Their heroic deeds saved many lives, and as the nation prepares to mark 100 years since the end of a conflict in which they fought so valiantly, surviving relatives of Yorkshire’s First World War Victoria Cross recipients were brought together for the first time.
More than 120 people from 12 families shared the same room at York Racecourse yesterday, where three of those families were re-united with their ancestors’ VC medal - Britain’s highest honour for gallantry.
They were welcomed into a suite in the racecourse’s grandstand by serving Yorkshire Regiment soldiers to music played by The King’s Division Band. Touching speeches followed from the Colonel of the Regiment, Brigadier Andrew Jackson, Lord Nicholas Houghton, the former Chief of the Defence Staff and Constable of the Tower of London, and David Wilkes, chaplain to the Yorkshire Regiment.
Prayers were held and a minute’s silence before the brass band played a rousing rendition of the National Anthem. Guests then enjoyed a meal and had family portraits taken.
Some 24 soldiers from Yorkshire’s regimental ranks were awarded a VC for their actions during the First World War. Among them were Private John Cunningham and Second Lieutenant Jack Harrison of the East Yorkshire Regiment, and Sergeant Arthur Poulter of the Duke of Wellingtons, whose families were reunited with their original medals yesterday.
Wensleydale-born Private Poulter left his family’s farm for a new life in Leeds aged 19, and having worked as a drayman for Timothy Taylor’s brewery and as a cartman delivering firewood, he joined the West Yorkshire Regiment in his early 20s.
His VC was awarded for his actions on April 10, 1918, when, on ten occasions he carried badly wounded comrades on his back to safety through heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. On one such occasion during a retreat, he advanced in full view of the on-rushing enemy to retrieve a wounded soldier.
Private Poulter’s grandson, Dennis Poulter, 60, from Pudsey, was among the guests yesterday.
He said: “He died the year before I was born. I wish I had met him. I’ve heard fantastic stories about him. When he came back from the war, every landlord was told to never let him buy a drink again.”
Private John Cunningham was from a family of travellers. He spent his childhood between Hull, Beverley, Driffield and Scunthorpe and joined the 3rd Hull Pals Battalion just after the war began at the age of 17.
His “magnificent” conduct on the Somme on November 13, 1916 earned him a VC when, with his fellow soldiers all injured, he carried out a bombing raid along an enemy communications trench on his own. On a second run up the trench he ran into 10 enemy soldiers, a skirmish from which only he survived.
The eldest surviving member of his family, John Moore, said: “I remember him - he was a lovely man. He didn’t really talk about his experiences.”
John Harrison - also known as Jack - from Hull was awarded a VC for making a solo dash at a machine gun post to knock it out and save the lives of his men in Oppy Wood on the Western Front. It cost him his life and his body was never found.
Formerly a professional rugby league player, he still holds the record for scoring the most tries - 52 - in a season for Hull FC.
Mr Harrison’s second cousin, Eric Brown, was at the commemoration. He said: “I constantly think about what he did. His memory will certainly be kept alive in Hull - the city is very proud of him.”
On Sunday, the deeds of all those who served will be remembered.
- The 24 VC recipients who were commemorated were members of the Yorkshire Regiment’s official former regiments only.