy, above and beyond the call of duty", to members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces. Introduced on the 29th of January 1856 by Queen Victoria, to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War, the medal has been awarded only 1,358 times to 1,355 recipients. Three men have been awarded the VC with bar (meaning that they have won the medal twice).

One hundred years ago a war raged that engulfed all of Europe and reached out to many other parts of the world. It was largely fought by generals with a 19th century mentality, using 19th century tactics but with 20th century weapons. It saw the advent of tanks, fighter planes and bombers, and it was the first war in which chemical weapons were used.

After four years of killing the death toll was catastrophic. The United Kingdom lost approximately 744,000 men, the flower of her youth. Acts of heroism were in abundance: 628 VCs were awarded to 627 recipients, the highest by far for any conflict involving British armed forces. This is the story of one of those recipients, a lad from Scholes who went from the coal mines of Wigan to the killing fields of the Western Front, and from humble beginnings to hero status. This is the story of Thomas Woodcock VC, Wigan's Victoria Cross recipient.

Thomas Woodcock was the seventh of ten children born to Henry and Isabela Woodcock of 15 Belvoir Street, Scholes, Wigan, in a house that still stands. Born on March 19th 1888, Thomas was the first son born to the family after six older sisters. Wigan in the late 19th century was predominantly a coal-mining and cotton mill town in the heart of industrial Lancashire. Infant and child mortality was shockingly high in those days, the result of poor hygiene, poor air quality and a general lack of medical knowledge. Large families were the norm rather than the exception.

But the Woodcocks seemed to have escaped family tragedies and the children grew up happy. Henry, like one in three men in Wigan, was a coal miner. He was a fair but strict parent and the children grew up much in the image of their father. Thomas started his schooling in 1893 at St Patrick's RC school. He was a good and well behaved student, and St Patrick's has a reputation of being the highest academic achiever of all the parish schools in Wigan. His childhood was normal and he was well liked, as were his siblings.

At fourteen years of age, Thomas finished his schooling and, like his father before him, decided to be a coal miner. He got his first job at the Hindley Green collieries of Messers John Scrowcroft & Co., first as a pit boy and eventually working his way up to be a fully-fledged miner. He gained the reputation of being a steady and exemplary workman, respected by both colliery officials and working colleagues in the mine.

His youth was much like that of any other teenager of his era, 'hanging out' with his friends after work, probably playing football or rugby, every other week walking down to Central Park to watch the Wigan rugby team play in their new home, and generally having fun with his mates. In 1906, Tommy turned 18 and was able to join his father and older workmates in one of the many pubs in Scholes, having a pint after work or enjoying getting together at the weekend.

At some time in 1908 Tommy met and fell for Mary Mitchell, a local girl. They started courting, fell in love and in 1909 decided to marry. Mary gave birth to three children: John, born in 1910, Nora in 1911 and Mary (May) in 1912. They moved into their own home at 2 Teck Street in Scholes and settled down as a happy family. Life was good for Thomas and Mary, but all that was to change by events they had no control over.

On the 28th of June 1914 the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary began a train of events that ultimately led to the Great War. It was a war that could easily have been averted, but the leading nations of Europe somehow seemed powerless to stop it. Alliances quickly materialized, Russia with Serbia, Germany with Austria-Hungary, France decided to honour its treaty with Russia. When Germany invaded The neutral Country of Belgium Britain sent an ultimatum to Germany to withdraw its forces from Belgium within twenty four hours.

No such assurance was given, Britain declared war at midnight 4 August. Europe was at war.

The Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, called for volunteers for the Army, and young men all over the country flocked to recruitment centres. This did not immediately affect Tommy Woodcock; as a coal miner he was in a 'reserved occupation' and therefore exempt from any kind of call-up for military service.

In France the 100,000-strong British Expeditionary Force (BEF), sent to face the Kaiser's army, faced many challenges. The battles of Mons and Le Cateau, and the subsequent first battle of the Marne, took their heavy toll. Then came the "race to the sea" and devastating First Battle of Ypres, in Belgium. The early, widespread belief that the war would "be over by Christmas" turned out to be a pipe dream.

The March 1915 battle of Neuve Chapelle, the first British offensive of the war, ended in abject failure.

In April the Germans launched the first gas attack on British trench lines in what became the Second Battle of Ypres. The old BEF that had left British shores the previous August, full of fight and hope, was now practically wiped out. At home, Kitchener's call for recruits intensified. Those who signed up together were promised that they would serve together; the so-called Chums' and Pals' Battalions were created, and a new British Army was born.

We didn't know exactly why Tommy Woodcock decided to join up; as previously mentioned, as a coal miner he was in a reserved occupation and therefore designated an essential worker, but on May 26th 1915 Tommy and some of his coal-mining friends answered the call. He enlisted in the Irish Guards, and a few days later was on his way to basic infantry training.

Warley Barracks, near Brentwood in Essex was originally owned by the East India Company and sold to the War office in 1861 to house the Brigade of Foot Guards.

On July 15th 1915 it was announced that His Majesty the King, had approved the formation of 2 additional Battalions of Foot Guards. The 4th Battalion Grenadier Guards and the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards to be made up out of the personnel of the 2nd (Reserve) Battalion, and officially, on July 18th that formation took place.

Morale in the camp immediately improved. No more would they be fed in 'dribs and drabs' to the ever hungry 1st Battalion in France, they now had an identity of their own.

On August 16th the 2nd Battalion departed for France and the Western Front.

Private Woodcock was not one of them, not yet having completed his five month training, he remained at Warley.

On December 21st 1915 Private Woodcock was ordered to France to join 3 Company, 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, Private Thomas Woodcocks War had begun.

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