b. 11/11/1896 Walsall, Staffordshire. d. 17/11/1917 Heligoland, Germany.
John Henry Carless (1886-1917) was born on 11th November 1896 at Renwick Terrace, Frederick Street, Walsall, the second son of John Thomas Carless, a journeyman brass caster, and Elizabeth Smith. He grew up in the town’s working-class Caldmore district and was educated at St Mary’s, The Mount, Roman Catholic School, where he was noted for his sporting prowess. He was a gifted footballer, swimmer and dancer. In 1910 he represented Walsall in the final of the English Schools Soccer Shield, earning a gold medal.
On leaving school, he spent two or three years working at the Alma Tube Works, turning out for a number of junior football clubs in his spare time. At the outbreak of war Carless, although only 17, joined the rush to enlist. Surprisingly, and to his own disappointment, he was initially turned down, not account of his age but because of “poor” health. Three or four times medical boards rejected his application due to “heart trouble”, though Carless always maintained it was in the doctor’s imagination.
He changed his job, joining Messrs Price of South Street, Walsall, as a currier and, undeterred by his previous failures, continued with his attempts to follow his friends into the Services. Finally at the fourth or fifth attempt, he was successful and on 1st September 1915 he joined the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman, although how he got through the medical examination is unclear.
Carless served aboard HMS Vindictive and a number of destroyers, taking part in several minor actions off the Belgian coast, before being transferred to the Caledon in June 1917. His eventful service had already been marked by a high degree of gallantry. When a hospital ship sank, he was among a party of volunteers who assisted in the rescue of hundreds of passengers. On another occasion, he braved a serious boiler room fire to save a stoker trapped by the flames. Sadly, his good fortune would desert him just six days after his 21st birthday.
On 17th November 1917 in the Heligoland Bight, although mortally wounded in the abdomen, he still went on serving the gun at which he was acting as rammer, lifting a projectile and helping to clear away the other casualties. He collapsed once, but got up, tried again, and cheered on the new gun’s crew. He then fell and died. He not only set a very inspiring and memorable example, but he also, whilst mortally wounded, continued to do effective work against the King’s enemies. His body was lost at sea.
Nine days after the VC was gazetted, St Mary’s RC Church in Walsall was crowded for a memorial service attended by a host of civic dignitaries. The following month, Carless’ parents travelled to London to receive his VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace on 22nd June 1918. In February 1920, a bronze bust by Admiral Cowan was unveiled in Walsall in his honour. Two streets in Walsall, a locomotive were later named after him. His VC passed from his parents to his brother William, and then to his nephew John Henry Carless, who had been named after him. On his death in 1986, the medal was bequeathed to Walsall Council.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: WALSALL COUNTY COUNCIL.
BURIAL PLACE: BODY LOST AT SEA.
Derek Walker – Carless VC Statue in Walsall, and the War Memorial at St Mary the Mount, Walsall.
Paul Lee www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – image of the reverse of Carless VC medal.
Thomas Stewart – image of Portsmouth Naval Memorial.