Campaign to salute one of Wigan's brave unsung WW1 heroes

Descendants of a Wigan First World War hero who was decorated for acts of bravery justo days apart are campaigning for him finally to be properly recognised.

By Holly Pritchard
Monday, 25th April 2022, 12:30 pm
Updated Monday, 25th April 2022, 4:49 pm

Family of Cpl John Donnelly are incredibly proud of his exploits in the trenches of northern France 106 years ago.

But while he received a distinguished conduct medal for first rescuing stricken colleagues buried under the earth after a shell attack and then saving a young officer who was trapped on the German barbed wire, this is not recognised on official memorials. And there have not been other tributes to him, unlike to those local men who earned Victoria Crosses for their courage.

But David and Georgina Roberts from Standish are determined to rectify that after delving deeper into the WW1 hero’s brave deeds after Georgina’s cousin, Sue Davies, brought it to their attention that they had a hero in their family history.

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Tributes to John Donelly at the Memorial Hub.

Mr Roberts, an army veteran himself, said: "I took a particular interest because I’m a veteran and like to go down to the Wigan Armed Forces Hub a lot.

"John Donnelly was on Georgina’s father’s side and since Susan his story to our attention, I took it upon myself to research it all and found out so many more things about him.

"I contacted Wigan Hub where the Model Club took it on and did an absolutely fantastic memorial display for him which you can see inside there.

“He was given a DCM for two acts of bravery, which is only one down from a VC so it’s quite high-up and prestigious and so we thought it was important to acknowledge that and what he did, especially as he was a Wigan lad.

Wigan war memorial next to All Saints Wigan parish church - WW1 hero John Donnelly named.

“It’s a nice piece of history and personal story for our town.”

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Wigan born and bred, Donnelly, of 68 Hardybutts, joined the army and went to fight in the war with the Lancashire Fusiliers, 2nd battalion.

There, he comitted two acts of bravery, one on October 12, 1916, when his batallion were buried by a shell explosion in the trenches.

David Roberts from Standish, with information of unsung Wigan war hero John Donnelly, a WW1 veteran.

Donnelly, freed himself despite being partially buried and also under heavy shell fire, he went to the aid of his fellow comrades and assisted them out of the morass.

His second deed happened just two days later when he entered no-man’s land under heavy fire, to rescue a wounded British soldier caught-up in German barbed-wire entanglement, though unfortunately the officer died.

Mr Roberts said: “Because of these amazing acts of bravery, the Mayor was then asked to give him his DCM as a representative of King George V.

You can see a copy of the report in the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser, as it was called back then, dated Saturday October 27, 1917.”

Image of Corporal, John Donnelly.

These two heroic acts brought him national attention at the time, when he was just 22 years old, for his DCM was announced in the London Gazzette dated December 11, 1916.

A DCM is the oldest British award for gallantry and was a second level military decoration, ranking below the Victoria Cross (which is the highest), until its discontinuation in 1993 when it was replaced by the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross.

Mr Roberts said: "The funny thing about it was, he lost his DCM medal walking home, so I don’t know whether he was drunk from celebrating, but then luckily, someone found it and gave it back to him again.”

In his own word at the time, Corporal Donnelly who was, “deeply touched by the reception he received and by the words of the Mayor”, said: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am very proud to come here and to have received this medal at your hands.

"I feel that what I did was but what any other Wigan lad would have done, and what Wigan lads are doing, and every one of whom deserves the DCM or the VC I thank you, gentlemen.”

Tragically John Donnelly died of wounds on March 21 1918, shortly before the war ended, at the age of just 24.

Ince War Memorial, at Ince-in-Makerfield cemetery - WW1 hero John Donnelly listed

According to reports, he was in a house a few miles behind lines when a shell struck and he suffered a severe head wound from which he died just a few hours later.

After discovering the history of their family member, Mr and Mrs Roberts along with Mrs Davies, got in touch with Wigan Council to ask if it could have the DCM engraved after his name on Wigan town centre cenpotaph, located in the Parish Church gardens.

This was turned down due to his name’s being inscribed on a bronze plate which would prove a very difficult and costly to remove and have a new engraving added.

However, the council has agreed to add the letters to his name on the war memorial in Ince-In-Makerfield cemetery as there it is engraved in stone.

The authority said it recognises that it is important to acknowledge the selfless acts of courage of our ancestors who risked their lives for this country and deserve to go down in the history books.

Mr Roberts said; “The council got straight on to me and told me they would like to put the DCM after his name on the Ince-In-Makerfield cenotaph.

"We’re absolutely delighted and over the moon, we’re so happy, we just can’t believe it.

“That’s all we wanted really, just a bit of recognition for what he did.”

A council spokesperson said: “It’s incredibly important we honour the sacrifices that John, and so many others, have made for our country.

"We’re delighted that his bravery will be permanently recognised in the borough.”

Wigan war memorial next to All Saints Wigan parish church - WW1 hero John Donnelly named.
Ince War Memorial, at Ince-in-Makerfield cemetery - WW1 hero John Donnelly listed
Tributes to WW1 hero, John Donnelly, at the Memorial Hub.