Fruits of wartime heroism go under hammer

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HE was apprenticed as a joiner and went into action as a stretcher bearer, but for years his heroic tale has gone untold, alongside the stories of thousands of others who laid down their lives for their country.

Private James Hague was 29 when he was finally demobilised in 1919, and although he was awarded the Military Medal, he had paid a high price for his compassion and selflessness on the field of battle.

Pte Hague had survived the horrors of the conflict, but along with the inevitable mental scars borne bravely by his generation, he was also left with irreparable eyesight damage caused when he was gassed.

The soldier’s war records show that he was injured as he rushed into no man’s land to rescue a casualty, and under heavy machine gun fire, removed his gas mask to give comfort to the injured comrade.

Photographs taken after the event clearly show Pte Hague wearing glasses, and when he returned home to Yorkshire, he was unable to continue as a joiner, spending the rest of his life making packing cases.

Army papers show that Pte Hague joined the 1st West Riding Field Ambulance in 1915 and that he was awarded the Military Medal on October 31, 1918 – just 11 days before the Armistice on November 11.

That medal and three others awarded to the soldier will come up for auction today after they passed to one of the soldier’s distant relatives, and specialists expect their credentials to create significant interest.

The winning bidder will also own, alongside the medals, Pte Hague’s Army paperwork, a series of cards sent to girlfriend Annie Shaw and an extensive collection of cap badges from various Allied regiments.

It is thought that the badges, and a dogtag from a German soldier which is also for sale, would have been given to Pte Hague by some of the many grateful men he scooped up from the mud of northern France.

John Morgan, a specialist valuer at the Sheffield Auction Gallery where the collection is being sold, said he had seen medal collections before, but not with such extensive and interesting provenance.

He added: “It is fairly unusual for a stretcher bearer to be given the Military Medal for bravery, but Pte Hague saw active service for most of the war and must have saved many men during those years.

“The story is that the medal was won when he took off his gas mask to give it to a casualty. That meant he was gassed and his eyes were damaged, ruining his chances of continuing with his joinery work.

“Non-commissioned officers and men were given the medal for individual and associated acts of heroism, and that story is what the market buys into, along with the fact that these medals come from the family.”

Letters written by officers to Pte Hague appear to show that he was living in Welby Place, Meersbrook, Sheffield, at the end of the war, in a house which still exists just a few streets away from the auction house.

Mr Morgan said the family had told him the soldier then stayed in the city until his death in the 1950s, and had been able to draw a small war pension to supplement his income, granted because of his injuries.

Some of the papers which are set to go under the hammer show that when Pte Hague left the care of the Army he was given £2 12s 6d as a “plain clothes allowance” and slightly more to buy food as a ration allowance for 28 days.

Mr Morgan said the collection could be bought by a museum but it was more likely that a private collector would make the winning bid.

Initial estimates are that the lot will fetch between £300 and £500, but the auctioneers said that could rise significantly, particularly bearing in mind the number of enquiries he and staff had taken about it.

Mr Morgan added: “We have had a lot of phone calls and a lot of people asking us to do a condition check on the medals and the paperwork.

“I have to say it is all in fantastic condition and although I have seen collections of medals like this come up for sale before, I have never seen anything quite like this.

“The supporting paperwork and letters, the cards to his girlfriend and the cap badges all add so much to the story and make the whole package so much more interesting.”

The family members who are selling the medals have asked not to be identified, but will split the proceeds of the sale between the family and two charities, Help for Heroes and the British Red Cross.

martin.slack@ypn.co.uk