b. 08/09/1888 Chichester, Sussex. d. 21/03/1918 St Quentin, France.
Wilfrith Elstob (1888-1918) was born on the 8th September 1888 in Chichester, Sussex. His father was called John George and his mother was Frances Alice (nee Chamberlain). He was one of four children: Eric B., Auberon and Noel Chamberlain. John was a Church of England vicar. He worked at Chichester Cathedral when Wilfrith was born, but soon afterwards became the parish priest of Capesthorne with Siddington in Cheshire.
Wilfrith was educated at Ryleys Preparatory School in Alderley Edge. Here he met Hubert Worthington, who was to become a lifelong friend. Hubert’s medals are also in the Museum of the Manchester Regiment collection. He then attended Christ’s Hospital School in Newgate in the City of London (1898-1905). Wilfrith was a member of Coleridge B House and played rugby for the 1st team. He also served in the school cadet corps and reached the rank of Lance Corporal.
After this Wilfrith studied at Manchester University, graduating in 1909 with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree. He had decided to train as a teacher and so studied for a teaching diploma for the next year. He then left the UK for Beauvais in France, where he worked at a Lycee, or school for 15 to 18 year olds. After a year he moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne University. In 1912 Wilfrith returned to the UK and took up a job as the French Master at Merchiston Castle Preparatory School in Edinburgh. He greatly enjoyed teaching; it allowed him to inspire the pupils under his care to achieve greatness.
The First World War broke out in August 1914 and Wilfrith joined the 6th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment on the 17th. We believe he intended to transfer to the Public Schools Battalion in early September, but the night before he intended to leave he was offered a commission as an officer in the new ‘Pals’ unit being formed by the men of Manchester. This was the 1st City Battalion, later known as the 16th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. Hubert Worthington helped persuade him to accept. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on the 3rd October. He was 6 feet 1 inch tall and extremely fit.
Wilfrith’s experience and background, as well as a shortage of officers in the rapidly expanding Army, meant that he had reached the rank of Captain by the 3rd March 1915. He became Second in Command of A Company, which was commanded by Hubert Worthington. He trained with the Battalion until they were sent to France in early November.
During March 1916, whilst the 16th Battalion was serving near Maricourt, Wilfrith took command of D Company. He led them during fairly uneventful tours of frontline trenches and in training for the Somme Offensive, which began on the 1st July. On that day the 16th Battalion attacked the village of Montauban. Wilfrith was wounded slightly by a machine gun bullet that hit him in the neck, but he stayed with the battalion. Hubert was not so lucky, he was seriously wounded and had to be evacuated back to the UK. Almost every other officer in the battalion was killed or wounded, along with around 2/3rds of the rest of the unit.
Between the 8th and the 11th July Wilfrith led D Company in an attack on Trones Wood. He was wounded again in this fighting. Wilfrith would be awarded the Military Cross on the 1st January 1917 for his leadership during this period. By the 1st August Wilfrith was Second in Command of the 16th Battalion with the rank of Temporary Major. During shelling around Le Barque on the 13th October the Commanding Officer was killed, so Wilfrith took his place as a Lieutenant Colonel.
As Commanding Officer Wilfrith was keen to restore the spirit of the 16th Battalion that had left the UK. Casualties and reinforcements meant that the original Manchester men were very few in number by the end of 1916. According to one of his officers, Thomas Nash, Wilfrith would often seek the suggestions and criticisms of his Company Commanders when making decisions. Thomas felt that this risked giving inexperienced officers too much freedom to make mistakes, and that because ‘Elstob hated hurting people’s feelings’ he was too inclined to ‘make excuses’ for poor performers. His men though, ‘worshipped him’.
During 1917 the 16th Battalion fought first at Arras during April, then at Ypres in Belgium between July and November as part of the Passchendaele Offensive. They took heavy casualties in all these attacks and Wilfrith lost many of the friends and comrades he had enlisted with. ‘Meggy, Willy, Hook, how can we speak or write of them. I felt them all to be my friends and now they’ve gone. Of all the original officers of the Battalion I am now alone with Knowles’. By early July more new officers had joined the 16th Battalion. Wilfrith found it ‘difficult to get to know them’. ‘At times I feel terribly lonely and that my work is not as good as it was’.
Wilfrith may have felt this way, but his actions suggest it was not true. Later that month, on the night of the 27th and 28th, he led a large group of the battalion’s leadership on a reconnaissance of the German positions around Sanctuary Wood near Ypres. They were able to pass through the front line and reach the support trenches before returning safely. This examination of the ground they were expected to attack proved invaluable when the battle began on the 31st. During this attack Wilfrith took command of soldiers from several different units. They were mixed together, confused and under German fire, but he helped to organise them and then led attacks on the remaining German positions.
In the autumn of 1917 Wilfrith acted as Brigade Commander, leading the 16th Battalion and 3 others. On the 1st January 1918 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his conduct around Ypres. In early January 1918 Wilfrith was able to return to the UK on leave. On his return the 16th Battalion were at Ognolles away from the trenches. Wilfrith took the opportunity to rekindle his love of rugby and captained the 30th Division team in a match against a local French side.
By mid March 1918 the British were expecting a German attack. The 16th Battalion was ordered to defend a position called Manchester Hill near St Quentin. Wilfrith made clear to his men that they would be resisting a large attack and that they must defend the position ‘to the last round and to the last man’. The attack came at around 6:30am on the 21st March. The Germans heavily shelled the Hill and then launched an infantry attack that was hidden by thick fog. By 11:30am the Germans had broken through and the Hill was surrounded. Wilfrith kept moving from position to position, encouraging his men to keep fighting. At one point he held a position alone, using hand grenades and his revolver to drive off German attacks. A large German attack was launched during the afternoon and Wilfrith helped to drive it off, using one of his soldier’s rifles. He was slightly wounded during this fighting, but kept encouraging his men and ignoring the German fire. As he told them: ‘You are doing magnificently boys!’ Wilfrith was wounded at least 3 more times, once by the explosion of a shell that blew him off his feet and 5 yards through the air. He took part in the hand to hand fighting that followed the final German assault at 3:30pm, and was shot dead throwing grenades at the attackers. The surviving members of the 16th Battalion surrendered at around 4:00pm.
The survivors were prisoners, and the Germans had captured Manchester Hill, so there was a great deal of uncertainty over what had happened to Wilfrith. It was not until September, after receiving letters from captured members of the 16th Battalion and considering ‘the length of time that has elapsed’, that the Army officially accepted he was dead. Even so, as late as February 1919 his insurance company would not accept this. Hubert Worthington was determined to recover his friend, who he knew as ‘Bindy’. He travelled to France twice during 1919 with members of the War Graves Commission to dig on Manchester Hill in the hopes of finding him, but without success. Later that year though he was instrumental in gathering the evidence that led to Wilfrith being awarded the Victoria Cross on the 9th June.
Wilfrith is commemorated on the Pozieres Memorial along with 14655 other men with no known grave. He is on one of Panels 64 to 67. His brothers all served in the First World War: Eric in the Royal Navy, Auberon as a member of the Young Men’s Christian Association and Noel in the Monmouthshire Regiment. They all survived. John Elstob and Hubert Worthington received Wilfrith’s Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace on the 24th July 1919. His medals were displayed at Christ’s Hospital School for many years. It was then agreed with the school that the most suitable and secure place for his medals to be displayed was at the Museum of the Manchester Regiment.
On Sunday the 21st March 1993, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Manchester Hill, a ceremony was held in the Officer’s Mess at St James Palace when pupils and staff of Christ’s Hospital, together with serving and retired officers of the Regiment, were present when Wilfrith’s medals were handed over for permanent safe keeping.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: MANCHESTER REGIMENT MUSEUM, ASHTON UNDER LYNE.
BURIAL PLACE: NO KNOWN GRAVE – ON POZIERES MEMORIAL, FRANCE. PANEL 64-67
Manchester Regiment Museum – Images of his Medal group and VC medal
www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – The Elstob VC Stone in Chichester, Sussex.