by Tony Collins
The charge of the 4th Australian Light Horse at Beersheba late in the afternoon of 31 October 1917 is remembered as the last great cavalry charge. This year is the 100th anniversary of that event and is particularly revered in Australia. It was part of the wider British offensive collectively known as the third Battle of Gaza. There was only one Victoria Cross awarded during that Battle and that was to my grandfather Sergeant John COLLINS, VC, DCM from Merthyr Tydfil.
John (Jack) COLLINS was born in Bickenhall, Somerset, and was one of fourteen children of THOMAS and MARY ANN COLLINS. Life was hard in rural England and Thomas and Mary, together with eight of the younger children, moved to Penydarren, Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales in 1889 which had the largest ironworks in the world at that time.
In 1895 at the age of 18yrs John Collins enlisted in the Royal Horse Artillery as a driver (horses not vehicles!) and served in South Africa during the Boer War and was one of the first troops to enter Ladysmith with the relief column on 28 February 1900. He also served in India and would have completed his 12 yrs in 1907. He was one of the oldest recipients of the VC and one of the longest serving soldiers.
He married my Grandmother, MARY ELLEN O’BRIEN, aged 20 yrs, in 1910. He was then aged 33 yrs. They had six sons and two daughters.
Although his reserve service would have come to an end in 1913 he voluntarily enlisted in the newly formed Welsh Horse (eventually the Royal Welsh Fusiliers) in 1914 at the age of 37. They arrived at Anzac Cove on the 8 October 1915 alongside Australian and New Zealand troops to carry out mining operations on Hill 60. How crestfallen must it have been, starting out as part of a regular regiment of Household Cavalry, then becoming infantry and then being used as pioneers. They were one of the last detachments of British troops to leave the peninsular.
The regiment then moved to Libya, North Africa, then on to Cairo before reaching Gaza in 1917. Now part of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers they were part of the attack to take the town of Beersheba and thus force the Turks out of Gaza. On 31 October 1917 he was part of D Company at Wadi Saba, Beersheba (at which the famous charge of the Australian Light Horse took place) when it came under heavy shrapnel and machine gun fire and the battalion paid a very heavy price in men killed or wounded. It was in this action that he won his Victoria Cross.
On the 4 January 1918 he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (an extremely high level award for bravery second only to the VC) for action on 29/30 November at Foka and Hill 1750 Palestine where with a company of 80 men took a village occupied by 600 Turkish troops, taking some 300 prisoners, including 10 officers.
He was wounded whilst serving with the Fifth Army at Hinges in Northern France and his war came to an end. He was discharged in February 1919.
After the war it was difficult for my grandfather to obtain employment as many thought they could not offer menial position to the winner of a VC. On the 9 November 1919 a dinner was held for the holders of the Victoria Cross hosted by HRH Edward Prince of Wales. When HRH met my grandfather he asked where he was working and my grandfather replied “as a coal tip labourer”. The Prince responded that he thought a winner of the VC deserved a better job. Following the dinner, my grandfather received numerous job offers eventually accepting a position as a security guard at the local steelworks. As ever, it is not what you know but who you know! He died after a fall at home on 3 September 1951.
To be continued in the next blog……