b. 21/07/1894 Oldham, Lancashire. d. 11/12/1917 Givenchy, France.
Walter “Spud” Mills (1894-1917), son of James and Alice Mills (nee Finney), was born on the 21st July 1894, at 13 Bond Street, Oldham, Lancashire, and was one of nine children. No source material records his schooling or education and his first job was as a piecer, a job usually undertaken by children employed in a spinning mill to join the ends of broken threads. His father was a labourer at a local ironworks and Mills followed his father along a similar career path when he became a labourer at Eli Mills & Co. Ltd. (Hope Mills).
Mills, who was now married and living with his in-laws at 10, Smith Street, Oldham, enlisted on the 6th September 1914, a few weeks after the birth of his daughter Ellen. He joined the 1st/10th Manchester Regiment, a Territorial unit raised in Oldham, and part of the East Lancashire Brigade, East Lancashire Division. On the 25th September 1914, the unit landed at Alexandria in Egypt, where Mills and his comrades completed their training and then on the 10th May 1915 they landed on the Gallipoli peninsula. On the 26th May, they became part of the 126th Brigade, 42nd (East Lancashire) Division.
While serving in the Gallipoli campaign Mills was wounded in the eye and suffered, at different times, from bouts of Typhoid and Dysentery but made a full recovery and in late December 1915, was evacuated from Gallipoli, and landed on Mudros, from where he proceeded to Egypt with the unit and formed part of the Suez Garrison throughout 1916 and the early part of the following year when on the 2nd March 1917, the left Egypt and landed at Marseilles and proceeded to the Western Front.
On December 1st 1917, the 1/10th Battalion, Manchester Regiment, were posted to the Bethune sector in positions close to the La Bassee Canal. On the 9th, the battalion’s officers were ordered forward to reconnoitre the front line in preparation for the relief of the 125th Brigade the following day. When the relief was completed the 1st/10th Manchesters were ordered forward to a position known as the Red Dragon Crater and to relieve the 1st/6th Lancashire Fusiliers. As Mills made his way forward to the new position he ran into his brother James, who was coming out of the line with the 1st/6th Lancashire Fusiliers, and the two men enjoyed a brief chat and handshake, little knowing it was to be the last time they were to see each other.
Knowing that the relief was taking, or had recently taken place, the enemy bombarded the position with gas shells prior to launching an attack and soon every man at the Red Dragon Crater was affected by the gas. Most of the men were out of action when the Germans launched their attack, but despite this the men of “C” Company, 1st/10th Manchester’s stood firm and put up stiff resistance using rifles, Lewis Guns and bombs, but the effects of the gas soon began to tell and the Manchester’s began to slip back into their trench one by one. Mills, knowing how important the position was remained on the fire step throwing bombs despite suffering badly from the gas, until the German attack faltered. He eventually succumbed to the gas and fell back into the trench and died as he was being carried out. As well as the VC for Mills, four others were awarded Military Medals for their part in the action.
Mills and his fallen comrades were buried at Gorre British & Indian Cemetery, Nr Bethune, Pas-De-Calais, the following day by men from the 1st/6th Manchester Regiment, with full military honours. A few days later, James Mills returned to the sector and laid a floral tribute on his brother’s grave.
The medal was presented to Mrs. Mills by King George V when he visited the Orthopaedic Hospital, Beckett’s Park, Leeds, on the 31st May 1918, and three years later she was again in the company of royalty when she was presented to the Prince of Wales, along with her daughter Ellen, at an event for Great War veterans at Oldham Athletic’s Boundary Park stadium. Mrs. Mills had pinned the VC on her daughter’s white dress and the Prince spoke to her about her husband and the events that led to the award of the VC, before Ellen presented the Prince with a red rose on behalf of the ex-servicemen of Oldham. The Prince then bent down and patted her head before taking his buttonhole from his coat and handing it to Ellen. The gesture bought rapturous applause and cheering from the assembled crowd and the buttonhole became a treasured possession of the family.
In 1923, Mrs. Mills remarried and became Mrs. Brown, and finally moved from her parent’s house to Fielding Street, Oldham, but tragedy was to strike the family when Ellen died in October 1935. She was buried in Greenacres Cemetery, Oldham and her father’s VC was pinned to her gown and buried with her. It is believed that the medal still lies in the grave. On the 11th of December 2017 a commemorative plaque was laid at Oldham parish church in memory of Mills.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: MEDAL BURIED WITH HIS DAUGHTER ELLEN IN 1934.
BURIAL PLACE: GORRE BRITISH & INDIAN CEMETERY, BEUVRY, FRANCE.
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
PLOT V, ROW C, GRAVE 2
Oldham War Memorial (Derek Walker)
Images kindly supplied by Barbara Barton