John’s connection with the Stockport area in general, and Marple in particular, was fairly brief. His family home was Caddington Hall, near Dunstable. His father, Arthur, was an extremely successful mechanical engineer and the 1901 Census gives some idea of their wealth. They could afford to employ six house servants – cook, two housemaids, lady’s maid, kitchen maid and a footman , as well as a gardener living at the Hall’s lodge. He had been born in Manchester on 19 July 1880 and returned to the area in 1906 to live with his cousin, Will Buck, whilst he helped run his father’s local business interests.
He had been commissioned into the Bedfordshire Regiment in 1904, being promoted to Captain in 1907 and continued to serve with it’s Territorial battalions until the outbreak of War on 4 August 1914. He was immediately mobilised and, by the 22nd of the month, was in France, where he would serve with the 2nd Battalion until 1916. On 12 January 1915, he was shot in the right thigh and was invalided home on the 20th, spending time at Bedford Military Hospital. When he had recovered, he was posted to the recently mobilised 4th Battalion and would remain with them until his death.
By the following year, still officially only a Captain but with the acting rank of Lieutenant Colonel, John led his men at the Battle of Arras and for his leadership and gallantry was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The citation published in the London Gazette reads “
He commanded his battalion during the operations on the 23rd and 24th April 1917, with marked ability. The battalion captured the northern outskirts of Gavrelle on the 23rd April, and held their ground, in spite of frequent counter-attacks. When the situation required clearing up, he proceeded through the town under heavy shell and machine-gun fire to re-organise the battalion, and immediately informed the disposition of his companies. On the 29th April he was placed in command of a composite battalion with orders to attack and capture the Oppy line of trenches between the ground then held by the 188th Brigade and the 2nd Division. It was chiefly owing to his leading, coolheadedness and disregard for personal safety that the battalion reached their place of assembly, and formed up under shellfire in darkness on practically strange ground, and subsequently achieved its objects. His courage on this occasion inspired all ranks, and was greatly instrumental in carrying the operation through successfully”.
A German offensive in the spring of 1918 had been long expected and it finally came in the early morning of 21 March. I am indebted to Steve Fuller, a fellow enthusiast and member of the Great War Forum, who permits me to reproduce the following account from his website - The Bedfordshire Regiment in the Great War.
“When the expected German attack finally started the Battalion were in reserve positions but were not long out of the action. History records that the Germans attacked with such force that the allies began a fighting retreat almost immediately, their front lines having been quickly smashed and overrun. British General scrambled their reserves into position and Collings-Well’s Division were moved twenty miles into positions on the old 1916 battlefields of the Somme over just 4 days, conducting several fighting withdrawals in the process. In a matter of days, the Germans had recovered the ground it had taken the Allies almost two years to capture and British forces were stretched to the extreme, yet held “to the last” bullet or man, thus making the Germasn pay dearly for their successes. During these fighting withdrawals, Lt-Colonel Collings-Wells personally led small parties of his men who covered the withdrawal of the bulk of the Battalion by fending off ridiculous numbers of advancing Germans against the odds. The action on the 24th saw them stay until they had run out of ammunition, yet they managed to withdraw and reorganize further back.
On the 25th March he took his battalion up to High Wood to reinforce the 189th Brigade who were very hard pressed. Once again he proved his natural leadership ability under the most strenuous conditions and his men were soon heavily engaged in action. Once again they stayed until every round of ammunition had been used. As before, Collings-Wells realised that his men would soon be surrounded so he called for volunteers to help him hold up the Germans whilst the remainder escaped. Once the withdrawal was complete John lead the rearguard to safety himself.
That evening they withdrew to the Thiepval Ridge and on the 26th crossed the River Ancre, destroying all the bridges once safely over. At 7pm the Battalion moved into position between Aveluy and Bouzincourt - 1 mile north of Albert - and were now told to hold the Germans again as they advanced north out of the recently captured town of Albert.
Having been ordered to counter attack Bouzincourt Ridge near Albert on the 27th March, he rallied and led the exhausted Battalion in the attack himself - as usual - and was wounded in both arms in the process.
Although he was wounded in both arms, he led the remnants of his battered Battalion, who took the position despite appalling enemy fire and drove the German Army back. A wounded Sergeant saw that Collings-Wells was almost physically dragged to a bunker to have his wounds dressed as he was extremely reluctant to leave his men. Moments later the bunker received a direct hit from a mortar shell and the 37 year old Collings-Wells, his second in command Major Nunnelly and two other officers, including the medic were killed outright. Sadly, his body could not be correctly identified so their personal effects were removed and the casualties were buried without knowing who was in which grave.”
For his actions between 21 and 27 March, John was awarded the Victoria Cross which was presented to his parents in June 1919. The official citation records “For most conspicuous bravery, skilful leading and handling of his battalion in very critical situations during a withdrawal. When the rearguard was almost surrounded and in great danger of being captured, Lieutenant - Colonel Collings-Wells, realising the situation, called for volunteers to remain behind and hold up the enemy whilst the remainder of the rearguard withdrew, and with his small body of volunteers held them up for one and a-half hours until they had expended every round of ammunition. During this time he moved freely amongst his men guiding and encouraging them, and by his great courage undoubtedly saved the situation.
On a subsequent occasion, when his battalion was ordered to carry out a counterattack, he showed the greatest bravery. Knowing that his men were extremely tired after six days' fighting, he placed himself in front and led the attack, and even when twice wounded refused to leave them but continued to lead and encourage his men until he was killed at the moment of gaining their objective. The successful results of the operation were, without doubt, due to the undaunted courage exhibited by this officer.”
Some time later, a Mr Martin wrote to The Times. He had served with John and had given him a map case. The War Office had later returned it to Martin saying it had been found on the body of an unidentified officer. It proved to be the crucial piece of evidence which permitted the War Graves Commission to positively identify which grave John was buried in and it now bears a headstone with his name.
Further information about John is in the book “Remembered” , about the men on the Marple War Memorial, written by P Clarke, A Cook and J Bintliff.