Percy Thompson Dean
Percy Thompson Dean was a local Blackburn slate merchant, born in Blackburn on the 20th July 1877. Dean had an interest and a real gift for sailing but in all his wildest dreams he could never imagine the heroic actions he would commit in World War One during the raid on the occupied Belgian port of Zeebrugge.
A map of Zeebrugge Harbour showing the positions of the British ships and the German defensive batteries.
The plan was for the raid to take place on St George’s day, 1918. Three old warships, HMS Iphigenia, HMS Thetis and HMS Intrepid, packed with concrete were to be scuttled and sunk in the entrance to the Bruges Canal in Zeebrugge harbour in order to block the harbour and trap the German fleet in it, stopping them from leaving. The old cruiser HMS Vindictive, under the cover of a smoke screen, was to land 200 men at the entrance to the Bruges Canal and disable the German shore batteries that defended the harbour. The plan called for volunteers to captain motor boats, whose job it was to evacuate the sailors from the sunken ships. Dean was the captain of one of those boats, Motor Launch ML 282. After rescuing the crews, the frail motor boats, with their vulnerable crew and passengers, would escape past the (by then) disabled batteries.
Well that was the plan anyway, what happened was rather different.
Whilst the ships that were intended to be sunk were approaching the mouth of the canal, one of the boats hit an obstruction and was scuttled prematurely. However, the other two ships made it to the narrowest part of the canal and were sunk successfully. With all three of the block ships sunk it was Dean’s turn to play his part in the plan; with his small boat he started to manoeuvre into the canal and attempted to save as many lives as possible. This was undertaken under huge amounts of enemy fire as 26 batteries and 229 German machine guns were firing down upon the British forces
A German photograph of the two blockships which were sunk in the canal;
HMS Iphigenia is in the foreground.
It was the crews of these ships that Percy Thompson Dean helped rescue.
Dean and the other motor boat captains faced such difficulties because HMS Vindictive had come alongside the Harbour Mole at Zeebrugge in the wrong place and no matter how brave the soldiers and marines who landed from her they couldn’t attack the German guns and silence them.
Dean’s job was also made more difficult because of the large number of men that had stowed away on the block ships, wanting to be part of the mission. This meant that the little motor boats now struggled to carry all the men and had to make their way out under heavy fire and grossly overloaded. To rescue all the men that they could, also meant that the boat crews had to spend extra time under fire in the harbour entrance.
A drawing of the action at Zeebrugge. In the foreground is HMS Vindictive alongside the harbour Mole.
In the background are the three blockships heading for the canal with motor launches in attendance.
Upon completion of his mission Dean was found to have been responsible for saving over one hundred lives. During the raid his boat was in the harbour for over an hour and also went furthest up the canal to rescue the crews of the block ships. While leaving the harbour two of his crewmen, who were standing right next to him, were shot but that did not deter him from escaping nor did the malfunctioning steering mechanism that made steering the little boat out of the harbour all the more difficult. Despite all of this he was still able to steer the boat out of the canal and escape. After all the time under heavy fire in the harbour, Dean now found himself alone and facing a 65 mile journey to the nearest point of the British coast. However, the destroyer HMS Warwick turned up and it was able to come to the aid of Dean and his boat and take him, his passengers and crew back to England.
A contemporary drawing showing HMS Vindictive going alongside the Harbour Mole at Zeebrugge.
In the foreground is a Motor Launch similar to that captained by Percy Dean Thompson
The British suffered 500 casualties in the raid, of whom 200 were killed, but how much worse would the figures have been without the heroism of the Blackburn hero Percy Thompson Dean?
On 14th July 1918 Dean was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest possible honour for bravery and his is only one of four awarded to Blackburn men.
Percy Thompson Dean was also made MP for Blackburn from 1918-22. He then resumed his successful business career as a slate merchant and died in London in 1939.
This article was written by Tom Bamford, from the sixth form College of St. Christopher’s, Accrington.
Last year Michael Parker learnt from his wife’s family that a relative of theirs had been killed in The Great War; however, apart from his name, John Rimmer, and the year he had been killed, 1917, the family could remember nothing. Michael was saddened by this and was determined to find out as much as he could about John and how he had died. What he unearthed was both fascinating and poignant.
Michael’s first step was to search through the Blackburn Times for 1917 in the in the hope that the family had placed an obituary after John’s death. After a long search Michael struck lucky; John Rimmer’s obituary appeared in the newspaper on 22nd December 1917.
Wanting to know more Michael went to Blackburn Museum to ask for advice. There he spoke to Stephen Irwin, the Education Officer, who was able to help him find out more information. Whilst Stephen made enquiries at the Tank Museum Michael went back to the library and looked through the newspaper cuttings for WWI servicemen held in the local studies archive. Michael found a cutting from 1916 referring to John being presented with one of his medals and Stephen received a mass of material from the library at the Tank Museum.
The date of John’s death and the newspaper obituary had already told Michael and Stephen that John had been killed on the third day of the Battle of Cambrai. The most comprehensive book on the battle is the work of two Frenchmen – J. L. Gibot and P. Gorczynski. Their book detailed the fighting in which John had been killed and allowed Michael and Stephen to narrow down the identity of the tank in which he had met his death to one of three, C47 ‘Conquerer II’, C48 Caesar’ or a Wireless tank. Stephen wrote to Mr. Gorczynski asking for his help and when he received a response was astonished by the information it contained.
When Michael obtained a copy of the Tank Corps ‘Roll of Honour’, which gives details of all the actions for which medals were awarded in WWI, Stephen and he were at last able to identify the tank in which he went into action. This, together with the information from the obituary and, remarkably, a German account of the action from Mr. Gorczynski meant that at last Michael and Stephen were able to understand the circumstances of John’s death.
The only difficulty Michael and Stephen encountered was in tracing John Rimmer’s earlier wartime service because the records held regimental museum in Berwick-upon-Tweed are incomplete. However, they were able to download his medal index card from the National Archives web site but, sadly, a search through the ‘burnt records’ at the same place failed to find John’s service records.
Putting it all together they can now piece together some of the details of John’s short life and the circumstances of his death.
John was born in Blackburn in 1895. When he died his family were living at 72 Bower Street, Mill Hill but a search through the town directories held at the Library suggests that the family moved quite frequently between different rented houses.
As a child he went to the Norfolk Street Day School and John regularly attended at St Francis’ Church Sunday school. When he left school John went to work at Gordon Street Mill in Darwen, where he was a weaver.
When the war started, John was quick to enlist and on 3rd September he went to the recruitment office in Darwen and enlisted in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) Regiment. His low service number, 14345, tells us that he was one of those who responded to Lord Kitchener’s appeal for volunteers.
The Medal Index Card gave the date when John was awarded the ‘1915 Star’, 10th July 1915, this was the day he arrived in France. Checking in the regimental history told Stephen that this was the day the 7th Battalion, KOSB arrived in France; therefore, this was John’s unit.
After joining his battalion in Berwick-upon-Tweed, John travelled with his unit to Bordon Camp, in Hampshire, to begin training. In February 1915 the men moved to Winchester and shortly afterwards to Salisbury Plain. After completing their training the men sailed for France, arriving at Boulogne in 10th July 1915.
John fought at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 where his unit, badly affected by British poison gas and hard hit by German machine-guns, captured the village of Loos. This is probably where he won his Military Medal (MM) for bravery on the battlefield or, as the newspaper put it, ‘a plucky act’ and he was presented with his medal by a General on 12th July 1916.
The newspaper obituary states that he was also awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). This medal is effectively ‘one down’ from the Victoria Cross and would only be awarded for an act of considerable heroism but frustratingly Michael has not been able to track down the citation which would tell him what that deed was.
At some point in 1916 John transferred to the newly formed Tank Corps along with some of his comrades. His new service number was 76645 and he was promoted to Lance-corporal.
As the Tank Corps expanded he found himself in C Battalion, training on the newly introduced Mark IV tanks. As might be expected, all of the tanks in this battalion had names beginning with the letter C. Currently, Michael and Stephen don’t know anything about John’s activities with the Battalion activities prior to the Battle of Cambrai as it is impossible to find out exactly when he transferred to the Tank Corps.
However, they do know that in July 1917 John came home on leave and visited his old school. The Headmaster, Mr Kenyon, made the occasion one of great rejoicing; the newspaper noted that “His modesty was the admiration of all”.
After returning to France John’s unit would have continued training as the British Army prepared itself for its big offensive of 1917, the Battle of Passchendaele.
During that offensive, C Battalion was involved in the Battle for Pilkem Ridge and in the fighting around Fortuin in August. Later on they were again supporting British troops, this time on the Menin Road.
There were some limited successes but the battlefield was reduced to a swamp by heavy rain and was no place to try and use tanks that weighed 28 tons.
Instead the tanks were moved south to a new battleground around the town of Cambrai.
Ninety years ago saw the opening of The Battle of Cambrai which began on the 20th November 1917. The battle was unique for two reasons; it saw the first use of a predicted artillery barrage and it was the first mass attack made by tanks.
It is likely that John saw action on the opening day of the battle when his unit, C Battalion, supported British troops attacking Lateaux Wood.
The first day of the battle was a huge success, as the British troops broke into the supposedly impregnable Hindenburg Line. However, there had been some setbacks and the town of Cambrai remained in German hands. In particular the British had failed to capture Bourlon Wood and on the 22nd November the Germans were able to counter-attack out of Bourlon Wood and re-capture the key village of Fontaine-Notre-Dame.
On the 23rd November the British renewed their attack. Some ninety tanks were involved in attacking Bourlon Wood and the village of Fontaine-Notre-Dame.
A composite battalion created from what was left of B, C and H Battalions attacked the village. John Rimmer went into action in C47 (named ‘Conqueror II’), a female tank (armed with machine guns only).
John Rimmer's Bravery
Tanks from B and H Battalions met fierce resistance and were unable to break into the village from the West and East. John’s tank was one of three to attack from the south and John’s tank was able to reach the centre of the village, close to the church, in spite of severe German resistance.
The German troops were equipped with armour piercing bullets. They were relatively ineffective against the British tanks but the intensity of the German fire is evidenced by the fact that, apparently, some of the British tanks had their camouflage paint stripped off them by the rifle and machine bullets hitting them.
However, we know from the officer’s letter quoted in his obituary that the engine of C47 was overheating and as it reached the centre of the village it caught fire. We have an account written by a Leutnant Spremberg from German Reserve Infantry Regiment 52. He and his men were firing on C47; they saw smoke pour out of the tank and mistakenly believed that it was their rifle fire that had caused this to happen.
The men of C47 were now in a desperate position; their tank, loaded with petrol and ammunition was on fire inside and outside, in the houses lining the narrow street, German soldiers were pouring rifle and machine gun fire onto their tank.
Fortunately for the crew of C47, another tank C48 was on hand and, as it drew alongside their stricken tank, John and his comrades’ kicked open the escape hatches, rolled out, and ran to C48. Leutnant Spremberg and his men saw this happen and fired upon the escaping tank crew.
The commander of C47, Lieutenant Moore, fell severely wounded in front of his tank and he was almost run over by his own tank, which had been left in gear as they escaped. He was rescued by Gunner Raffel from C48, who jumped down from his tank and carried him to safety. Gunner Green, also from C48, helped John and the rest of the crew into his own tank.
The centre of the village was no place for a single tank, unsupported by infantry and C48 ‘Caesar’, out of ammunition and now carrying sixteen men, turned around and began to fight its way out of the village.
The Germans opened an intense fire on the escaping tank and bullets started to enter the tank (possibly between the armoured louvres that protected the radiator grill).
The events that followed were described by Lt. Archibald, the commander of C48, in a letter to John’s parents:
“Two of us were cut off in a village and the crew to which your son belonged had to take refuge with me. We were in a very tight corner, and not a single man escaped without a wound. Your son was killed by a bullet, which struck him in the throat, and he died almost at once. Later on we were twice hit by shells and set on fire. However, by that time we had got back behind our own lines.”
Lt. Archibald managed to successfully evacuate the surviving men from C48.
In his letter to John’s parents Lt. Archibald went on to say:
“The next day two other officers and I went up and buried your son close to where we had been hit the last time.”
Lieutenant Archibald’s comment is intriguing because to have three officers burying an ‘other rank’ would have been very unusual.
A comment in another letter from an officer to John’s parents perhaps explains this incident:
“I knew your son well when we were both in the KOSB and I always found him plucky and cheerful and ready to volunteer for any dangerous job that turned up. He was always the same both in the KOSB and in this Corps.
We shall all miss his smiling face and pleasant ways, for he was popular with everybody. I hope that your grief may be lightened a little by the memory that he showed himself a brave man out here and he was not unwilling to die for his country.”
Although we can never know for certain, it is probable that Lieutenant Archibald felt a sense of duty towards John Rimmer and together with the Chaplain and another officer he undertook the grim task of recovering the body from the tank and burying it.
Sadly, also writing letters were the children who a few months earlier had been so excited by John’s visit and were now writing letters of sympathy to his parents.
As he has no known grave, John Rimmer is commemorated on the Cambrai Memorial at Louverval. Touchingly, when Stephen wrote to Mr Gorczynski, Philippe told him that he had a picture of C48, abandoned and with a lone grave alongside it and that he had wondered whose the grave was. Interestingly, Philippe and his colleagues, knowing the location of the picture had already spent many hours searching for the grave to ensure that the English soldier should have a proper burial; they never found it and have concluded that either the grave was lost in subsequent fighting in the area or that it was opened post WWI, when the battlefields were cleared of isolated graves, and the body reburied in a nearby Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery but by then the identity of the man buried in the grave had been lost.
This is a well-remembered incident in Cambrai. An enthusiastic model maker recreated the scenes depicted on the photos.
Gibot, J-L. & P. Gorczynski Following the tanks - Cambrai 20th November - 7 December 1917. Published by P Gorczynski, 1998
Philippe Gorczynski for supplying the photos of the C47 and C48 models
David Fletcher, Tank Museum, Bovington for supplying the World War I tank photos
Lt Col C Hogg Kings Own Scottish Borderers Museum, Berwick upon Tweed
2nd/5th (Territorial) Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, Givency, 9th April, 1918,
Blackburn Weekly Telegraph, Saturday June 29, 1918
“For Valour", Victoria Cross for the late Lieutenant Schofield.
Gratification at the news that another Victoria Cross is conferred upon a Blackburn soldier is tempered by the unhappy act that the gallant young officer who gained it- Second-Lieutenant John Schofield, of the Lancashire Fusiliers – gave his life in the act which won for him the proudest badge the King can bestow. “Killed whilst leading his men into action on April 9" was the brief official description of his end, as was published in in our columns on the 20th of that month, and the news occasioned sincere regret to his friends and deep sympathy for his mother, Mrs John Schofield, of Wycollar Road, who lost another soldier son, Corporal Fred Schofield (R.F.A.), in action about two years previously, and had also been widowed within the same period.
In business with his father as a wholesale fish salesman before joining the Army Service Corps soon after the outbreak of War, Lieutenant Schofield served first in the ranks in Salonica, and, having obtained his commission, went to France last November, and gained a reputation as a fearless and intrepid soldier in the actions in which his famous regiment took part.
The Captain of his battalion, in a letter to Mrs Schofield sympathising with her in the loss of her gallant son, wrote:
“It is difficult, almost impossible, to tell you of his bravery and cheerfulness under the very abnormal conditions we were fighting in on the 9th. I am not exaggerating when I say that of the many brave, fine men I have seen in action out here your son stands out almost alone. The officers and men, not only of his battalion, but of neighbouring ones, too, are full of tales of him and his extraordinary pluck. During the day I sent him, with a small party of ten men, to work a trench and clear it of the enemy. He did this, and sent me a message saying he had met a large party of the enemy, much further up than I thought he would be able to go. I was luckily able to send another party to reinforce him, but when the party arrived your son had already taken forty prisoners with his original forces…….The next thing I saw was a party of 128 prisoners “sent down by Mr Schofield", as their escort proudly informed me. This was almost immediately followed by news of his death. He had been hit by a machine gun, and just murmured, “Send someone to help me down", and passed quietly away. It was all over very quickly, and I thank God that a brave, cheerful soul was spared any long-drawn-out pain. All day long he was laughing and joking about his work, and told one of my officers that I don't need my revolver; I just shout at them, and they come, calling “Kamerad". I reckon that he took some 170 prisoners off his own bat in that one day by sheer pluck and initiative….Personally, I have lost not only a fine officer, but a cheerful, good comrade, and friend, by his death".
Lieut. Schofield, who was 26 years of age, was educated at Arnold House School, Blackpool, and was a well-known and popular member of the East Lancashire Tennis Club, and formerly of the Golf Club. His kindly nature and cheerful disposition gained him a host of friends. These, and also his fiancée, Miss Ethel Hargreaves, of Duke's Brow, and others near and dear to him, will find pride and consolation in their sorrow that the proud badge “For Valour" has come as a memorial of his gallant services.
The official announcement (which appeared in the London Gazette, 28th June, 1918) of the bestowal of the Victoria Cross upon Lieut. Schofield is in the following terms:
The King has been graciously pleased to confer the Victoria Cross upon Second Lieutenant John Schofield, late Lancashire Fusiliers, for the most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. Second Lieutenant Schofield led a party of nine men against a strong point which was reported strongly held by the enemy, and was attacked by about 100 of the enemy with bombs. He disposed of his men so skilfully, and made so good a use of his rifle and Lewis gunfire, that the enemy took cover in dug-outs. This officer himself then held up and captured the party. With the help of other parties the position was then cleared of the enemy, who were all killed or captured. He then collected the remainder of his men, made the party to ten, and proceeded towards the front-line, previously informing his officer as to the position, and that he was proceeding to take the front-line. He met a large number of the enemy in a communication trench in front of him. His party opened rapid rifle fire, and he climbed out on the parapet in point-blank range of machine gun fire, and by his fearless demeanour and bravery forced the enemy to surrender.
As a result, 123 of the enemy, including several officers, were captured by Second Lieutenant Schofield and his party.
This very gallant officer was killed a few minutes later.
The following article appeared in "The Blackburn Times", 29 June 1918
Blackburn Officer's Posthumous V.C.
Party of Ten Capture 123 Germans
Last night's “London Gazette" announced that the King has been pleased to approve of the award of the Victoria Cross to Second Lieutenant John Schofield, late Lancashire Fusiliers, for most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in operations. The official account of his gallant deed is as follows:-
Second-Lieutenant Schofield led a party of nine men against a strong point which was reported strongly held by the enemy, and was attacked by about 100 of the enemy with bombs. He disposed of his men so skilfully, and made such good use of the rifle and Lewis gun fire, that the enemy took cover in dugouts".
This officer himself then held up and captures a party of 20. With the help of other parties, this position was then cleared of the enemy who were all killed or captured.
He then collected the remainder of his men, made his party up to ten, and proceeded towards the front line, previously informing his commanding officer as to the position, and that he was proceeding to retake the front line. He met large numbers of the enemy in a communication trench in front of him and in a drain on his right and left.
His party opened rapid rifle fire, and he climbed out on to the parapet under point blank machine gun fire, and by his fearless demeanour and bravery forced the enemy to surrender.
As a result 123 of the enemy, including several officers, were captured by Second-Lieutenant Schofield, and his party.
This very gallant officer was killed a few minutes later.
Twice rejected for the Army.
Second-Lieutenant John Schofield was the elder son of Mrs. And the late Mr John Schofield, 16, Wycollar-road, Revidge, and unfortunately fell in action in France on the day he performed the deed for which the V.C. has been awarded. He was one of the patriotic young men who early in the war offered his services to the country in its hour of need. Twice he was rejected because of his impaired eyesight, but eventually was accepted, and posted to the Army Service Corps for clerical work. In this capacity he served in Salonica for about eighteen months, but returned to this country to qualify for a commission, his opinion being that married men ought to have less dangerous berths. This was the spirit that animated him. He was anxious to take more than a passive part in the great fight for freedom and liberty. He was gazetted to the Lancashire Fusiliers and went to France with that famous regiment in November of last year. He quickly gained a reputation as an intrepid soldier, and was particularly daring on certain patrol work which he undertook.
Glowing Tributes to His Gallantry
Mrs Schofield has received several letters from her son's superior officers, in which they pay glowing tributes to his gallantry.
His Captain writes:- “No doubt you will have heard of your son's death on the 9th April. It is difficult, almost impossible; to tell you of his bravery and cheerfulness under the very, abnormal conditions we were fighting under on the 9th. I am not exaggerating when I say that of the many brave, fine men I have seen in action out here your son stands out almost alone. The officers and men, not only of this battalion, but of the neighbouring ones, too, are full of tales of him, and his extra-ordinary pluck. During the day I sent him with a small party of ten men, to work up a trench and clear it of the enemy. He did this , and sent me a message saying he had met a large party of the enemy, much further up than I thought he would be able to go. I was luckily able to send another party to reinforce him, but when the party arrived your son had already taken forty prisoners with his original forces. The next thing I saw was a party of 123 prisoners “sent down by Mr Schofield" as their escort proudly informed me. This was almost immediately followed by news of his death. He had been hit by a machine gun, and just murmured, “Send someone to help me down", and passed quietly away. It was all over very quickly, and I thank God that a brave, cheerful soul was spared any long drawn out pain. All day long he was laughing and joking about his work, and told one of my officers “that I don't need my revolver, I just shout at them and out they come, calling Kamerad". I reckon that he took some 170 prisoners off his own bat in one day, by sheer pluck and initiative……Personally, I have lost not only a fine officer, but a cheerful, good comrade and friend, by his death."
The Lieutenant-Colonel of the Lancashire Fusiliers in his letter said: “Please accept my very sincere sympathy both on behalf of the battalion and myself in your great sorrow. Your son, Second-Lieutenant John Schofield, was a magnificent officer, absolutely fearless and a great leader. In the German attack on the 9th April, it was largely owing to his bravery and courage that we succeeded in clearing the enemy out of our part of the line and holding it secure. He was killed, I understand, instantaneously, as he finished taking prisoner a large number of the enemy, by a bullet from a rifle or machine gun. His loss is one which we shall feel deeply. Once more allow me to offer you my deep sympathy.
Under the date April 24th, the chaplain wrote “I am sorry not to have written to you before. I want to tell you how sorry I am for you in the loss of your son, who was killed in the battle here on April 9th, Captain – will have told you how magnificently he did that day behaving in the most fearless way possible. I suppose he contributed more than anyone else to the success in this particular part. It came as a terrible blow to all of us when we heard he had been killed. I buried him here a day or two later with several others who had been killed in the battle. The loss to the battalion of such a good officer and such a splendid man is very great, and I can only guess what it must mean to you. We have out a cross over his grave, and, of course, I was able to read the funeral service. Please accept my most sincere sympathy, and may God hold you at this time.
In Civil Life
Lieutenant Schofield was 26 years of age. Commencing his education at Blackburn C.E. Higher Grade School, he afterwards proceeded to Arnold House School, Blackpool. Later, he joined his father, the late Mr John Schofield, in business as a wholesale fish and game salesman at the Blackburn Fish Market. He was connected with St Silas's Church, and also attended the Gospel Hall Sunday School, Victoria Street. A member of East Lancashire Tennis Club and formerly of the Golf Club, he was exceedingly well known, and the recognition of his bravery will be some consolation to a large circle of friends, by whom his death is deeply regretted. The deceased officer was engaged to be married to Miss Ethel Hargreaves, “Alexandria", Duke's Brow. His only brother, Corporal Fred Schofield, R.F.A. was killed in action on the Somme, in July 1916. The father passed away on May 24th last year.
Private J.W. Gregson, a Mill Hill soldier, who has been awarded the Military Medal for gallant conduct on April 9th, was with Lieutenant Schofield a few minutes before his death, and Corporal W. Jenkinson, another Blackburn member of the Lancashire Fusiliers to receive a Military Medal, was present at the funeral service.
Blackburn's Third V.C
The first Blackburn man to win the V.C. was Private (now Corporal) James Pitts of the Manchester Regiment, on January 6th, 1900, in the South African War. Corporal Pitts rejoined his old regiment in the early days of the present war, and is serving “somewhere in France". The second man to win the much coveted honour, and the first in the present war was Sergeant (Acting C.Q.M.S) William H. Grimbaldeston, King's Own Scottish Borderers, who captured singlehanded a block house, took 36 prisoners, with six machine guns and one trench mortar. It was conferred upon the gallant soldier in September last. Lieutenant Schofield is the third man upon whom the distinction has been conferred but in his case the honour is posthumously bestowed.
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William Henry Grimbaldeston, Victoria Cross and Croix de Guerre
Sgt. (Acting Company-Quarter-Major- Sergeant)
1st Battalion, King's Own Scottish Borderers
Quarter-Master-Sergeant W. H. Grimbaldeston, V.C.
Northern Daily Telgraph, September 15th, 1917
William Henry Grimbaldeston was Blackburn's first winner of the Victoria Cross in World War 1; he gained the ultimate military distiction during the 3rd Battle of Ypres, 16th August 1917, more commonly known now, as “Passchendaele". The citation posted in the London Gazette, 14th September 1917 reads as follows:
“For most conspicuous bravery in attack.
Noticing that the unit on his left was held up by enemy machine-gun fire from a blockhouse, though wounded, he collected a small party to rifle grenade on this blockhouse. He then got a volunteer to assist him with rifle fire. In spite of very heavy fire from the blockhouse he pushed on towards it, and made for the entrance, from which he threatened with a hand-grenade the machine-gun teams inside the block-house.
These he forced to surrender one after another. The extra-ordinary courage and boldness of Company-Quarter-Sergeant Grimbaldeston resulted in his capturing thirty-six prisoners, six machine guns, and one trench mortar, and enabled the whole line to continue its advance."
The authors of “The Four Blackburn V.C.s", Raymond Walsh and George Kirby vividly describe their impression of the Battle:
“If only one word could describe the horror and tragedy of the Great War, no better word could be chosen than the name of the tiny Flemish village of Passchendaele.
Until 1917, Passchendaele was only a small dot on a map of Belgium; today, it is a quiet little village resting in the agricultural district north-east of Ypres; yet in the autumn of 1917, during one short period of madness in the history of Europe, its very name symbolised everything that we now associate with the Great War. Men fought and died in the mud of Flanders; young lives were thrown away as precious yards of ground were won, and lost, and won again; horses, tanks and equipment, sank in the morass of Passchedaele. Within a few weeks, the battle-ground resembled the lunar landscape".
Nothing could have prepared William, or those countless others, from both sides, from the carnage and horror experienced during this arduous campaign.
William was born in Hickory Street, Blackburn, on 19th September, 1889. His parents, Thomas and Isabella had a large family, and, on leaving school at 13 years old, William went to work in the “Mill". Prior to his enlistment he had worked in numerous mills including Ciceley Street Mill, Cherry Tree Mill and Rockfield Mill.
Before enlisting with the King's Own Scottish Borderers, William had served as a Gunner in the 1st East Lancashire Brigade, Royal Field Artillery and Territorial Force. After enlistment, William joined the regiment at Berwick-on Tweed, 5th September 1914, and, along with the 7th (Service) Battalion of his regiment, he went to France, 10th July, 1915 and took part in the Loos offensive. The King's Own Scottish Borderers, forming part of the 15th Infantry Division, were in the centre of the attack which opened 25th September, 1915. All the officers of Grimbaldeston's section became casualties, and, he himself was wounded in the left hand. Kirby and Walsh refer to William's “utter fearlessness" as he placed himself at the head of the leaderless men and, inspired by his example, they charged the German trenches and captured their objectives. During the battle he noticed that the clothing of a comrade had caught fire. William managed to extinguish the flames, burning his wounded hand in the process but he still continued to lead his men.
The injury sustained to his left hand resulted in the amputation of his third finger and he returned to England for hospital treatment. Towards the end of this six month period, William married Miss Sarah Ellen Woodcock, at Chapel Street Congregational Church in Blackburn.
William returned to France with the 1st Battalion of the King's Own Scottish Borderers during September 1916.
Significant military preparations were made by both sides prior to the Third Battle of Ypres. For the purpose of understanding William's endeavours it is necessary to record that the Germans had constructed a series of fortified concrete “pill-boxes" or blockhouses, protecting teams of gunners across the whole of the Ypres Salient.
The Allied attack commenced on 31st July 1917 and extended over a distance of some 15 miles. The King's Own Scottish Borderers belonged to the 87th Brigade of the 29th (“The Indomitable") Division, who were tasked with crossing the Steenbeek River, a mile north-west of Langemarck, in order to consolidate the area around the village of Wijdendrift. The Scottish Borderers suffered major casualties during this deployment as a result of a mustard gas offensive.
At Zero hour (4.45am.), 16th August, 1917, the King's Own Scottish Borderers advanced with the 1st Battalion of the Border Regiment to their rear, but less than half an hour later, their progress was halted by machine gun fire from a pill-box close to Montmiral Farm, approximately 500 yards north of Wijdendrift. According to Kirby and Walsh, the pill-box, or blockhouse, that was holding up the advance was “bristling with machine guns and strongly garrisoned". Capturing the post seemed an impossible task. In spite of his company officer's doubts that the blockhouse could be taken without a massive preliminary bombardment, William set off armed with only a rifle and a hand grenade. He was subjected to heavy fire from the enemy but reasoned that others would follow if he made the first move. It was only when he had advanced about a hundred yards that another soldier moved forward to provide covering support. Wounded in the arm, William achieved his objective and made it to the blockhouse. His following actions attest to his sheer bravery and humanity. Speaking to the German officer in command he threatened to throw his grenade into the shelter. The officer and thirty-six of his men surrendered and the military advance continued. With the benefit of hindsight it is also possible to suggest that William was responsible for saving the lives of these soldiers. Given his precarious position in advancing to the pill-box he could have quite easily have taken the decision to throw the grenade into the shelter without attempting to provide an option to surrender.
Sadly, in the following days William and his battalion were subjected to heavy mustard gas shelling and he was so badly affected by the poison that he was admitted to hospital and removed to England. He was taken to the White Cross Hospital, Warrington, and, was a patient there when the “London Gazette" confirmed his award. In addition to receiving the Victoria Cross for this action, the French Government conferred upon him the Croix de Guerre.
Facsimile of the Illuminated Address presented presented to William by the Mayor of Blackburn, Lawrence Cotton,
Blackburn Weekly Telegraph, January 26th, 1918
Over the years, there were many accolades bestowed upon William, as the town expressed and conveyed its appreciation for his military distinction. It is perhaps noteworthy to mention at this point that despite William's heroic achievements on the battlefield he was described in many local newspaper reports as a shy, retiring man. The Blackburn Weekly Telegraph, Saturday September 15th, 1917 mentioned that “were it possible to have kept his bravery from the knowledge of the public he would have been the last man to have said anything about it". After the Victoria Cross ceremony in London, October 20th, 1917, it was reported in the same paper that “Grimbaldeston said he was much more nervous when receiving the medal from the King than he was when performing the act which won him the honour. The King told him that through his efforts the lives of many of his comrades had been saved."
To view a clip from the Imperial War Museum of William receiving his medal from the King please click here: (Flash player required so will not work from an iPad. Fast Forward to 3:20ish and watch).
William Henry (middle), Mayor, Alderman W.A. Henshall (right) and Mayor's Chaplain,
Archdeacon of Blackburn Ven. C.H. Lambert. Northern Daily Telegraph, June 22nd 1956
Blackburn lost one of its most distinguised sons when William died suddenly, aged 69 years, at his home in Bold Street, Blackburn, 13th August, 1959. His funeral took place at Pleasington Crematorium Monday 17th August, 1959.
Acknowledgements: With grateful thanks to Mr Raymond Walsh for allowing Cotton Town to use work published in “The Four Blackburn V.C.s" by H.L. Kirby and R R Walsh in order to compile this article.
Thank-you also to William's family for information regarding the Imperial War Museum's clip of William Henry receiving the Victoria Cross.
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Katie (Catherine) Johnson
Date of Engagement: 25.08.1915
Date of Discharge: 25.02.1919
Catherine Johnson was the eldest daughter of James and Catherine. Catherine, who was born in Blackburn during 1894, had three younger sisters, Mary (b. 1900), Josephine (b. 1903) and Harriet (b.1906). Her father was a police constable at Blackburn; he joined the force in 1891. By the time of the 1911 census he had attained the position of Sergeant and, by 1920, when he retired, he had attained the rank of Inspector. The family residence in 1911 was 83 Lynwood-road but later they were to remove to 42, New Bank-road.
When the First World broke out in 1914, Catherine was 21 years old, and, soon after, volunteered to work at “Ellerslie" where she probably have obtained experience working as a nurse. On the 25th August 1915, she joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D).
The Voluntary Aid Detachment was formed in August 1909 by Lord Keogh, being organised by the Red Cross.
When Catherine signed up, she used the name of Katie. Already having nursing experience, she was sent to the 1st General Hospital, Liverpool as an Auxiliary Nurse. Working here provided an opportunity for her to gain more nursing experience. On the 22nd July, 1916 she was sent to No. 1 General Hospital in Britanny, France. The newspaper report below gives more detail of Katie's service. Katie served with the V.A.D. until 25th February 1919. In 1920, she was awarded the Victory Medal and the British Medal.
From “The Blackburn Times", September 29th, 1919
Mentioned in Despatches
Blackburn Nurse Honoured
Miss Katie Johnson, eldest daughter of Inspector James Johnson, of New Bank-road, Blackburn, has returned home after strenuous service with V.A.D. in France, and as previously mentioned in these columns, she has had the honour of being mentioned by Lord Haig in his last official dispatch. The work has had a marked effect on her general health, but with rest she is gradually recovering. Nurse Johnson volunteered for service at “Ellerslie" in the early days of the war, and after some months she was transferred to a large hospital in Manchester. She was always anxious to cross the water to the scene of actual hostilities, and eventually she was accepted for active service. She spent three years in France in different hospitals. At first, she was stationed at No. 1 General hospital in Britanny and later was transferred to No. 6 stationary which came under fire of the Germans and had to be hastily evacuated during the enemy advance of March of last year. The wounded men were got away safely, and on that occasion Nurse Johnson did very useful work. AT this period, she was attached to the third Army Corps. She has nursed Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and a few Frenchmen as well as the British “Tommy" regarding whom she speaks of in the highest praise. She has found the British soldiers manly and brave, and she has a decided preference for them above all the others.
Whilst in Blackburn she has received a letter from the Matron-in-Chief attached to the British Expeditionary Force, congratulating her on her honour. The Matron-in-Chief with the British Expeditionary Force, France and Flanders, 1914-1919 was Dame Emma Maud McCarthy.
By the start of the war there were over 2,500 aid detachments and about 74,000 members, two thirds of which were women and young girls. They were all trained in first aid and home nursing, hygiene and cookery; the men were also trained in first aid in the field and stretcher bearing. To begin with women were not allowed to nurse on the front line but were accepted as workers in canteens. By 1915, with the growing shortage of nurses it was decided Female volunteers over the age of twenty-three with more than three months hospital experience were accepted for overseas service.
By 1916 on the home front some 8000 nurses were looking after 126,000 hospital beds, and abroad, 4,000 nurses with 93,000 beds. By the end of the war 80,000 V.A.D. members, both paid and unpaid were working in hospitals.
Research undertaken by Stephen Smith, Community History Volunteer at Blackburn Central Library.
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