Searching for Great Uncle Harry

This blog post was written by Margaret Bell and was originally published in Past Forward – Wigan’s local history magazine.

Searching for Great Uncle Harry WHEN I began to be interested in my family history it was to Dad that I turned for his memories of family and friends. He had a wealth of information including personal memories and stories told to him as a child, of long past relatives. One person stood out from his childhood – his Uncle Harry.

Uncle Harry had been a big, fine young man, very tall, strong, good physique and a good sportsman. He could run and jump and had won lots of races. It was said that he won so many clocks that he mother had one in every room and gave them away as presents. He played a bit of football, wrestled and did some boxing. He was a good all-rounder. He volunteered for the First World War, joined the Grenadier Guards and was killed in France.

There was a letter from the Commanding Officer in reply to one sent by my Dad’s Dad asking for information. Harry’s mother had heard first of her son’s death from another soldier writing home and she wanted to know where he was buried. The reply had been that as soon as the C.O. had any further information he would let the family know. As far as Dad was aware there was no further correspondence. He briefly showed me the letter which was kept in a wallet. It was obvious that Uncle Harry had made quite an impression on the then eight year old boy because of his sporting abilities.

I re-discovered the World War I letter whilst sorting through Dad’s personal belongings after his death in 1990. As I quietly read through the letter I realised that the Captain had written it during the Battle of the Somme in which thousands of men died; a period of history of which I knew little. My quest to know more about Great Uncle Harry, his final resting place and of the Battle of the Somme began.

A Leigh Boxer Killed

Pte. Bilsbury’s death was reported in the Leigh Journal of 29 September 1916. The report also mentioned that his friend Pte W. Harvey with whom he joined up had also been killed that week. It also recorded Harry’s sporting achievements in the district prior to joining the colours. The Chronicle of 29 September printed a long obituary with the heading ‘A Leigh Boxer Killed’, with a photograph in boxing stance. It gave details of a letter, dated 20 September which had been received by the parents of Pte. G. Waterworth saying:

“No doubt you will have heard about W. Harvey and H. Bilsbury being killed. It is very hard lines. I might say we have had some narrow shaves – too near to be nice – but I suppose it is our luck. It is God’s will if we have to stop one”.

The same man also wrote to his brotherin-law who was in hospital suffering from shell shock saying:

“I dare say you will have heard about Harvey and Bilsbury being killed …….. They were done close to where you were injured”.

It may well have been these reports from local soldiers that prompted the letter of enquiry to the Battalion. The official Army record shows that Harry was killed in action on 15 September, and the next of kin notified on 29 September.

In October, the letter which was in Dad’s possession and addressed 2nd Batt. Grenadier Guards, B.E.F. was written by Capt. Wiggins, Harry’s Officer. He very much regretted having to say that Pte. Harry Bilsbury was killed in the attack which the Battalion made on 15 September.

“I have not yet received the records of where he is buried, but will let you know when I get it”. He went on to say … “He proved himself to me on many occasions to be a clean and gallant soldier and a most upright man. I greatly respected him and shall miss him very much in my company. I sympathize most deeply with you and all his relations and friends”.

There seems to have been no further communication, and his 1914/5 Star was received by his mother in 1920, and the British War Medal and Victory Medal in 1921.

Touching and sad

Concerned about what happened and where his grave was I wrote to the War Graves Commission, enclosing postage for a reply and asking for details of the grave of Pte. Harry Bilsbury, Grenadier Guards, killed on the Somme. The reply was both touching and sad, for Great Uncle Harry has no known grave and the writer of the letter showed concern for my feelings on reading this news. He is commemorated by name on the Thiepval Memorial, France, which commemorates 72,085 men who died on the Somme sector up until March 1918. Enclosed was an information sheet with pictures of the Thiepval Memorial and details of the Battle of the Somme 1916. It includes details of the battle, the dead, the numerous cemeteries and a map of the battle field, which shows the guards cemetery at Les Boeufs. Originally this was for 40 men of the 2nd Batt. who were killed on 25 September (this was Harry’s battalion). Many more bodies were brought in after the war and it now has 3136 graves, about half unidentified.

I felt that I had completed my enquiries until one Sunday evening in September 1996 while listening to a radio programme about the Battle of the Somme commemorations, I heard a man describing how he traced his uncle’s movements up to the time he went missing in battle. He had then gone to France to the place he thought he had been at the time.

Heavily shelled

My next step was a letter to the Regimental Headquarters of the Grenadier Guards, London, requesting information about Harry Bilsbury and enclosing a copy of the original letter from Capt. Wiggins. I quickly received a reply from the Archives with a copy of Record of Service. There was also the helpful suggestion that I visit my local library and borrow ‘The Grenadier Guards in the Great War 1914-18’ by Ponsonby. These books give all the activities of the regiment throughout the war, including the Somme battle completed with detailed maps. For anyone with a relative in the Guards in W.W.I they are well worth reading.

I chose to concentrate on the volume with the details of the 2nd Batt., and their activities during September 1916, in particular the 13-16th and the Battle on the 15th. The objective was to size Morval, Lesboeufs, Gueudecourt, and Flers, breaking through the enemy’s system of defence. Chapter XIX goes into great detail of the preparation, the battle, and the aftermath of the Guards operations at Ginchy and clearing of the trenches and orchard of Germans which cleared the ground for the advance on the 15th. On 14 September the 2nd Batt. remained in the front trenches all day, where it was heavily shelled. One shell pitched on the headquarters of No. 1 company; Capt. Wiggins (officer who later wrote the letter) was so severely shaken that he retired suffering from shell shock and the Company Sgt. Major was mortally wounded. The Battalion was relieved in the evening, went to bivouac behind Ginchy, rations and rum were served. The men had been in the trenches three days, hardly a moment’s sleep. It was bitterly cold at night, and the men, who had no greatcoats, suffered very much. Casualties throughout the three days 13th, 14th and 15th totalled 365, not counting officers, 12 of these being missing, Harry Bilsbury was one of these missing men. The Battle took place on the road between Ginchy and Lesboeufs, a road under two miles long. Lesboeufs is where the Guards cemetery is. Could Uncle Harry be one of the un-named soldiers in there?

A White Hope Killed

Included in the information from the Guards Archives was a press cutting from the Evening Standard dated 25 September 1916. “A White Hope Killed” was the heading. This recorded Harry Bilsbury’s ‘great sacrifice’ and said that he was one of the best all round athletes in the North of England. His magnificent physique helped in all forms of sport, for he stood at 6ft. 4 in. in height and stripped at nearly 15 st. He was extremely popular in sporting circles and in ordinary life. This recorded his boxing; he went into the semi-finals of the Sporting Chronicle and Daily Sketch “White Hope” Competition at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, where his hard hitting was a feature. He was persuaded to enter the competition, and trained by Harry Brown of the Crown Public House, Leigh. Jack Smith, a notable trainer at the time, took him up afterwards. He won several matches. While in the Army both in England and France he won a number of contests.

Deciding to follow up yet another lead, I wrote to the British Boxing Board of Control, who passed my enquiries onto boxing historian, Mr. Harold Alderman. From him I received a full compilation of the boxing career of Harry Bilsbury gathered from various sources. Harry did so well that he earned his nick-name ‘one round’, just as when he was running he earned the name ‘long span’. Prior to joining the Guards he had been sparring partner to Bombardier Billy Wells, in exhibitions at the Palace Theatre, Manchester. Mr. Alderman explained that these could only be ‘spars’ as Harry was a ‘novice’ starting out and Wells was a ‘pro’, the British and Empire Heavyweight Champion. Had Harry survived, who knows that might have been? He was improving all the time, and his ‘spars’ with Wells would have taught him a great deal.

Mother kept a good table

What about the home life of this man who created such an impression on his young nephew? He was born in 1891, at Crab Fold Farm, Atherton, the family later moving to Hart’s Farm, Leigh Road. He was the youngest of a family of 13 children, one of whom was my Granny. There was a plentiful supply of food at the Bilsbury farm, where mother kept a ‘good table’. He was amiable, got on well with people and was popular. He was always willing to do a good turn and had time for children, having lots of nieces and nephews. As he grew into manhood his sporting activities made him a well known figure. His earliest sporting interest was athletics but they did not stop there; he played rugby football at 3/4 position, although a knee injury gave later trouble; he did some wrestling and, of course boxing.

To sum up, during my search for Great Uncle Harry, I have learned a lot. No longer is he just a missing soldier on the Somme. He was killed in the ‘great push’ on the 15th on the Ginchy-Les Boeufs Road. He may be one of the un-named men in the Guards Cemetery, but his name will stand for evermore on the Thiepval Memorial with thousands of other brave soldiers who have no known grave. He died at the young age of 25 years, leaving good memories for family and friends left behind. He died with the friend he joined the colours with. He died with a life full of promise, having already packed a great deal into the short life he had been given. What a sportsman! What a man! What an uncle for an eight year old boy!

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