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Long-lost family united by Stalybridge World War One hero
Monday 20th November 2017 @ 17:47 by Tom Greggan
News Stalybridge

Two family members, linked by a Stalybridge hero from the First World War, met for the first time on Remembrance Sunday to honour him.

Sergeant William Rhodes DCM died on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele, July 31st 1917. Back in July, on the 100th anniversary of his death, Sergeant Rhodes’ great-great nephew and namesake, William Rhodes, appeared on the BBC’s commemorative programme at Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium.

Sergeant William Rhodes DCM and his medals.

Unbeknown to William, Sergeant Rhodes’ granddaughter, Sheila Edmonds, was watching from her home in Altrincham. “I’ve had an interest in my grandfather, Sergeant William Rhodes, from birth really because my middle name is Rhodes and that was to make sure he was always remembered,” Sheila said.

“I was watching the service at Passchendaele and because William is the namesake of my grandfather, my ears pricked up, and there he was, standing at my grandfathers grave. At that point I said to myself, ‘I must get in touch with this person!’

“My phone was ringing off the hook because every family member of mine had been watching and wanted to know who William was and was I in touch with him!”

Sheila’s mother, Irene, was Sergeant Rhodes’ youngest daughter. Irene never met her father- she was born six weeks after he died- but spent her life honouring him. She was at the opening of the Tyne Cot memorial in 1927 and frequently returned to the site throughout her life.

After the Tameside Reporter featured William’s visit to Tyne Cot on the front page, Sheila contacted our newsroom in her attempts to track him down. Eventually, the two were in regular contact and plans were made to meet.

William’s interest in Sergeant Rhodes came from his father, Ivor. Ivor’s parents were born in Stalybridge, whereas Ivor was born in Liverpool and now lives down south. However, his visits to Tameside always featured a trip to Stalybridge.

Ivor said: “When I was five or six and my father brought me here to stand in front of Stalybridge War Memorial and say a prayer for his uncle. That’s how it started.”

Irene Rhodes at the grave of her father, Sergeant William
Rhodes, whom she never met.

William added: “My dad went out to Tyne Cot in 2007, just after the 90th anniversary of his death. We’d always planned to do the 100 year commemoration this year out at Tyne Cot and we’d always planned to come up to Stalybridge today as well. As a result of the commemorations we met Sheila, whom we didn’t know anything about! One phone call introduced us and it snowballed from there.”

One hundred years after Sergeant Rhodes’ death, his granddaughter, great nephew and great-great nephew gathered together for the first time, alongside hundreds of others, to pay their respects and place a wreath at the war memorial that bears his name.

Ivor found it particularly poignant. He said: “There was a tremendous experience today of the civic pride of Stalybridge. My mother was born in Stalybridge and she had a tremendous pride in the town and I saw that today.

“I’m just proud that I was able to be here with my son and with Sheila, whom we’d never met before. She’s opened a great big door into another side of the family that I didn’t know existed.”

William’s connection with Sergeant Rhodes goes beyond family ties and the same name. He himself has been a member of the armed forces for 21 years, after joining when he was 16. Having been on numerous exercises and a tour of Iraq, William is now serving with the 13th Air Assault Support Regiment, based in Colchester with the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers.

For Sheila, her thoughts on Sunday were with her mother. Irene’s dedication to the father she never knew was so great that she was at Tyne Cot just a week before she passed away, aged 90.

“My mother would be so thrilled,” Sheila said. “She’d be disappointed not to be here but she’d be so thrilled that we’ve met up and I’m sure she’d be so proud of William.”


Main picture: From left to right; Jane Rhodes, Ivor Rhodes, William Rhodes and Sheila Edmonds, pictured at the Stalybridge War Memorial, which bears the name of their ancestor, Sergeant William Rhodes DCM.