Norfolk Regiment VC winner who lost fight with his own Government
PUBLISHED: 10:45 25 November 2017
Fearless and fearful in equal measure, Jack Sherwood-Kelly brought fame to the Norfolk Regiment a century ago. But his bravest fight was a war of words with Winston Churchill that culminated in his ruin, as Steve Snelling reports.
Harry Wharton was not a man easily frightened. Decorated for bravery, he endured the misery of Gallipoli, hard-won success in Palestine and the costly fighting on the Western Front.
In all his myriad battles, he faced and overcame enemies of all descriptions, but the soldier who scared him more than any other was his last commanding officer: Jack Sherwood-Kelly.
“Cor, he was a man and a half,” he recalled during an interview conducted by the Imperial War Museum. The former Norfolk Yeoman from Mautby, near Great Yarmouth, almost gasped at the memory of his arrival to take command of his battalion in 1918.
“My God… he was a rum’un… Strict. VC. Five wound stripes… We’d always had these gentlemen looking after us till then. He had six of our boys tied up to a damned wheel the first week he was there [as a punishment]…He was a good, brave man [but] he terrified us…”
Harry was not alone.
A voluble and volcanic South African of Irish descent, Jack Kelly - the double-barrel surname was an affectation - had been striking fear into friend and foe alike for more than two decades during which he had fought Matabele warriors, Boers, Somalis, Zulus, Turks and Germans.
Dubbed ‘Fearless Kelly’ by the press, he was described by an awed fellow officer as “a Herculean giant… with a quite remarkable disregard for danger and a gift… for all branches of hand-to-hand combat”.
Far removed from the classic officer and gentleman mould, he was a larger than life character who boasted “a strikingly vigorous if not specially wealthy vocabulary” and whose exceptional courage was only matched by his combustible temperament - something borne out by a report into his behaviour which concluded that he was an officer “whose tact is not on a par with his gallantry”.
Yet, in an otherwise dysfunctional life, marked by two broken marriages and myriad brushes with authority, his record as a front-line commander was magnificent and drew universal praise.
The crowning glory came a century ago at the Battle of Cambrai. In a struggle chiefly remembered as signalling the dawn of a new era of armoured warfare, Sherwood-Kelly, as he was by then known, inspired one of the greatest infantry actions by dint of his own death-defying example.
Leading, as ever, from the front, he charged a seemingly impregnable enemy position bristling with machine-guns up a bare slope festooned with barbed wire 30 yards deep. It was an incredible feat, resulting in the capture of two lines of trenches, five machine-guns and 46 prisoners, which earned him a richly-deserved Victoria Cross, the first such award to a member of the Norfolk Regiment in its long and distinguished history.
A year on, as the war drew to a victorious close, he had reached the pinnacle of his extraordinary career; a 38-year-old, thrice-decorated ‘war horse’ of a temporary brigadier general covered in glory. What followed - a spectacular fall from grace almost unparalleled in the history of the British army - has remained a source of conjecture and controversy ever since.
His self-inflicted downfall was the result of his involvement in the little-known war of intervention in Russia waged against the nascent Red Army in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution.
He volunteered to command a hastily-recruited battalion, composed of men from a number of units, as part of an officially-designated ‘Relief Force’ in the belief that they were desperately needed to secure the safe evacuation of beleaguered British troops caught up in the civil war near the North Russian port of Archangel.
The discovery that they were actually to be employed as part of a covert offensive intended by Winston Churchill, in his role as Secretary of State for War and Air, to help effect ‘regime change’ in Moscow would put him in open conflict with both his military commanders and political masters.
Contemptuous of the quality of his senior officers and the reliability of their Russian allies, he became increasingly argumentative and truculent, questioning orders from his commanders and ridiculing them in front of his men.
Matters came to a head in June 1919 when, following an exhausting advance into enemy territory during which he suffered a number of casualties, he refused to press home an attack on a Bolshevik position that was intended to be used as a springboard for the Churchill-inspired advance.
Rather than risk being cut off, he angrily withdrew, calling the operation an “idiotic stunt” and accusing the general behind it of being “not fit to command a platoon”.
In the war of words that followed, and which culminated in his sacking and court-martial, the war hero from Gallipoli, France and Flanders was variously denounced as being “hot-headed”, “unsuitable for command” and “a swashbuckler” who had lost his nerve and, at times, seemed “hardly sane”.
Unrepentant, Sherwood-Kelly reputedly assured his men that he was not going to get any more of them killed “for the sake of this **** country”. And in a letter home, he went even further, directing his ire at Major General Edmund Ironside, the senior officer in North Russia. “The position out here… is very serious,” he wrote. It is time things were correctly reported in the papers… The Russian troops everywhere are turning against us… We have lost all confidence in Ironside & are sick of reading the lying statements of what he is supposed to be doing.”
Dismissed in August, he did not go quietly. The following month the clash exploded onto the front page of the Daily Express. Beneath the headline ‘Archangel Scandal Exposed - Duplicity of Churchill Policy in North Russia’, Sherwood-Kelly delivered a damning indictment of Government policy.
He declared: “I saw British money poured out like water and invaluable British lives sacrificed in backing up… a worthless Government and I became convinced that my duty to my country lay not in helping to forward a mistaken policy but in exposing it to the public.”
Accusing Churchill of sending British troops to Russia under false pretences, he said the “large scale” operations conducted “far in the interior” entailed only “useless loss and suffering” among men who had already made “incalculable sacrifices in the Great War”.
In writing his incendiary letter, Sherwood-Kelly was effectively sealing his own fate, but nearly a century on what are we to read into his highly public protest? Was it the last stand of a principled soldier or a smokescreen to cover his own breakdown?
At least one historian has speculated that the battle-scarred war hero may have been suffering from post-traumatic stress following years of front-line service.
But the author of the latest and most comprehensive history of British and Commonwealth military intervention in the Russian Civil War thinks differently.
Australian writer Damien Wright believes Sherwood-Kelly was driven to act by “a strong personal conviction to safeguard the welfare of his men from dying in a pointless campaign in a forsaken Russian backwater”.
In Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin, he explores the full scale of Britain’s futile struggle to maintain an Eastern Front against Germany and then, when the war was over, to topple the Bolshevik government, describing it as “one of the most ill-conceived and poorly planned campaigns of the twentieth century”.
Based largely on contemporary sources, including the letters and diaries of hundreds of men engaged in the conflict, he presents a graphic and gripping account of a doomed enterprise in which Sherwood-Kelly’s brooding presence looms large.
Indeed, Wright’s excoriating verdict that the intervention “achieved little” beyond adding to an already terrible toll of casualties while also robbing the British exchequer of millions of pounds desperately needed to revive an economy impoverished by four years of war might even have been scripted by Sherwood-Kelly himself.
Having painstakingly investigated his case, Wright is firmly of the opinion that his protest, which was widely supported by the rank and file in North Russia as well as many officers unwilling to speak out publicly, was an honourable one and the attacks on his conduct were, for the most part, unjustified.
“There is no doubt [Sherwood-] Kelly could be a hot-headed and difficult man,” he told me, “but I feel he also was a morally courageous man whose loyalty was first and foremost for the welfare of his own men even at great personal cost, and I believe his men held him in the highest regard for this loyalty.”
Whatever the truth, the consequences of his actions were personally disastrous. Court-martialled for a breach of army regulations by writing to the press without authority, he went down fighting, insisting that it was the politicians responsible for the loss of so many British lives who should be “brought to trial”.
Severely reprimanded and with his career effectively over, he resigned his commission and so began a sad and ignominious decline that saw him reduced at one stage to begging for work after being unable to pay his gas bill.
The man once feted as one of the bravest men in the British army told a journalist: “I am down and out, straitened financially, physically ill and nearly crazy with worry.”
Repeated efforts to re-enlist, even as a private soldier, were all rebuffed. Of one application, made 10 years after the Russian scandal, an official observed: “He is the sort of person who is unlikely to find congenial employment until there is another war, and I am afraid there is nothing we can offer him at present.”
Three attempts to launch a parliamentary career on the back of his war service and public notoriety met with similar failure.
The miraculous survivor, who had been showered with honours and mired in controversy, remained essentially rudderless for the rest of his life, dying a premature death at the age of 51 from the effects of a bout of malaria contracted during a visit to East Africa.
The inscription on his gravestone summed up a rare fighting spirit whose constant valour invoked a mixture of awe and fear in the men he led: “One who never turned his back, but marched breast forward.”
It was a fitting epitaph to a brave life, bravely led, but in the end history may judge that he had probably been too brave and too forthright for his own good.
Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin, by Damien Wright, is published by Helion & Company, priced £29.95.