Preston war hero with a Victoria Cross and an unwanted place in the history books

Born in Glasgow, William Henry Young died a hero to those in his adopted hometown of Preston.

Pte William Young VC and his final resting place in Preston Cemetery
Pte William Young VC and his final resting place in Preston Cemetery

He joined the Army in 1891 when he was just 15 years old and, on his demobilisation in 1902, was transferred to the Army Reserve.

By then married to Preston girl Mary Ellen Simmons, he had settled down in Heysham Street in the town, where William, nicknamed Jock, was employed at Preston Gas Works.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Young was recalled to the army at the age of 38 and sent to France with the 8th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment.

Pte William Young's medals, including, left, his Victoria Cross

In November of that year, he was wounded by a bullet in the thigh but returned to duty, only to be gassed in the spring of 1915, which affected his eyesight and so he spent most of the year recovering.

He was only well enough to return to the front line trenches in the winter of 1915 and. within weeks. he carried out the act of bravery for which his name lives on today. As dawn broke on the morning of December 22, 1915, Young looked out over no-man’s land close to Foncquevillers, in northern France, and saw a wounded NCO lying in front of the wire 150 yards away.

The East Lancashire Regiment was holding the front line along the Foncquevilliers - Monchy au Bois line between the towns of Albert and Arras. Conditions were appalling, with heavy rain and freezing weather making life very difficult on the frontline.

Amid heavy enemy fire, Young left his position and made his way through the swamp-like trenches to help get Sergeant Walter Allan to safety. Sgt Allan, a golf professional during peacetime, told him to return to safety, but Young refused the order and ventured onwards.

Pte William Young VC is presented to the crowds in Preston's Flag Market

When he eventually made it to Allan he pulled him on to his back and set off to the safety of the British held trenches. While trudging through the mud he was hit twice, one bullet shattering his jaw and the other lodging in his chest.Despite the wounds, Young, later joined by a second comrade. managed to get Allan to safety.

With serious injuries, and on his own, he walked the nearly half-mile back to the dressing station to have them tended to. Pte Young was transferred back to England and spent the next four months in hospital in Exeter and while he was recovering news of his Victoria Cross was announced. It was greeted with flags and banners along his street. with one stretching across the road bearing the message 'Welcome VC’.

In a letter to his wife he wrote: “I am naturally very proud of the great honour, both for my sake and the sake of you and the kiddies and the good old regiment I have the honour to belong to, and the old proud town of Preston.”

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Painting depicting the action on December 22,1915 at Foncquevillers which saw Pte William Young awarded the Victoria Cross

A fund was set up to support the Young family through his recuperation and the public responded with great generosity. raising more than £500. Though the wound in his chest was not too serious, the damaged jaw called for further surgery, despite two earlier operations at the hands of a leading dental surgeon. A week after standing on the town hall balcony he was admitted to Cambridge Military Hospital, Aldershot, for an operation to reconstruct his jaw, which it was hoped would be his final round of surgery.

The operation itself was not deemed too risky but the chloroform used as an anaesthetic caused his heart to fail. Mary was summoned to his bedside and caught the train south and was present when he passed away without ever regaining consciousness. William Young VC died at 8.55am on August 27, 1916, aged 40.

A letter Mrs Young received from the medical officer of the hospital, Capt Harold Gillies, stated: “I feel so utterly miserable that your husband, such a fine fellow, should have come to such a death. It seems so terribly cruel to go through all he did and so well and then to die through the worst of bad luck.”

The official citation for his VC in the London Gazette reads: “The great fortitude, determination, courage and devotion to duty displayed by this soldier could hardly be surpassed.” Pte Young’s funeral was held on August 31, 1916 at the English Martyrs’ Church with full military honours.

Funeral procession of Pte William Young VC passes Preston Town Hall

His coffin was carried from his home by six sergeants from his regiment, covered with a Union Jack and placed on a gun carriage. A firing party received their fallen colleague with a salute before taking up position alongside to accompany it through the streets of Preston along Aldephi Street, Friargate, past the old town hall, Church Street, Stanley Street and New Hall Lane.

Dense crowds packed the pavements along the whole way while blinds were drawn in homes along the route as a sign of respect.

The official representatives of the borough, Mayor Alderman H Cartmell, accompanied by the Mayoress and Town Clerk, A Howarth, were followed by a military escort of 150 men from the East Lancashire and Loyal North Lancashire Regiments and Royal Field Artillery. A contingent of 50 wounded men, including two from the Cambridge Hospital, also made the journey north to attended the funeral and pay their respects.

The East Lancashires’ band accompanied the funeral procession playing the Dead March from Handel’s Saul, Chopin’s Funeral March and Beethoven’s Funeral March.

Several thousand people gathered at Preston Cemetery and, after the committal rites were read, three volleys were fired by the firing party and the Last Post was sounded.

Pte Young never received his Victoria Cross in person, having been deemed unfit to go through the ceremony.

Funeral of Pte William Young VC on August 31, 1916 outside his house in Heysham Street, Preston. Pte Young's coffin, covered with a Union Jack and borne on a gun carriage, leaves the family home on its procession to the cemetery

His wife and children travelled to Buckingham Palace to collect the honour from King George V on November 29, 1916. Pte Young was the only soldier awarded the Victoria Cross in the First World War who died and was buried in England while the war was still being fought.

Death notice for war hero Pte William Young VC