Sgt John Collins V.C., D.C.M. part 2

by Tony Collins

Details of the Medal Citation for John Collins’ V.C.

The following is extracted from the book Heart of a Dragon – the VCs of Wales and the Welsh Regiments. 1914-82 by W. Alister Williams.

“On 30 October 1917 the operations against Beersheba commenced as soon as darkness fell with the 231 Brigade moving across Wadi Saba, finding their way across the rough, rocky terrain by means of screened lights illuminating their path. When they reached Kent Wadi, they ran into Turkish patrols which were driven back, thereby allowing the assault troops to deploy ready for the attack by 02.00.  The 25th Royal Welch Fusiliers(RWF) was positioned on the right of the 74th Division, in the centre of the line where, along with the 24 RWF, they were to be the brigade’s two attacking battalions, with D and A Companies in the front. The infantry were supported by artillery, but not on the scale used on the Western Front.  Instead, the crews of the 100 fields guns and twenty heavy guns had to be selective in their targets and endeavour to react as much as possible to the changing fortunes of the battalions in the attacking force.  The 60 Division, on the right of the line, who were to commence the attack, were to initially receive the full support of the artillery.

As dawn broke over the eastern horizon, the Turkish artillery opened with very accurate shrapnel fire on the British troops on the hills and at 06.48, D and A Companies moved forward into the heavy shrapnel fire and, as soon as they came within range, into machine-gun fire.  Just over half an hour later, a message was received that the British artillery were having to cease firing as they were unable to see their targets because of the dust.  Despite this, and ignoring their casualties, the battalion edged forward to the final crest of the hills before charging the enemy positions.  Every effort was made to silence the Turkish machine-guns but to no avail, and the battalion paid a very heavy price in men killed or wounded.

The ridge was traversed with a hail of lead and a line of dead, all shot through the head, that marked the limit of the advance testified alike to the determination of the attack and to the accuracy of the Turkish shooting.  It became clear that to call on men shooting from behind no sort of cover to use their rifles against machine-guns very strongly entrenched was throwing away lives to no purpose.  Automatically everyone drew in under cover of the last ridge and waited for some turn in the battle which would afford the infantry the opportunity to push on and bring matters to a definite conclusion.  (Historical Records of the Montgomeryshire Yeomanry).

The sight of so many of his comrades lying exposed in front of the ridge was too much for Collins.  With total disregard for his own safety, he rushed forward several times to bring the wounded back behind the ridge from where they could be carried back to receive emergency medical treatment.

Over to their right, the 60 Division had been held up whilst trying to take Hill 1070 and the limited artillery was concentrated on that area of the front.  This precarious situation continued for several hours and at about 11.00, Capt Fitzhugh, leading the Lewis Gun section stood up to try and identify the position of a Turkish machine-gun which was causing his men considerable problems. As he panned across the front with his binoculars, he was shot in the head by a sniper and killed.  Although only a junior NCO, Collins was now acting a rallying point for the men in his section and others around him.  Less than an hour later, the artillery switched its fire to the Turkish positions in front of the 74 Division and obliterated a particularly strong redoubt in front of the 25 RWF.  This had an immediate effect and the fire from the Turks in front died down as their trenches disappeared under the barrage of exploding shells. The infantry then fixed bayonets and advanced through the still uncut wire defences, enfiladed by rifle and machine-gun fire as they tried to take what little cover there was.  Within a few minutes, they had captured the enemy position, killing large numbers and taking 140 prisoners.  Collins was at the forefront of this charge and is reported to have bayonetted fifteen of the Turkish defenders. Having secured the trench, he then led members of the Lewis gun section and set up defences ready to repel any possible counter-attack.  The fighting in this sector ended at about 15.00.  Miraculously, despite being under fire for over nine hours, Collins escaped unscathed.  The attack had cost the battalion 2230 casualties.

The delay in capturing the area south-west of Beersheba prompted the Corps commander to order a classic cavalry charge by the 4th Australian Light Horse which crossed the open ground east of Beersheba and captured the town, thereby forcing the Turks to withdraw and open the route for an assault on Gaza which fell to Allenby’s forces one week later.”

It was for his actions that day that Collins was awarded the Victoria Cross.  The Citation reads:

“For most conspicuous bravery, resource and leadership when, after deployment, prior to an attack, his battalion was forced to lie out in the open under heavy shell and machine-gun fire which caused many casualties.  This gallant non-commissioned officer repeatedly went out under heavy fire and brought wounded back to cover, thus saving many lives.

In subsequent operations throughout the day, Corporal Collins was conspicuous in rallying and leading his command.  He led the final assault with the utmost skill in spite of heavy fire at close range and uncut wire. He bayonetted fifteen of the enemy and, with a Lewis gun section, pressed on beyond the objective and covered the reorganisation and consolidation most effectively although isolated and under fire from snipers and guns.

He showed throughout a magnificent example of initiative and fearlessness.”

He was decorated with the VC by HM King George V at Buckingham Palace on 1 June 1918.

Details of the Medal Citation for the DCM.

“……..(As part of the assault on Jerusalem) on 29 Nov 1917 D and B Company were ordered to take the village of Beit-ur-et-Foqa commencing at 20.00 and arriving at 03.30 the next day. The assault commenced 15 minutes later and, at first, everything went well.  D Company and part of B Company, a force of only 80 men, traversed the difficult terrain and reached their objective just as dawn was breaking, catching the Turkish garrison completely by surprise as they were either forming up on parade or preparing a meal.  Dividing his small force into two Maj Rees advanced and captured a Turkish officer. When they reached the village, using the prisoner as an interpreter, they called upon the garrison to surrender.  The Turks appeared to be complying with the request before opening fire with six machine-guns which fortunately had little effect, as the men were able to take cover behind low garden walls from where they returned fire.  Collins, by this time a sergeant, was instrumental in organising part of his line and was able to bring very effective fire onto the Turkish positions.  In a very short period of time, the Turks began to put up their hands and the entire garrison quickly surrendered.  The Welsh troops found themselves in charge of more than 450 prisoners and a small escort was detailed to take them back to the British lines.  Maj Rees attempted to contact the British line for support but was unsuccessful.  The main Turkish force then realised that Beit-ur-et-Foqa had been captured by an under-strength British unit and began to close on the village from all directions. By 08.00 they were surrounded and under fire from all sides.  Amongst the four officers and thirty men, John Collins played a pivotal role in visiting each group of defenders to ensure that they were being used to the best possible advantage. Rees, realising that his position was untenable, then withdrew his men from the village and succeeded in reaching the British lines at 09.45. The village was recaptured later that day by a stronger force from the 2259 Brigade.”

It was for his actions that day that Collins was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.  The Citation reads:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.  As soon as the enemy opened fire at point blank range, he rallied all the men near him, took control of a portion of the line, and brought every available rifle to bear on the enemy.

During the consolidation he did exceptionally good work, and later, when the enemy counter-attacked, went under heavy fire from post to post to see that they were being held to the best advantage.

His ability and devotion to duty were of the highest order”

Collins was decorated with the DCM by the Brigade Commander on 4 January 1918.

Memorial stone for John Collins at St Tydfil’s Church

Sgt John Collins, V.C., D.C.M

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.

John Collins’ grave at Pant Cemetery

To be continued in the next blog……

Merthyr Man at Mons

The following article appeared in the Merthyr Express 103 years ago today…


Private Flurence McCarthy, 1st Batt. S. W. Borderers, attached the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, and who now resides at 187 Gellifaelog Road, Penydarren, has just returned home from the front, having been wounded in the battle at Mons. A piece of Shrapnel shell struck his right arm. In his story to our reporter, Private McCarthy said: “We landed at Havre and stayed there about three days then commenced travelling, being on the move for about a day and a half. We then arrived at – I don’t exactly know where – but we had to march a distance of about eight or nine miles. We then encamped, waiting for other troops to come up. We continued to march day and night until we came into the neighbourhood of Mons. Then we commenced to dig the trenches. We did a considerable amount of work, and we were near the enemy all the time.

We had to take our rest in these trenches. As soon as day dawned we heard shots rattling, and above us we saw a German aeroplane. Half an hour later we had orders to retire from the trenches we had just finished, and an hour later those trenches were blown up by the Germans. We started retiring in earnest on a Sunday morning, and on that day we fought the enemy. That was the first time we really saw anything of the Germans, who were in great force, but a long way off. We obtained about two hour rest that night. The German artillery opened fire in the early hours of Monday morning, the enemy having taken up position in front of us.

Our artillery covered the retirement of the infantry. The same things happened the next morning. Our retirement took place mainly at night. On the march I sprained my ankle and got detached. But Pte Morgan of Pontypool insisted upon staying with me. I had a bad twist, but with the help of Morgan, struggled on slowly. We came up with the Glos’ters the next morning with whom I marched as far as I could. But by 12 o’clock mid-day I was compelled to leave them again as there was no conveyance to take me on. We came across some French peasants, who directed us to a village, where we stayed for about four hours at a little house. The French peasants were particularly kind to me, bathing my injured foot, and fed us both handsomely.

On Tuesday morning Morgan and myself again set out, and endeavoured to catch up with the Glos’ters, my foot having by this time become somewhat better. We fell in with a French battalion, and one of the officers, who spoke excellent English, tried to persuade us to remain with them. We refused, however, and after the officer had given us a good supply of food and tobacco, we continued our journey. As luck happened we met an ambulance. I reported myself to the medical officer, and my troubles were practically over, for I was soon despatched to Havre and then home. This was at Cambrai, after we had rejoined the Glos’ters. It was with them we had the first real bit of fighting, during which I was wounded.

A section of us were told off to a certain trench, and shrapnel flew about us. Happily, none of our men were killed, though several were wounded, the enemy being only seven hundred yards away. We kept up a strong rifle fire, and did a good deal of damage. I had been wounded by a piece of shell long before I discovered the fact. I had fired many rounds before I noticed that blood issued from my arm, the flesh of which had been ripped up from the wrist to the elbow. Of course, the officer would not dream of me doing any more fighting on that state.”

McCarthy expressed himself feelingly in regard to the treatment which had been meted out to the women by the Germans. Women were outraged in many ways, and he saw slain females lying about. “Our officer,” said McCarthy, “after we had seen those terrible things, emphasised the cruelty of the Germans to the women folk, expressed the hope that Britishers would not be guilty of such foul deeds.”

Asked as to the spirit in which Britishers fought, McCarthy said he had had six years of Indian Army experience, and while he had known soldiers on peace manoeuvres growling about heavy work, there was never a grumble with the soldiers in France. The soldiers there spent as much time as they could singing and smoking.

“Of course,” added McCarthy, “the French girls were jolly with us, and we were jolly with them. From the time we landed at Havre they asked us for our regimentals and identification marks. Upon the loss of these we were ordered to write our identification marks on our caps and shoulders in ink, or anything that would make a black mark.”

McCarthy admitted that he was not really anxious to go back to that ‘hell’. He said: “I don’t believe any man who has once been there, really wants to go back. But in response to the call, I will do what every soldier does, go back with a good heart and do my best.”

Merthyr Express – 24 October 1914

A Letter from Germany

The following article appeared in The Merthyr Pioneer 103 years ago today, on 26 September 1914 – just after the outbreak of the First World War….

As reported in our issue of August 29, Miss Margaret Gilleland, daughter of Mr and Mrs Gilleland of Brecon Road, is one of the British subjects who were unable to leave Germany before the outbreak of the war. As was explained in that issue of the Pioneer, Miss Gilleland took up the post of governess with a German family residing at Posen in April last, from which place, however, the family have since gone to Borkun, probably in view of the advance of the Russian Army towards Posen.

Mr and Mrs Gilleland have naturally been somewhat concerned about the safety of their daughter, from whom they had received no communication since August 1 until the following letter arrived from a lady residing at The Hague, Holland, in which was enclosed the few lines written to her parents by Miss Gilleland in German (all letters posted in Germany at present must be in the German language), and translated by the lady who kindly forwarded the note to the family in Merthyr. By the courtesy of the family we are able to publish the letters as received, and Miss Gilleland’s friends in the district will be delighted to know that she is in good health and ‘very happy.’ The letter is as follows:

“The Hague
15th Sept 1914

Dear Sir and Madam, – You will probably be surprised to receive a letter from a total stranger. Fraulein Tietz, from Zulchan (Germany), asked me if I could write to you for your daughter, as you would be longing to know how she is getting on. On the overleaf you will find a translation of her German letter to you, for, of course, she cannot but write in German. So if you would kindly write your daughter in English, and then sent the letter to me, I will translate it, and forward it to her.

I have tried to translate it as well as I could, but please to forgive me if the language is not quite correct. Hoping you will soon send me a reply for your daughter. – I am, with kind regards, Yours sincerely,

                   L Huijgen de Raat”

Miss Gilleland’s note to her parents (as translated) is as follows:

“My Dear Parents, – I will write to you just a short letter to tell you that I am quite well and very happy. I also want to state that when in newspapers it is put that we foreigners are badly treated, this is absolutely untrue.

Please let me know how you are, and where George is. Much love, from yours lovingly,                                

Margaret Gilleland”

Below is a photograph of Margaret Gilleland that appeared in the Merthyr Guardian on 5 September 1914.

Merthyr Pioneer – 5 September 1914

The Troedyrhiw Gleemen – part 1

by Carl Llewellyn

While the First World War was reaching its latter stages, a group of young men with a passion for singing approached a local musician, Mr Herbert Llewellyn of Troedyrhiw, to coach them in the rudiments of voice training. Each young male chorister paid Mr Herbert Llewellyn fourpence each per rehearsal for the privilege. Of course not all the Troedyrhiw Male Choir were Troedyrhiw born and bred – there were also a few from the Town and Heolgerrig.

Once the choir had been formed, circumstances had arisen that called for help in raising funds for charitable purposes, including the Prisoners of War Fund, and this was whole-heartily given. The male voice party began with only a few young choristers whose voices and musical talent were of the highest calibre.

Most of the choristers were unmarried and close friends. They were employed in the local collieries, and due to this and their youth they were too young to be conscripted into the armed forces.  The common bond between them was that they were young, musically talented, they had a deep desire to enhance their God given gift for singing.

In 1919 some of the choristers went on holiday to Swansea and trooped into the old Woolworths Store for tea. In a relaxed and happy mood they burst into unofficial song and, far from being thrown out they were invited back the following day to give another musical rendering for more free tea.

In 1920 the male voice choir, or gleemen, arranged a two week’s holiday combined with a choir tour to Portsmouth. The Gleemen consisted of 25 choristers of which only 19 were available to be part of the tour.

The photograph below of the Gleemen in Portsmouth was taken 97 years ago today.

The Troedyrhiw Gleemen on their trip to Portsmouth, 10 August 1920

BACK: left to right: David James, Yew Street: Emrys Jones, Merthyr: Emrys Jones barber: Ossie Bufton

SECOND ROW: left to right: Trefor Davies: William Richards: Sam Edwards, Church Street; Rees Richards: W Griffiths, Heolgerrig; Tommy Jones, Aberfan: Enoch John: Aeron Davies: Sydney Griffiths.

SEATED left to right: Billy Williams, Dyffryn, W. George; W Jones (Bett); Brinley Griffiths, accompanist, later conductor of the Merthyr Philharmonic Choir, Herbert Llewellyn, conductor; Mr Davies, Chief Constable of Portsmouth: Gwilym Edwards: David Williams: Ben Lewis, now in Scranton U.S.A.

The ensign they are displaying was given to the party by the officers of the battleship H.M.S. Barham, after they had given another concert on board the ship at Portsmouth. The flag was flown by H.M.S. Barham at the battle of Jutland. Mr Enoch John believes that the flag was given to Cyfarthfa Museum.

A report of the tour to Porstmouth will be featured in the next post.


Belgian Refugees

It is sometimes forgotten that during the First World War, an influx of Belgian refugees arrived in Britain to escape the fighting in their country. Quite a number of them came to Merthyr, and transcribed below is an article describing the arrival of the first of these refugees in 1914.

Merthyr Pioneer – 17 October 1914

A very enthusiastic meeting of local citizens was held at the Town Hall on Monday night, when the final preparations for the welcome and maintenance of the Belgian refugees was made.

Addressing the meeting Coun. H M Lloyd (Mayor) referred to the terrible distress prevailing in Belgium owing to the German invasion, and pointed out the hardships which were being suffered by a whole nation out of employment. Inasmuch as Belgium has acted as a buffer State, we were indebted to them, and were called upon to help them bear their share of suffering and sorrow.

Alderman J M Berry J.P. was appointed treasurer of the committee, and Mr T W Morris, secretary.

A tremendous crowd of people thronged the High Street and the Merthyr Station Approach on Wednesday evening, and the 32 Belgian refugees received a hearty if somewhat embarrassing Welsh welcome. They were met at the station by Coun. H M Lloyd and Mrs Lloyd (Mayor and Mayoress), Major and Mrs Frank James, Capt. G B Williams, Councillors F A Phillips (Deputy Mayor), Mrs M A Edmunds, and Ald. J M Berry, Mrs Wills, Mr T T Jenkins and others.

Some difficulty was experienced in getting the visitors into the two decorated cars which had been lent by the Merthyr Traction Co. to convey them to the YMCA Buildings. Several of the refugees were obviously affected by the cordial welcome which greeted their arrival, and many of the waiting citizens were moved to tears when an elderly Antwerp lady who had received injuries was assisted to the car by Councillors Phillips and James whilst the appearance of Ald. J M Berry with a Belgian youngster on his shoulder was the signal for loud cheers. Outside the YMCA Buildings the Cyfarthfa Municipal Band greeted the refugees with the National Anthems of the Allies. After a splendid meal had been enjoyed, a musical programme in which one of the visitors took part, was provided.

In officially welcoming the refugees, the Mayor said that every class in the community was anxious to do what it could to alleviate their sufferings and misfortunes.

Interviewed by the Pioneer representative on Thursday, the Mayor said that funds for the maintenance of the refugees were still coming in. As the committee desired to maintain them for at least six months, he hoped that local citizens would continue to contribute all they could afford towards the cost of their maintenance. The cost of maintaining them would probably be something between £15 and £20 per week. 19 more refugees were expected to arrive almost immediately, and as the distress was great and increasing, Merthyr might be called upon to maintain something like 100. “I am thinking of arranging for an illuminated carnival, perhaps the last day in October (Saturday the 31st), and I trust that all cyclist and motor cyclists, and those who have fancy costumes, will hold themselves in readiness for the occasion” added the Mayor.

Late on Thursday evening a further party of Belgian refugees, numbering nine, arrived at Merthyr, and were conveyed in cabs to the YMCA Buildings. The party consisted of seven women and two men. This brings the total to be maintained to 41.

Arrangements for the comfort of the visitors have been greatly enhanced by the spontaneous offers of assistance given by many local citizens. The management of all the local entertainment halls have offered free admission; the Traction Co. offer free rides, and Mr Arthur Davies, hairdresser, of Glebeland Street, has offered to attend to the toilet of the male members of the party.

Mrs Suzanne Doolan, local historian and former reporter on the Merthyr Express, is researching the Belgian Refugees in Merthyr, so if anyone has any information about them , please get in touch and I will pass it on.

Espionage in Merthyr Tydfil

As we are currently commemorating the centenary of the First World War, I thought I’d share a very interesting story that I came across in the Merthyr Express from 1914 – it is transcribed below.

SPY PERIL AT MERTHYR – Merthyr Express, 24 October 1914

A great sensation was caused in Merthyr on Tuesday when it became known that an alleged German spy would be taken before the magistrates and charged under the Official Secrets Acts, 1911, with attempting to convey to the enemy important plans etc. Consequently the police court was crowded. The defendant, who gave the name Carl Fick, a German, is a finely built man of middle age. He has for several months followed the occupation of a steeplejack. He used to travel about in a motor car. Fick was not only charged on Tuesday with attempting to convey plans to the enemy, but with attempting to persuade another to commit a similar offence. Only formal evidence was given, and the defendant, who didn’t have a word to say, was formally remanded in custody for a week.

Chief Constable Wilson said the defendant was of German nationality and was registered as an alien in August last. Since that time he had been kept under strict observation by the police. Certain information came to his (Mr Wilson’s) knowledge in September that the accused had approached a certain gentleman in the town with a view to getting his assistance in communicating to the German Ambassador certain plans indicating important landmarks for the purpose of dropping bombs. He (Mr Wilson) took particular precautions, and placed Detective-Sergt. Dove and Detective O’Neill in a place of observation, where they were able to hear and see the defendant. They listened to certain conversation to the effect that the townsman he had named should go to America, he (defendant) would pay the fare, and hand to the German Ambassador certain plans. The plans, the defendant said, were of a most destructive character, if carried out, and would practically annihilate the British Army. Defendant had prepared certain plans and notes, the latter written in German, which had been translated. One letter, written on October 16th, which the defendant intended for the German Ambassador in America read as follows:-

If these plans should be of any use to the German Government, please make any payments to myself only. I am unable to come to give any help myself.

That, said the Chief Constable, was written on the printed billhead of the defendant, who has for four or five months carried on the business of steeplejack, He asked that the defendant be remanded in custody in order that he might communicate with the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Detective-Sergt. Dove was then called and questioned by the Chief Constable. “Do you remember visiting certain premises at Merthyr on the 15th September? – I do. Did you see the defendant? – I did. Did you hear him making certain statements? – I did. Did he ask a certain person to go to America to see the German Ambassador? – Yes. With what object? – For the purpose of handing plans over which he said would destroy the whole of the enemies of Germany.”

The Chief Constable: “Upon that evidence I ask for remand for a week. – Granted.”

If anyone has any interesting Merthyr-related stories about the First World War, please send them to me and I will post them on this blog.