Wilfrith Elstob VC: The rugby-loving hero of Manchester Hill
It was on Manchester Hill, 100 years ago today, where Wilfrith Elstob made his last stand. “Here we fight, and here we die,” he told his troops, the men of the 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment, as they were hit with the full force with the German Spring Offensive, the Kaiser’s last gasp effort to sway the tide of the Great War toward Berlin.
It started on the 21st March 1918, and it was a bloody day. Only on the first day of the Somme, fought on the same terrain, did more lose their lives. Elstob and his men, along with many other units entrenched in the redoubts, held their ground whilst others retreated, giving their lives to delay this mighty onslaught for as long as they could.
Elstob was raised a vicar’s son in Cheshire and spent numerous years at Manchester University, eventually training to be a teacher. Upon the outbreak of war, he joined the Manchester regiment as a commissioned officer. He fought at the Somme (where he was wounded), at Arras, and at Passchendale. The very worst of the war followed the 16th, it seemed.
He had played rugby union throughout his education. At 6 ft 1 (big in those days), he was a towering presence on the field, and unsurprisingly played in the pack. During his degree (1906-1909) he regularly turned out for the University team, who played at The Firs, Fallowfield, after being first awarded colours in March 1907.
Stationed in France, he longed to play it again. In early 1918 he got his wish, and Elstob captained the 30th Division team – made up of the Manchester & Liverpool regiments – against a local French side.
Shortly after, came the day. He and his men where stationed on Manchester Hill, where they were instructed to hold at all costs. The shelling they line received that morning was like no other witnessed. Then came the advance. The hill was surrounded, but they fought on, often hand-to-hand. Elstob was killed that afternoon, and the hill was taken.
The German advance was eventually repelled, in part due to the actions of those like the 16th who gave everything to drain the fuel out from under the Spring Offensive. This was the turning of the tides. The Allied counter-attack led to the war’s final stages and the eventual armistice.
Posthumously, Wilfrith Elstob was awarded the Victoria Cross.
For most conspicuous bravery, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice during operations at Manchester Redoubt, near St. Quentin, on the 21 March 1918.
During the preliminary bombardment he encouraged his men in the posts in the Redoubt by frequent visits, and when repeated attacks developed controlled the defence at the points threatened, giving personal support with revolver, rifle and bombs. Single-handed he repulsed one bombing assault driving back the enemy and inflicting severe casualties.
Later, when ammunition was required, he made several journeys under severe fire in order to replenish the supply.
Throughout the day Lieutenant-Colonel Elstob, although twice wounded, showed the most fearless disregard of his own safety, and by his encouragement and noble example inspired his command to the fullest degree.
The Manchester Redoubt was surrounded in the first wave of the enemy attack, but by means of the buried cable Lieutenant-Colonel Elstob was able to assure his Brigade Commander that “The Manchester Regiment will defend Manchester Hill to the last.”
Sometime after this post was overcome by vastly superior forces, and this very gallant officer was killed in the final assault, having maintained to the end the duty which he had impressed on his men – namely, “Here we fight, and here we die.”
He set throughout the highest example of valour, determination, endurance and fine soldierly bearing.
His medals, including the Victoria Cross, are on display at the Museum of the Manchester Regiment, in Ashton-under-Lyne.