The emergence of a photo of our Great Grandfather got me back in touch with my second cousin Patrick a few weeks ago. He lives in Dover and curiously a century and a half ago, that is where Robert Simmons, a weaver from Co Tyrone was billeted. He helped man the Western Heights Drop Redoubt and kept a watchful eye out for Napoleon III and French invaders. Robert was a professional soldier who had served in the Royal Artillery for twenty one years. Patrick showed me his records a few years back and he fought in the Crimean War and won medals at the battles of Alma and Inkerman. Occasionally I cycle home past The Alma Tavern in Wandsworth and always have a glance up at the red-coated soldier on the sign and think of him.
Corresponding with Patrick reminded me that one of the Summerstown182 is buried in Dover, in St James’s Cemetery. Indeed his grave is part of a special memorial to an incident that happened in April 1918. The Zeebrugge Raid was a daring attempt to block the source of the U boat traffic and other light enemy shipping coming out of the Belgian port. Churchill didn’t mince his words in describing it. ‘The Raid on Zeebrugge may well rank as the finest feat of arms in the Great War and certainly as an episode unsurpassed in the history of the Royal Navy’.
John Henry Wood’s next-of-kin details give the family’s address as 596 Garratt Lane. The house would have been roughly on the edge of the Burtop Estate just three doors away from the home of another young man who died at sea, 17 year old Percy Newman who lost his life on HMS Defence in the Battle of Jutland. Before that they lived at Chatham Street in Battersea where in 1911, 18 year old John was employed as a railway porter. He joined the Navy signing up for twelve year service on 27th September 1911. His records show that he was based at a number of shore stations, at Chatham, the Isle of Sheppey and Crystal Palace. He was for two brief periods on HMS Shannon, but not when she participated at Jutland. In May 1915 he joined HMS Antrim which was fortunate to avoid major conflict. In June 1916 she was sent to Archangel before going to the North American and West Indies Station for convoy escort duties until December 1917. John’s father worked as a dustman and he had two sisters, Lucy and Sarah and an older brother Charles. Prior to this the family lived in Sheepcote Lane and Livingstone Road in Battersea.
On an Ancestry website is a remarkable photograph which includes members of the Wood family which we have been very kindly given permission to use by the grandson of Lucy Wood. She is the woman in the back row on the left wearing a sailor’s cap. Second from the right in the back row is a Mrs Hammond, probably Lucy’s mother-in-law. John Henry Wood Senior and his wife Sarah Anne are to the right of the front row. Third from the left on the front row is, it is believed, John Henry Wood. The mood is relaxed and happy, if a little weary and pensive, perhaps suggesting some kind of reunion or send-off. Caps and hats are at jaunty angles. There is even a bit of cross-dressing, two women are wearing sailors uniform and one that of a soldier. One male has donned a large woman’s coat with an expansive fur collar and wide-brimmed hat. Despite the easy-going jollity, many of the faces carry a nervous care-worn expression. The women look strong but resigned. The men appear more upbeat. One older male looks like he has just come back from a shift of labouring work. In a prominent position at the front, the two males, who although not in full uniform, have the air of returned servicemen. They appear notably more cheerful than the others with a confident self-assured pose. The presence of two enormous flagons in the foreground indicate that a few drinks are being had. Could this possibly be the last family photo of John Henry Wood before he went off on his deadly mission? Could his sister Lucy be wearing his cap?
John Henry Wood was a Stoker 1st Class on HMS Iphigenia, a lovely name with classic greek connections, but by the spring of 1918, an obselete cruiser which with two other blockships would be filled with concrete and sunk at the mouth of Zeebrugge harbour. The date chosen, St Georges Day 23rd April saw a simultaneous raid on the port of Ostend. Early that morning a motley flotilla comprising thirty four motor launches, two Mersey ferries, two submarines packed with explosives and an assortment of destroyers and motorboats set out across the channel. A diversionary attack on the mile-long breakwater, the Zeebrugge mole, was met with heavy resistance. A painting by Charles de Lacy at the Britannia Royal Naval College shows HMS Vindictive leading this storm. It must have been mayhem as men tried to disembark the blockships, burning chemicals to create a smokescreen as they came under heavy fire. Vindictive’s commander Captain Carpenter later said, ‘They literally poured projectiles into us’. Some residents back in Dover reported that during the raid they could ‘hear the guns on the Belgian coast seventy five miles away and that the sound had rattled their windows’. Amidst panic and confusion the three blockships were sunk in the wrong place, the port was only partially obstructed and within a few days the submarines were able to move in and out again. The raid was however presented by Allied propaganda as a huge success and resulted in the awarding of eight Victoria Crosses.
Of the 1,700 men involved in the operation, there were 500 casualties with 238 dead. 156 of those killed were brought back to Dover. Sixty-six of these men including John Henry Wood were buried at St James’ Cemetery. They were brought home either because they had died of their wounds en route or because their bodies had been recovered. Pathe footage of twenty bodies being laid to rest at a special ceremony in Dover Cemetery is the only film we are likely to have of one of the Summerstown182 being buried. Thousands lined the streets of Dover to see this event.
In a quiet corner of St James’s cemetery in Dover, on a grassy bank in the shadow of some pines, is the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’, a memorial erected to honour and remember the sailors and marines killed during the Zeebrugge Raid on 23rd April 1918. Some have names, others just say simply ‘A Soldier Of The Great War’. Fourth from the left, down on the front row is the gravestone of John Henry Wood of the Summerstown182. The message on it is longer than most ‘GONE FROM US BUT NOT FORGOTTEN – NEVER SHALL THY MEMORY FADE – MOTHER’. The King of the Belgians presented a bell to the town in honour of the heroism shown that day. It was placed above the Town Hall and there is a special ceremony every St George’s Day.
Many thanks to Patrick Simmons who visited John Henry Wood’s grave in Dover, took these photographs and helped tell this story.