Trooper Frederick William Owen Potts VC – Percy Harland Fisher, 1917
Trooper Frederick William Owen Potts VC – Percy Harland Fisher, 1917
August 10, 1918 – First RAF Victoria Cross for Pilot Who Files Report Before Having Leg Amputated
Pictured – Freddie West, plus his leg. After having the limb blown off, West and his observer flew home, fighting off seven German aircraft and then filing a vital recce report before going to hospital.
The British ideal of a stiff upper lip perhaps reached its apogee during the Great War, which featured countless stories about servicemen suffering appalling injuries and bearing them as though they stubbed a toe. It is easy to pass off the tales as propaganda and British braggadocio, but the story of the Royal Air Force’s first Victoria Cross suggests there was some truth to the matter.
The Royal Air Force was formed in 1918 out of the Royal Flying Corps, becoming the world’s first independent air force. Twenty-two year-old Captain Ferdinand “Freddie” West had transferred into it from the Royal Munster Fusiliers, seeking something more glamorous than the trenches. Being assigned to a reconnaissance squadron rather than the more gallant scouts might have come as a blow, but it led West to one of the service’s most glorious moments.
With the Battle of Amiens in full-swing and the Allies finally advancing in victory, an Army Co-Operation Squadron was formed to conduct ground support and run vital recce missions. West was deployed on one such flight, his observer Lieutenant John Haslam noting the positions of German guns, trenches, and tanks that would soon be facing their comrades on the ground. Doing so on August 10, 1918, they were jumped by seven German fighters, who looked at West as easy prey.
West was determined not to go down easy. He dodged their fire until an explosive round tore through the cockpit, severing his left leg and thudding into his right. Incredibly, West knocked his hanging left leg off the dashboard and kept fleeing, making sure Haslam had the best possible field of fire to stave off the Germans. West used a piece of his uniform to staunch the bleeding. When they landed, the shocked Haslam saw the full extent of his friend’s injury and tried to rush him to the hospital. West insisted on filing a report to his CO first, which noted the vital information he had taken. After that he was taken to a hospital where his leg was completely amputated.
The next day West made sure to clarify his report:
“Sir, was brought down after uneven flight yesterday at 11.45 a.m. My leg was blown off but managed to do a good landing. One Hun followed me down to twenty-five feet. Haslam wounded in ankle. I lost my left left. Was operated. Luck to everybody.”
As the leading wave approached its objective it was subjected to heavy fire from an enemy machine-gun at close range. Without hesitation he at once sprang out, threw a [Mills] bomb which landed beside the post, and rushed the position, bayoneting one of the crew and capturing the gun. He then encountered some of the enemy coming out of a shelter. He wounded two, captured six others in the same position, and handed them over to an escort from the leading wave, which had now reached the objective.
Sjt. Ruthven then reorganised the men in his vicinity and established a post in the second objective.
Observing enemy movement in a sunken road near by, he, without hesitation and armed only with a revolver, went over the open alone and rushed the position, shooting two enemy who refused to come out of their dug-outs.
He then single-handed mopped up this post and captured the whole of the garrison, amounting in all to thirty-two, and kept them until assistance arrived to escort them back to our lines.
General Sir Walter Norris Congreve VC and Alan Paley, his Brigade Major, of the 1/16th Battalion, London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles) in their trenches at Houplines, 1915.
Congreve was a conspicuously gallant courageous soldier. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at the Battle of Colenso during the Second Boer War. He continued to serve with distinction during the First World War where he would lose a hand in action.
Walter’s son William was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions in July during the Battle of the Somme. The two Congreve’s are one of only three father and son pairs to be awarded the VC.
Apr 10 1918 #OnThisDay Rifleman Karanbahadur Rana, 2nd Bn, 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles, earned the #VictoriaCross in Palestine:
For most conspicuous bravery, resource in action under adverse conditions, and utter contempt for danger.During an attack, he, with a few other men, succeeded under intense fire, in creeping forward with a Lewis gun in order to engage an enemy machine gun which had caused severe casualties to officers and other ranks who had attempted to put it out of action. No. 1 of the Lewis gun opened fire, and was shot immediately. Without a moment’s hesitation Rifleman Karanbahadur pushed the dead man off the gun, and in spite of bombs thrown at him and heavy fire from both flanks, he opened fire and knocked out the enemy machine-gun crew; then, switching his fire on to the enemy bombers and riflemen in front of him, he silenced their fire. He kept his gun in action and showed the greatest coolness in removing defects which on two occasions prevented the gun from firing. During the remainder of the day he did magnificent work, and when a withdrawal was ordered he assisted with covering fire until the enemy were close on him. He displayed throughout a very high standard of valour and devotion to duty.
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.
Four Brave Men – Canadian VC’s on October 30
Pictured – For Valour.
Top Left – Lt. Hugh McKenzie
On 30 October 1917 at the Meetscheele Spur, near Passchendaele, Belgium, Lieutenant McKenzie was “in charge of a section of four machine guns
accompanying the infantry in an attack. Seeing that all the officers
and most of the NCOs of an infantry company had become casualties and
that the men were hesitating before a nest of enemy machine-guns, he
handed over his command to an NCO, rallied the infantry, organised an
attack and captured the strong-point”. As machine-gun fire from a pill-box nearby inflicted further casualties
on the advancing Canadians, McKenzie conducted a brief reconnaissance
of the position and after placing down troops in fire support positions,
he led a frontal attack on the position. The pill-box was subsequently
captured but McKenzie was killed in the effort.
Top Right – Sgt. George Mullin
For most conspicuous bravery in attack, when single-handed he captured a
commanding “Pill-box” which had withstood the heavy bombardment and was
causing heavy casualties to our forces and holding up the attack. He
rushed a sniper’s post in front, destroyed the garrison with bombs, and,
crawling on to the top of the “Pill-box,” he shot the two
machine-gunners with his revolver. Sjt. Mullin then rushed to another
entrance and compelled the garrison of ten to surrender. His gallantry
and fearlessness were witnessed by many, and, although rapid fire was
directed upon him, and his clothes riddled by bullets, he never faltered
in his purpose and he not only helped to save the situation, but also
indirectly saved many lives.
Bottom Left – Major George Pearkes
For most conspicuous bravery and skilful handling of the troops under
his command during the capture and consolidation of considerably more
than the objectives allotted to him, in an attack. Just prior to the
advance Major Pearkes was wounded in the thigh. Regardless of his wound,
he continued to lead his men with the utmost gallantry, despite many
obstacles. At a particular stage of the attack his further advance was
threatened by a strong point which was an objective of the battalion on
his left, but which they had not succeeded in capturing. Quickly
appreciating the situation, he captured and held this point, thus
enabling his further advance to be successfully pushed forward.
It was entirely due to his determination and fearless personality
that he was able to maintain his objective with the small number of men
at his command against repeated enemy counter-attacks, both his flanks
being unprotected for a considerable depth meanwhile.His appreciation of the situation throughout and the reports rendered
by him were invaluable to his commanding officer in making dispositions
of troops to hold the position captured.
He showed throughout a supreme contempt of danger and wonderful powers of control and leading.
Bottom Right – Pte. Cecil John Kincross
For the most conspicuous bravery in action during prolonged and severe operations.Shortly after the attack (on Passchendaele Ridge) was launched, the
company to which he belonged came under intense artillery fire, and
further advance was held up by a very severe fire from an enemy machine
gun. Private Kinross, making a careful survey of the situation,
deliberately divested himself of all his equipment save his rifle and
bandolier and, regardless of his personal safety, advanced alone over
the open ground in broad daylight, charged the enemy machine gun,
killing the crew of six, and seized and destroyed the gun. His superb
example and courage instilled the greatest confidence in his company,
and enabled a further advance of 300 yards to be made and a highly
important position to be established.