Teenage run­away went on to win the Vic­tro­ria Cross

Black Country Bugle - - YOUR LETTERS - Ear­lier this month a memo­rial to Roland El­cock VC MM was un­veiled in Wolver­hamp­ton and RICHARD PURSEHOUSE tells his story

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.

Sur­viv­ing

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:

Or­der

“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.

Ex­change

“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

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