Museum of the Manchester Regiment
The Men Behind the Medals

Harry Lees

Harry Lees : Photograph of Harry in Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre.  Reference: Acc.3269

Photograph of Harry in Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre. Reference: Acc.3269

Harry Lees : (L to R) 1914-15 Star; British War Medal; Allied Victory Medal

(L to R) 1914-15 Star; British War Medal; Allied Victory Medal

Harry was born on the 10th September 1891 in Oldham, Lancashire. He was baptised on the 11th October at St Stephen and All Martyrs Church in the town. His father was called Joseph and his mother was Helen. He was their only child.

When Harry was born his parents lived at 115 Greenwood Street in Oldham. Joseph worked as a butcher. He died in 1900 and was buried in Greenacres Cemetery. By 1901 Helen was living with her sister Alice Chadwick and her children at 21 Thames Street in the Mumps area of Oldham. She worked as a velvet weaver. Harry wasn't with them when the 1901 Census was taken in early April, we don't know whether he didn't live with them, or was just away at the time.

Harry went to Bluecoat School in Oldham between 1901 and 1905. He was awarded a medal by the school in 1904. After he left Harry decided to become a teacher. He trained in or around Oldham.

In 1911 Harry and Helen lived at 13 Thames Street. Helen was still a velvet weaver, and Harry was an assistant school teacher. He was uncertificated, or unqualified, at the time. The next year Harry obtained his certificate. He would be qualified as an elementary school teacher from the 1st April 1913. He achieved a 'distinction' in drawing. The certificate gave his address as 2 Brackley Street, where Harry and Helen had moved soon after the 1911 Census was taken.

We don't know where Harry taught. He still lived with Helen at 2 Brackley Street when the First World War broke out in August 1914.

Harry joined the Army on the 7th January 1915. He enlisted in the Oldham Battalion of Comrades, which was being formed by the men of the town so that they could serve together. When he enlisted Harry was 5 feet 5 3/4 inches tall and weighed 140 pounds. The Oldham Battalion became the 24th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment and Harry was given the service number 14967.

The British Army had expanded very quickly during the early part of the war, and very few members of the 24th Battalion had any military experience. This meant that men who had any experience of leadership, whether from their work or social life, could expect to find themselves promoted quickly. Harry was no exception. By the beginning of February he had been made Battalion Orderly Room Sergeant. He skipped the ranks of Lance Corporal and Corporal with this promotion.

The Orderly Room was the battalion office. As Sergeant Harry was the most senior soldier assigned to it. He assisted the officer in command of the Orderly Room, the Adjutant, in dealing with the paperwork and administration that helped the battalion run smoothly.

The 24th Battalion began life at Chadderton Hall Farm near Oldham (in 2012 a park). In early March 1915 the battalion moved to Llanfairfechan between Conwy and Bangor on the North Wales coast, and then moved again to Grantham, Lincolnshire 2 months later. They stayed there until September and then moved one last time to Larkhill in Wiltshire. From there Harry and the battalion moved to France on the 8th November.

During their first few months in France the 24th Battalion spent time holding the front line trenches around Albert and Arras, as well as being used as labour for various construction and excavation projects behind the lines. They saw some fighting, but were not involved in any large battles.

During May 1916 the 24th Battalion was given the new role of Pioneers. They would now focus on work such as digging trenches, building roads and buildings, and moving supplies. They were still equipped and trained to fight as infantry, but this was no longer their main role.

As Pioneers the battalion supported the Somme Offensive that began on the 1st July. They followed the attacking infantry and began to build new trenches and dug outs in captured areas. Harry continued as Orderly Room Sergeant throughout this period. We don't know anything about what he did, and there is no record of him ever being wounded. We also don't know whether he was able to return home on leave at any point.

After they left the Somme sector in September the 24th Battalion moved north to Armentieres near the Belgian border. They crossed it in June 1917 and were sent to Ypres (now called Ieper). Between June and October Harry and the 24th Battalion supported the Passchendaele Offensive fought in this area.

During this time Harry was recommended for the job of Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant (RQMS). His commanding officer believed he deserved the job 'as a reward for his abilities and tireless devotion to duty'. RQMS was an appointment given to a soldier holding the rank of Warrant Officer Class II. To reach this rank Harry would have to skip the rank of Colour Sergeant. The Army decided this would not be allowed, so the promotion was refused. He was eventually promoted to Colour Sergeant on the 19th January 1918.

The 24th Battalion was withdrawn from Ypres in late October and sent to a completely different environment. They arrived in Italy in late December 1917. They had been sent, along with other British and French units, to help support the Italian Army in their fight against Austria-Hungary. The Italians had suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Caporetto the previous month, and were in danger of collapsing completely.

Harry's surroundings may have changed, but his job had not. Digging trenches was more challenging in the rock of the Asiago plateau than the mud of France and Flanders, although once built they needed less maintenance. Moving supplies up narrow, steep paths from the plains to the trenches 4,000 feet above was also a significant challenge. As compensation though, for Harry and his comrades the Italian front was generally quieter and more relaxed than France.

Harry stayed in Italy until the end of the war in November 1918. He returned to the UK during March 1919 and was demobilised from the Army Depot at Prees Heath in Shropshire on the 22nd April. He returned to Helen at 2 Brackley Street and his job as a teacher.

In later life Harry's nephew became a teacher, and Harry told him that he remembered being paid each Friday, in cash, in front of his pupils by the Bishop of Blackburn's Secretary. We don't know exactly when or where this happened, but Blackburn didn't have a Bishop until 1927.

Harry and Helen lived together for the rest of her life. At some point they moved to Nottingham, where Harry began to work as a teacher at Sneinton Boulevard Elementary School. This eventually became Greenwood Secondary Modern School. Harry was the Headmaster of this school when he retired in 1956.

After the Second World War, Harry and Helen lived in a 'modernist' bungalow at 120 Ribblesdale Road in Sherwood. Helen died between April and June 1952, aged 83. She was buried next to Joseph in Greenacres Cemetery, Oldham.

Harry married Marjorie Mary Cooper on the 29th December 1948. He was 57 at the time, and she was 35. She worked as a secretary. The couple didn't have any children. In 1961 they moved to another bungalow at 10 Newhaven Close in Cromer, Norfolk, and lived there for the rest of their life together.

Harry was a freemason. In Nottingham he had been a member of Daybrook Lodge, Number 5522, and when he moved to Cromer he joined his local Lodge, although we don't know which one this was. Harry spent much of his retirement gardening and making wine.

Harry had always been a heavy smoker, and on the 14th September 1978 he died in Fletcher Hospital, Cromer, from lung cancer. He had just celebrated his 87th birthday. In July 2006 Marjorie lived in a care home in Cromer, she was 'approaching her 93rd birthday'. Harry's medals were donated to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment at around this time.

Museum of the Manchester Regiment
c/o Portland Basin Museum
Portland Place
Heritage Wharf

Telephone: 0161 342 5480
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Trustees of the Manchester Regiment Museum & Archive and Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council