b. 24/03/1887 Aston, Birmingham. d. 28/06/1966 Toronto, Canada.
Joseph Henry Tombs (1884-1966) was born as Frederick Griffith Tombs on 24th March 1887 at Pype Hayes, Chester Road, Erdington, Aston, Warwickshire, though in a later newspaper article written after his VC action, his father stated he was born in Sparkbrook, Birmingham. His father, also Frederick Tombs, was employed variously as a grocer, commercial traveller, Conservative Association Secretary, registration agent and political agent. His father moved around a lot, and was living in Leicestershire in 1891 and Lincolnshire in 1901 with his daughter Gertrude. In fact when Joseph enlisted in 1912, he didn’t know his father’s address. His mother was Mary nee Cole, a domestic servant. His parents married in Islington, London in 1882, but by 1901 they must have separated as she was living near Southampton with two of their daughters, Elizabeth and Nellie.
Joseph was educated at King Edward VI Five Ways School in Birmingham and King’s School, Grantham 1901-03. When he joined King’s, he was admitted as Joseph Tombs with Frederick crossed out. Whilst at the school, he boarded with John Ely, the father of one of his classmates. By 1906, Joseph was an apprentice electrical engineer working for JH Gath of Halifax, Yorkshire. He enlisted with the 3rd West Riding Regiment (Militia) for six years as Griffiths Tombs on 1st August 1906, and having completed 49 days’ drill, he was discharged on 9th May 1907 by purchase with Good Character. It is believed that Joseph may have changed his name and run away to sea for a time. He eventually ended up in Warrington, Cheshire, where he worked in the soap works of Messrs Joseph Crosfield & Sons, and later became a sheet roller with British Aluminium Company for 18 months.
Whilst in Warrington, he enlisted with the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion of The King’s Regiment on 5th March 1912. While undergoing training he attended the garrison school in Warrington to improve his education. He was promoted to Lance Corporal in June 1913. Although he was mobilised on 8th August 1914, he was not sent to the front immediately, but spent some time in Scotland in a mixed King’s and South Lancashire Regiment force. He eventually went to France to join the 1st Battalion on 23rd March 1915.
On 15th May 1915 near Rue du Bois, France, Lance-Corporal Tombs, on his own initiative, crawled out repeatedly under very heavy shell and machine-gun fire to bring in wounded men who were lying about 100 yards in front of our trenches. He rescued four men, one of whom he dragged back by means of a rifle sling placed round his own neck and the man's body.
His citation published on 24th July 1915, incorrectly gave the date of 16th June for his action, and was promoted to Corporal. He was presented with the VC outside Buckingham Palace by King George V on 12th August 1915. When news of his gallantry was published in the Warrington press there was some doubt about his identity. Mr Stewart, an official of the British Alumininum Company, corresponded with him twice to ensure he had the right man. Joseph returned to Warrington on 28th July, where accompanied by Mr Stewart, he visited the offices of the Warrington Guardian and the Mayor. He attended a public reception on 31st July, followed by a procession through the town. He was later presented with an illuminated address and after a few days embarked on a recruiting campaign in Liverpool, St Helens and Bolton.
He was also awarded the Russian Cross of the Order of St George, 4th Class on 25th August 1915. On the 11th October, he visited King’s School, Grantham while a patient at the West Bridgford Military Hospital in Nottingham. He had a shrapnel wound in the shoulder and his ears had been affected by the close explosion of a shell. He also received a wound to the toe which had to be amputated from his right foot. Due to his wounds, he didn’t return to the front, but was retained in the Army and employed on essential war work. He worked in several munitions factories and took an electrician’s course in Woolwich.
He married Ellen Rowlands at Toxteth Registry Office in Liverpool on 6th February 1917, bu sadly they didn’t have any children. In late March, Joseph transferred into 54th Anti Aircraft Company, Royal Garrison Artillery as a Corporal as part of the Firth of Forth Defences. He was demobilised on Christmas Eve 1919 to the Class Z Reserve and was formally discharged in March 1920.
He then joined the Merchant Navy and was a steward on steamers along the west coast of South America. He was on the Glasgow United Shipping Company’s SS Kalimba on the same day he was demobilised. In 1921 he joined the mailing department of Sun Life Assurance Company in Montreal, Canada and became a special messenger in 1928. Sadly, whilst he was away at sea, his wife died in August 1921 and was buried in Allerton Cemetery, Liverpool.
Joseph remarried in Montreal to Minnie Sylvia Gooding McCarthy on Christmas Day 1925. Like his first marriage, he didn’t have any children. Joseph served in No 4 Casualty Clearing Station, a Canadian volunteer reserve unit from the late 1920s until 1933 and then in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps until 1936. Joseph enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force on 2nd December 1939 as an Aircraftsman 2nd Class. He volunteered for overseas service, but was retained in Canada on disciplinary duties. He was posted to the Flying School at Trenton in 1940 and promoted to Corporal.
After the war, Joseph never fully recovered from an operation in 1952 to remove shrapnel from his stomach. He suffered a stroke in 1964 and was mainly bed ridden thereafter. He had lodged with Mrs Frederica Johnson and her family in Toronto for the last 20 years of his life, and they called him Uncle Joe. Joseph died on 28th June 1966 and was buried in the War Veterans Plot, Pine Hill Cemetery, Toronto.
In addition to his VC, he was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, George VI Coronation Medal 1937, Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953 and the Russian Cross of St George, 4th Class. His medals were inherited by his distant nephew, William Wheaton, who donated them to the Royal Regiment of Canada on 27th October 1966. The King’s Regiment and Royal Regiment of Canada aree closely linked and it was agreed that the VC should be transferred back and forth between the Regiments, but they remain the property of the Royal Regiment of Canada Foundation in Toronto. The two Coronation Medals are missing from the group.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: KINGS REGIMENT MUSEUM, LIVERPOOL.
BURIAL PLACE: PINE HILLS CEMETERY, TORONTO, CANADA.
Joseph Tombs' medals including his VC on display at the Kings Regiment Museum, Liverpool
(picture from the Victoria Cross website).
Joseph Harcourt Tombs VC's grave in Section K, Grave 1056
The King's School, Grantham
Hall of Memory, Birmingham (Feb 2016)