Herbert Higgs AB: Jutland, the Somme of the Sea.

Having realised, after writing a little on Joseph Masters, just how inaccurate the names of the WWI fallen are on the Wyrley memorial gates, I have decided to complete these rather poor scribblings that pass for biographies as quickly as possible so I can present a report to the Parish Council on the said errors. The hope is that this will give them adequate time and the evidence needed to effect any changes before the end of the commemorations. Remember to click on photos to enlarge.

So I duly approached the gates to chose another name to study and the name I picked was that of Herbert T Higgs, simply because it is such a great name. Herbie Higgs (and I will generally refer to him as that to differentiate him from his father, also Herbert) turned out to be our only fallen sailor and the search for this man took me from Oldbury to Aldridge, then to Castleford (Yorkshire), then to Heath End (North Walsall) and finally to Great Wyrley. The story would take in not only his attestation to serve, but also that of a father that would outlive all of his natural children – a fate no parent deserves. Higgs has no war record currently available publically, so again, his story is pieced together from other sources.

Early Life

Herbert Thomas Higgs, in the Walsall Observer, 17 June 1916

Herbert Thomas Higgs, in the Walsall Observer, 17 June 1916 (Walsall Local History Centre)

Herbie Higgs was born in Oldbury, Worcestershire, on 19 December 1895. His parents were Herbert and Florence Annie Higgs nee Cook (from Netherton); they had married back at the turn of the 1890/1891 year and were, I believe, living in Tipton at that time. By 1895 the family had moved to Oldbury. Sadly, by early 1899, Florence was dead; she was just 27. Herbert, it appears, would be the only surviving child from the marriage. I believe there was at least one other child, but Lydia had died before her first birthday back in 1891 – it is likely there were more. Within a year of Florence’s death, Herbert would marry Sarah Wood, herself a widow for around three years. Herbert Higgs was still living in Oldbury at this time, as was Sarah Wood and her children.

By 1901 the family were living in Brickyard Row, Aldridge; this was likely a row of houses on Brickyard Lane, somewhere near the Aldridge Brick & Tile Works and Leighswood Colliery. Herbert, a miner by profession, was 30 years old at this stage. He was from the Tipton/Coseley area originally. Sarah was a few years older and from Oldbury. Sarah had four children and they had moved into the family home: the eldest was Harry, who was 13 in 1901, and he was followed by Fanny (11), Jenny (8) and Nellie (3). This must have been quite traumatic for the young Herbie, having lost his mother and all of his natural siblings; we can only hope that he found some solace in his new family.

Herbert Higgs and family, in Aldridge, 1901. (National Archives)

Herbert Higgs and family, in Aldridge, 1901.
(National Archives)

Herbert was clearly an itinerant miner. The next we pick-up of him and the family is in 1911, where they turn-up on the census in Castleford, Yorkshire. Herbert, then 40, was a hewer at the Wheldale Colliery. Herbie was employed, at the age of 15, as a binder at the Glasshoughton Colliery (formerly Merefield); this suggests he excavated the clay and shale around the coal seam.  Nellie is the only one of the Wood children still living at home, which at that time was at 116 High St, Castleford. The sad fact is recorded on this census – although it is somewhat confused – that Herbert and Sarah had had four children together, but only one was still alive: this child, who must be around 11 or under, isn’t on the census and it is possible, with the messy recording, that this in fact refers to Herbie.

1911 census for the Higgs (and Wood) family shows them to be in Castleford, Yorkshure. (National Archives)

1911 census for the Higgs (and Wood) family shows them to be in Castleford, Yorkshure.
(National Archives)

We know that the family are still in Castleford when the War broke out, in fact they are now just up the road at 120 High St. On 3 September 1914, Herbert Higgs was called back to the colours and attested as a one-year special reservist in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Herbert gave his age as 39, which was a blatant lie as he was 43. The reason why he was called back was that he was a special reservist, having joined the ‘Volunteers’ when he was 16 (around 1887); he had, however, been bought out before being trained. On the 29 September 1914, he was transferred to the Yorkshire & Lancashire Regiment. His attestation papers do reveal another interesting fact, in that his wife is listed as a dependent along with Herbie, but neither the Wood children or any other Higgs children are mentioned. This leads me to the conclusion that Herbie, then approaching his 19th birthday, was Herbert’s only surviving child.

Herbert Higgs attestation papers show Sarah and Herbie as his only dependents. (National Archives)

Herbert Higgs attestation papers show Sarah and Herbie as his only dependents.
(National Archives)

Herbert’s military career lasted all of 42 days and, of course, never saw him leave English shores or see direct action. In fact, he never got further than the depot at Pontefract. Herbert, just short of 5′ 5″ and a Primitive Methodist, was originally passed as fit at his joining-up; however, by 14 October 1914, he was recommended for discharge under paragraph 154 of the Special Reserve Regulations as he was not ‘likely to become an efficient soldier’. Two causes were cited by the Colonel at Pontefract to justify this recommendation: the first was an ‘old fracture of the jaw’, while the second was simply ‘debility’. His conduct, for those 42 days, was described as good. He received no war medals. Sometime over the next few years the family moved to the Walsall Road, Heath End, North Walsall. Heath End is in fact just south of Pelsall, adjacent to Shelfield.

Herbie’s War  
And so we turn to Herbie’s War. Herbie, we know from his small obituary in the Walsall Observer, attested into the Royal Navy around the November of 1915. We also know that at this time he was living with his father and step-mother in Heath End and he was working as a miner at the Wyrley Grove Colliery, near Little Wyrley.

The obituary states that his first ship was HMS Victory; however, it is better to think of this as not being a ship but more of a shore base. The navy typically gives ship-style names to its shore bases, gunnery bases and even sea-cadet meeting huts for example. HMS Victory was the name of the Portsmouth barracks prior to WWII (later being renamed to HMS Nelson to avoid confusion with the actual ship which is in dry-dock there). Therefore Herbie was based initially at Portsmouth, where he underwent his basic training as an able seaman.

After his period at Portsmouth was over, Herbie was posted the HMS Diadem. The Diadem was a cruiser, built in 1896 and was fairly obsolete even before WWI. It had been placed effectively in reserve from 1912, and was to become a stoker’s training ship in 1914. It was put back into reserve in 1915, but it is most likely that Higgs was on-board to gain further experience and his sea-legs! The ship was broken-up in 1921.

Cruiser HMS Diadem, Herbie's first ship, although it was only a reserve ship. (Imperial War Museum)

Cruiser HMS Diadem, Herbie’s first ship, although it was only a reserve ship.
(Imperial War Museum)

After a stint on the Diadem, Higgs was moved to HMS Fortune; the irony is that this would be an ill-fated move. The Fortune was a destroyer – which is a fast and manoeuvrable, yet small warship. Their purpose was to act as a convoy escort for larger vessels, in order to deal with enemy motor torpedo boats and other smaller craft that were able to deal a large warship a fatal blow. HMS Fortune had been built in Govan, by Fairfields. It was launched in May 1913 and completed by the December. The Fortune was attached to the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, which itself became a part of the Grand Fleet in 1915.

HMS Fortune, launched in 1913, but doomed to be sunk at Jutland in 1916.  (Imperial War Museum)

HMS Fortune, launched in 1913, but doomed to be sunk at Jutland in 1916.
(Imperial War Museum)

By the time Herbie joined the Fortune it was stationed with the rest of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands; this was to keep it safer from U-boat attack – the U-boats having shown their devastating effect early on in the War by sinking three British cruisers in the North Sea within an hour. The Fleet was used (technically through the Northern Patrol) to blockade Germany from the North, keeping their fleet at port and intercepting merchant shipping (including that from neutral countries) carrying vital food and war materials. The Channel was bottled-up by the Dover Patrol. It isn’t clear how long and to what extent that Herbie and HMS Fortune were employed in this role.

It was inevitable that the main British and German fleets would clash at some stage, and this was to happen for the only time in 1916. The single engagement became known as the Battle of Jutland and took place on 31 May/1 June 1916; it would see the end of Herbie’s and the Fortune’s  North Sea operations. The battle took place while the preparations for the Somme offensive were well under way. Like the Somme, expectations of success would be high and like the Somme it would end in a pyrrhic victory: the allied casualties at the Somme vastly outstripped those of the Germans, but Verdun was relieved (which was the revised purpose of the attack in the first place); similarly, the British losses in men and ships was far greater at Jutland than those of the Germans, but the result was the German navy withdrew to its bases and would never threaten the Royal Navy again. The German High Command changed to what eventually became an unrestricted U-boat campaign instead.

The German fleet was weaker and adopted a strategy of trying to lure part of the Grand Fleet (it must be remembered that the Australians and Canadians were also present) onto the torpedoes of waiting submarines and into the path of the main German Fleet commanded by Scheer . The bait of around 40 ships (battlecruisers, light cruisers and torpedo boats) was commanded by Franz Hipper; the target was David Beatty’s battlecruiser fleet. Sadly for the Germans, the Royal Navy knew the German plans and craft disposition before it sailed, as the German codes had been captured when the Magdeburg ran aground in 1914. This fact allowed Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet and Beatty’s battlecruiser fleet to sail before the submarines were even in place. Herbie and the Fortune left Scapa Flow at 10.30 pm on 30 May.

Beatty made contact with Hipper in the afternoon of the 31 May. The initial advantage would be lost in the ensuing battle due to a combination of poor communications, questionable decision making, poor shells (exploding outside of the German armour instead of penetrating it) and lax handling of cordite in the British magazines that resulted in several ships being ripped apart from internal explosions. Beatty lost the engagement but managed to drag both Hipper and Scheer’s fleets towards the Grand Fleet and Herbie Higgs.

From late afternoon the Grand Fleet came into play, and by early evening the two main fleets began to exchange fire. Scheer turned for home within a few hours and as darkness fell, Jellicoe being concious of the problems of night fighting, sent in the destroyers to fire torpedoes at short range. One of these was the Fortune, which came under heavy fire from around 11.30 pm onward. Sometime in the early hours, fatal blows from the SMS Westfalen caused the Fortune to go down. One man was rescued, Higgs and 66 others went down with the ship.

SMS Westfalen, which delivered the fatal blow to HMS Fortune on 1 June 1916. (US Library of Congress)

SMS Westfalen, which delivered the fatal blow to HMS Fortune on 1 June 1916.
(US Library of Congress)

And so Herbie Higgs was lost. Ironically, the ship’s commander, the 33 year-old Lt Commander FG Terry was listed in the Cannock Advertiser as the Cheltenham man’s sister now resided in Cannock. Herbie was awarded the 1915 Star, the War Medal and the Victory Medal, which were received by his father. In time he would be added to the memorial at Portsmouth and the Fortune would become a war-grave.

After tracing the story of Herbie, I wondered just where Great Wyrley fitted into it. I believe that Herbie never set foot in Wyrley, his death being reported in the Walsall Observer and his address then given as Heath End, Walsall. Herbie is not entered onto Great Wyrley’s 1917 Roll of Honour, but there has to be some connection. The answer would come from the new voting rights of 1918, where Herbert and Sarah were shown to be residing at 10 Harrison’s Villas, Walsall Road.

The draft 1918 electoral Register for Gt Wyrley, showing Herbert and Sarah Higgs living at 10 Harrison's Villas.

The draft 1918 Electoral Register for Gt Wyrley, showing Herbert and Sarah Higgs living at 10 Harrison’s Villas. (Staffordshire Record Office)

Names appear on war memorials not just to respect the dead, but also to comfort the living. William Henry Simpson appears on the Wyrley memorial (home to him, his wife and children) and that of King’s Bromley (home to his parents and siblings). While I suggest that Herbie may never have set foot in Wyrley, nevertheless he has become a part of the family.

In memory of the Higgs family. This article is dedicated to Mr Gerry Johnson, a resident of Gt Wyrley who served aboard HMS Nith during the Burma campaign in WWII.

My thanks to:
Walsall Local History Centre
Staffordshire Record Office
Imperial War Museum
National Archives
US Library of Congress

  1. Flanders Field says:

    Another well executed piece.
    In support of your last paragraph, My grandfather is listed on Wednesbury War Memorial though his connection to the town is that his widow, my Nan, lived there when she re-married after his death.

  2. Gerald says:

    War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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