Here I am in Manchester’s main cemetery (a favourite) on a sunny day hemmed in by life....and death. As Prince William and Kate had visited Manchester to attend a glossy service to remember war heroes I thought I'd go and have a coffee with Henry Kelly who was one of them. Here I am a few feet above his brave bones.
He was born in Manchester and was one of eleven children (one didn’t make it.) He was 17 when his dad died in 1904, making him the sole provider for his mum and siblings. Little is known about his early life but by the time he was he was 24 he was working as a clerk for the Post Office. World War One started and he was 27 when he joined the army. Promotion followed and he was Acting Sergeant in February 1915. He went to fight on the Western Front in France in May 1916. He was promoted four months later to Acting Captain.
On Wednesday 4th October 1916 he was 29-years-old and fighting in Le Sars in France. Twice the platoon came under tremendously heavy gunfire and many were injured or killed. Moreover they were almost wiped out completely. With only three available men left Henry led the way and advanced to an enemy trench (empty or taken over - not known.) They got in the trench and continued fighting back. The two other soldiers were shot and only Henry remained fighting. For how long is known but when enemy reinforcements arrived he had to get out of there. He carried his wounded Company Sergeant Major 70 yards back to the army trench. He also went back to bring back three other injured soldiers and was somehow unharmed.
Back in England he went down to Buckingham Palace and King George V pinned a Victoria Cross medal on his chest. In 1917 his battalion was posted to Italy where his action brought a Military Cross. He was in Asiago commanding a raiding party (his company and two platoons.) In the raid they killed 80 enemy soldiers and took 31 prisoners. He received promotion to Captain in September 1918. More bravery a year later (for which he was awarded a Bar): he struck an attack on the bank of the Piave River against Austrian positions capturing many machine-guns and hundreds of prisoners.
Aged 34 he was demobilised and returned to work at the Post Office. He left for Ireland, qualified as a chartered surveyor and married Eileen (they’d have two children.) Aged 38 he was back in Manchester and opened a number of grocery shops with his brothers. It went bust and he kept various hotels in Manchester. Aged 45 the family moved to North Wales and continued in the licensed trade and then he was off fighting in the Spanish Civil War. By 54 he was working in London for as a claims officer but was accused of making fraudulent claims for travel expenses. A court found him guilty and he resigned. He returned to North Wales working as an estate agent before returning to Manchester.
Aged 72 died after a long illness in Prestwich Hospital and is buried in the Roman Catholic section with his wife and sister. His VC is held by the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment Museum, Bankfield Museum, Halifax, Yorkshire. Being well acquainted with Southern Cemetery I've been to this grave a few times. I've taken a flask and cup and had a coffee with him. Reading about Henry I got the feeling he was born for the military and didn't know what to do with himself once he'd left. He had many faults but doesn't bravery axe through it all? I did a salute and left.
Wills and Kate ensuring the heroes are never forgotten...