Harry was a Whilton man, whose bravery and character during World War I brought him to the attention of the nation. The letters V.C. and M.C. after his name gave him a standing and a prominence he would not have otherwise expected. Yet his story suggests that on these two occasions in 1917 Harry’s actions were characteristic of him.
His career after the war took him around the British Isles and he was remembered with pride and affection by those who had been encouraged, supported and led by him. Appropriately his medals are now kept in the Royal Scots Museum at Edinburgh Castle. Today his legacy is seen most poignantly in the continuing work of Combat Stress with veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In 2017, to mark the centenary of Harry winning the Victoria Cross,a commemorative stone is to be laid in the centre of Whilton village, the parish where he was born, grew up and spent his early married life.
Henry Reynolds was born on 16th August, 1879 in The Wharf House at Whilton Locks in Northamptonshire. He was known throughout his life as “Harry”. He was the ninth child of Thomas Henry and Tryphena
Reynolds and had two brothers and seven sisters.
Harry’s father, a small farmer and successful businessman served on the first Whilton Parish Council, Daventry Rural District Council and was mayor of Daventry four times.
Harry grew up in the family home, which stood on a site between the railway and the canal, where Whilton Carpets now stands. Apart from its garden and orchard, the house had a yard, stabling for horses and a
canal wharf where cargoes of wheat, salt and coal were loaded and unloaded. The lime kilns in the yard belched out smoke and fumes and steam trains roared past the house.
As a child, Harry explored the area around Whilton Lodge, the mill and the canal. In those days many narrow boats travelled up and down the canal, the boat people stopping at the Spotted Cow pub for refreshment. The Locks area was home to a grocery shop, a dressmaker and a blacksmith who shoed horses for the boat people and the local farming community.
Harry went to Daventry Grammar School where he was taught by the Rev. William Henry Logan, Rector of Whilton. Harry’s enthusiasm for education is not known, but he excelled on the sports field, captaining
the Grammar School football team and winning the cup for sports in 1892.
By 1899 Harry was twenty and working for his father. In his spare time he enjoyed fishing, shooting and riding with the Pytchley Hunt. He shared his father’s passion for breeding and showing horses and was successful at local shows, winning a number of prizes with his mare “Daintree”. He had a photograph of this special horse framed and hung on the wall in the old Wharf House at the Locks. At this time, he also followed his father in becoming a patriotic member of the local Yeomanry.
In the winter of 1901, Harry’s mother Tryphena died. His father was also in poor health and while serving as Mayor of Daventry for the fourth time, died in 1903.The funeral procession, led by Harry, his two brothers walked from Locks up the hill to Whilton church. The coffin was covered with wreaths and carried by ten of his father’s employees. They were met at the top of Whilton Hill by members of the Daventry Town Council, the Parish Council and other dignitaries before the cortege moved on to the church.
Harry married Gwen Jones on 3rd October 1905 at East Haddon church. The guests celebrated in a marquee at East Haddon Grange and afterwards the happy couple left for their honeymoon in Brighton. Harry and Gwen returned to life at The Wharf House, and within a year their son, Thomas Henry William, was born, followed by a second child christened Gwendolen Tryphena Alice.
The family’s happiness was followed by a setback. Harry’s father’s was a self-made man who believed his children should make their own way in life. His will required his estate, including the house, wharf, mill and land, to be sold with his children to benefit equally. In carrying out the terms of this will, Harry was forced to leave his Whilton home and move into a rented property on the Norton estate. Harry and his brother Ned started a business covering the Braunston, Daventry and Weedon area, which included providing coal, fodder and hay for the military garrison at Weedon.
When war broke out in 1914 Harry was almost thirty five. Although he had rejoined the Northamptonshire Yeomanry, he applied for a commission with the Royal Scots. He was appointed a Second Lieutenant in the 12th Battalion of the Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment) and went to Scotland to train at Queensferry.
Harry was thirty-seven when he left to fight, and was about to become the father of a third child. Gwen and the children remained with her parents at the Grange Farm, East Haddon, during the war years and Harry wrote home daily, where possible.
When Harry embarked for France on 22nd August 1916, the Battle of the Somme had already been raging for over a month. In the five months of the battle over a million men were killed or wounded. The German army was being ground down, but this was a battle of attrition for the British troops, who existed in a sea of freezing mud and appalling weather. The rain had been followed by frost and heavy snow and as trench coats were not given to officers, the family sent him a Burberry coat and plenty of socks to keep out the cold.
Harry’s 12th Battalion was involved for the first half of October in the Battle of Le Transloy. During the fighting, Harry was wounded in the mouth by shrapnel. He remained at the front whilst receiving treatment and the wound continued to trouble him throughout the war. The battalion left the Somme front on 24th October.
After the slaughter of the Somme, the French and British planned a major offensive in the spring of 1917 which was hoped to end the war in a few days. The Battle of Arras started on Easter Monday as part of this major British push. From 9th April to 16th May 1917, soldiers from Britain and all over the Empire attacked the German trenches. Three Scottish Divisions were involved in battle, including Harry’s 12th Battalion of the Royal Scots.
Fighting had already been going on for three days when Harry’s Battalion was ordered into the attack. The artillery barrage opened at 5 o’clock in the afternoon and Harry and his men advanced on Greenland Hill. The attack was all over bar the dying in about 30 minutes. The casualty rate was phenomenal, men were going down every few seconds.
Harry’s actions on this day led to his promotion to Lieutenant and the award of the Military Cross. The citation spoke of his “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in reorganising his company when all the officers became casualties, and leading it to the attack with great courage and coolness. His fine example had a most steadying effect upon the men, who had been badly shaken.”
After this Harry and his men had to endure days or weeks of waiting for action at the front. Activities were organised to provide occupation and exercise and Harry took part, winning the mounted relay race on a bare-backed mule. By now he was desperate to see Gwen and the children again, but all leave was blocked. In one of his letters home he wrote: “I feel so disappointed that I could really sit down and cry.” Harry continued to apply for leave and eventually permission was given and
he came home for a few days, having recently been promoted to Captain.
The Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, which took place between 20th and 25th September 1917, was part of the Battle of Passchendaele. The British and their allies wanted to end the stalemate and force the enemy back, but the attack had been anticipated and the Germans had built hundreds of steel-reinforced concrete "pill-box" fortresses. Behind them waited the massed German troops and artillery.
On 20th September 65,000 British troops, soaked by overnight rain, began the advance at 5.40 a.m. over an eight-mile front. Harry and his A Company were ordered to seize a blockhouse and a fortified redoubt called Potsdam. They advanced on the redoubt but were fired on from a camouflaged pill box. With the attack stalled and his men reluctant to go on, Harry ordered six men to cover him while he attacked alone, darting from shell-hole to shell-hole under constant fire from the machine guns. Once he was near enough, he threw a phosphorous grenade into the pill-box setting it alight; it was nothing short of a miracle that he escaped. Harry stood waiting to receive the defenders with a revolver in his hand, and one by one, they surrendered
Harry then led his Company against the massive fortification called Potsdam. Although Harry was wounded, he again displayed marvellous courage. Pressing on at the head of the men, he thought only of the need for carrying through the operations successfully. Afterwards, when he was having his wound dressed, he realised what narrow escapes he had enjoyed, for there was a hole shot in his belt, a buckle was torn away by another bullet, and three bullets were found in his pack.”
On 8th November, the London Gazette announced that Harry had been awarded the Victoria Cross. This was, and remains, the highest
decoration that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces for actions "in the presence of the enemy." Harry’s actions on 20th
September led to his new title, the “Pill Box Hero”.
Harry was evacuated from the front and sent to a hospital in Boulogne from where he was returned to England on 30th November. He was admitted to the Prince of Wales Hospital for an operation to deal with his old facial injury received at the Battle of the Somme.
Although still recovering, Harry was allowed out of hospital to visit East Haddon for a special ceremony on 8th December 1917, when he was presented with a gold hunter watch and chain. An address was read out and handed to Harry, which ended: “We desire to add our deepest congratulations on the honour you have achieved and our heartiest wishes for your future career.” The audience cheered and sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow”. Harry said he was “proud to belong to such a patriotic village as East Haddon” When pressed to talk more about his experiences, he would only say: “We were ordered to go and when the time for kick off came, we went.” Harry and his party dined at the Hall, while the rest of the villagers held a dance. Harry, who had to return to hospital, was tired and not in a state for dancing.
On 26th December 1917 Harry, now identified as an honorary Scotsman, travelled to Edinburgh where he was met by a group of dignitaries, a guard of honour from the 12th Royal Scots Battalion, and the band of the 4th Royal Scots Training Reserve. Despite the cheering and shouting, Harry remained the man he had always been, modestly acknowledging the worth and actions of others and repeating that he felt that the men of the regiment were as much entitled to the praise as he was.
Harry continued to convalesce, and on 1st June at the Buckingham Palace investiture, King George V bestowed the VC and MC on Harry. The King displayed a “special interest in the remarkable feat of daring, which gained Captain Reynolds the highest honour which can be bestowed upon a soldier.” Harry was the third of Northampton’s Victoria Cross heroes.
After demobilisation in 1919, he was appointed District Cultivation Officer for Buckinghamshire, advising farmers on land cultivation. He retained that position until 1921. At this point, Harry was offered a commission in the Regular Army with the rank of Captain at the age of 42.
He went back into active service in Ireland with the Second Battalion of the Loyal (North Lancashire) Regiment during the Irish War of Independence from 1920-22. Once the Anglo-Irish truce came into force on 11th July 1921, there were hopes of returning to England but this delayed until December of the following year. Harry was now in command of the Headquarter Company based first on Salisbury Plan and later in Preston.
When he returned to England his new status and presence were valued when pageantry and ceremony were required. He carried the King’s Colour at his regiment’s Maida Day commemoration and acted as Admiral Jellicoe’s aide de camp at the unveiling of a grand war memorial in Preston in 1926.
Harry finally retired from the army in the summer of 1927. The Regimental Magazine recorded: “It is not necessary to remind our readers of the Regiment’s loss in this respect. We offer our very best wishes for “Good-luck and Prosperity” to Captain and Mrs Reynolds in their new sphere.”
No one came back from the conflict without scars, but for some their minds were filled daily and nightly with the horrors of war. Today we would know it as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but at this time it was little understood.
During the war and the years that followed, the stigma of cowardice hung over mentally wounded men and it was becoming clear that some would never recover enough to return to civilian occupations. The Ex-Services Welfare Society, was formed under its first president, Sir Frederick Milner, who was horrified that men who had already suffered through fighting for their country were being incarcerated in lunatic asylums.
Although the Society was able to give these men craft work or jobs in its garden and smallholding, it wanted to create employment which gave a real wage either as a stepping stone to work in the community or as a permanent occupation for those who would never recover enough
As a serving soldier, Harry would have been aware of the plight of the mentally-wounded ex-servicemen. In September 1930, Harry became Steward and Superintendent at the Society’s Eden Manor and Lodge in Beckenham. This appointment offered Harry the opportunity to use his leadership skills, his knowledge of the horrors and experiences of war and his earlier farming and business experience in a new setting.
Harry understood the men’s needs and quickly saw that craft work was not fulfilling and that “the men did not seem to be very interested”
in basket work. His initiative and creativity quickly made an impression at Eden Manor and Lodge, where he felt able to make suggestions
Sir Frederick Milner died in the summer of 1931 and Harry laid a wreath at the Cenotaph on behalf of the men. The next president, Admiral Sir Reginald Tyrwhitt continued the appeals to raise money.
In March 1933 Harry was appointed as Steward and Supervisor at Milner House in Ashtead. He developed new ideas, including growing herbs and selling strawberry plants in the local area. By October 1933 he had bought three heifers and some pigs. Soon a new greenhouse was built and beehives with stocks of bees were delivered to increase fertility and produce honey. Milner House became an “industrial colony”, with men working in the factory, house or grounds according to their aptitudes.
The house and grounds at Ashstead were used for garden parties and social events. They became part of the regular social calendar, drawing society hostesses, such as Margaret Greville of Polesden Lacey, Army officers and dignitaries. Harry, who was responsible for the gardens, became a quiet presence at the social events and soon found himself part of the Establishment. By 1935 he had his own entry in “Who’s Who,” where his recreations were described as shooting and fishing.
It was assumed that the services of the Ex-Services Welfare Society would be needed less as time went by, but this proved not to be the case. Harry remained as committed as ever, but there were more men to work with and they were getting older and output in the gardens began to reduce by the end of the 1930s. As the possibility of war loomed in 1939, the Society purchased more land for cultivation. Harry obtained further plots of land at no cost from people in the district and soon 4 ½ acres of potatoes were growing.
When war broke out again in 1939, the Committee realised that it could play a crucial role in the coming war. Major Everett Howard had become the General Secretary of the Society in 1921 with a clear vision for developing the work and had the influence to support this. He had introduced change and raised income at a time when the mental health of ex-servicemen was not an attractive or appealing subject to most of the population.
The Second World War saw attacks on the civilian population, so the Society’s central London staff were transferred to Milner House. Everett Howard took over personal supervision of every detail, but his management style and his plan to make cutbacks left some of the staff dissatisfied. Harry’s skills were still recognised and needed.
When the blitz started in summer 1940, Howard inspected the Air Raid Precaution arrangements at Beckenham. He asked Harry to build a proper shelter, which soon proved necessary when Eden Lodge was bombed and burnt out in September 1940. The patients had to be moved to Milner House in Ashstead, resulting in the need for makeshift sleeping arrangements, while air raids continued.
Basic food rationing began in January 1940 and with demand increasing due to all the extra people, Harry was organising as much food production as possible, especially extra potatoes.
In February 1941 when Harry was 62, the Committee decided that Gwen’s services as house manager were no longer required, but Harry was offered a new appointment and he made the difficult decision to stay on, working in the gardens and on the land at Milner House. These changes resulted in Harry and Gwen losing their home in Milner House and moving to The Brown House in Skinners Lane, in the rural outskirts of Ashstead. The house still stands, now known as Alexander Lodge care home, but is no longer in a rural setting.
Meanwhile the Reynolds family was changing. Betty, Harry’s remaining daughter, was still living at home, having trained and become a nurse. Betty’s portrait was the model for the paper flag pinned on donors’ lapels during Red Cross collections.. Soon after the removal to Skinners Lane in 1941 she was married to Cyril Robert de Silva, and the young couple came to live with Harry and Gwen.
Harry left the Ex-Services Welfare Society on 30th June, 1942 and returned to Buckinghamshire in 1943 where he lived and worked as a Drainage Officer. Before the family could join him, Harry was taken ill and had to return home to Gwen. With his health failing, he was admitted to Carshalton Hospital, where he died unexpectedly on Good Friday, 26th March, 1948. His death certificate recorded the cause of death as cerebral embolism, carcinoma of the oesophagus and arteriosclerosis.
Harry’s grave is in St Giles’ churchyard, Ashstead, the parish in which he served the Ex-Servicemen’s Welfare Society for many years. Gwen lived on with her daughter and family until 1966. She died in the Old Vicarage at Little Horwood, where the family had moved, but a memorial to her family, including Harry, was erected in East Haddon cemetery where it can still be seen.