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The passage of time may tarnish photographs, but memories last forever

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: August 05, 2014

  • The message on the reverse of the photograph

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THE front page feature about George Onions VC that was published last April, grabbed the attention of Bugle reader Bobbie Unsworth from Rugby in more ways than one.

The name Onions was very familiar to her because it was the surname of her paternal grandfather Robert Onions, and she got even more excited when she discovered that George, just like her granddad, had been born in Bilston. Perhaps she had stumbled on a long lost member of the family, and a recipient of the Victoria Cross to boot?

Bobbie contacted the Bugle for guidance on the next step to make, having already delved quite deep into her family's genealogy. Our advice was similar to that given to many readers in the past. We told her to send what information she had and by publishing the material other readers might be able to assist in her quest for answers. Several telephone chats later Bobbie sent us the following: "Further to our conversations I have not been able to find a link in the family tree between George and my grandfather Robert Onions. But if any readers can help me out I would be very grateful.

"In the meantime what details I have are unfortunately rather sketchy, but at least I have a photograph of the granddad I never knew. It was taken in 1915, within months of him being killed on the battlefield in Flanders. Dressed in full uniform he sadly appears to have a look of apprehension on his face.

"According to census returns he was born in 1890 in the ecclesiastical parish of St Mary in Bilston, the son of William and Eliza Onions. His siblings included William who was three years older, and his sister Eliza who was a year younger. Granddad married my grandmother Jane Williams in 1910 and they had two children, Sarah, my mom, and Violet.

"On the reverse of the photograph he had written a brief message which reads as follows. 'Dear sister, I am very sorry to hear of your trouble and want to know if you will be good enough to send Enoch's address by return of post'. Enoch was his brother-in-law. Despite being embroiled in the actions of the war, he was still keen to have a say in family affairs. Written on the left-hand side of the postcard are the words, 'Take care of this', a poignant remark on the pc that has survived nearly 100 years.

"Robert's children Sarah and Violet went on to have a combined total of six children of their own, six grandchildren, including myself, who granddad never lived to see, and it's very appropriate that we should remember his sacrifice and the sacrifice of countless tens of thousands of others who never grew old as we have been allowed to do."

As far as Robert's military career is concerned the facts are few and far between, but we have managed to source some general information that will help to colour-in the background to this story. Bobbie told us Robert Onions was a sapper attached to the 177th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers and was killed in action on Thursday September 2, 1915.

As a result of enemy strategy a decision was taken in February 1915 to form Tunnelling Companies, made up of men drawn from the ranks mixed with drafts of men specially recruited for this kind of work. Which category Robert fell into isn't known. The first nine RE Tunnelling Coy's, numbers 170 to 178 (which included Robert's coy 177), were each commanded by a regular RE officer and comprised of 5 officers and 269 sappers, aided by temporarily attached infantrymen as required (which almost doubled the companies' number in some cases).

Formed at Terdeghem in June 1915, the 177th Tunnelling Coy moved into a position facing the village of Wytschaete near the Messines Ridge, and remained there until relieved in the November. While the 177th continued to be active Robert Onions was killed in action.

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