Black Country Bugle
Great War VC hero attacked the enemy with their own bombs
MANY readers may not realise that the famous Birchfield Harriers athletics club, which had links to the area around Alexander Stadium, the 2022 Commonwealth Games venue, can boast a medal recipient with a unique history, special not for his prowess on the sports field, but for his bravery on the battlefield.
Alfred Wilcox, a member of Birchfield Harriers, was awarded his medal, the Victoria Cross, for his bravery in the final few weeks of the Great War.
Wilcox was born in Tower Street, Aston, on December 16, 1884, and educated at nearby Burlington Street Schools in Aston. He and his sister Edith followed their father into the jewellery business in Birmingham, finding employment as a diamond mounter at F. Durban and Co., jewellers, on Frederick Street. After a few years he followed his trade to London. His mother, Sarah, died in 1910, and his father, William, in 1912.
Wilcox enlisted in the 1st Battalion
Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1902 at the age of 18 and served with them for four years during which he became a member of Warwick’s Masonic Lodge. He married Ellen Louisa Clarke at St John’s Church, Perry Barr, on September 6, 1913.
In March 1915 Alfred returned to the army as a lance corporal with the Royal Bucks Hussars. One newspaper article revealed Alfred went to France “practically at his own request. He told his wife he was not going to see the war through without having taken part in it at the Front.”
Ellen moved to 86 Little Green Lane, Small Heath, where she lived with their son and daughter. A second son, Douglas, was born in 1921.
On the morning of September 12, 1918, at Laventie, near Armentieres, France, Wilcox led four men “in driving rain” to attack four German machine gun positions, capturing them all, with Wilcox throwing enemy grenades he had found when his own supplies ran out.
According to The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry:
“At a few hours’ notice and in weather calculated to make any operation a fiasco, the battalion attacked Junction Post, a grass-bound breastwork where the enemy was offering stubborn resistance.
“Though finally unsuccessful in result, the fighting, which was accompanied by driving storms of rain, produced two noteworthy incidents. Rowlerson, one of C Company’s platoon commanders, after reaching the German trenches, somehow lost touch and was captured with several of his men.
“In A Company an exploit was performed, which gained for the Battalion its second Victoria Cross. Lancecorporal Wilcox came to close quarters with some enemy defending a piece of trench with four machine guns. Each of these guns Lance-corporal Wilcox, followed by his section, successively captured or put out of action.
“Wilcox was shortly afterwards wounded and was in hospital in Sunderland when news of the award arrived. His deed lent lustre to a profitless attack.”
A few weeks later, on November 2, 1918, during another attack he was hit by six bullets in his leg. Somehow he hopped towards the German machine gunner who abandoned his position. Bleeding heavily, Alfred was carried by the eight German prisoners he had captured to have his wounds tended.
The Birmingham Mail reported on Wilcox’s impending return to his home city for 12 days leave on November 16, 1918:
“From letters to his wife, it seems that this brave act was done about three months ago, and the few details he then gave show that his company was held up by wire, and that if he had not cut it and enabled his comrades to get at the enemy, the casualties in the company would have been far greater.
“Since then he has been in further severe fighting, and only a week or ten days ago was severely wounded; two machine-gun bullets entering his ankle and four entering his leg. He considers that he saved himself from being riddled with bullets by, despite excruciating pain, hopping along his sound leg towards the German gunner, who did not wait to be bayoneted but abandoned his gun.”
Wilcox’s Victoria Cross citation was recorded in the London Gazette:
“For most conspicuous bravery and initiative in attack (near Laventie, France) when his company was held up by heavy and persistent machinegun fire at close range.
Bleeding heavily, Alfred was carried by the eight German prisoners he had captured to have his wounds tended
“On his own initiative, with four men, he rushed ahead to the nearest enemy gun, bombed it, killed the gunner and put the gun out of action. Being then attacked by an enemy bombing party, Cpl Wilcox picked up enemy bombs and led his party against the next gun, finally capturing and destroying it.
“Although left with only one man, he continued bombing and captured a third gun. He again bombed up the trench, captured a fourth gun, and then rejoined his platoon.
“Cpl. Wilcox displayed in this series of successful individual enterprises, exceptional valour, judgment, and initiative.”
Wilcox’s eventual home-coming caused a stir. He arrived on crutches, still recovering from the wounds in his leg. The Birmingham Post of December 20, 1918, reported:
“Corporal Alfred Wilcox, Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, was awarded the Victoria Cross in September and has been lying wounded in hospital for some time.
“Corporal Wilcox, who was the eighth Birmingham man to receive the Victoria Cross, has his home at 86, Little Green Lane, Small Heath. He was met by his wife and little daughter on his arrival at New Street Station.
“Having been wounded in the foot, Corporal Wilcox was walking with the aid of crutches and he had been detained longer than expected in hospital due to an attack of influenza. He stated, however, that his wounds were such that he anticipated making a permanent recovery.
“Describing the deed for which he obtained the VC, he said, ‘we were about to attack under heavy machinegun fire from the enemy, but were unable to make headway. I took a section out and all were wounded except myself and another man. I carried on to the trench, killed the gunner and captured the first gun. On the parapet, I found a good supply of German stick bombs. With the aid of these I captured a second, a third, and then fourth gun, killing 12 German gunners with their own bombs. I was counter-attacked and withdrew to a place of safety, and subsequently rejoined my platoon. All the guns were put out of action’.
“On November 2, Corporal Wilcox was wounded severely in the right ankle by machine-gun bullets, but hopped up to the machine gun and bayoneted the gunner. Eight German prisoners carried him to the dressing station.
“Corporal Wilcox joined the army in March, 1915, and arrived in France in December, 1916. He has four brothers in the army, two of them being still in France.”
Wilcox and his six brothers all served in the war; three served with the South Staffordshire Regiment; one, Bernard, was awarded the Military Medal, another, Ernest, was a Regimental Sergeant Major and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and one served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. This band of seven brothers including Alfred returned safely from serving King and Country.
On December 26, 1918 Alfred was the special guest at Mitchells and Butlers Cricket Ground, Cape Hill, for the Boxing Day sports meeting promoted by Sparkhill Harriers.
The Birmingham Post reported: “Alfred Wilcox, a member of Birchfield Harriers, received a hearty welcome from his clubmates.”
He attended Birchfield Harriers home meeting two days later. In February of the following year, Alfred was at an event to honour Birmingham’s VC recipients:
“On receiving, at the hands of the Lord Mayor [Sir David Brooks], an illuminated copy the City Council’s resolution of congratulations, Wilcox stepped forward and in a firm and loud voice briefly returned thanks, remarking. ‘After all is said and done, we have only done our duty to our King and country and women folk we left behind.’”
At Buckingham Palace on November 29, 1919, Wilcox received his Victoria Cross from King George V.
On June 12, 1923, Alfred was invited to the stone laying ceremony for the Birmingham Hall of Memory. The Birmingham Post covered the story: “The Prince of Wales then quitted the platform and moved down the avenue of the Guard of Honour. Here he descried two VC men, Lieutenant (formerly) Corporal A. Wilcox of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry and Corporal Vickers of 8th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. “Wilcox was warmly congratulated by the Prince who was interested in details of his war service. From here the Royal Party moved on to Handsworth Park where ex- servicemen had paraded.
“His Royal Highness then inspected the large number of ex-servicemen consisting of 1,500 members of the British Legion.”
Wilcox eventually moved back to Birmingham from London and became a pub landlord. The licence of the Small Arms, Muntz Street, was granted to him at Birmingham Licensing Sessions on September 19, 1940. He also held a licence for the Trafalgar Hotel, in Moseley, and the Prince Arthur Inn, Small Heath.
A few months after the opening of the Hall of Memory, Wilcox was again introduced to the Prince of Wales at the opening of the ten mile stretch of the Birmingham to Wolverhampton arterial road (A4123).
One story tells that when Wilcox was a landlord he overheard a customer mocking the Prince’s speech impediment: Wilcox decided that instant justice was required, leapt over the bar and felled the disrespectful punter.
Alfred Wilcox died at his Small Heath home on March 30, 1954, aged 69, leaving in his will just over £1,200.
At his funeral, a bugler in the green and blue ceremonial dress of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry sounded the Last Post. He was buried in an unmarked grave in St Peter and Paul churchyard, Aston.
An attempt by his relatives to find the exact location of his grave began in 2006 and in September of that year an unveiling ceremony took place for a headstone erected with the epitaph:
“For Valour. Near this site lies Alfred Wilcox 1884-1954, awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery in France, 12 Sept 1918.”
Wilcox’s Victoria Cross, having been auctioned by Spink Ltd in 1999 for £48,000, is currently on show in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum in London.