The tragic story of Sydney Woodroffe, Poole’s teenage VC winner, and his brothers

Three Poole brothers answered their country’s call to join the Army and fight on the Western Front.

One would be mentioned in dispatches; another won the MC; and the youngest, Sydney Clayton Woodroffe, ‘a boy with a wistful smile’, received the Victoria Cross.

All three began by serving with the Rifle Brigade. None survived.

Bournemouth Graphic image of 1915 commemorating Sidney, Kenneth and Leslie Woodroffe. (Courtesy of Marlborough College.)

Bournemouth Graphic image of 1915 commemorating Sydney, Kenneth and Leslie Woodroffe. (Courtesy of Marlborough College.)

Of the brothers-in-arms, the oldest, Kenneth, would be the first to be killed in action. Sydney died in a battle in which his other brother, Leslie, suffered terrible wounds. Leslie spent months recovering then returned to France… and was killed.

Their three names are inscribed on a roll of honour at All Saints Church at Branksome Park close to where the Woodroffe family lived.

All Saints’ roll of honour including the Woodroffe brothers.

All Saints’ roll of honour including the Woodroffe brothers.

The Woodroffes were well-to-do. The father, Henry Long Woodroffe, the son of a florist and nurseryman, was a wine merchant who had been born in London’s Paddington where he married at the age of 27. His bride was Clara Eliza Alice Clayton, 22 years old, whose father was described on the marriage certificate as ‘gentleman’.

Henry and Clara soon had a wine and spirits business in Lewes called Browning and Woodroffe. Later it would merge with the wine and spirits section of the local Beard’s Brewery.

Henry and Clara’s four children – all boys – were born in the Sussex county town.

The Woodroffes would also lease a public house called the Nutley Inn (later known as the Shelley Arms) near Maresfield in Sussex. It is unlikely that they involved themselves directly in running it for, in 1899, their address was still in Lewes and, in the 1901 census the licensee was another man who lived there with his family and two boarders. Henry also owned a property in the Finsbury district of London.

In 1904, after seven years, Henry’s involvement with the inn ended and, in time, the family moved west towards Poole.

By 1911 the Woodroffes were living at 20 Acresholt, in Branksome Wood Gardens and then on to a large property called Thorpewood in Branksome Avenue (today called The Avenue) in Branksome Park, Poole.

The two oldest Woodroffe boys, Hugh and Leslie, born in 1885 and 1886, had been sent as boarders to the prestigious Marlborough College in Wiltshire. Their younger brothers, born in December 1892 and December 1895, would follow them there.

Leslie, Kenneth and Sydney would excel at Marlborough, all becoming the college’s Senior Prefect (head of the school).

Sidney Woodroffe and two other editors of the Marlburian magazine, 1914. (Courtesy of Marlborough College.)

Sydney Woodroffe and two other editors of the Marlburian magazine, 1914. (Courtesy of Marlborough College.)

Leslie was in the school rugby XV and cricket XI, and won a Classics scholarship to University College, Oxford. He went on to become a schoolmaster at Shrewsbury, but volunteered to serve soon after war was declared, obtaining a commission in the 8th Rifle Brigade.

Kenneth who went on to be a Classics scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge, was a first-class sportsman. He had been captain of Marlborough’s cricket team and became a Cambridge Blue in 1913 and 1914. A fast-medium bowler, he made an appearance for Hampshire at Bournemouth’s Dean Park against South Africa. He went on to play for Sussex taking 6-43 against Surrey in the county’s last game before the war. Within a month, he was commissioned into the Rifle Brigade. Later he would be transferred to the 2nd Welsh Regiment to fight at the front.

Sydney, the baby of the family at 18, had just finished school when war was declared. He had been a member of the college rugby, soccer and hockey teams and was all set to follow in Kenneth’s footsteps by going to Pembroke College, Cambridge to study Classics. He never did. Instead he obtained a commission to serve with the Rifle Brigade and left his Branksome Park home to go to war.

Postcard of Sidney Clayton Woodroffe.

Postcard of Sydney Clayton Woodroffe.

The oldest brother, Hugh, had left Marlborough at the age of 16 and had long gone to Malaysia to work in a business believed to be a rubber plantation. Still employed there when war broke out in August 1914, he was, by then a married man with a two- year -old son and his wife, Norah, was heavily pregnant. She would give birth to a son the following month. Hugh was not in a position to join Lord Kitchener’s Army half a world away.

It must have been a proud but worrying time for the boys’ parents, Henry and Clara, back in Poole with three sons in the Army. They had every right to be concerned. Tragic news would soon come knocking.

Lt Kenneth Herbert Clayton Woodroffe was in action almost constantly from November 1914. On 9 May 1915 he was killed during an attack on the German trenches at Neuve Chapelle in France. For his bravery, he was mentioned in dispatches. He had been leading his platoon and was the man nearest the enemy front-line trenches when shot through the head. Kenneth was 22.

The next news to reach Mr and Mrs Woodroffe just three months later was even worse. Both Leslie and Sydney were involved in the fighting at the village of Hooge, on the outskirts of Ypres in Flanders. The British had, days earlier, successfully blown a huge mine under the German entrenchments. But on July 30, the Germans launched a counter-attack.

It was memorable in military history because it was the first time that flamethrowers were used in battle. At 3am, the Germans spread ‘liquid fire’ into the British trenches and, with the weight of numbers against them, the Tommies were forced to retreat to their second line of defence.

That afternoon the order came to counter-attack to recover lost ground. With not enough artillery support and going uphill towards the strong German positions, it was a risky strategy.

Leslie, a captain in command of a company, led his men over No-Man’s Land into intense machine gun fire. He counted 160 steps before throwing himself flat but was hit in the thigh, knee and heel, according to Marlborough College accounts.

For six hours he lay there, before night fell and he was able to drag himself back to the British lines.

Captain Leslie Woodroffe would be awarded the Military Cross for exemplary gallantry in the field that day.

On that same ghastly day at Hooge, his brother, Second Lieutenant Sydney Clayton Woodroffe, too, had been in action.  After the enemy had broken through the front trenches, he and his men came under heavy attack by bombs from the front and rear. They defended their position until they had exhausted all of their own bombs.

Then, Sydney skilfully managed to bring what was left of his platoon back safely over 200 yards of open ground and then down a communication trench back to Brigade headquarters by a wood.

That afternoon, he took part in the ill-fated counter-attack.

His citation for the Victoria Cross, posthumously awarded, said: ‘This very gallant officer immediately led his party forward in a counter-attack under an intense rifle and machine-gun fire.’

He was killed cutting through the barbed wire in front of the enemy trenches to move the attack forward. Sydney was just 19 years old.

The Commanding Officer, Lt Col Ronald Maclachan, who had lost 19 officers and 469 men either killed or wounded, afterwards sent a letter to Sydney’s parents at Branksome Park. He wrote saying ‘your younger son was simply one of the bravest of the brave.’

He said: ‘He risked his life for others right through the day and finally gave it for the sake of his men’ and added, ‘he was a splendid type of young officer, bold as a lion, confident and sure of himself too.

‘The loss he is to me personally is very great,’ he wrote, adding that ‘his men would have followed him anywhere.’

In his letter, Lt Col Maclachlan included another personal observation that must have affected Henry and Clara’s deeply, this time about brother Leslie: ‘I shall always remember how I saw him last – just minutes before a counter-attack was to take place, quiet, cool and collected, as he always was when there are shells and bullets about, armed with a rifle and preparing to lead his men over an open sweep, uphill in a counter-attack.

‘He knew what it meant quite well.’

The Victoria Cross that Sydney was awarded must have been some small compensation for parents Henry and Clara who had now lost two sons to the war.  They received their son’s VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace.

A fellow officer, war poet Captain Charles Sorley, who would later be killed later that year at Loos, wrote a poem as a tribute to his friend Sydney. It read:

‘There is no fitter end than this.

No need is now to yearn nor sigh.

We know the glory that is his,

A glory that can never die.

 

Surely we knew it long before,

Knew all along that he was made

For a swift radiant morning, for

A sacrificing swift night-shade.’

The Poole and East Dorset Herald, like many other papers, reported Sydney’s death and the award of the Victoria Cross.

The Poole and East Dorset Herald report on Sidney Woodroffe’s Victoria Cross, 9 September 1915.

The Poole and East Dorset Herald report on Sydney Woodroffe’s Victoria Cross, 9 September 1915.

The wording of the report prompted the Poole Mayor, Cllr G.C.A. Kentish, to write to the Herald thanking them for correcting a mistake that said that Woodroffe’s Branksome Park home was in Bournemouth, not Poole.

‘Poole is indeed proud of her heroes,’ he wrote, ‘and would rather not have them annexed by other boroughs, though, of course, the temptation is great.’

Mayor’s Letter to the Poole and East Dorset Herald, 23 September 1915.

Mayor’s Letter to the Poole and East Dorset Herald, 23 September 1915.

Meanwhile, Henry and Clara’s badly injured but surviving child, Leslie, spent months in hospital recovering from wounds in both legs.

While there, he wrote a poignant letter, putting on a brave face, to a former teacher at Marlborough saying: ‘Isn’t it splendid dear old Boodles getting the VC? My people are awfully happy and I am especially pleased for their sake.

‘That wonderful phrase, “this very gallant officer” keeps ringing in my ears. What more could anyone want to hear said of their brother?’

Hardly recovered, Captain Leslie Woodroffe was posted again to the Western Front. He arrived back with his regiment on 1 June 1916.

A shell hit him that same day. He was taken to a casualty clearing hospital but died days later on 4 June.

A grieving Shrewsbury teaching colleague described Leslie as ‘one of the best men ever to put on a gown.’

After the war, the Woodroffes remained living in Branksome Park, at Thorpewood then, seemingly, a house called Woodmore or Woodmoor in Branksome Avenue.

The boys’ father, Henry, died nine years after the war had ended in a Bournemouth nursing home. He was buried in the churchyard at All Saints, Branksome Park. (Coincidentally, another VC winner Thomas Pride, a Royal Navy man who was awarded the honour for his gallantry in 1864, is also buried in the churchyard. And the parents of another British officer who won the VC in the First World War, Montague Shadworth Seymour Moor, lived in Tower Road, Poole, just a short hop away)

Henry Woodroffe’s widow, Clara, was in a hotel in Croydon when the Second World War began, living on private means. Later she would reside in a hotel back in Sussex, before passing away on 13 January 1951 at the age of 89.

She was buried alongside her husband at Branksome Park.

Their oldest son Hugh, left Kuala Lumpur soon after the war to return to live in Britain. In late 1919 he wrote to the War Office, successfully applying for a 1914 Star medal to be added to the Victory and British War medals awarded to his late brother Kenneth.

When the Second World War started, Hugh, now a wine merchant like his father had been, was back at Lewes. Over the years he would live in many places across London and the Home Counties and would marry for the second time in his late 70s. He died in 1972 at the age of 87.

Today Kenneth Woodroffe’s name is commemorated at the Le Touret Memorial in France. Leslie was buried at the Barlin Communal Cemetery Extension, near Bethune, also in France. Sidney’s name can be found on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing at Ypres in Belgium.

Sydney’s VC is now part of Lord Ashcroft’s Collection, housed at the Imperial War Museum.

Memorials commemorating Sydney Woodroffe can also be found in places such as Lewes, London and on the Rifle Brigade memorial in Winchester Cathedral.

At peaceful All Saints Church in Branksome Park, the three Woodroffe names are included alphabetically on a tablet on the wall, listing the dozens of men from the parish who sacrificed their lives in the Great War. The church organ is also dedicated to the war dead.

In the Treasury at the London church of All Hallows by the Tower, a sword is kept that is believed to have been Sydney Woodroffe’s. It was one of two that had once flanked what had been the church’s Toc H Chapel.

Newspaper cutting showing Sidney Woodroffe’s Marlborough rugby football cap on the memorial to Gilbert Talbot in what was the Toc H chapel at All Hallows by the Tower church. (Courtesy of All Hallows by the Tower.)

Newspaper cutting showing Sydney Woodroffe’s Marlborough rugby football cap on the memorial to Gilbert Talbot in what was the Toc H chapel at All Hallows by the Tower church. (Courtesy of All Hallows by the Tower.)

Why is it there? There is a link. The Rev ‘Tubby’ Clayton, who co-founded Toc H – signallers’ abbreviation for Talbot House, a rest centre for soldiers in Belgium during the war – was for a long time, vicar at All Hallows by the Tower. The other Toc H co-founder was the Rev Neville Talbot. Neville’s brother, Gilbert, was killed alongside Sydney at Hooge. The following day Neville, who could not bear to leave his brother’s body unblessed, crawled through the grass, defying shells and snipers, and found Gilbert and Sidney’s bodies. Gilbert’s body was recovered a week later. Sidney’s never was.

They had died near a communication trench that was known to the soldiers as ‘Old Bond Street’.

Sydney’s Marlborough rugby cap had also been displayed at the church before a bomb devastated the sacred building in the Second World War. It was placed on the memorial to Gilbert.

They are commemorated, too, on the roll of honour at their old school, Marlborough College, where a Memorial service for 2nd Lt Sidney Woodroffe was held in the September of 1915, not long after he had died.

A tribute given by the Master of the College, the Rev J.H. Wynne-Willson perhaps gives an insight into what Sidney, the 19-year old lad, rather than Sydney the soldier, was really like:

‘I have constantly in my thoughts the quiet, strong boy with a wistful smile, who went in and out amongst us doing big work in all departments of the school life, and yet so modest and self-forgetting, with a disposition strong, yet kind, vigorous, yet gentle.

‘Though rather reserved, he was very sensitive: he never expressed his feelings much, but they were strong.

‘Practical though he was, he would, I think, have made his mark in scholarship, for he loved literature and had a student’s mind.

‘In spite of his capacity as a Cadet officer, and his intense interest on the OTC, he shrank from war.

‘It was an effort to go, but therein he did his duty as in all else.’

Sources include:

Ancestry

The National Archives

Lest We Forget by Steve Annandale (2014, All Saints Church, Branksome Park)

Marlborough College and the Great War in 100 Stories (2018, Marlborough College.)

Public Schools and the Great War by Anthony Seldon and David Walsh (2013, Pen and Sword)

Bournemouth and the First World War by M.A. Edgington (Bournemouth Local Studies Publications, 1985)

‘Band of Brothers’ newspaper article by Kevin Nash (Bournemouth Daily Echo, 13 November, 2008)

 

 

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