It’s the stuff of Boys’ Own stories. A young officer, seeing his superior officers cut down by enemy fire and his own troops thinned by machine gun fire, defies overwhelming odds to hold the line against the Germans. Victory is impossible yet he shrugs off his fears and machine gun bullets to keep his men together until reinforcements arrive. Feted by his countrymen, he returns home to receive the highest military honour Britain can bestow – the Victoria Cross. What makes the story of East Ender Geoffrey Harold Woolley the more remarkable is that he wasn’t even a regular soldier – he became the first territorial to win the VC.
The horrors of the First World War are well documented. But even by the standards of the Great War, the Battle for Hill 60 was brutal. Sir John Denton Pinkstone French, chief of staff of the British Army during the conflict, described it as “the fiercest fight in which British troops have ever been engaged” and it was pivotal in the direction the war took on the Western Front.
Woolley was a peace-loving man, destined to be a vicar. He had been born in Bethnal Green on 14 May 1892, the son of the curate of St Matthew’s in Hackney. The Woolleys were an academic (and abundant) clan. Among Geoffrey’s ten siblings were Sir Leonard Woolley, one of the fathers of modern archeology and a friend of Lawrence of Arabia. Another was the ethnographer George Woolley. After grammar school (Parmiter’s in Approach Road, Bethnal Green) Geoffrey went up to Queen’s College, Oxford and seemed destined to follow his father into the Church.
But the Woolleys were cut from the cloth of muscular Victorian Christianity. Heroes of the Great War by GA Leask takes an unironically patriotic stance unfashionable today. Nonetheless it paints an interesting picture of 23-year-old Geoffrey as “British and unassuming to the core, and a typical specimen of muscular Christianity. He excels at cricket, tennis, and football, and played the greater game of war with all his heart and soul. Notwithstanding his deep religious principles and his connection with a clerical family, this young Briton waived his intentions of entering the Church from a sense of duty to his country.”
War is, of course, no game. Woolley, having laid aside his nascent career in the Church, was posted to the Western Front in April 1915 – just as the opposing forces cranked up to the bloody Second Battle of Ypres. On Woolley’s very first day in the trenches a hand grenade landed at his feet. Unfazed he picked it up and threw it back. But it was nothing compared to what would come – the assault on Hill 60 and the desperate attempt to hold it from the Germans.
It was a style of warfare that no longer exists. The town of Ypres in Belgium was held by the British, Canadian, French and Belgian armies, and lay at the heart of the Ypres Salient – a promontory jutting into enemy territory. Trenches were dug in on both sides. The nature of a salient is, of course, that it can gradually become surrounded and cut off, and also that it becomes a focus for fierce fighting. But to the south east of Ypres lay Hill 60, held by the Germans and offering them a perfect vantage point over the surrounding countryside. It was also a perfect seat for their big guns, and the British decided it had to be taken out.
The sappers spent months tunnelling into the hill, secreting hundreds of tons of high explosive, and at seven on the evening of Saturday 17 April the fuse was lit. The hill exploded and the Allies completed the job by raining shells down on the German positions. The British troops swarmed in to take the hill, but next came the tough part – holding it.
The Battle of Hill 60 was a descent into hell for both sides. Thousands of German reinforcements poured in, only to be mown down by British machine gun fire. Hand grenades rained into the British trenches, while Highland soldiers invaded the German trenches with fixed bayonets. The Germans in turn introduced the horror of gas for the first time, blinding and crippling many of the British troops.
At the heart of the fighting stood Woolley, as one by one his superior officers – first major, then captain, then lieutenant – were killed. Now the senior officer, he rallied his 150 or so men, at times standing on the lip of the trench, hurling grenades at the enemy. It was a reckless bravery, with a hint of madness to it. And when backup eventually came, with Hill 60 still in British hands, Woolley’s cadre had been reduced to just 20 – 14 territorials and six regular soldiers. Woolley was carried from the front suffering from gas poisoning, promoted to captain, and promptly suffered a nervous breakdown.
The Bethnal Green boy was indomitable though. In 1916 he returned to the Western Front and saw out the rest of the war before returning to Oxford to finish his theology studies. The war hero was ordained in December 1920 and went on to become a parish vicar in Monk Sherbourne, Hampshire. In January 1940, Woolley volunteered once again, resigning his post as chaplain at Harrow School to serve as Senior Chaplain in Algiers. The Second World War brought tragedy too, with his son (Spitfire pilot Rollo) dying in November 1942 in a fight over Tunis.
After the war Woolley returned to Harrow though resigned (rather ironically) as he was finding it increasingly difficult to scale the hill to his parish church of St Mary’s. He moved to the parish of West Grinstead (it was presumably flatter) and retired in 1958. Woolley died in 1968, bearing the VC, the Military Cross and the OBE.