Our local historian Alf Ridyard looks back at some war heroes from yesteryear...
World War One brought to the fore many local heroes, none more so than Alfred Wilkinson VC.
He risked his life delivering a message and also returned to the front line under heavy German machine gun fire. Alfred, as we know, survived the war but lost his life in a tragic accident in the laboratories of Bickershaw Colliery when a blocked flue failed to extract carbon monoxide gases.
That’s just a small resume of Alfred as his story has been thoroughly reported previously by Leigh local studies and the Leigh History Society.
Today’s story is of another Leigh soldier whose exploits uncannily mirror those of Private Wilkinson. Reuben Davies was born in 1891 at 46 Baker Street, Westleigh.
Prior to the war Davies had worked at Priestners colliery as a labourer, alongside his father underground.
In 1913 he married Ellen Cartwright and moved to his marital home at 52 Selwyn Street. In 1914, he answered the call to arms, like many others from the town and joined the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. The 1st Battalion in which he was posted sailed for France on June 22, 1915.
Still a private, he soon gained promotion to sergeant – this being due to his leadership qualities recognised by his commanding officer.
Davies and the regiment fought in the battles of Auber and Loos in 1915 and the Somme in 1916 where 16,000 allied troops lost their lives on the first day, including 60 from Leigh.
He later fought in the retreat of the Germans to the Hindenberg Line in 1917. During the German offensive of March –May 1918 Sgt Reuben Davies was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), second only to the VC.
The citation of his efforts, on the Loyal North Lancashire regiment history site, read as follows: “Sgt Davies moved over open ground with five other men under murderous machine gun fire at close range, he established a gun base block and in doing so prevented further advance of the enemy.
“A bombing party of one officer and nine men, to whom he attached himself, were being pinned down by further enemy machine guns. Davies at this point brought his Lewis gun into action and kept the enemy in check, his action enabled the bombing party to advance and carry out their orders.
“Later in the day with his party of five men, he held a position some 400yds in advance of the allied lines, again under heavy fire, this action allowed the British forces time to reorganise their lines of resistance.
“His actions during the day gave great assurance to his officers and was a fine example to his men.”
Sgt Davies’ other awards were the MM (military Medal), the 1914/15 Star, The British war medal and the Victory medal, Sgt Davies unlike millions of others, came through the war unscathed and was demobbed in 1919.
Leigh Council recognised his excellent war-time contributions and awarded him a citation (pictured). Reuben Davies returned to his previous employment at Priestners Colliery.
Sadly, after completing his journey through the horrors of the trenches for four years he, on October 9, 1920, in number 2 pit, met with a serious accident.
This was the account in the Leigh Chronical: “John Gregson of 14 Nel Pan Lane was in charge of a haulage engine when the first of two full tubs derailed and although some colliers managed to jump out of the way, unfortunately Reuben Davies was hit in the back by the attaching hook of the runaway tub, he immediately knew his back was broken and shouted to his would be rescuers: ‘Don’t touch me I’m done for.’
“The spinal fracture was confirmed at Leigh Infirmary and Reuben Davies was left paralysed from the waist down, he never had a chance of recovery but survived for fifteen months , passing away in early 1922.”
Both he and Private Wilkinson had seen and been involved in some of the most horrific scenes the world had ever seen and had come through unscathed, only to lose their lives earning an honest living working for the coal mines.
Sgt Davies had a younger brother who also served through the course of the war. In addition to Sgt Davies we had another DCM recipient from 97 Selwyn Street, Private Mathew Starkie France who like Sgt Davies came through the hostilities and survived until 1962.