Lance Sergeant John Harold Rhodes VC, DCM & Bar

15122 3rd Bn. Grenadier Guards died on November 27th 1917 Age 26

 

John Harold Rhodes was born on May 17th 1891 in the small mining village of Packmoor. He was the first child of Ernest and Sarah (née Hanford); the couple went on to have a total of ten children. The Rhodes’ lived in a small cottage in Mellor Street and Ernest worked in the local mines. John and his siblings attended the local church school in nearby Newchapel.

After leaving school John followed his father into the coal mines at Chatterley Whitfield. He was a keen sportsman and played with the local football team. Like his father, who in his younger days had served in the Royal Scots Fusiliers, John wanted to join the army and on February 16th 1911 and at the age of twenty, he enlisted at Stoke-on-Trent in the Grenadier Guards. He was to serve for three years in the 3rd Battalion and then returned to civilian life and employment in the local mines.

With the outbreak of war in August 1914, John was recalled from the reserve and transferred, this time into the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards. In a very short time the Guards were posted to France. They arrived in mid-August and went into battle at Mons on August 23rd. In a letter home Guardsman Rhodes wrote, “When we got to the base of the bank we were met with a deadly Maxim and rifle fire. It was lucky for us we were underneath the bank or else I don’t think many of us would have lived to do much fighting. It was our first taste of war; all we could do was to lie low, as an advance would have been suicide.”

John survived the Retreat from Mons and the fighting at Landrecies and Villes Cotterets on the way. Their next action was in September 1914 at the First Battle of the Aisne. He wrote about the time he had a ‘narrow squeak’; “a chap behind me stepped into my place and got shot in the heart.” They then moved north into Flanders to the First battle of Ypres where his battalion lost many. In January 1915 John was promoted to Lance Corporal and was making a name for himself as a daring patrol leader. During an action on May 18th at Rue du Bois, near Armentières, John undertook a reconnaissance, returning with valuable information. On two other occasions he went out under heavy fire to bring back wounded men. For his bravery, John was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

He wrote home saying that he had received the ribbon for his DCM but the medal was kept at Buckingham Palace until the end of the war or the end of him. He returned home on leave to receive a marvellous reception from the locals; crowds of people wanted to meet him wherever he went. After a procession through the villages he was presented with a ‘purse of gold’ and a marble time piece.

Leave over, John returned to the front near Givenchy, where he re-joined his pals. On August 6th 1915 the Germans were shelling their position which caused a number of guardsmen to be buried in a forward sap. Acting Corporal Rhodes and Guardsman Barton ran from their trench to dig the men out but during the successful rescue both men were wounded. John received a shoulder wound. For their gallant deed Barton was awarded the DCM and John a Bar to his DCM.

After treatment John was invalided to England where he spent four months recuperating from his shoulder wound. He was then transferred to a home based unit as an instructor in the 5th (Reserve) Battalion, Grenadier Guards. He was also promoted to Lance Sergeant, spending sixteen months in England as an instructor before making a complete recovery.

On December 11th 1916 he married his sweetheart, Elizabeth Meir, at Packmoor Methodist Chapel. They made their home at New Street, Pitts Hill. John spent that Christmas at home but January 19th 1917 he joined the 3rd Battalion in France.

The Guards fought at Arras, Bullecourt and Messines. In May 1917 he received the welcome news that Lizzie had given birth to their first child – a son, John.

By August the Guards Division had moved north just beyond the Ypres Salient to an area close to the Houthulst Forest. In this area the enemy had particularly strong defences with many machine gun nests and pillboxes. On October 9th 1917 the 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards and the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards attacked across open ground and were racked by fire. The Battalion history records “there seemed every prospect of desperate fighting”, the Coldstreamers used out-flanking tactics, whilst the Grenadiers attacked the pillbox direct. Lance Sergeant Rhodes, who was in line commanding a Lewis Gun section went through machine gun and shell fire towards a pillbox, accounting for several of the enemy on the way. Seeing three Germans leave the entrance, John still unscathed, entered the pillbox. Nine enemy soldiers surrendered to him including an artillery observation officer with vital documents. For this conspicuous bravery John was recommended for the Victoria Cross and the Croix de Guerre.

John’s battalion was posted south into France and they were ordered into action on the morning of November 27th 1917 attacking at Fontaine Notre Dame, near Cambria.

Here, on the mist covered battlefield, John’s luck ran out. During the attack he was hit and very seriously wounded. He was taken to no. 48 Casualty Clearing Station. A 3rd Battalion Officer, Carroll Carstairs, saw him being carried from the battlefield and recorded: “He was a fine big man, but lying deep in the stretcher and covered with a blanket, he seems immeasurably to have shrunk......all his great strength and courage is ebbing fast.”

Back in the Potteries, news was just coming through that the Victoria Cross had been confirmed both for John and also another local soldier, Corporal E.A. Egerton from Longton. On Tuesday November 27th John’s wife, family and people from the area were celebrating their hero, unaware of the tragedy that was to unfold – for on arrival at the Casualty Clearing Station, John succumbed to his wounds.

The Matron of the station wrote to Mrs. Rhodes. “It is with the greatest regret that I have to tell you your husband died on admission to this hospital today. He was brought in this afternoon with a badly smashed thigh and breathed his last as we got him on the bed.

“I am afraid this will be a terrible shock to you. Little I can say can give you comfort, but you would like to know that his body was reverently handled, and that he will be buried close by in the military cemetery by the chaplain of the unit. With very sincere sympathy.”

John was buried at Rocquigny-Equancourt Road British Cemetery, Manancourt. The Commanding Officier of the 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards, Lt. Colonel Andrew Thorne, DSO, wrote to Elizabeth Rhodes, “...I am afraid he never knew that he had got his VC. He was wounded on the morning of the 27th November and died as he reached the casualty clearing station. We called there to tell him but it was too late.”

The most poignant tribute to John Rhodes VC, DCM and Bar, comes from a letter to Elizabeth from the Chaplain of 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards. Writing on December 8th 1917 he said, “...the other day I passed the grave of your husband on the side of a hill facing the sun, and as we passed by we thought of you, of the tremendous loss we have suffered. It is one of the cruellest things of this war that just at the moment of great things the best is taken away. Your husband won it over and over again, yet he was always the same, quiet in his manner, never boastful, always doing his duty, a pattern to soldiers a pattern to us all.”

At home following the great shock, a memorial service was held at the Primitive Methodist Chapel, Packmoor, on December 23rd 1917. A service was also held at the Pittshill Primitive Methodist Chapel on December 30th 1917. The Sentinel reported that “there was deepest regret throughout the district.”

Due to domestic difficulties, Elizabeth was unable to attend a Buckingham Palace investiture and John’s medals were presented to her at her home on July 15th 1918. Elizabeth Rhodes never re-married and died on March 1st 1988 at the age of 97 years.

John Harold Rhodes is remembered on a memorial that stands close to his birth place at Mellor Street, Packmoor. His name appears on the Biddulph cenotaph, the Tunstall war memorial and a memorial plaque was erected at the Chatterley Whitfield Mining Museum in 1984.

Michael Turnock.

 

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