The following biography was written by Stephen Roberts with help from Derek Longman and Carol Hunter, who are both related to him.
George belonged to a working class Hoylake family whose maternal roots can be traced back to the parish of Woodchurch during the 17th century. He was a Cheshire Bantam who died during the third week of the Battle of the Somme.
George’s birth was registered in the January quarter of 1896 in Wirral. His parents were Charles Philip Woods (1868-1943) and Harriet Jane Sherlock (1870-1947). As many readers will be aware, Sherlock is a quintessential Wirral surname. According to the Henrician Lay Subsidy Roll of 1545, it was actually the joint ninth most common name in Wirral along with Coke/Cook and Forshaw. Public members’ family trees on the Ancestry.co.uk website inform us that George’s earliest known Sherlock ancestor was Richard (1674-1737) who married a bearer of another well known Wirral surname, Jane Silcock (1675-1737) of Woodchurch. Other surnames appearing in George’s Sherlock lineage include Jones, Linekar and Jessett.
On census night in 1901 the five year-old George was living in the household of his uncle Albert Calverley (born c.1876 in Birkenhead) and his wife Laurenah (born c. 1875 in Hoylake) at 23 Back Sea View in Hoylake. In addition to the Calverleys’ two children, Annie (born c.1899) and Marion (born c.1900) and to George himself, George’s father Charles (described as a fisherman) and George’s sister Harriett aged one, were also living in the same house. Laurenah was Charles’s sister. We can imagine that it must have been a crowded and intimate household and these domestic arrangements clearly imply that the Woods family was anything but well off.
By 1911, Charles and his wife Harriett were again living as lodgers, this time at 3 Lee’s Yard (modern Lee Road) in Hoylake, the household of a relative – the 62 year-old George Sherlock (1848-1914), a Hoylake District Council employee and his 39 year-old wife Catherine (nee Leach; born c.1870 in Liverpool). Again, it must have been a very intimate home, as – in addition to Charles, Harriett, George and Catherine – there was Catherine’s son Samuel Leach (born c.1899 in Liverpool), George and Catherine’s daughter Elizabeth Sherlock (born c.1908 in Hoylake) and The Woods girls Frances (born c.1904 in Hoylake) and Agnes (born c.1908 in Hoylake). This is a total of four adults and five children aged between three and fifteen living in one four-roomed house.
Catherine appears to have been George Sherlock’s third wife and not the mother of Harriett, as the couple were not married until June 1903 at St. Peter’s Church in Everton. Harriett’s mother was Mary Primley (1847-1889). Harriett was the eldest of Mary’s nine children; the youngest was William Peter Sherlock (1883-1946).
Again, it is clear that the family was not well off: Charles was employed as a shellfish fisherman (probably cockles); his wife Harriett was a charwoman and George himself a golf caddie – a common job for working class Hoylake boys of the day.
The crowded living conditions and lack of affluence of the Woods and Sherlock families make it unsurprising that young George Woods was small in stature. His service records have not survived and we do not have a picture of him, but we know that he must have been shorter than 5′ 3″ because when he joined the army in 1914, he was assigned to the 16th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, which is otherwise known as the 2nd Cheshire Bantams Battalion – one of two Cheshire Battalions created specifically to recruit men under the specified minimum height.
The 16th Battalion, along with the 1st Bantams or 15th Battalion, was formed by Conservative M.P. for Birkenhead, Mr Alfred Bigland (who lived 1855-1936 and who was M.P. between 1910 and 1922). Bigland had been brought up as a Quaker, but renounced his faith in 1914 because he wished to support Britain’s war effort, which he did with great gusto.
It is alleged that Bigland dreamed up the idea of these special battalions as a result of the arrival of four Durham miners who, having been rejected for military service in their home county, decided to walk to Birkenhead and demand to be accepted by the Cheshire Regiment. Soon many additional short men from all over Britain travelled to Birkenhead in order to join these two unique units.
George’s unit, the 16th Battalion, was quartered at Bebington Show Ground. There were not enough uniforms to go around, so many men bought their own. Given George’s humble background, it is unlikely that he was able to do likewise. Other men ripped the red baize cloth off the surrounding seats and made them into makeshift puttees. Any recruits who had previously been either boy scouts or cadets were immediately given NCO status. It is possible that George was one of them, as, by the time he died, he was a lance corporal.
“On a cold bleak day in October” (Arthur Crookenden), Lord Derby introduced the Battalion to its new commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel C.E. Earle. Early in the following year, they made a move which George must have welcomed – to Hoylake, where they camped in the dunes and practised trench-digging and methods of infantry attack. It is possible that the nineteen year-old George’s health improved and that his stature grew as a result of all this outdoor exercise and of the regular army meals. We can imagine him being very proud of his new status as a soldier and that he was keen to show off his uniform and his skills to his nearby family in Lee Road. For the locals of Hoylake and West Kirby, however, the presence of the Bantams was a mixed blessing as increased demands on the local water supply, which came from artesian wells, necessitated rationing.
In June 1915 the Bantams went to Masham in Yorkshire and Lieutenant Colonel R. Browne-Clayton replaced Colonel Earle as commanding officer. In August they moved to Salisbury Plain and were officially adopted by the War Office, becoming part of 105th Brigade, 35 (Bantam) Division. They sailed to France in January 1916. Both the Deeside Advertiser and Birkenhead News of 10th and 11th August 1917 respectively said that George had been at the front for six months before he died. These details correspond with the Battalion’s history, as the poor fellow is believed to have died on 19th July 1916. It is very sad to learn that his family did not have his death confirmed until nearly thirteen months after it had occurred.
Unfortunately, like most “other ranks” who died in the Great War, the circumstances of his death were not recorded either in the Battalion War Diaries or in the Official History of the Cheshire Regiment. But, based on the doings of his unit in the period 17th – 19th July 1916, we can create a probable story: on 17th July, the 16th Battalion was ordered to take over the lines between Guillemont and Delville Wood on the Somme sector of the Western Front. They relieved the Cameronian Highlanders in front of Waterlot Farm and dug in. The hours of practice at Hoylake, Masham and on Salisbury Plain now paid off, as officers observed how good the defences were by the following morning. However, at 21.30 on the 17th, the Germans attacked Delville Wood and the Cheshire Bantams had to hold their ground, which they did with great tenacity.
At 09.00 on the 18th, the Germans began a huge artillery bombardment which caused many casualties and began their infantry attack at 15.00. Again the Bantams were undaunted and fought back with everything they had. Lieutenant Ryalls led a counter attack across the open country and “after two or three minutes’ rough and tumble” (a glorious euphemism for desperate and bloody hand to hand fighting recorded by Crookenden) the Germans withdrew, leaving about 80 Bantams either dead or wounded but possibly suffering 6-700 casualties of their own. We will probably never know for sure, but George could well have been involved in this vicious fight in No Man’s Land which saved the British lines.
The next day, 19th July, was the supposed day of George’s death. It might have occurred as a result of rifle and machine gun fire from the German trenches, but is more likely that he died in the German bombardment which destroyed Battalion Headquarters and killed RSM Giles, Lieutenant Styles and an Orderly Room Sergeant as well as wounding Captain Johnson.
George has no known grave. His name is one of the 72,194 recorded on the awe-inspiring memorial to the missing at Thiepval. His family were paid £2 7s 6d in August 1917 and £5 10s in June 1920. At some point around about that time, the family will also have received his commemorative scroll and plaque as well as his medals.
Birth: January 1896 in Hoylake
Death: 19th July 1916, Killed in Action aged 20
Addresses: 23 Back Sea View, Hoylake (01), 3 Lee’s Yard (Lee Road) Hoylake (11)
Occupation: Golf Caddie (11)
Unit: 16th Battalion Cheshire Regiment
Number and Rank: 21902, Lance Corporal
Medals: Victory and British War
Commemorated: GH, H, France: Thiepval Memorial to the Missing Pier and Face 3C and 4A
Sources: BR, CWGC, SDGW, MC, BN, DA, Census: 01, 11, Crookenden