Twists of fate in the life of Henry Miles

Henry Miles' shattered tobacco box

This tobacco box saved the life of soldier Henry Miles during World War One. But it seems there was a tragic sequel to his story during World War Two.

On August 25th, 1917, the Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph published the photograph of the damaged tobacco box sent back to Luton by Henry Miles. The caption included extracts of a letter sent by Pte Miles in which he described his marvellous escape from being killed thanks to the tobacco box amid "a hell of shells and machine gun bullets".

No details were given in the Telegraph about Pte Miles, other than that for four years prior to September 1916 he was cinema operator at the Gordon Street Theatre Electric Pavilion in Luton.

However, The Luton News of August 30th, 1917, revealed that the letter had been sent to Mr Jackson, manager of the cinema, and that Pte Miles (known as Harry) was trained at Halton with the Herts Regiment and he had taken part in the British offensive at St Julien, near Ypres.

The road from St. Julien to Ypres during the War. Photo: NELS

The letter from Pte Miles read: "I have had a most marvellous escape from being killed or getting a wicked wound. On Monday night we were given orders to get ready. We marched off and arrived at our assembly post.

"We lay out in No Man's Land until 3.40 on Tuesday morning, when our guns started the bombardment. The thunder of the guns was deafening, and the heavens were lit up by the flashes. We knew then that the advance had started. One brigade of our Division went over. The barrage lifted, and the boys followed on their objective, which they took. Another brigade went through then and took their objective.

"Then came our turn at 5.50 am. We started over the top for our objective, which was about two miles from our assembly post. On we went over shell-ploughed ground, our shells going one way and Fritz's shells bursting all around us. It is surprising how anyone can live through it.

"On we went until we got about one mile from our objective. When we got there we found Fritz ready to fight. We went into him at once, beat him and took some prisoners, but by doing this we walked right into into our own gun-fire, but I am pleased to say not many were caught.

"We got back and waited for our barrage to lift. We went on until we got to about 50 yards from our objective, where we lay waiting for our barrage to lift from Fritz's trenches so that we could get in on top of him.

"While waiting we were fired at on both left and right flanks by Fritz's machine guns. God knows how this could have happened, but there it was. We had to come back and get into shell-holes. A good many of our poor fellows were wounded, so we had only a small force to hold them back.

"I volunteered to go back to headquarters for reinforcements. I started back with a message from our sergeant. God knows how I got through the hell of shells and machine gun bullets. I went on for about 600 yards, when I met an officer of another regiment who asked what was the matter. I told him, so he gave me two of his Lewis gun teams to take back to my sergeant to strengthen his position while I was going for reinforcements.

"Now comes my marvellous escape. On returning with these Lewis gun teams a heavy shell burst near us, seriously wounding one chap, and a piece of shell went though my gas helmet into my pocket. On its way through my pocket it came into contact with my tobacco box, shattering one side of the box to pieces, but never hurt me excepting the force of the bursting shell blew me six feet away. The Lewis gun teams, thinking I was wounded, asked me to direct them to my sergeant, and went on their way.

"On examining myself, imagine my surprise on finding I was not even bruised. After I had a rest I went on again to get my reinforcements. I had not got above 100 yards when another shell burst. I remember no more until I was being carried to the dressing station. The concussion of the shell must have rendered me unconscious. I have not even got a bruise on me, although my nerves were shattered."

In 1919 Henry was awarded the Military Medal for his actions. The presentation was made in front of a cinema audience by Mayor Henry Impey. To add to the irony of the Miles story, Henry was charged as one of the rioters on Peace Day. He was found guilty by a jury but acquitted by the Judge at Beds Assizes in October of that year, ont the grounds that his actions were accidental and unintentional and brought on by wartime experiences.

Henry Miles obitOn August 30th, 1940, German bombers of World War Two targeted the Vauxhall factory in Luton, leaving a trail of bombs through residential streets towards Farley Hill and 159 Lutonians dead. One bomb damaged the bus depot in Park Street, claiming the life of Henry William Miles.

His obituary (reproduced right) in the following week's Luton News (September 5th, 1940) revealed his picture house link - that for 23 years he had been chief operator at cinemas in Luton. He had served in the Hertfordshire Regiment in World War One and been awarded the Military Medal.

The obituary said that just before his death Henry William Miles was created a sergeant in the Home Guard. He was aged 59 and had been a boxer in his younger days, fighting under the name Jack Daley.

Since 1936 he had been employed by Luton Corporation, and for part of the time had been local representative of the Transport Workers' Union.

In the 1918 absent voters' list, Henry William Miles, 269711, 1st Hertfordshire Regiment, was listed at 7 Gloucester Road, Luton. By 1919 he was living there with his wife Mary Ann Alice, the couple's address up to and including the 1939 electoral roll.

Henry was one of 28 people in court following the Peace Day riots in Luton in July 1919 and was bound over to keep the peace after being convicted at Bedfordshire Assizes of rioting.

Other records show that Henry William Miles, was born in Mile End in London on March 27th, 1881.

He had married Mary Ann Alice Oxley at St Philip's Church, Stepney, on June 4th, 1899. They had eight children - Mary Ann, Amelia Harriet, William Henry, Alfred, Maggie, John, Queenie and Harry, the last two born in Luton.

At the time of the 1911 Census, Henry and Mary and their by then six children were living in West Ham in London, with Henry described as working as a cinematograph theatre doorman. The newspaper reports suggest the couple moved to Luton around 1912, when Henry was working at the Gordon Street cinema.

Henry was buried at the Church Cemetery in Luton (gravestone shown below) on September 5th, 1940, and is commemorated on Luton's World War Two Roll of Honour.

Henry (Harry) Miles gravestone