b. 19/07/1880 Manchester. d. 27/03/1918 Albert, France.
John Stanhope Collings-Wells (1880-1918) was born in Manchester on 19th July 1880 to Arthur & Caroline Mary Collings-Wells. His parents owned Caddington Hall, Bedfordshire, and John was eductated at Uppingham School and Christ Church, Oxford. In 1906, at the age of 26, John went to live with his Cousin, Will Buck, at Field House in Marple to run his father’s business in Manchester until war arrived in 1914.
Second Lieutenant Collings-Wells was commissioned into the Bedfordshire Regiment on 14th March 1904 having previously served with the Hertfordshire Militia. He became a Lieutenant in September 1904 and Captain in January 1907. On the outbreak of war he was recalled to the colours and arrived in France with the Bedfordshire Regiment on the 22nd August 1914, where he served in the 2nd Battalion once they had arrived from South Africa. By October 1916 he was promoted to acting Lieutenant-Colonel in command of the 4th Battalion and remained at that post until his death.
Captain John Collings-Wells arrived in the 2nd Battalion on the 6th November 1914 whilst they were resting at Locre having been heavily engaged at Ypres in the previous weeks. Having survived two dreadful months in the atrocious conditions faced by the British troops that Winter, Captain Collings-Wells was badly wounded on the 12th January 1915 and invalided home as a result. Having eventually recovered, John returned to France with the newly mobilised 4th Battalion, who saw action on the Somme and at Ancre in 1916, at Arras and Ypres (Passchendaele) in 1917 and during the massive German Spring Offensive of 1918.
On their arrival on the Western Front in July, John was a Company Commander, but on the 4th September 1916, he was promoted to Major and became 2nd in command of the Battalion. After the Battalion had suffered badly during the Battles on the Somme and later at the Ancre that November, he found himself in command of the Battalion from Christmas Eve onwards, as they bedded into trench life that Winter, waiting for the new campaigning season to commence.
John was unfortunate enough to be on General Gough’s FGCM panel who were called to try the sad case of the Nelson battalion’s Sub Lieutenant Edwin Dyett’s desertion on Boxing Day, being only the third day of his command. The rights and wrongs are for others to debate elsewhere but Sub-Lt Dyett was shot at dawn on the 5th January 1917, his last words being “Well boys, goodbye. And for God’s sake, shoot straight.” He lies in Le Crotoy Cemetery on the Somme.
His strong leadership was already noted and respected by that time. His great organizational ability, attention to detail and the way he seemed to know almost every individual in his Battalion by name made him a highly respected leader whom the men of the 4th Battalion were always keen to follow and aspire to be more like. He was always first into the attack and last to withdraw, only when his men had been successfully moved to safety. His prevailing thought when faced with combat decisions was “Will this benefit the Battalion”, which shone through to all subordinates, thus inspiring them to achieve great deeds if he so called for them.
In 1917 Lt-Colonel Collings-Wells led his Battalion in the Arras Offensives and captured a portion of Gavrelle despite horrendous casualties. In recognition of his incredible leadership and personal gallantry, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Lt-Colonel Collings-Wells also led his Battalion through their involvement in the Third Ypres Battles (also called Passchendaele) was also Mentioned in Despatches in November 1917 in relation to his DSO. He also stepped in to temporarily command the 190th Brigade several times during 1917.
The now infamous German spring offensive began to take a heavy toll on the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division a full nine days before the actual infantry assault was launched. The Germans flooded the area with mustard gas, costing the 4th Battalion 5 officers and 264 other ranks before the battle had even started. The entire 63rd Royal Naval Division lost some 2000 men before the opening day of battle – 21st March 1918.
When the expected German attack finally started the Battalion were in reserve positions but were not long out of the action. History records that the Germans attacked with such force that the allies began a fighting retreat almost immediately, their front lines having been quickly smashed and overrun. British General scrambled their reserves into position and Collings-Well’s Division were moved twenty miles into positions on the old 1916 battlefields of the Somme over just 4 days, conducting several fighting withdrawals in the process. In a matter of days, the Germans had recovered the ground it had taken the Allies almost two years to capture and British forces were stretched to the extreme, yet held “to the last” bullet or man, thus making the Germasn pay dearly for their successes. During these fighting withdrawals, Lt-Colonel Collings-Wells personally led small parties of his men who covered the withdrawal of the bulk of the Battalion by fending off ridiculous numbers of advancing Germans against the odds. The action on the 24th saw them stay until they had run out of ammunition, yet they managed to withdraw and reorganize further back.
On the 25th March he took his battalion up to High Wood to reinforce the 189th Brigade who were very hard pressed. Once again he proved his natural leadership ability under the most strenuous conditions and his men were soon heavily engaged in action. Once again they stayed until every round of ammunition had been used. As before, Collings-Wells realised that his men would soon be surrounded so he called for volunteers to help him hold up the Germans whilst the remainder escaped. Once the withdrawal was complete John lead the rearguard to safety himself.
That evening they withdrew to the Thiepval Ridge and on the 26th crossed the River Ancre, destroying all the bridges once safely over. At 7pm the Battalion moved into position between Aveluy and Bouzincourt – 1 mile north of Albert – and were now told to hold the Germans again as they advanced north out of the recently captured town of Albert.
Having been ordered to counter attack Bouzincourt Ridge near Albert on the 27th March, he rallied and led the exhausted Battalion in the attack himself – as usual – and was wounded in both arms in the process. Although he was wounded in both arms, he led the remnants of his battered Battalion, who took the position despite appalling enemy fire and drove the German Army back. A wounded Sergeant saw that Collings-Wells was almost physically dragged to a bunker to have his wounds dressed as he was extremely reluctant to leave his men. Moments later the bunker received a direct hit from a mortar shell and the 37 year old Collings-Wells, his second in command Major Nunnelly and two other officers, including the medic were killed outright. Sadly, his body could not be correctly identified so their personal effects were removed and the casualties were buried without knowing who was in which grave.
He is buried in Plot 3, Row E, Grave 12 in the Bouzincourt Ridge Cemetery, France and remembered on the All Saints War Memorial, Marple, St. Ethelreda’s Church, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, The Collings-Wells Memorial Hall in Caddington, Bedfordshire, The Christ Church College Plaque, Oxford and on the East window of St. John the Baptist Church in Markyate. “Collings-Wells Close” in Caddington is also named after John, ensuring his name lives on, as it should.
As he was not married, his medal was presented to his parents by King George V on 1st June 1918 at Buckingham Palace. His medals are now held by the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regimental Museum, Wardown Park, Luton, Bedfordshire.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: BEDS/HERTS REGIMENT MUSEUM, WARDOWN PARK, LUTON.
BURIAL PLACE: BOUZINCOURT RIDGE CEMETERY, ALBERT, FRANCE.
PLOT III, ROW E, GRAVE 12
Kevin Brazier – Cemetery Map.
Brian Drummond – Freemason’s Memorial, London.
Steve Lee www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – Markyate War Memorial VC Stone.