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Search for family of Black Country Victoria Cross hero

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: February 21, 2014

By Dan Shaw

  • Mailly Wood Cemetery, Somme, where Harold Colley lies buried

  • Hannah and John Colley (right), parents of Harold Colley VC MM, at the unveiling of Smethwick War Memorial in 1926. John is wearing his son's Victoria Cross (Anthony Page Collection)

  • Smetwick-born WWI hero Harold John Colley VC MM

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AN urgent appeal has been issued to find the descendents of a Smethwick war hero awarded the Victoria Cross in the First World War.

Sandwell Council wants to get in touch with the family of Harold John Colley who was awarded the highest military honour posthumously in 1918.

Harold was killed on the Western Front and now museum staff want to find out more about him and his remaining family.

He was one of three men born in the borough awarded the honour who are now set to have a special paving stone laid in their memory as part of the First World War centenary commemorations.

Sandwell Council will lay the paving stones at the nearest cenotaph to each of the men and wants their families to have a say in the placement and commemoration.

Museum officers have already tracked down the descendents of Robert Edwin Phillips of West Bromwich, who fought in Kut, Iraq, and was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1917.

And they have contacted the family of Joseph John Davies, from Tipton, who fought on the Western Front and was awarded his medal in 1916.

Five Victoria Crosses in total were awarded in the borough, the other two going to residents, Herbert James, who before the war had been a teacher at Brasshouse Lane and fought in Gallipoli in 1915, and Thomas Barratt, who was born in Sedgley but lived and worked in Wednesbury, and was awarded the cross posthumously in 1917.

Councillor Darren Cooper, council leader, said: "We are very keen to track down the family of Harold Colley so they can be involved in the placement of the stone honouring Harold's bravery and sacrifice.

"The memorial paving stones are part of the many centenary commemorations planned in the borough to remember those who sacrificed so much in the Great War."

The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded for valour in the face of the enemy to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries, and previous British Empire territories.

It takes precedence over all other orders, decorations and medals and may be awarded to a person of any rank in any service and to civilians under military command.

Harold Colley was born on 26th May, 1894, at 64 Winson Street, off the Dudley Road in Cape Hill, Smethwick. His father, John Colley came originally from Bilston and was a pattern-maker, working at Tangyes Ltd., then for the Smethwick weighbridge manufacturer Henry Pooley at their Albion Scale Works in Brook Street.

After attending Dudley Road Council School Harold started work in the jewellery trade and became a silver spinner for J. & R. Griffin in the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter. He was a member of Smethwick Baptist Church and was a keen cricketer and gymnast.

He enlisted on September 1, 1914, with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, initially serving in the Army Cycling Corps and then as a despatch rider. In the course of the war he was commended for bravery three times.

Harold received a certificate for Meritorious Conduct for his actions on 30th March, 1917, when he was wounded while digging out two men, who had been buried by a mortar bomb, while under heavy fire himself.

His certificate was signed by Sir William Robert Robertson, the only British soldier in history to rise through the ranks from private to field marshal.

Sent to England to recover from his injuries, Harold was then posted to the 10th Lancashire Fusiliers. He was awarded the Military Medal for his actions on June 4, 1918, at Beaumont Hamel. In the early hours his battalion's position was about to be overwhelmed by a German attack. Harold took two men and bombed the advancing Germans into retreat. In the space of 10 minutes the battalion lost one officer and 12 men killed, 21 men wounded, and two officers and 13 men missing but Harold's actions had saved the day. As well as his award he was promoted to acting sergeant.

Harold received the Victoria Cross for his heroic deeds on August 25, 1918, at Martinpuich. The citation in the London Gazette reads: "For most conspicuous bravery and initiative when in command of a platoon in support of forward platoons which had been ordered to hold on at all costs. When the enemy counter-attacked in force, he rushed forward on his own initiative to help the forward line, rallying and controlling the men holding it. The enemy by this time were advancing quickly, and had already obtained a footing in the trench. Sergeant Colley then formed a defensive flank and held it. Out of the two platoons only three men remained unwounded, and he himself was dangerously wounded. It was entirely due to Sergeant Colley's action that the enemy were prevented from breaking through, and were eventually driven off. His courage and tenacity saved a very critical situation."

Harold Colley died later that day from his wounds; he was 24 years old. He was buried at the Mailly Wood Cemetery in the Somme region.

Harold's VC was given to his younger brother Albert who had been invalided out of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in June 1917. The medal is now displayed at the Fusilier Museum in Bury, Lancashire.

As well as a brother Harold had three sisters. Anyone who has information about Harold Colley or his family should contact Frank Caldwell, Sandwell museums service manager, 0121 569 8342 or email frank_caldwell@sandwell.gov.uk

Do you have a story of the First World War to share with Bugle readers in this centenary year? Can you tell of your family's experiences in the services or on the home front? Contact editor@blackcountrybugle.co .uk, call 01384 567678, or write to Bugle House, 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL

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