A tale of grit and courage

Alan Wilcock with wife Kathleen and son Rob have been researching into their family history
Alan Wilcock with wife Kathleen and son Rob have been researching into their family history
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The emotional story of a courageous World War One soldier who was taken prisoner by the German army almost 100 years ago has been told.

Alan and Kathleen Wilcock, from Leigh, have told how his father Private Joseph Wilcock was captured by enemy forces in the final days of the four-year conflict, enduring stays in several prison camps before finally making his way back to Britain.

Private Wilcock, who is recorded on the 1911 census as living in Abram, enlisted in the Lancashire Fusiliers in 1915 and served on the Western Front in France before being captured during the Spring Offensive of March 1918, a desperate last-ditch attempt by the German forces to win the war before the military might of the USA became involved.

Mr and Mrs Wilcock, of Nangreaves Street in Leigh, spoke of their pride at his military service, but said he never spoke about what had happened to him on the front line for the rest of his life.

Mrs Wilcock, 72, said: “He was fighting and suffered a gunshot wound to the shoulder. He was a mess, to be quite honest, because he never used his left arm afterwards.

“He was taken prisoner and ended up in a military hospital in Germany. He received treatment for four months before being taken to the Stuttgart prisoner of war camp. He then went to a camp in Darmstadt and later moved to Limburg, which held more than 12,000 people. He was eventually repatriated to Leigh and carried on with his old job as a miner at Plank Lane Colliery.

“He was a brave and hard-working man and in my opinion he deserves a word of merit. We were so proud of him and you couldn’t have met a nicer man.”

The full story of Private Wilcock’s war service came to light after Mr and Mrs Wilcock’s son Rob made further enquiries online based on an old newspaper cutting.

The census records shows Private Wilcock was living as a coal miner with his parents, two brothers and sister on Talbot Road in 1911, and Mr and Mrs Wilcock believe he was around 24 years old when he went to war.

He was joined on the front line by his twin James, while their brother William, who had another claim to fame as a front-row forward in Wigan’s rugby league team, served for around a year before being wounded at Gallipoli.

Private Wilcock moved from the Fusiliers to the Labour Corps some time after February 1917, serving in the East Yorkshire Regiment, before being captured just months before the signing of the Armistice deal brought an end to hostilities.

Millions of soldiers were taken prisoner during the World War One, but so far comparatively little research has been done on their lives in the hastily-constructed camps built behind the lines.

However, Mrs Wilcock says her father-in-law was unwilling to shed any light on his experiences fighting abroad, never speaking about the war once he returned to Leigh.

She believes his family also experienced some hardship, with he and his wife having nine children, the eldest of whom died aged just two in 1922, and also continued working despite being unable to do a full manual job at the colliery partly because he only received 2s 6d as his war pension.

She said: “He never spoke about anything. When my husband went to do his national service all he said was: ‘Keep your head down, be careful. He never let anybody see the wound in his back, and he still had shrapnel in his back, they wouldn’t operate to remove it because it was too near his spine.

“He should have had three or four medals as he was entitled to them, but in all honesty we think they were probably pawned or sold. I remember when my mother-in-law went to apply to the British Legion for some woollen clothes he didn’t accept the charity.

“I suppose there must be thousands of men like him.”