Henry Arthur Jennings
‘So it was,’ wrote Alan Clark in The Donkeys, ‘that as the leaves fell and the ground turned to mud and the German howitzers with their twelve-horse teams plodded patiently up to the line, the British army was poised over an abyss. It could be saved only by reckless squandering of the virtues which, like its delusions, sprang from a background of peace and a stable, ordered society.’
To encourage as many as possible to enlist, the Government – with tragic consequences – had put the soldiers with relatives and friends. So fathers and sons went to war side by side. All over the country villages and towns were emptied. It was with this buoyant enthusiasm that HENRY ARTHUR JENNINGS went to war in 1914.
He had entered King Edward VI School in November 1909, following a year at Bromsgrove College, and before that a year at Miss Adams’ private preparatory at Barnt Green. An enthusiast of both the Scientific and Debating Societies, he gained his 1st XV and 1st XI colours, became a Monitor (Prefect) in 1912 – the same year that he was presented with both the Bayley Prize for History in the Upper School and the Holte Drawing Prize at Speech Day held in Big School. Later in the year he was awarded the first prize of fifteen shillings for school hobbies. During the Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations in April 1913, he joined his friends Victor Hyatt, Raymond Meadows and Thomas Pilkington on the roof of the United Counties Bank (now the HSBC Bank on the corner of Ely Street) to fire a volley as the national and Empire flags were raised. All four served on the Western Front; Meadows became a Captain in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment later attached to the King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry), and Pilkington, a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Irish Regiment. Both survived.
That last summer at School he was awarded the Victor Ludorum, and played the part of Ancient Pistol in the special production of Henry V that was performed as part of the Shakespeare Festival. Jennings, wrote The Morning Post, gave ‘a robust rendering. A most blood-thirsty cut-throat, who swaggered and raged.’ His playing of the leek scene, ‘was specially amusing when on making his exit he gave the fragments of the leek a wide berth.’
Now five hundred years later, the descendants of Henry’s knights and bowmen were fighting again in Picardy.
Beginning a career as a motor engineer in Moseley, it is reported that he begged to be allowed to enlist from the first day of the war. He was ‘but a boy’ aged 19, when on Saturday September 26 1914 he signed attestation forms for a short service engagement (three years or the duration) as Private 978 in ‘C’ Company 16th (Service) Battalion (3rd Birmingham Battalion) of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Raised by the Lord Mayor and a local committee, they became known as ‘The Birmingham Pals.’ In February 1915, Jennings applied for a commission with a Certificate of Character signed by the Rev. Cornwell Robertson (his Headmaster at KES who had moved to Marlborough College in 1914), and a little after the 16 Battalion had moved to Malvern, Henry left their ranks and became a Second Lieutenant in the Special Reserve of Officers attached to 6 (Reserve) Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment. Following training, he joined the 3rd Battalion, a Regular Army formation that at the outbreak of the war had been stationed at Tidworth in Wiltshire (in 7 Brigade of 3 Division) and been ready to land at Rouen and to fight in some of the crucial battles of 1914.
On October 18 1915, 7 Brigade transferred to 25 Division, and two days later, Henry Jennings crossed to France and joined 3 Battalion which was in billets at Bailleul (a town on the road between St.Omer and Lille).
For many battalions of the BEF this was a fairly quiet period, with no major attacks from either side. This was the case with the 3rd Battalion, Worcester Line Regiment in the vicinity of Ploegsteert, as they followed the routine of movement in and out of the trenches of the front, support and reserve trenches of the line. Casualties were low, although there always remained the hazard of artillery bombardment and snipers. During the early months of 1916, an unusually long period of three months was spent in reserve at Outtersteene.This respite could not last, and in mid-April the Battalion was ordered east of St. Eloi, about six miles north-west of Arras. Much of their time out of the trenches was spent on working parties, usually related to mining activity that was taking place in that sector of the line.
It was the Germans who exploded a mine under the British front line on the evening of April 28 and in the confusion they successfully occupied the Worcester’s forward positions. The Battalion was ordered to counter-attack, to take the near lip of the mine crater, to hold it and to consolidate its position. In spite of artillery support before the attack, the Battalion at once encountered very heavy rifle and machine gun fire from the crater and was prevented from making any headway. It was during a second attack in the early morning of April 30 that Henry Jennings was killed.
Reporting his death, the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald wrote in the hyperbole so current at the time, that Jennings was ‘an ideal officer, beloved by his men and held in esteem by his brother officers. His end, tragic as it is to those who loved him, proved him to be a fine soldier and an Englishman.’
Writing to his parents who lived on the Tiddington Road, a school friend said ‘if anyone died like a hero he did. Henry was one of the officers chosen to take part (in the counter-attack). It turned out to be an impossible task as the position they had to attack was a stronghold. Three times with indomitable courage he led the men over and each time they were met with terrific gunfire and showers of bombs. The first time, Henry got to the tip of the mine crater with another man but of course could not hold on as they had no support, most of the men being casualties. The third time, he and a few men got into a shallow trench just this side of the crater, but it was a hopeless position, and they were ordered to retire at about 2:45am. It was after getting back from the last grand effort that Henry met with his end. He was standing in the trench when a shell burst in front of him. Death was instantaneous. His name is on everybody’s lips for the magnificent courage he showed all through the terrible business. We deeply deplore the loss of a fine officer who made himself so popular with officers and men while he was with us.’
In the June 1916 edition of The Stratfordian and in the comments of the Headmaster, Rev. Cecil Knight, on Speech Day on July 27, the death of Henry Jennings was recorded. Even at that point, Knight was aware of the cost of the war and wished to commemorate the boys in a way that would be a lasting memorial to them, and also ensure that they would never be forgotten, and would always be a tangible reminder to succeeding generations. When the Memorial Library at King Edward VI School was finally opened in 1923, both Henry Jennings and his younger brother Herbert were commemorated in a particularly distinctive way.
Henry Jennings was buried in the Ecoivres Military Cemetery, Mont-St.Eloi, Pas de Calais. He is commemorated on the Stratford-upon-Avon War Memorial, the Tiddington War Memorial, and the Memorial Screen and Reredos in Holy Trinity Church.