Commemorative paving stones are to be placed in the birthplaces of Victoria Cross recipients from the First World War. Andrew Robinson reports.
HAD they lived in peaceful times, Billy Butler, Wilf Edwards and George Sanders might never have picked up a gun in their whole lives. The trio were employees of the City of Leeds Gas Department and, being in reserved occupations, need not have volunteered to fight in the Great War.
Remarkably, the three workmates showed such bravery that they won the nation’s highest decoration for gallantry in the face of the enemy, the Victoria Cross.
All three survived the war, unlike many VC winners whose awards were posthumous.
William ‘Billy’ Boynton Butler was a private in the West Yorkshire Regiment when, on August 6 1917, he displayed courage under fire when one of his own shells landed at his feet, seconds before it was due to explode.
His VC citation said: “Private Butler picked up the shell and jumped to the entrance of the emplacement, which at that moment a party of infantry were passing. He shouted to them to hurry past as the shell was going off and, turning round, placed himself between the party of men and the live shell and so held it till they were out of danger.”
Private Butler threw the shell and took cover. It exploded almost immediately, badly damaging the trench and leaving him bruised.
“Undoubtedly his great presence of mind and disregard of his own life saved the lives of the officer and men in the emplacement and the party which was passing at the time,” according to the citation.
His work colleague, Wilfred Edwards, a private in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, also won his VC in August 1917.
When all the company officers were lost, Private Edwards, without hesitation and under machine-gun fire from a concrete fort, ran forward, bombed through the loopholes, climbed atop the fort and waved to his company to advance. He took over 30 men prisoner.
George Sanders was a corporal with the West Yorkshire Regiment (The Prince of Wales’s Own) when he won his VC in July 1916 for organising his isolated party of 30 men, defending his position from attacks for 36 hours, despite running out of water and food.
The three gas workers lived to tell their stories and served in the Home Guard in Leeds in the Second World War.
Barry Wilkinson, editor of the Historic Gas Times newsletter, says two of them were in the Leeds Gas Department cricket team.
“Can you imagine two VCs in one team? Stories handed down tell of the respect that they each received from their workmates. Fellow workers are said to have stood to attention when they entered a room or walked into a pub.”
Experienced military men are equally in awe of VC holders. Retired Major Roger Chapman, formerly of the famous Yorkshire regiment the Green Howards, recalls meeting three Green Howards who won VCs in the Great War – Sgt William McNally, Private Henry Tandy and Captain Archie White.
Mr Chapman, 75, who lives near Masham in North Yorkshire, was a young lieutenant when he met them at a reunion in the 1960s.
“One was slightly in awe of these men,” he recalls. “They were delightful men. Archie White was a most imposing man, tall, erect and always immaculately turned out. He wore a bowler hat, dark suit and a watch chain.”
“It was a tremendous honour to meet them, having read about them. I went to Sandhurst and all young soldiers had to learn about VC holders and their gallantry. We learnt that they were special men.”
Mr Chapman, author of Beyond Their Duty, about the VCs of the Green Howards, puts their bravery down to a desire to fight for one another.
“In combat, you don’t think of high ideals, it’s about looking after your mates. It’s nice to think they did it for King and Country but that would be too high-falluting.”
Author Gerald Gliddon, who has written about VC winners, says obedience played a part in brave deeds.
“The British were pretty obedient and remained so until the 1960s. The majority of servicemen would have just gone along with it and not questioned the rights and wrongs of the conflict. When in action they would not have been aware of the big picture but concentrated on their small role. Few would have set out to win a VC for gallantry, as self-survival and looking after the welfare of one’s chums was the priority.”
Though all 628 VC winners from the 1914-18 war are worthy of commemoration – each is being honoured by a Government-backed paving stone near their birthplace over the next four years – their stories are as much about suffering as they are about heroism.
Leeds-born Scots Guard Frederick McNess lost part of his lower jaw in fighting in September 1916 which saw him awarded a VC. Badly disfigured, Sgt McNess married the nurse who looked after him but his wounds caused him pain for the rest of his life.
Aged 65, he took his own life, leaving his widow without a pension. It was only paid after the intervention of an MP and a former officer.
A similarly tragic fate awaited Ilkley-born Thomas Maufe, whose VC was won in 1917 when he repaired a telephone wire during a bombardment and extinguished a fire in an ammunition dump. He survived the war only to die at the age of 43 in an accident with a misfiring mortar during a training exercise in March 1942 while serving in the Home Guard near Ilkley.
For Gerald Gliddon, these tragedies are among many. “Having gained the nation’s highest military award in one war, he was to lose his life in an accident in the next war. I have always found his story very poignant.”