The First World War saw the Victoria Cross awarded to 628 British and Commonwealth servicemen for acts of outstanding bravery. A new book Victoria Cross Heroes of World War One tells the story of each man’s selflessness. Here the book’s author Robert Hamilton tells the story of Lancashire’s heroes
The twin threads of courage and selflessness run through the stories of Victoria Cross winners.
It could scarcely be anything other, given that the original Royal Warrant of January 29 1856 stipulated the medal should be awarded to “officers or men that have served Us in the presence of the enemy, and shall have performed some signal act of valour or devotion to their country”.
The criteria were amended two years later to make “extreme danger” a qualifying circumstance.
Life and limb might be threatened – in a fire on board ship, for example – but it was no longer essential that the valiant action meriting the VC had to take place in the heat of battle. That in turn was overturned by a further Warrant issued in 1881, when the primacy of courage “in the presence of the enemy” was reasserted. Clearly, it was considered that the highest decoration for valour required a ‘live’ threat. Naturally enough, that animate hazard is mostly posed by the enemy ranks. Yet in World War One, there were some highly dramatic, often poignant, cases where the danger came from an unexpected source, closer to home; where Allied soldiers looked death squarely in the eye as their own ordnance threatened to explode. The enemy was ‘present’ – indeed that presence is an inextricable link in the chain of events. But in the pressure-cooker of front line action, the fact remains that soldiers were sometimes the authors of their own misfortune.
(Private) May 1 1893 – July 24 1971
King’s Own, Royal
Lancaster Regiment Poelcapelle, Belgium, October 12 1917
Albert Halton was born and educated in Warton, near Carnforth. While working for a local building contractor, he enlisted in August 1915 and was posted to France where he saw action and was wounded on the Somme in October 1916. After recuperation back in England, Halton rejoined his regiment on the Western Front.
After the objective had been reached during an attack near Poelcappelle on October 12 1917, Private Halton rushed forward under very heavy fire and captured a machine-gun and its crew which was causing heavy losses to his unit. Disregarding his own personal safety, he then went out again and brought in 12 prisoners.
After the war Albert worked at Lansil Silk Works, in Lancaster, until he retired in 1961. He died at the age of 78 and was given a funeral with full military honours before being interred at Lancaster and Morecambe Crematorium. His VC medal is held at the King’s Own Royal Regiment Museum in Lancaster.
Alfred Victor Smith
(Second Lieutenant) July 22 1891 – December 23 1915
East Lancashire Regiment Gallipoli, Turkey, December 23 1915
Christmas 1915 was almost upon 24-year-old second Lieutenant Alfred Victor Smith and the rest of the 1/5th East Lancashires, but there was no festive respite in the Dardanelles campaign.
Though many of the Allied troops had already pulled out, the fighting was as intense as ever at Cape Helles, which would be the last area of the peninsula to be evacuated early in the new year. Smith was attempting to throw a grenade when he lost his footing and it slipped from his grasp. His first instinct was to warn those around him and dive for cover. But seeing his fellow soldiers would have no time to react, he checked and flung himself upon the grenade. He was killed instantly; no one else was hurt. For this “act of self-sacrifice performed by one of our brave Allies,” Alfred Smith was awarded the French Croix de Guerre as well as the VC. A southerner by birth, Smith became an adopted son of Burnley, where his father served for many years as chief constable. His name lives on in the town in several memorials, including a portrait by Isaac Cooke, paid for by public subscription, which hangs in the local art gallery. The painting depicts a uniformed Alfred Smith, grenade in hand.
February 1 1887 – September 16 1962
Cheshire Regiment Ypres, Belgium, September 20 1917
It was during an attack on a German position at Ypres on September 16 1917, that Burnley-born Second Lieutenant Colvin took command after the company had suffered major casualties and he was the only surviving officer.
Under heavy fire, he and two other men went to a dug-out, where he entered it alone and brought out 14 prisoners. He repeated this with other dug-outs, walking in on his own or with one other man, and killing enemy soldiers, taking many of them prisoner and seizing machine-guns.
Colvin died in Northern Ireland in 1962 at the age of 75, having achieved the rank of major by the end of the war. He is buried in Carnmoney Cemetery in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. His Victoria Cross is displayed at The Cheshire Regiment Museum in Chester.
(Private) May 4 1890 – July 31 1916
King’s Own (Royal
Lancaster Regiment) Bazentin-le-Petit, France, July 30-31 1916
James Miller was born near Preston in 1890 and was later a resident of Withnell, near Chorley.
James was working in a paper mill when war broke out, and one of the first to heed Kitchener’s call to arms.
By summer 1915 Private Miller was serving at the Western Front with the King’s Own Royal Lancasters, and a year on his battalion was in action as the Allies geared up for the Somme offensive.
A month into the battle, July 30 1916, the 7th King’s Own Lancasters captured an enemy position at Bazentin-le-Petit, a village lying on a ridge between the Somme and River Ancre.
Taking the position was one thing, consolidating it required accurate and up-to-date information to be fed back to those orchestrating the battle. Miller was ordered to carry a vital message, “and to bring back a reply at all costs”, as the VC citation put it. His race should have been run almost immediately, for a bullet struck him in the back almost as soon as he left the trench. It exited from the abdomen, leaving a “gaping wound”. Miller used compression to stem the flow of blood and carried out his task to the letter.
He was staggering as he delivered the response, at which point he collapsed and died at the receiving officer’s feet. He was 26.
James Miller’s heroic deed was the subject of a poetic panegyric written by a former member of the King’s Own, Ellis Williams. Entitled ‘The Message’, it ends with the words:
This deed stands aloof from all, heroic, grand, alone;
The pride of all of British race, the pride of the old King’s Own. So when you hear folk talk of heroes, tell this story far and wide, The story of ‘The Message’, and how Miller of Withnell died.
(Private) September 9 1897 – January 24 1977
Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) Mericourt, France, October 6 1918
Lancashire-born James Towers tried to enlist when he was just 17, but was soon discharged from the West Lancashire Artillery when his real age was discovered. It was another year before he was accepted for service and joined the Cameronians in December 1916.
On October 6 1918 at Mericourt, a company of men had become isolated between the first and second lines of the German advance. Five volunteers attempted to get the message through to them to withdraw, but each time the runner was killed by enemy fire. Private Towers, fully aware of the fate of those who had already attempted the task, volunteered for the sixth attempt and through heavy cross fire he raced across no man’s land to successfully deliver the message.
James Towers received his Victoria Cross from George V at Buckingham Palace on the May 8 1919. After the war he returned to Lancashire and became a farmer, dying at the age of 79 in hospital in his home town of Preston where he was cremated. James’ VC medal was sold at auction in 2005 to a private collector for £90,000.
(Corporal) October 28 1887 – October 16 1918
East Surrey Regiment Lens, France, September 3 1918
John McNamara, of Walton-le-Dale, Preston, was operating a telephone in evacuated enemy trenches occupied by his battalion at Lens on September 3 1918 when he realised that a determined enemy counter-attack was gaining ground.
Rushing to the nearest post, he used a revolver taken from a wounded officer and then seized a Lewis gun and kept firing it until it jammed. By this time he was alone and after destroying the telephone, Corporal McNamara joined the nearest post and manned a Lewis gun until reinforcements arrived.
Six weeks later he was killed in action near Solesmes in France. John McNamara is buried in Romeries Communal Cemetery Extension in northern France. His widow received his Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace on February 27 1920. It is now displayed at the Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment Museum in Guildford, Surrey.
(Private) May 11 1888 – October 22 1924
Coldstream Guards Pilckem, Belgium, July 31 1917
Born at Worsthorne near Burnley in Lancashire, Thomas Whitham was fighting on the first day of the Battle of Pilckem Ridge in the Ypres Salient, when the battalion to his right came under severe attack from an enemy machine-gun.
Private Whitham immediately decided to work his way from shell-hole to shell-hole through the Allied bombardment to rush the German gun. Despite being under very heavy fire, he captured the gun, along with an enemy officer and two other soldiers. His courageous actions were extremely helpful to the battalion on the right, and undoubtedly saved many lives and enabled the whole line to advance.
Thomas Whitham worked as a bricklayer after the war, but found it difficult to make a living. Despite pawning his Victoria Cross medal and a gold watch presented to him by Burnley Council in recognition of his bravery, he died in poverty in Oldham Infirmary after a bicycle accident. He was 36. He is buried in Inghamite Churchyard in Fence, Burnley. In 1931 the medals and watch were redeemed from the pawnbrokers by Burnley Council and are on display at Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museums in Burnley. The Thomas Whitham Sixth Form Centre was named in his honour in 2008.
(Private) May 29 1882 – July 1 1916
King’s Royal Rifle Corps Cambrin, France, 22 May 1915
William Mariner was born in Chorley in 1882, the illegitimate son of a cotton-weaver. Around the turn of the century he joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and though he cut a diminutive figure, Mariner was no lightweight, as his impressive record in the regimental wrestling championships shows. Nor was he a shrinking violet when it came to authority. Transgressions during his army service, much of it spent in India, familiarised him with life behind bars. He returned to civvy street two years before war broke out, and soon added to his list of misdemeanours. This time it was housebreaking, and there followed another period of incarceration, this time at His Majesty’s Pleasure.
When war was declared, Mariner re-enlisted with his old regiment and was in France before Christmas 1914. The action for which he won the VC took place on May 22 the following year, near Cambrin. A German machine-gun emplacement had been proving particularly troublesome, and on that thundery night Mariner decided to do something about it. He was not alone, at least not for the first part of what was seen as a one-way trip into no man’s land. He took with him a callow 18-year-old to help cut the wire before going on by himself – with a few grenades for company. He was soon on top of the German parapet hurling bombs for all he was worth. His teenage accomplice, whose eyewitness account came to light relatively recently, described the scene: “Pieces of bodies, limbs, heads were all flying out and up into the air. Again I thought, that’s the last I’ll see of him because the Germans had opened up with every gun. I managed to get back to our line and as I dropped over on to the fire-step, my mates grabbed me and one even kissed me, saying ‘My God, you got back alive’. But we all thought we’d never see Mariner again.”
But fortune favoured the bravery of William Mariner that night. He not only returned in one piece but had a couple of captured Germans in tow. Three months later he went to Windsor Castle to receive his VC from King George V, but it was not quite a complete return to the straight and narrow. There was another run-ins with the authorities when he went AWOL, carousing in London when he should have been back on duty. He received a ticking-off from a judge who took exception to the defendant sporting the highest award for gallantry in court. The latter clearly saw it as a cynical ploy that besmirched the honour and standing associated with the Cross.
William Mariner’s luck ran out as the Somme offensive opened up on July 1 1916, killed in a diversionary attack at Loos. His body was not recovered but his name is recorded at the Thiepval Memorial, which lies off the Bapaume-Albert road. More than 70,000 names are listed there, men “to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death”. William Mariner is one of seven Victoria Cross winners etched in stone on Sir Edwin Lutyens’ monument, completed in 1932. Meanwhile, the medal awarded to the “Convict VC” found its way into a family drawer and lay undisturbed for decades, presumed lost. It turned up in 2005 following the death of one of Mariner’s relatives and fetched over £100,000 at auction a year later.
Victoria Cross Heroes of World War One by Robert Hamilton is published by Atlantic Publishing and is available priced £40