Lieutenant Colonel John Stanhope COLLINGS WELLS VC, DSO
4th Bedfordshire Regiment
Date of birth: 19 July 1880
Date of death: 27 March 1918
Killed in action aged 37
Buried: Bouzincourt Ridge Cemetery Plot 3, Row E, Grave 12.
John Stanhope (known in the family as Jack) was born in Manchester, the first son of Arthur, founder of the company A.C. Wells & Co which produced a wide variety of oil lamps, and Caroline Mary Collings-Wells of Brand’s House, Hughenden, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
He was educated at Uppingham and was up at Christ Church 1900-1903.
In 1905 Jack went to live with his Uncle, Will Buck, at Field House in Marple to enable him to run his father's business in Manchester. This he continued to do until the outbreak of war in 1914:
“Since 1905 our family party has included one of my nephews, Mr. Wells' eldest son, John Stanhope Collings-Wells, commonly called Jack. Being of a lively and sociable disposition he has become quite a favourite in Field House and a welcome addition to our family circle. He joins most heartily in all our entertainments. Our George and he are like two brothers and though engaged in different businesses in Manchester they go by train every morning to the city. At our 7 o'clock dinner Jack invariably relates the events or adventures he has met with during the day and afterwards talks "shop" with George for the rest of the evening. He does not stay with us all the year though, he frequently visits his home at Caddington Hall and besides travelling occasionally here and there on his father's business he is away for a month in the summer camping out in Hatfield Park with the Hertford Militia in which he holds the rank of Captain. Jack's mother is my niece being the eldest daughter of my sister Mrs. Eisdell of Reading, a connection which has been a bond of friendship between the Caddington family and ourselves for many years.
“Jack is really very useful in our garden where he may often be seen in his shirt sleeves building stone walls, making rockeries or forming flower beds in odd places, all of course with George's approval who, on the other hand works mostly on the turf. He is getting both lawns in very nice order after much levelling and exterminating of weeds and daisies...."
(Mr Will Buck’s diary)
Captain John Collings-Wells arrived in the 2nd Battalion on 6 November 1914 whilst they were resting at Locre having been heavily engaged at Ypres in the previous weeks. Having survived two dreadful months in the atrocious conditions faced by the British troops that Winter, Captain Collings-Wells was badly wounded on 12 January 1915 and invalided home as a result.
Having eventually recovered, John returned to France with the newly mobilised 4th Battalion, who saw action on the Somme and at Ancre in 1916, at Arras and Ypres (Passchendaele) in 1917 and during the massive German Spring Offensive of 1918.
On their arrival on the Western Front in July, John was a Company Commander but on 4 September 1916, he was promoted to Major and became second in command of the Battalion. After the Battalion had suffered badly during the Battles on the Somme and later at Ancre that November, he found himself in command of the Battalion as they bedded into trench life that winter, waiting for the new campaigning season to commence.
His strong leadership was already noted and respected by that time. His great organizational ability, attention to detail and the way he seemed to know almost every individual in his Battalion by name made him a highly respected leader whom the men of the 4th Battalion were always keen to follow and aspire to be more like. He was always first into the attack, and last to withdraw, only when his men had been successfully moved to safety. His prevailing thought when faced with combat decisions was "will this benefit the Battalion", which shone through to all subordinates, thus inspiring them to achieve great deeds if he so called for them.
In 1917 Lt-Colonel Collings-Wells led his Battalion in the Arras Offensives and captured a portion of Gavrelle despite horrendous casualties. In recognition of his incredible leadership and personal gallantry, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
The report in the London Gazette records:
"D.S.O. - Capt. (Acting Lieut.-Col.) J.S.Collings-Wells. He commanded his battalion during the operations on the 23rd and 24th April 1917, with marked ability. The battalion captured the northern outskirts of Gavrelle on the 23rd April, and held their ground, in spite of frequent counter-attacks. When the situation required clearing up, he proceeded through the town under heavy shell and machine-gun fire to re-organise the battalion, and immediately informed the disposition of his companies. On the 29th April he was placed in command of a composite battalion with orders to attack and capture the Oppy line of trenches between the ground then held by the 188th Brigade and the 2nd Division. It was chiefly owing to his leading, coolheadedness and disregard for personal safety that the battalion reached their place of assembly, and formed up under shellfire in darkness on practically strange ground, and subsequently achieved its objects. His courage on this occasion inspired all ranks, and was greatly instrumental in carrying the operation through successfully."
Lt-Colonel Collings-Wells also led his Battalion through their involvement in the Third Ypres Battles (also called Passchendaele) was also Mentioned in Despatches in November 1917 in relation to his DSO. He also stepped in to temporarily command the 190th Brigade several times during 1917.
The now infamous German spring offensive began to take a heavy toll on the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division a full nine days before the actual infantry assault was launched. The Germans flooded the area with mustard gas, costing the 4th Battalion 5 officers and 264 other ranks before the battle had even started. The entire 63rd Royal Naval Division lost some 2000 men before the opening day of battle -
21 March 1918.
When the expected German attack finally started the Battalion were in reserve positions but were not long out of the action. History records that the Germans attacked with such force that the allies began a fighting retreat almost immediately, their front lines having been quickly smashed and overrun. British Generals scrambled their reserves into position and Collings-Well's Division were moved twenty miles into positions on the old 1916 battlefields of the Somme over just four days, conducting several fighting withdrawals in the process. In a matter of days, the Germans had recovered the ground it had taken the Allies almost two years to capture and British forces were stretched to the extreme, yet held "to the last" bullet or man, thus making the Germans pay dearly for their successes. During these fighting withdrawals, Lt-Colonel Collings-Wells personally led small parties of his men who covered the withdrawal of the bulk of the Battalion by fending off ridiculous numbers of advancing Germans against the odds. The action on 24 March saw them stay until they had run out of ammunition, yet they managed to withdraw and reorganize further back.
On 25 March he took his battalion up to High Wood to reinforce the 189th Brigade who were very hard pressed. Once again he proved his natural leadership ability under the most strenuous conditions and his men were soon heavily engaged in action. Once again they stayed until every round of ammunition had been used. As before, Collings-Wells realised that his men would soon be surrounded so he called for volunteers to help him hold up the Germans whilst the remainder escaped. Once the withdrawal was complete John lead the rearguard to safety himself.
That evening they withdrew to the Thiepval Ridge and on 26 March crossed the River Ancre, destroying all the bridges once safely over. At 7pm the Battalion moved into position between Aveluy and Bouzincourt - 1 mile north of Albert - and were now told to hold the Germans again as they advanced north out of the recently captured town of Albert.
Having been ordered to counter attack Bouzincourt Ridge near Albert on 27 March, he rallied and led the exhausted Battalion in the attack himself - as usual - and was wounded in both arms in the process. Although he was wounded in both arms, he led the remnants of his battered Battalion, who took the position despite appalling enemy fire and drove the German Army back . A wounded Sergeant saw that Collings-Wells was almost physically dragged to a bunker to have his wounds dressed as he was extremely reluctant to leave his men. Moments later the bunker received a direct hit from a mortar shell and the 37 year old Collings-Wells, his second in command Major Nunnelly and two other officers, including the medic were killed outright. Sadly, his body could not be correctly identified so their personal effects were removed and the casualties were buried without knowing who was in which grave. The War Diary simply records:
"27 Mar 1918 - west of Albert. Batt. was moved south to a position W of ALBERT where they attacked the Railway at 7.30 a.m. Lt.Col. J.S.COLLINGS-WELLS, D.S.O. MAJOR G.P. NUNNELEY, 2/Lt. D.H.MACKLIN, 2.Lt. O.J.SOAMES killed, Lts.C.KEITH-JOHNSTON M.C. J.B. PRIMROSE-WELLS. 2.Lts. L.HAMBLING & W.BROUGHTON wounded. Capt.L.G.PLUMBLY M.C. took over command of the Batt. temporarily from this date."
taken with permission from his entry on the website for the Bedfordshire Regiment in the Great War
All Saints War Memorial, Marple.
St. Ethelreda's Church, Hatfield, Herts.
Collings-Wells Memorial Hall, Caddington, Bedfordshire.
Christ Church, Oxford.
East Window in Markyate church given by his father.
His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire Regimental Museum, Luton, Bedfordshire,
For most conspicuous bravery, skilful leading and handling of his battalion in a very critical situation during a withdrawal. When the rearguard was almost surrounded and in great danger of being captured, Lt-Col Collings-Wells realizing the situation, called for volunteers to remain behind and hold up the enemy whilst the remainder of the rearguard withdrew, and with his small body of men held them up for 1½ hours till they had expended every round of ammunition. During this time he moved freely amongst his men, guiding and encouraging them, and by his great courage undoubtedly saved the situation. On a subsequent occasion when his battalion was ordered to carry out a counter-attack he showed the greatest bravery. Knowing that his men were extremely tired after ten days’ fighting he placed himself in front and led the attack and even when twice wounded refused to leave them, but continued to lead and encourage his men until he was killed at the moment of gaining their objective. The successful results of the operation were without doubt due to the undaunted courage exhibited by this officer.
Administration of his Estate, amounting to £7406 5s 2d was granted to his father.