A Pocklington Hero

Harry Blanshard Wood never set out to be a hero. Yet his selfless actions during the Great War – which saw him awarded the supreme award for bravery, the Victoria Cross – made him exactly that…

It’s one hundred years since the First World War began, a conflict that from 1914-1918 saw a scarcely comprehensible number – some 10 million – lives lost worldwide. Hundreds of thousands of young men, from every corner of the United Kingdom, went to fight. Many paid the ultimate price and never came home, leaving families’ lives changed forever.

Today, with the last of the veterans having passed away, we remember the conflict only through the stories that have passed down the generations, accounts of heroism, courage and fortitude, often in the face of appalling conditions. East Yorkshire is no different.

For almost 100 years, the story of Cpl Wood – and countless others like him – remained largely untold.

Born in Newton-on-Derwent on 21June 1882, Harry Wood joined the Scots Guards in 1903, aged just 21. After war broke out in August 1914, he was recalled from the Army Reserve to serve with the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards.  The end of the war was only a few weeks away when, on 13 October1918, Cpl Wood took charge of his platoon after his commanding officer was killed. What happened next, in the French village of St Python, is recounted in his official Victoria Cross citation:

“The task of the company was to clear the western side of the village and secure the crossing of the River Selle. Command of the ruined bridge had to be gained, though the space in front of it was covered by snipers. Corporal Wood boldly carried a large brick out into the open space, lay down behind it, and fired continually at these snipers, ordering his men to walk across while he covered them by his fire. This he continued to do under heavy and well-aimed fire until the whole of his party had reached the objective point.

“He showed complete disregard for his personal safety, and his leadership throughout the day was of the highest order…”

Cpl Wood later drove off ‘repeated enemy counter attacks’ against his position and his ‘gallant conduct and initiative shown, contributed largely to the success of the day’s operations’. He was awarded the VC by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 22 February 1919. Tragically, he died just a few years later, aged 42. He fell unconscious after a road accident while on holiday in Devon, and slipped into a coma from which he never recovered. He is buried in Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol.

Cpl Wood later drove off ‘repeated enemy counter attacks’ against his position.

For almost 100 years, the story of Cpl Wood – and countless others like him – remained largely untold. Until now. The Government has announced that Cpl Wood, along with some 400 other World War One VC recipients, is to be remembered with a personalised commemorative paving stone, as part of the nation’s official events to remember the war. As his birthplace was originally in the parish of Pocklington, the location of the stone is still to be decided. Nevertheless, it will be a fitting tribute to a man who also gained the Military Medal and whose story we should never forget.

Nor that of Captain George Jefferson Scott, of Market Weighton, who died in action on Christmas Day, 1915. Captain Scott was sent to war with the 5th Battalion in late 1914. He fought and died in the trenches close to Ypres and is buried in Poperinghe New Military Cemetery.

Lance Corporal Gordon Coulthirst meanwhile, from Allerthorpe, was just 22 when he was killed in action in France, while serving with the West Yorkshire Regiment, on 26 September 1915.

In truth, we can never really do justice to any of these men, or any of their many fallen comrades from East Yorkshire, whose names are inscribed on our town and village war memorials. In the words of poet Laurence Binyon, “We shall remember them.”