December 6, 1917 – Jim Wins the Victoria Cross
Pictured – Second Lieutenant James Samuel Emerson, killed at Cambrai on December 6, 1917, and posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Victoria Cross is the highest British military decoration, awarded “for valour in face of the enemy.” 627 men received Victoria Crosses during World War One, a quarter of them posthumously. In the latter category was your author’s great-grand uncle, James Emerson. Many important events took place on December 6th, 1917, including Finland’s declaration of independence and the tragic Halifax explosion in Canada, both of which I will write about. I hope, however, that readers will forgive me today as I take a detour through family history and post in Jim’s memory.
James Samuel Emerson was born in Collon, County Louth, Ireland, in 1895. He grew up in a difficult period in Irish history, as Unionists and Nationalists quarreled over whether Ireland would remain part of the British empire, or become an independent nation of its own. Although he came from a Protestant Unionist family, Jim did not seem to join the Unionist Ulster Volunteer Force militia, as many of his contemporaries did. When the war broke out on his 18th birthday, however, he enlisted immediately in the British army, joining the Royal Irish Rifles.
Jim arrived in France as a machine-gunner in the spring of 1915, where he was promoted to corporal before being badly wounded by a bullet at the Battle of Hooges in September. Returning to England, he spend eight months in convalescence before being posted back to the Royal Irish Rifles in Dublin, which is where he was when the Easter Rising broke out in April 1916.
Jim, bottom left, and his squad guard the Bank of Ireland during the Easter Rising in April 1916.
Irishmen fought on both sides of the Rising, and Jim’s battalion helped put down the unsuccessful independence rebellion. Emerson’s superiors singled out him out afterwards as an officer candidate, or a “temporary gentleman,” as some unkindly labeled the new officers the costly war had made a necessity. He was transferred to the 9th Battalion, Royal Inniskillings Fusiliers in the 36th (Ulster) Division as a second lieutenant in August 1917.
The 36th Division was thrown into the Battles of Cambrai in December 1917. A tank assault in November had broken the German lines, but a sudden enemy counter-attack threatened to reverse all the British gains. The tiny hamlet of La Vaquerie was one of many towns that changed hands many times during the battle. On December 5th the Inniskillings arrived to help troops from the Royal Warwickshires regiment defend it.
On the morning of the 6th, No. 2 Company, led by Jim, went over the top to regain lost trenches. The gazette which appeared in the London Times claims Jim’s company regained 400 yards of trench and then repeatedly defended them against enemy bombing attacks for over twenty-four hours. “Though wounded when the enemy attacked in superior numbers, he sprang out of the trench with eight men and met the attack in the open, killing many and taking six prisoners,” read the article which appeared in the London Gazette.
A machine-gun officer recalled running into the young Irishman while trying to find his way through the trenches:
“… we found an officer called Emerson of the 9th Inniskillings. Emerson said we couldn’t get further as the Hun was thirty yards away bombing down the trench. Poor fellow, he thought his whole company was wiped out, and he had been hit on the head by a bomb. There was a hole in the top of his tin hat.”
Fighting to hold on to a crucial spot in the line, Jim fell mortally wounded to a sniper’s bullet, according to the company medical officer. He died within fifteen minutes. Sadly, his body was lost in the torn battlefield and never recovered. Today his name is preserved on the monument to the missing at Cambrai and in front of the church in his hometown of Collon. In 1918 he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry.
Jim’s VC rests today next to a leaf taken from La Vacquerie, where he died a century ago.
Jim’s story is not, in the end, remarkable. Certainly many people on both sides of the war performed equally courageous acts, and usually without any such recognition. While we are proud, he is not the only person from our family to have fought or died in the war. But his story shows one example of the sorts of bravery and loss that occurred every day during the Great War.