Sunderland war hero given white feather

MAJOR ILEY: War hero Robert Iley, who won a Military Medal in the First World War.
MAJOR ILEY: War hero Robert Iley, who won a Military Medal in the First World War.
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TODAY we feature a man who served with the “bravest of the brave” in the First World War – but was still called a coward on his return to Blighty.

BOB Iley swapped gas meters for machine guns after being plucked from the ranks to join “The Suicide Club” during the darkest days of the First World War.

As a member of the elite Machine Gun Corps, the Ryhope man saw front-line action in the bloodiest battles of the conflict, winning a Military Medal.

But despite his courage, Bob was still called a coward on a return trip to Wearside. Indeed, he was even handed a white feather, a symbol of cowardice.

“He thought it was funny, but my parents were indignant,” Bob’s 94-year-old sister Ethel Bestford recalled in 2006. “It was all a mistake, of course.”

Bob, eldest son of chemist and confectioner John Thomas Iley and wife Edith, was born in Ryhope in 1896 and grew up above the family shop in Ryhope Street.

By the age of 15 he was working as a gas meter cash collector for Sunderland Gas Company but, when war broke out, he immediately joined the 21st King’s Royal Rifles.

“My brother served in France under Sir Anthony Eden, later Lord Avon, from 1914,” recalled Ethel. “He was a runner, carrying messages through no-man’s land.

On his first Christmas the men were allowed leave for one day. They played football with the Germans and showed each other photos. Next day they were fighting each other again.

“I have vivid memories of Bob coming home on leave one time in about 1916, when I was four. My sister Edith and I dashed downstairs and there he was, smiling and overjoyed to be home.

“He swung me in his arms and I said ‘What have you brought me?’

“Bob opened his knapsack and produced a German gas mask. It had a long trunk, like an elephant. I was overjoyed when he put it over my head. I danced on the table.”

It was not long, however, before Bob’s dangerous job left him wounded. After a spell in hospital, he returned to France – this time as a member of the Machine Gun Corps.

Only the “best of the best” were recruited – with skills in mathematics, trigonometry, calculus and weapons highly prized. Bob, a lance corporal, fitted the bill.

Action at the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele and Arras followed – with Bob and his comrades at the heart of the action.

“The men who served were the bravest of the brave, members of what was known as The Suicide Club,” according to the Machine Gun Corps Old Comrades Association.

Bob went on to win a Military Medal in August 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele – a brutal four-month offensive with saw 244,897 British soldiers wounded or killed.

Despite his bravery, however, a trip home just a few weeks later saw him branded a coward. “He came back on leave and said he must delouse.

“Mother put him in the wash house, where he removed his uniform, bathed and changed into civvies,” said Ethel.

“The next day he went into Sunderland and someone gave him a white feather. He thought it was funny, but my parents were indignant.”

Although Bob saw many friends fall during his fight for King and Country, he came home unscathed – as did his younger brothers Henry and Thomas.

He went on to become chief clerk of the distribution department at the Sunderland Division of Northern Gas.

More than 40 years after the end of the Great War, Bob – by then of Ashmoore Terrace – was awarded an MBE for his work with the 2nd Battalion Durham Army Cadet Force.

He was commanding officer of the battalion until 1962, when he stepped down. He died 10 years later.

“At the end of the war, I remember my father waving a Union Jack out of the upstairs windows. My mother wept,” recalled Ethel, who passed away aged 96 in 2008. “My dad said ‘Edith, you should be overjoyed – you’ve got your three sons back.’ My mother replied: ‘I’m crying for the mothers who have lost their sons.’”