The Fox-Russells of Holyhead

Philip Walker

The background to this article is the building in Holyhead known as Plas Alltran.  The first part of this article which deals with that and aspects of the CWGC architecture can be found in the April 2017 newsletter.

Dr William Fox Russell and Ethel Maria Fox Russell first lived in the property, Plas Alltran, when they arrived in Holyhead and integrated into the local life. Dr Fox Russell served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers Volunteers during his time, and it is believed while Dr William Fox Russell practiced at Plas Alltran his wife Ethel Maria had the first two of their eight children. The two children born at Plas Alltran were John and William Fox Russell, who played a significant role in the First World War. Later in life, Dr William Fox Russell moved his practice along with his family to 5 Victoria Terrace, a former coaching inn, opposite the railway station in Holyhead.

The Fox Russells were a large close family and they seemed to place great emphasis on group activities, all which played an important role on the lives of their children. The boys of the Fox Russell played a large part in the Holyhead Boy Scouts with several of them as members.Image00002FRJohn Fox Russell was the leader of the 1st Wolf Patrol of the Holyhead Boy Scouts in 1909. The Holyhead Boy Scouts would serve during the First World War in many different ways. The Scouts who originally served in the 1st Wolf Patrol alongside John Fox Russell would serve in the armed forces. While these men served overseas during the war, their younger counter parts were continuing to do their bit on the home front. In Holyhead, the boy scouts met the troopships of the battalions stationed in Ireland who passed through Holyhead on their way to France and served tea and drinking water to the soldiers. In the early days, when the work was heaviest, they were at the railway station day and night. At first, they had to carry the water for the troops in large baths borrowed from a hotel; later they were provided with water tanks. Later tasks included helping the Red Cross with disinfecting the Holborn Hall at which they were very efficient. Subsequently, with the scarcity of paper, the scout troop, in common with many others, collected waste paper. They sold this and supported many charities including the St Dunstan’s hospital for blinded soldiers with the money they made.

It is Doctor William Fox Russell's eldest son John that is probably the most famous of his children. John Fox Russell was a winner of the Victoria Cross while serving as a Medical Officer carrying on the traditions of his father.

Captain John Fox Russell VC MC was one of four of the Fox Russell's boys to serve during the war. John Fox Russell was born in 1893 at Alas Allethrin, a year later in 1894 his brother William would be born at Alas Allethrin. Later, once the family had relocated to 5 Victoria Terrace along would arrive Henry in 1897 and Tom in 1898.  All had an active roll during the war.

John Fox Russell was educated locally in Holyhead, before gaining a scholarship as a chorister at Magdalen College School, Oxford in 1905 (where he sang with fellow Welsh Pupil, Ivor Novello, in the Christmas service). Two years later, he left Magdalen and became a pupil at St Bees School in Cumberland where he completed his education in 1909. Whilst at the latter school, he became a keen member of the Officer Training Corps (OTC), following in his father’s military footsteps. (Dr Fox Russell had been an officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers Volunteers in Anglesey). Despite his rather disjointed education, John, aged only sixteen, passed the entrance examination to the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, but declined to take up the offer of a place, electing instead to attend the Middlesex Hospital Medical School in London, living with relatives at 13 Nottingham Place. Whilst training, he served with the London University OTC which presented him with a sword on his leaving. He returned to Holyhead in 1913, presumably to gain practical experience in his father’s practice, and was commissioned as a second-lieutenant in the 6 (Anglesey & Caernarvonshire) RWF (Territorial Force), where he served in H company (Holyhead), alongside his younger brother Henry, and was known to the local soldiery as “Dr John”.

On 25th July 1914, the battalion arrived at Aberystwyth for its annual camp, with few realizing that war would break out before they were scheduled to return home. At 03.30 on 3rd August, the Commanding Officer, Lieut-Col Johns Roberts, ordered reveille to be sounded and ordered his half-asleep officers and men to strike camp and they returned home during the early morning of 4th August as Britain woke up to a state of war. The North Wales Infantry Brigade (Territorial Army), some 4,500 men strong, was immediately mobilised for service.  The 6th RWF was assembled at Corfam Conwy where they carried out a programme of intensive training before being moved to Northampton on 29th August. The local newspaper The North Wales Weekly News reported on 3rd September:-

After a week’s hard training they left on Sunday last for a large concentration camp which we are not permitted to divulge. As early as 6am on Sunday, the inhabitants were aroused by the tramp of marching men and singing of sings. The troops had to march to Llandudno Junction where trains were waiting to take them away. As each battalion passed through the town they were given a hearty send-off and especially so the local men who presented a very smart appearance.

 On 2nd September, John Fox Russell was promoted to lieutenant and given command of H company with his brother as his second-in-command.

In Northampton, the Welshmen received a warm welcome. Lieut Harold Owen Owen wrote to his mother:-

The people of Northampton are too splendid for words; we are on the outskirts of the town. When the billeting officer went first round the houses, it was not a question as to whether they were willing to take the men but as to how many the officers would let them have. Houses that could not possibly hold more than two men asked to be allowed to have four and said they would give up their beds. When we go for a route march, the cottagers rush out with basketfuls of apples, jugs of milk and the temptation is so great that the men on those hot and dusty days break ranks.

The members of the Territorial Force had enlisted for service within Great Britain and, when it appeared likely that they would be needed overseas, they were all asked whether they were prepared to take part in foreign service. Most of the officers and men were, but some were not and a detachment of the 6th RWF was sent back to Caernarfon. Those who had volunteered to go abroad underwent further medical tests and were inoculated against typhoid. In November, the battalion move to Cheltenham, Suffolk, where they were put to digging trenches for training purposes. In mid-December, they moved to Walsham-Le-Willows north-east of Bury St Edmunds where, day after day, they continued to dig trenches. Shortly before Christmas, they prepared to move off, presumably to France, but the order was cancelled at the last minute.

In January, John Fox Russell was promoted as Captain. As there was still no sign of the battalion being posted overseas on active service, he applied to the War Office for permission to continue his medical studies at the Middlesex Hospital where he was awarded the Diploma of the Society of Apothecaries in March 1916. Unwilling to waste his medical training, John Fox Russell transferred to the Royal Army Medical Corps in May 1916 and was attached to the 2/2 Brigade (Welsh) Royal Field Artillery in Bedford on 10th October and went with them to France. On 23rd September, he married Miss Alma Taylor of Tunbridge Wells.

Although his life had undergone several dramatic changes, he missed his comrades in the 6th RWF, particularly H Company, and his brother, Henry, who had been posted to Gallipoli in August 1915. The battalion had remained in Gallipoli until December when it formed part of the 53 Division of the Expeditionary Force being gathered together in Egypt to continue the war against the Turks in Palestine and Mesopotamia. John Fox Russell made a successful application for a transfer to join them as their battalion medical officer and sailed from Devonport on 10th October. En route to Egypt, unknown to him, his ship passed one carrying his brother Henry home from Britain (he had contracted frostbite in Gallipoli and had applied for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps). John Fox Russell officially rejoined the 6th RWF on 22nd October and took part in the Battle of Gaza in March 1917.

On the morning of 26th March, two mounted division (the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division and the Imperial Mounted Division) moved to form a screen around the town of Gaza. The 54 Division was to follow, occupying the settlement of Skeikh Abbas with the Imperial Camel Corps on their right. Once the above were in position, the 53 Division was to launch an assault on Gaza itself. The initial stages of the plan were shrouded in confusion and almost every stage was either cancelled or delayed. At 11.30, three brigades, the 158th, 159th, and the 160th, were ordered to advance on Al Muntar ridge, which General Dallas believed was unoccupied by the enemy. The 158 Brigade, which comprised the 5th, 6th, and 7th RWF, was to move on the position from the east. As they began to ascend the slope, the Turkish artillery opened fire, followed by heavy machine-gun and rifle fire which pinned down the advancing troops. Lack of support meant that little progress was made by the brigade until shortly before 16.00 when the ridge was captured with great loss of life on both sides. It was, however, to no avail, by early evening, General Dobell, fearing a strong Turkish counter-attack, ordered a withdrawal of all mounted troops and a repositioning of the 53 Division to conform on the left of the 54 Division, which was some distance to their rear. General Dobell was unaware of the success of the 53 Division which had cleared the entire ridge of enemy and was holding a dominant position overlooking Gaza. Also unknown to the C-in-C was the fact that the 54 Division was still advancing and about to close up the right wing of the 53 Division, were the latter to retain its original position. Later, messages between the Turkish commanders were intercepted which clearly showed that the town of Gaza was about to fall and the enemy forces were in chaos, burning documents and destroying all items that might be of value to the British. By this time, it was too late and at 22.30, General Dallas gave the order for his  division to retire, arriving at Mansura at 02.00 - the British generals had managed to “snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory”. In doing so, the RWF had lost large numbers of men killed or wounded. John Fox Russell had spent the day of the battle close behind the fighting, giving what assistance he could to the wounded men of all battalions and regiments. His courage and steadiness under fire earned him the award of the Military Cross.

By June, John Fox Russell had been taken ill and evacuated to Cairo, but was back with his battalion in time for the Third Battle of Gaza in the autumn of 1917. The new C-in-C, General Sir Edmund Allenby, was determined to succeed where his predecessors had failed, and capture the town of Gaza, thereby opening up the whole Mediterranean coast of what is today Palestine and Israel. By late October, the British and Imperial forces were trained and ready to commence operations. The opening move of the battle was against the town of Beersheba, some twenty-five miles to the south-east of Gaza, with the 53 Division playing a dominant role from the start of operations. As the 6th RWF was involved in most of the fighting from 20th October, it is likely that John Fox Russell was also there ministering to the wounded and recovering them from exposed positions in the front line. If later comments are an accurate measure of his personality, it would have been contrary to everything he believed in to have done otherwise.

On 5th November, the 53 Division was in the Judean hills, on the right of the British line under orders of the Desert Corps. It was ordered to take up a position on the Khuweilfeh-Rujm edh Dhib line, and, if the opportunity arose, occupy the Nejile and Jemmame water courses. To the left was the 74 Division, and both divisions were supported by the Yeomanry Mounted Division. To the north of the 53 Division’s position were strong Turkish forces controlling a dominating position on high ground at Tel-el-Khuweilfeh, a flat-topped hill at the head of a long, wide valley. The C-in-C was unaware of the strength and position of the enemy forces and had made plans for the 53 Division to move away from Tel-el-Khuweilfeh which could be captured by the mounted division. It was obvious to General Mott (GOC 53 Division) that the mounted units would be unable to capture the high ground and he was able to persuade Allenby to allow him to attack Tel-el-Khuweilfeh in conjunction with the main British attack by XX corps further west.

The 158th Brigade was given the responsibility or capturing Tel-el-Khuweilfeh with the 6th RWF in the centre of the first line, supported by the 7th RWF on the left and the 1 / 1 Herefords on the right. The 5th RWF was in reserve.

At 04.00 on 6th November, the British artillery began its barrage which began to creep forward, 100 yards at a time. Three minutes later, the infantry began their assault. Almost immediately, the 6th RWF and the 1 / 1 Herefords became mixed up as the former were forced to cross the front of the latter but, despite this, their advance met little opposition and they reached their allotted objectives at 04.55, just as dawn was breaking. As soon as flares were fired to notify the British command of their position, the Turks launched a counter-attack in some force, but were driven off.

According to Brig-General Vernon the whole attack went like clockwork; the barrage was so good that the objective was reached just as dawn was breaking with practically no casualties. The Turkish front line disintegrated and the leading men of the 6th RWF reached the enemy’s gun positions and were about to clear the area when a mist descended. Below them, the 7th RWF could see large numbers of soldiers which they took to be Turks and immediately called for artillery support. As the British shells rained down, not on the enemy, but on the advance elements of the 6th RWF and the Herefords, they were forced out of the position they had captured and withdrew some 200 yards, giving the Turks the opportunity to reorganise their men, and their machine-gunners opened fire. Brig-General Vernon was confused and ordered the artillery to cease firing and all infantry units to hold their positions until the mist lifted. As daylight crept over the ridge and into the valley, the Turkish machine-gunners saw for the first time, the forces assembled against them and pinned all the advanced units down before the Turkish infantry launched a counter-attack. Initially, they forced back the men of the Royal Welsh but, within a few minutes, were themselves driven off the ridge by a renewed artillery barrage and a bayonet charge of the 7th RWF. Despite the disastrous consequences of the mistaken artillery fire, the 158 Brigade gained its objective and provided invaluable protection to the main British assault further west. At 11.30, Allenby was able to telegraph to General Mott “I congratulate you and your troops on admirable success of your efforts, and troops’ gallant conduct. You have drawn enemy into very position required to facilitate success of main operations of XX Corps. Your operations have given us most favourable prospects of success, which now depends on valour of 53 Division”.

As the regimental history described, “The heat of the day now fell across the battlefield. The Khamsin commenced to blow, and the men, whole and wounded, suffered agonies of thirst. The air was thick with clouds of flies!”

As the day progressed, the Turks mounted several counter attacks in an effort to recapture the ridge. Fighting was almost continuous throughout the day. The 6th RWF, being in the forefront of the British position, had its line broken on several occasions but, each time, was able to recover the ground. For much of the time it was exposed to heavy fire from superior commanding positions but, when darkness fell, it had not given up any ground. The casualties were high and throughout the day, John Fox Russell had kept up the forward elements, tending to the wounded in exposed positions under intensive rife and machine-gun fire. On several occasions, when no stretcher bearers were available, he personally carried wounded men back to safety. In the end, inevitably, he was hit and killed by a machine-gun bullet. For his gallantry on this day, he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

The men who were with him in Palestine, and those to whom he had tended, had known him from the early days in Holyhead. To every one of them “Doctor John” was more than a soldier, more than an officer; he was a personal friend. His unflinching gallantry at Tel-el-Khuweilfeh was to remain in their memories for the remainder of their lives. Some recorded their feelings in letters to his family.

The Sixth have sustained a loss which cannot be made up, for Foley was one of us, and was always out to do his utmost for his old battalion. His coolness and bravery have always been a subject of talk in a regiment in which there were many such. I remember only about three days before he was killed some shells dropped amongst our men; he was into the smoke and had wounded out before many of us realised what had happened. (Captain J. Morgan)

I can never hope to meet a more considerate, hard-working and helpful friend than Foxey. He was brave to the point of recklessness. (Lieut Lunt Roberts)

It is impossible to describe our feelings and how we miss him, as every man inn our battalion would gladly laid down our lives for him. I am proud to say that his conduct during great battle was in every way magnificent. As usual, his first care was for the wounded. It was while on such duty that he lost his life. He went through a hail of bullets to attend to a wounded man, and thus fell one of the noblest and best of British’s sons - a noble and heroic death, worthy of the finest and most glorious traditions of the old empire. His noble conduct has been the talk of all the brigade and to us (the Holyhead boys) his place can never be replaced (CSM Owen Thomas)

On the day of the battle he worked untiringly, exposing himself to danger with the utmost abandon and self-sacrifice, in order to bring in the wounded, until at last he himself was struck down by a machine-gun bullet. I shall always cherish his memory, the memory of his devotion on that day, as one of my most precious inspirations. (Captain Revd D Williams, Holyhead)

A relative, and close friend, Mrs Garrett of Aldeburgh wrote:

He died as a soldier, and I think he would have chosen no other death had the choice been given to him, for gallantry was one of his inherent qualities. He showed gallantry when he lived at Nottingham Place (London) in his determination to do the best with his life, overcome the many difficulties that lay in his way, and in his resolute refusal to let pleasure allure him into sidewalks which might have hindered him in his great purpose.

Image00001FRJohn Fox Russell was initially buried where he fell, then reburied in Beersheba War Cemetery. (Captain Robert Thomas of Bontddu on Anglesey is commeorated on the memorial at Beersheeba - see Welshmen in Gaza).  His gallantry and death being highly unusual in that they involved men with whom he had grown up. There cannot be a more fitting epitaph than the short inscription which is recorded on his head stone, “He gave his life for others. Greater love hath no man than this”. His Victoria Cross was gazetted on 11th January 1918, and presented to his widow (accompanied by his sister).

Although the gallantry of their elder son John may have given his mother and father heart at his loss, unfortunately for Doctor William Fox Russell and his wife heartbreak was to visit them a second time during the First World War.

Henry Fox Russell, who had early in the war been with John in the 6th RWF, had decided to ask for a transfer into the Royal Flying Corp in 1916.

Henry like his brother John was educated as St Bee’s from 1909 to 1910 and then as Churcher’s College, Peterfield where he was a member of the Officer’s Training Corps. He was commissioned as Second Lieutenant on 20th August 1914 and joined the 6th Battalion RWF in September 1914 but, as he was too young for active service, he was transferred to the 2/6th battalion RWF. He was promoted Temporary Lieutenant on 22nd April 1915 and then rejoined the 6th Battalion in Egypt on 6th January 1916. He went to Gallipoli and landed at Sulva Bay and was there until the evacuation. He went to Egypt and promoted Lieutenant on 9th May 1916 and Captain on 1st June 1916 and later served in Palestine.

On 2nd March 1917 he was seconded to 64 Squadron RFC. After flight training he was appointed as an Assistant Instructor at Thetford and then went to France with his squadron as a Flight Commander. He had the tail shot off his plane at Bourlon Wood and crashed suffering a severe shaking. Twenty minutes later, another plane of his squadron was shot down and he went out and extracted the pilot (Lieutenant J A V Boddy) from his aircraft showing the same dedication to duty as his elder brother John. The pilot had both legs broken so he carried him to the safety of the British trenches. On 14th December 1917 he was awarded the Military Cross for the following

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He formed one of a patrol which silenced an enemy battery. He dropped bombs on two of the guns, silenced others with his machine-gun and then engaged transport on the road. This operation was carried out under heavy fire and very difficult weather conditions. On another occasion he dropped bombs and fired 300 rounds on enemy trenches from a height of 100 feet. His machine was then hit by a shell and crashed in front of our advanced position. He reached the front line, and while there saw another of our machines brought down. He went to the assistance of the pilot, who was badly wounded, extricated him under heavy fire and brought him to safety. He showed splendid courage and initiative.

From the actions of both John and Henry it seems that devotion to duty and care for their fellow comrades was an inherent driving force in their character.

Henry later returned from France and was appointed as an Instructor at Hooton, near Chester. The lands surrounding Hooton Hall, the ancestral home of the Stanley family, had been converted to an aerodrome and specialised in the training of volunteers from Canada and the United States of America.

It was while stationed at Hooton Park where he was a flight commander in No 4 Training Depot Station that tragedy struck. On 18th November, he was flying alone in a Sopwith Dolphin (C4143) when he was seen to go into a spin at about 900 feet from which he failed to recover and crashed, being killed instantly. No cause of the crash was ever discovered and it was assumed that he either fainted or became dizzy due to aerial manoeuvres which he carried out. Strangely, his family believed that he had crashed in a two-seater aircraft in which he was carrying a dummy which had topped over, jamming the controls. He is buried in St Seriol’s churchyard in Holyhead.

Of the other two other Fox Russell boys who served during the First World War, Thomas, joined the Royal Naval Reserve as a midshipman and the ship he was serving on was sunk at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. He survived and was later temporarily blinded and partially deafened by a naval gun which was fired whilst he was standing directly below it. He again volunteered for service in 1939 but was rejected on seven occasions due to a heart problem, before being accepted eventually by the Royal Navy for work at the Admiralty on convoy organisation duties with the rank of lieutenant-commander.

William Fox Russell who, having served as a lieutenant on the Western Front for twenty-two months, was severely wounded in the left arm by a high-explosive shell at Arras. He recovered, but was unfortunately drowned whilst swimming in 1940.

It is a remarkable story of courage and devotion to duty that all the members of the Fox Russell family showed during the First World War and beyond. They take their position rightly so as a renowned family of Holyhead of which the town can be justly proud.

It has been an interesting exploration into the past finding the links between several unconnected people who all played an important role during the First World War and who all left indelible marks on history.

It is one of the most fascinating elements of the First World War, how the numerous tendrils of its history bind and weave together and continue to echo into our everyday life.




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