Teenage runaway went on to win the Victroria Cross
TODAY, if you were aged 15 years and four months, you may be focusing on looming exams. In October 1914, Roland Edward Elcock, who was born in Alma Street, Heath Town, Wolverhampton, and educated at Causeway Lake Infant and Junior Schools, was a clerk at the Labour Assembly Rooms, Queen Street, in Wolverhampton. His focus, however, was on one thing – joining up to fight for King and Country.
Tall and well-built for his age, Roland tried half a dozen times to enlist but every time he was caught out by the army doctor until one day the recruiting officer threatened to “put the policeman on his track”. Later that day he heard that a fresh doctor was in charge of examinations and he managed to get drafted into the 6th South Staffs Regiment and was sent to train at Himley Park.
After training the battalion was sent to Egypt to provide protection for the Suez Canal and prepared for joining the British, French, Anzac and Portuguese troops at Gallipoli. The battalion never made it to Gallipoli and sailed to Marseilles, taking several days to travel slowly by train up to the trenches in France, where the battalion saw some hard fighting. After one engagement Elcock was one of less than a dozen men to answer the roll call in his company.
In August 1916 Private Elcock was discharged as the Army could no longer ignore the fact he had been only 15 when he enlisted. Returning to his home in in Alma Street and his two sisters and widowed mother, he did clerical work at Wolverhampton Corporation Electricity Department until he was 17 years old. Called up in June 1917 and going through training again, he was told he could not re-join his original regiment due to manpower shortages, and he was sent to The Royal Scots (Lothian) Regiment, eventually joining its 11th Battalion.
After going through more training Elcock was sent on garrison duties in Ireland, then to France in February 1917 where he once had a “wristlet watch” blown off his hand. An indication of his determination to ‘do his bit’ was demonstrated in the summer of 1918 when he was awarded the Military Medal, as had his brother George, a Lance-sergeant in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Before enlisting, George had been an assistant master at Fox Street Schools in Aston, and lived at 451 Lichfield Street, Aston.
With the end of the war in sight, many would have been forgiven for focusing on surviving. Elcock’s Victoria Cross citation explained later what he did that day;
“For most conspicuous bravery and initiative south-east of Capelle St. Catherine on the 15th October, 1918, when in charge of a Lewis gun team. Entirely on his own initiative, Cpl. Elcock rushed his gun up to within ten yards of enemy guns, which were causing heavy casualties and holding up the advance. He put both guns out of action, captured five prisoners, and undoubtedly saved the whole attack from being held up. Later, near the River Lys, this non-commissioned officer again attacked an enemy machine gun and captured the crew. His behaviour throughout the day was absolutely fearless.”
His commanding officer had been so impressed at Elcock’s bravery he had recommended him for the Victoria Cross, the highest award ‘For Valour’. As part of the post-armistice Allied occupation of the Rhineland demilitarized zone based in Cologne, Roland caught wind of what might happen, and wrote to his family to say he was awaiting leave and had been put forward for another award:
“You ask me what I have been doing to get recommended again. Well, if I tell, you will fairly guess what I am going to get for it. So I will leave it till the decoration comes out. I am expecting the DCM, but, as rumours go in the battalion, I am in for the VC So I hope I get it.”
When an Express and Star reporter came to his home his mother “expressed surprise”, although his letter had already arrived from Cologne.
On hearing of the award, the Mayor of Wolverhampton, Councillor A.G. Jeffs, promptly visited Elcock’s home to congratulate Roland’s proud mother.
In February 1919 Roland Elcock was one of six Victoria Cross recipients presented to the King (plus relatives of two other VCS) alongside Bilstonborn George Onions VC. The investiture at Buckingham Palace also involved over 320 other medal recipients, including Red Cross nurses.
The following month, in March 1919, Elcock was presented with “gifts from the townspeople” of Wolverhampton of £500 of War Savings Certificates and £30 in Bank of England banknotes.
On 26th June, 1920, Roland Elcock VC was again at Buckingham Palace as one of 300 VC holders invited to a garden party. The 300 VC recipients marched from Wellington Barracks to the Palace, preceded by the band of the Welsh Guards. With the route filled by members of the public, the VC holders lined up in six groups with no distinction between officers and men. The King inspected the groups and after doing so he, “stood at the foot of the west terrace, and each VC was presented in turn”.
For the second ceremony to commemorate the end of the war, on 11 November, 1920, Elcock was one of the VCS paraded at the new stone Cenotaph on Whitehall and after he was one of the 100 VC holders paraded for the Unknown Warrior “Guard of Valour” at Westminster Abbey.
His ‘brush’ with royalty did not end there as one the King’s sons, the Duke of York, later George VI, specifically requested to be introduced to Roland Elcock during the 1922 royal visit to Wolverhampton.
Life back in Wolverhampton returned to relative normality, despite his being the town’s only VC holder. However, the Birmingham Daily Gazette dated Thursday, 21 July, 1921, ran a story headlined VC to Quit:
“Corporal Elcock, Wolverhampton’s only VC is to be turned out of the home in Alma Street in which he was born and reared, for yesterday an ejectment order was obtained by the owner Edward Neachell, a dairyman against the VC’S mother, Mrs Fanny Elcock, on the ground that occupation of the house was required for the cultivation of the adjoining land. In support a certificate from the County Agricultural Committee was produced.”
A month later the Birmingham Daily Post on 21 August, 1921, ran the story Corporation Cottages that are too Small:
“Wolverhampton’s only VC is just now the centre of a little episode which is engaging plenty of attention, and though there is the possibility of him being homeless very shortly, the public do not know whether to treat the case as a tragedy or a comedy.
“Corporal Elcock VC lives with his mother in Alma-street, the house in which he was born, but recently a new owner succeeded in an action for possession of the premises, under an agricultural clause, which did away with the necessity of offering alternative accommodation. In the few weeks at their disposal, Mrs Elcock found the house shortage as acute as ever, and looked like being turned into the street with her VC son. A further short respite was secured, however, and meanwhile the case had been brought to the notice of the authorities, and the Housing Committee, stretching a point in such an exceptional case, offered the VC’S mother one of the new Corporation houses.
“Then came the anti-climax. This house proved so circumscribed that Mrs Elcock’s furniture, which is certainly not massive, would not go in, and now the police are trying to find someone who will exchange a suitable house for the new one offered by the Corporation. The time is nearly up, and so far no volunteer has come forward.”
Mike Jackson at the Wolverhampton branch of the Western Front Association has researched his local war memorial and what exactly happened with the Elcock house and found that not only was the land not used for ‘agricultural purposes’ at the time, but was also not used during the Second World War to grow vegetables as part of the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign.
It is believed that Roland felt so disappointed at the way the ‘town of his birth’ had turned its back on him and his family, he decided to move to India, where he joined the post and telegraph service, and eventually became directorgeneral on India’s North-west Frontier. On the outbreak of war in 1939 he joined the Indian Army with the rank of major, and in 1940, when about to leave with his regiment for an active theatre of war, he was seized with a mysterious illness from which he suffered for considerable time. His ill health resulted in his death on 6th October, 1944.
When his medals passed down to his daughter Mrs June Owen, her widowed mother made her promise never to sell the medals “even if she were destitute and starving”. Due to ill health, his widow, now living in Lower Oxford Road, Basford, Stoke-on-trent, was unable to work. Without telling her mother, Mrs Owen explained to several newspapers why she had agonised over selling her father’s medals; “I offered the VC for sale without my mother’s knowledge. It has been an awful business for me.” Having vowed never to sell the medals, she had been forced to do so as she needed to send her 57-yearold mother on a “long healthrestoring holiday.”
In February 1958 Roland Elcock’s group of VC, MM and other medals were sold for a then “record” £650 at Christie’s Auction House. As the daughter looked on tearfully, the brisk bidding soon saw Wolverhampton Royal British Legion outbid and the medals were purchased on behalf of the Royal Scots Museum by Major-general R. F. Johnstone, Colonel of the Royal Scots. The medal group today is proudly displayed at the regimental museum in Edinburgh Castle.
Roland Edward Elcock VC MM (1899-1944)
Roland Elock’s medals on display at the Royal Scots Museum in Edinburgh
Roland Elcock’s grave in India