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The bravest place in Britain?

During the First World War, acts of bravery became an almost daily occurrence as people did things that would have been unthinkable in peacetime. Some acts of bravery though, were so extraordinary that they needed special recognition.

The Victoria Cross is awarded for valour and devotion to duty in the face of the enemy. It is the highest possible award that can be given. During the First World War, 627 people committed acts of such extraordinary bravery that they received the Victoria Cross.

Twelve of these 627 people called Leeds their home, and their names are recorded on a memorial stone in Leeds city centre. Their acts of bravery are listed below and begs the question: where can lay claim to be the bravest place in Britain?

Victoria Cross with suspension bar and ribbon

Victoria Cross with suspension bar and ribbon awarded to Quarter Master Sergeant William Marshall, 19th Hussars, date of action 29th February 1884. By permission of Tyne and Wear Museums.

Memorial stone with hundreds of poppies placed in front of it.

Victoria Cross memorial for those born and buried in Leeds

Private William Boynton Butler

Born: Armley, Leeds, 1894
Died: Leeds, 1972 (aged 77)
Age when awarded the Victoria Cross: 23

Four First World War soldiers stood at ease in a line, with a Churchill tank in the background

Private William Boynton Butler stands third from the left alongside three other recipients of the Victoria Cross. © IWM (Q54252)

For most conspicuous bravery when in charge of a Stokes gun in trenches which were being heavily shelled. Suddenly one of the fly-off levers of a Stokes shell came off and fired the shell in the emplacement. 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. He then threw the shell on to the parados, and took cover in the bottom of the trench. The shell exploded almost on leaving his hand, greatly damaging the trench. By extreme good luck Private Butler was contused only. 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.

“…it will only be for what other men have done, or what is being done every week of the year.”

A letter from William Boynton Butler to his parents, September 1917

Sergeant Laurence Calvert

Born: Hunslet, Leeds, 1892
Died: Dagenham, Essex, 1964 (aged 72)
Age when awarded the Victoria Cross: 26

First World War soldier in uniform posing for the camera

Sergeant Laurence Calvert VC MM. © IWM (VC 174)

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in attack when the success of the operation was rendered doubtful owing to severe enfilade machine-gun fire. Alone and single-handed Sjt. Calvert, rushing forward against the machine-gun team, bayoneted three and shot four.

His valour and determination in capturing single-handed two machine guns and killing the crews thereof enabled the ultimate objective to be won. His personal gallantry inspired all ranks.

“… I could not bear to see the lads of my company getting knocked out by that damned Jerry gun, and I thought it was up to me to shift it, and this is the result.”

A letter from Laurence Calvert to his mother.

Company Sergeant-Major Harry Daniels

Born: Wymondham, Norfolk, 1884
Died: Leeds, 1953 (aged 69)
Age when awarded the Victoria Cross: 31

For most conspicuous bravery on 12th March, 1915, at Neuve Chapelle. When their battalion was impeded in the advance to the attack by wire entanglements, and subjected to a very severe machine-gun fire, these two men voluntarily rushed in front and succeeded in cutting the wires. They were both wounded at once, and Corporal Noble has since died of his wounds.

Private Wilfred Edwards

Born: Norwich, Norfork, 1893
Died: Leeds, 1972 (aged 79)
Age when awarded the Victoria Cross: 24

For most conspicuous bravery when under heavy machine gun and rifle fire from a strong concrete fort. Having lost all his company officers, without hesitation he dashed forward at great personal risk, bombed through the loopholes, surmounted the fort, and waved to his company to advance. By his splendid example, he saved a most critical situation at a time when the whole battalion was held up and a leader urgently needed. Three officers and thirty other ranks were taken prisoner by him in the fort. Later, Pte. Edwards did most valuable work as a runner, and he eventually guided most of the battalion out through very difficult ground. Throughout he set a splendid personal example to all, and was utterly regardless of danger.

Captain David Philip Hirsch

Born: Weetwood, Leeds, 1896
Died: Wancourt, France, 1917 (aged 21)
Age when awarded the Victoria Cross: 21

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in attack. Having arrived at the first objective, Capt. Hirsch, although already twice wounded, returned over fire-swept slopes to satisfy himself that the defensive flank was being established. Machine gun fire was so intense that it was necessary for him to be continuously up and down the line encouraging his men to dig and hold the position. He continued to encourage his men by standing on the parapet and steadying them in the face of machine gun fire and counterattack until he was killed. His conduct throughout was a magnificent example of the greatest devotion to duty.

Private (Shoeing-Smith) Charles Hull

Born: Harrogate, West Yorkshire, 1890
Died: Leeds, 1953 (aged 63)
Age when awarded the Victoria Cross: 25

For most conspicuous bravery. When under close fire of the enemy, who were within a few yards, he rescued Captain G. E. D. Learoyd, whose horse had been shot, by taking him up behind him and galloping into safety. Shoeing-Smith Hull acted entirely on his own initiative, and saved his officer’s life at the imminent risk of his own.

Lance-Sergeant Frederick McNess

Born: Bramley, Leeds, 1892
Died: Boscombe, Dorset, 1956 (aged 64)
Age when awarded the Victoria Cross: 24

For most conspicuous bravery. During a severe engagement, he led his men on with the greatest dash in face of heavy shell and machine gun fire. When the first line of enemy trenches was readied, it was found that the left flank was exposed and that the enemy was bombing down the trench. Serjeant McNess thereupon organised a counter-attack and led it in person. He was very severely wounded in the neck and jaw, but went on passing through the barrage of hostile bombs in order to bring up fresh supplies of bombs to his own men. Finally he established a “block” and continued encouraging his men and throwing bombs till utterly exhausted by loss of blood.

Sergeant Albert Mountain

Born: Richmond Hill, Leeds, 1896
Died: Leeds, 1967 (aged 71)
Age when awarded the Victoria Cross: 22

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during an enemy attack, when his company was in an exposed position on a sunken road, having hastily dug themselves in. Owing to the intense artillery fire, they were obliged to vacate the road and fall back. The enemy in the meantime was advancing in mass preceded by an advanced patrol about 200 strong. The situation was critical, and volunteers for a counter-attack were called for Sjt. Mountain immediately stepped forward, and his party of ten men followed him. He then advanced on the flank with a Lewis gun and brought enfilade fire to bear on the enemy patrol, killing about 100. In the meantime, the remainder of the Company made a frontal attack, and the entire enemy patrol was cut up and thirty prisoners taken. At this time, the enemy main body appeared and the men, who were numerically many times weaker than the enemy, began to waver. Sjt. Mountain rallied and organised his party and formed a defensive position from which to cover the retirement of the rest of the Company and the prisoners. With this party of one Non-commissioned Officer and four men, he successfully held at bay 600 of the enemy for half an hour, eventually retiring and rejoining his Company. He then took command of the flank post of the Battalion which was “in the air”, and held on there for 27 hours until finally surrounded by the enemy. Sjt. Mountain was one of the few who managed to fight their way back. His supreme fearlessness and initiative undoubtedly saved the whole situation.

Private Arthur Poulter

Born: East Witton, North Yorkshire, 1893
Died: Leeds, 1956 (aged 63)
Age when awarded the Victoria Cross: 24

For most conspicuous bravery when acting as a stretcher-bearer. On ten occasions Pte. Poulter carried badly wounded men on his back to a safer locality, through a particularly heavy artillery and machine-gun barrage. Two of these were hit a second time whilst on his back. Again, after a withdrawal over the river had been ordered, Pte. Poulter returned in full view of the enemy who were advancing, and carried back another man who had been left behind wounded. He bandaged up over forty men under fire, and his conduct throughout the whole day was a magnificent example to all ranks. This very gallant soldier was subsequently seriously wounded when attempting another rescue in the face of the enemy.

Sergeant John Crawshaw Raynes

Born: Sheffield, Yorkshire, 1887
Died: Leeds, 1929 (aged 42)
Age when awarded the Victoria Cross: 28

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. On 11th October, 1915, at Fosse de Bethune, his battery was being heavily bombarded by armour-piercing and gas shells. On “Cease fire” being ordered Serjeant Raynes went out under an intense shell fire to assist Serjeant Ayres, who was lying wounded forty yards away. He bandaged him, and returned to his gun when it was again ordered into action. A few minutes later “Cease fire” was again ordered owing to the intensity of the enemy’s fire, and Serjeant Raynes, calling on two gunners to help him—both of whom were killed shortly afterwards—went out and carried Serjeant Ayres into a dugout. A gas shell burst at the mouth of the dugout, and Serjeant Raynes once more ran across the open, fetched his own smoke helmet, put it on Serjeant Ayres and then, himself badly gassed, staggered back to serve his gun. On 12th October 1915, at Quality Street, a house was knocked down by a heavy shell, four men being buried in the house and four in the cellar. The first man rescued was Serjeant Raynes, wounded in the head and leg, but he insisted on remaining under heavy shell fire to assist in the rescue of all the other men. Then, after having his wounds dressed, he reported himself immediately for duty with his battery, which was again being heavily shelled.

Corporal George Sanders

Born: New Wortley, Leeds, 1894
Died: Leeds, 1950 (aged 56)
Age when awarded the Victoria Cross: 22

A World War One soldier smiles into the camera

Corporal George Sanders VC MC. © IWM (Q81178)

For most conspicuous bravery. After an advance into the enemy’s trenches, he found himself isolated with a party of thirty men. He organised his defences, detailed a bombing party, and impressed on his men that his and their duty was to hold the position at all costs. Next morning he drove off an attack by the enemy and rescued some prisoners who had fallen into their hands. Later two strong bombing attacks were beaten off. On the following day, he was relieved after showing the greatest courage, determination and good leadership during 36 hours under very trying conditions. All this time his party was without food and water, having given all their water to the wounded during the first night. After the relieving force was firmly established, he brought his party, nineteen strong, back to our trenches.

“Everybody is so pleased I have got it as it is such an honour to the battalion”

A letter from George Sanders to his parents (reported in the Leeds Mercury, Monday 18 September 1916).

Private Jack White (Weiss)

Born: Leeds, 1896
Died: Salford, 1949 (aged 53)
Age when awarded the Victoria Cross: 20

For most conspicuous bravery and resource. This signaller during an attempt to cross a river saw the two Pontoons ahead of him come under heavy machine-gun-fire, with disastrous results. When his own Pontoon had reached midstream, with every man except himself either dead or wounded, finding that he was unable to control the Pontoon, Pte. White promptly tied a telephone wire to the Pontoon, jumped overboard, and towed it to the shore, thereby saving an officer’s life and bringing to land the rifles and equipment of the other men in the boat, who were either dead or dying.

In this season of remembrance we are proud to display three medals and to highlight the stories of the Leeds men who received these honours for their service to our country during the First World War. The medals will be displayed in the War Gallery until 28 April 2019.

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