b. 26/05/1894 Smethwick, Staffordshire. d. 25/08/1918 Martinpuich, France.
Harold John Colley (1894-1918) was born at 64 Winson Street, Smethwick, Staffordshire on 26th May 1894. Winson Street lies off the Dudley Road in the Cape Hill area, not far from the Cape Hill Brewery. His parents were John (a Pattern Maker) and Hannah Colley (nee Hadley). John was originally from Bilston and Hannah from Longley. Harold attended Dudley Road Council School until he was about ten. John and Elizabeth at this time moved to Smethwick with their two boys and three girls. John Colley was employed at Tangyes Ltd, Cornwall Works. Tangyes were a firm of Hydraulic and General Engineers based at Soho, which had been long associated with Matthew Boulton.
Following his time there he went on to work at Henry Pooley’s at 17 Brook Street in Smethwick. Pooley’s were a firm of weighbridge manufacturers, also specialising in scale and weighing machines. Their site on Brook Street was known as the Albion Scale Works. Harold left school to work for a jeweller but he then became a silver spinner for J & R Griffin Ld, Link Works who were a jewellers cum Silversmiths at 99-105 Hockley Street at the junction with Barr Street.. He was a keen church-goer too, being a member of the Smethwick Baptist Church on Regent Street. Colley was wicket keeper for the church’s Mission Cricket Eleven and also a notable gymnast.
He joined up on 1st September 1914 as Private 5615 with the Duke Of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. His home address was noted as 74 Cheshire Road in Smethwick. He started out with the Army Cyclist Corps attached to the DCLI; in the early months of the war these cyclists were used as advance cavalry armed with Lewis guns and organised in small groups. The role was largely abandoned as the Western Front became embroiled in trench warfare and Colley moved on to become a despatch rider, in which position he was by early 1915. He was promoted to Lance-Corporal and received a certificate of Meritorious Conduct for his actions on 30th March 1917.
Colley was wounded while digging out two men buried by a mortar bomb, this being accomplished while under heavy fire. Colley’s certificate came about as a consequence of a despatch by Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig on 9th April where his “Gallant and distinguished services in the field” were praised. He was sent back to England for treatment; during the course of his recuperation he was transferred to the 10th Lancashire Fusiliers, still as a Private (40684). It was during the recuperation/ transfer period that he received his certificate. It was signed by Major General W.R. Robertson (officer commanding the 17th Division) and says that it was, “Presented to Private Harold John Colley of the Lancashire Fusiliers in recognition of conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in going forward under heavy TM (trench mortar) and MG (machine gun) fire and digging out two men who had been buried by a TM bomb”.
On 4th June 1918 he was awarded the Military Medal for his actions at Beaumont Hamel. At 2:30am the Germans bombarded the front of the 52nd Brigade and then at 2:40am attacked with infantry. The 10th Lancashire Fusiliers (under Lieutenant Colonel R.E. Cotton) and the 7th Yorkshire Regiment bore the brunt of this attack with the Germans making good use of their old trench positions to break into the Fusiliers’ front lines. They managed to overwhelm the left flank but on the right they were met with vigorous Lewis gun fire. The Sergeant and four other men were wounded but Colley took two men with him and bombed the nearest trench succeeding in ejecting the intruders at 2.50am. A good many casualties were inflicted on the enemy but the Battalion lost an officer and 12 men killed, 21 men wounded and 2 officers and 13 other ranks missing. For this action Colley was awarded his Military Medal which was gazetted on 10th November.1918 after his later VC award. For this action Colley was promoted to the rank of Acting Sergeant.
The deed for which he was awarded his VC took place at Martinpuich, France on 25th August 1918. During a strong counter-attack Sergeant Colley’s company was holding an advanced position with two platoons in advance and two in support. The forward platoons were ordered to hold on at all costs and Sergeant Colley went, without orders, to help these two platoons. He rallied the men, then formed a defensive flank and held it, although out of the two platoons only three men remained unwounded and the sergeant himself was dangerously wounded and died the same day. It was entirely due to his action that the enemy was prevented from breaking through.
He was buried in Maily Wood Cemetery in France. Plot II, Row Q, Grave 4. The VC was gazetted on 22nd October 1918. Details of when the VC was actually handed over to the family are unclear but it is likely that John Colley at least went to Buckingham Palace to receive it, probably in February 1919. His VC was given to the care of his younger brother, Albert. Albert had been invalided out of the Royal Warwicks after suffering permanent injuries from a shell burst and gassing at Messines in June 1917. The news of his VC award reached his family before news of his death. His medals including the VC, MM, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19 are now held by the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum, Bury, Lancashire.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: FUSILIER MUSEUM, BURY, LANCASHIRE.
BURIAL PLACE: MAILLY WOOD CEMETERY, MAILLY-MAILLET, FRANCE.
PLOT II, ROW Q, GRAVE 4
Kevin Brazier – Cemetery Map.
John Patterson – Medal Group Image at the Lancashire Fusilier Museum, Bury, Lancashire.
Stu Kidson – Colley VC Stone in Smethwick, West Midlands.