Six men won the Victoria Cross on the Western Front in December 1914, of whom two were from Cumberland. Both men were served with the 2nd Border Regiment of 20th Infantry Brigade, 7th Division. Their battalion had arrived in Zeebrugge on 6 October 1914 and their names were Private Abraham Acton and Private James Smith. They were born in Whitehaven and Workington respectively. The commemorative stone marking Private Acton’s action has been placed at the entrance to St Nicholas’ Gardens in Lowther Street, Whitehaven and, while Private Smith’s stone was unveiled at Workington railway station, it will be kept on display in Workington Library until redevelopment work at the station is completed later in 2015.
Curiously, recent research (Find my Past) has produced a statistic which claims Cumberland (Cumbria) to have been the most gallant county in the United Kingdom per capita head of population in the First World War.
The First Battle of Ypres officially ended on 17 November 1914 with both sides exhausted. This was followed by a period of very poor weather and the establishing of a trench system long the whole front, and ensuing static warfare conditions. However, fighting did flare up again in the period 18 - 22 December around Givenchy where Indian and British troops were attempting to repel furious German attacks.
The unsigned War Diary of the 2nd Borders (WO 95/1655, TNA) stated that 10694 Privates A Acton and 6423 Pt J Smith gained their VCs on 19 December at Rouges Bancs 3.5 miles from Neuve Chapelle, when they were saving the lives of wounded colleagues. All other accounts of their actions, however, give the date as 21 December. The two men had allegedly rescued two wounded men who had been lying out in No Man's Land for more than 48 hours and the diary's account of the deed is quite detailed. The battalion commander, Maj Warren, had received orders from 20th Bde. These were for B and D Companies to attack on 18 December at 18.30 hours after two companies of the Scots Guards had attacked.
Maj Warren and Capt H A Askew (also a member of the 2nd Borders) arrived at the trenches at 15.00 hours, when Warren decided to change the orders, and to employ A and C Companies instead of B and D. It is not clear why from the diary as to why. The left of the position was to be the road running south-east of La Cordonniere Farm and the right was the position of the Scots Guards, whose own left was the Sailly - Fromelles road. The meant that the whole of C Company had to be moved to the right with A Company also having to adjust its position. Men from B and D Companies were to get behind each man of A and C Companies and to assist them out of ther treches.The companies did not take up their positions until after dark and as a result nobody really knew the correct front of the attacks.
The 300 men began to advance at 18.15 hours and crossed the 150 yards to the enemy positions while being fired on continously by the enemy; inevitably this led to the men suffering many casualties. The attacking force was also hit by shells from British artillery which caused it to retreat to a safer position about 50 yards back. Soon the position became untenable and the Borders went back a further 100 yards to their original start positions. Maj Warren followed up with a smaller party but with no better results. He was hindered by a shortage of wire cutters and so he sent back for more. When he returned for a second attack he went to see the 7th Division Commander, Maj Gen Capper, who was at La Cordonniere Farm. Thus Warren was away from his troops for an hour and a half and, when he returned, he found that Capt Jenkins had brought the companies back to their trenches. No further attacks had been ordered and operations ceased. The collecting of the dead and wounded was then carried out. During the fighting Capt H A Askew had been killed on top of the enemy trenches, and other ranks casualties from the attacks of 18/19 December totalled 123. Two men received the DCM for bringing in the wounded Capt C Lamb of the 2nd Borders who had been made a DSO on 1 December for gallantry at Kruiseik in October. Tragically he died of his wounds 11 days later.
Privates Acton and Smith volunteered to attempt to bring in two wounded men to safety in what was broad daylight. The casualties had both suffered severe thigh injuries and their rescuers carried them back to the British trenches. This involved going through a hail of machine-gun bullets and the whole operation took an hour to complete. Sadly, the two rescued men subsequently died.
According to the War Diary the recommendations for the awards of the Victoria Cross were compiled on 21 December. Four days later on Christmas Day an armistice was agreed with the enemy which was to last until 16.00 hours and the next day there was also no firing, so men were able to walk along the tops of the communication trenches which were in a very poor state.
The fighting in the northern section of the Western Front subsequently died down for the rest of the year and, thus, Privates Acton and Smith became the last VC winners of the first year of the war. Acton's VC was gazetted on 18 February 1915 but, sadly, he was killed 4 months later on 16 May during the Battle of Festubert. His posthumous VC was presented to his next of kin on 29 November 1916. His name is commemorated on panel 19-20 of the Le Touret Memorial in France. James Alexander Smith of the 3rd Borders (attached to the 2nd Borders), had the same citation as Acton. His decoration was also gazetted on 18 February:
For conspicuous bravery on 21st Dec., at Rouges Bancs, in voluntarily going from their trench and rescuing a wounded man who had been lying exposed against the enemy's trenches for seventy-five hours, and on the same day again leaving their trench voluntarily, under heavy fire, to bring into cover another wounded man. They were under heavy fire for sixty minutes while conveying the wounded men into safety.
Smith received his VC from the King at Buckingham Palace on 22 April 1915.
Abraham Acton was the son of Mr and Mrs Robert Acton. He was born at 4 Regent Square, Senhouse Street, Whitehaven, Cumberland on 17 December 1892 and went to school at Crosthwaite Memorial School. He later joined the 5th Battalion (TF) of the Border Regiment before enlisting in the 2nd Borders (10684) in January 1914. He served in the First World War from 25 November until his death nearly six months later.
A letter from Acton to the proprietors on the merits of Zam-Buk was published in the Bury Free Press on 10 April 1915.It read:
You can't place too much faith in Zam-Buk. It had been very useful to me on many occasions. I have used Zam-Buk for my feet especially to keep frost-bite out, and to cure sprains; also for quickly and cleanly healing cuts from barbed wire and other things. Zam-Buk is indeed a grand thing to carry in my haversack.
This letter was published 5 weeks before his death and it provided a perfect example of how the award of a VC could be exploited commercially. After his death, Acton's VC and medals were donated by his family to the town of Whitehaven and are on display in the town museum. His name is listed on the war memorial at St James's Church; in the Crosthwaite Memorial School in Whitehaven; and also in Douglas, Isle of Man in St Mathew's Church, as well as included on the Island's War Memorial. His parents had moved to the Isle of Man. As with James Smith his name is also included on the VC Memorial in Carlisle Cathedral. He is also remembered with Acton Court in Whitehaven and there is a memorial close to the place of his birth at 45 Roper Street. Lastly and together with Robert Quigg, George Richardson and Robert Hanna, all holders of the award of the VC, he was a member of the Orange Order of Northern Ireland and his name is commemorated on a memorial bench of the Orange Order at Ulster Tower, Thiepval.
James Alexander Smith was about nine years older than Acton and was born in the parish of St Michael's, Workington on 5 January 1881. He enlisted under the name of Glenn, his mother's maiden name, on 4 January 1900 when he joined the 3rd Militia Battalion. He served in India and later South Africa. He was discharged on 3 January 1906 after 6 year's service and re-enlisted on 12 March. Four years later he was discharged again on 11 March 1910 when he became a reservist, before returning to active service at the beginning of the First World War in 1914. He was a chum of Abraham Acton and between December 1914 and mid May 1915 he was in hospital for some time having been wounded by a bullet in his hand.
Smith was married twice, his first wife dying in 1928 and his second in 1966. He had no children. Between the two world wars he worked as a labourer; he served in the Home Guard during the Second World War.
In June 1953 he was given a place of honour in the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and in 1968 he was invited to a biennial dinner in London together with 200 other medal holders from all over the world. Before he could attend the dinner, however, he sadly died a few weeks before, on 21 May 1968 at No 73 Thorntree Avenue, Brambles Farm, Middlesbrough. He was cremated at Acklam Crematorium and his ashes were scattered in the May section of the Garden of Remembrance. His funeral service had taken place at St Thomas' s Church, Brambles Farm, and was attended by four holders of the VC: Stanley Hollis; Edward Cooper; Tom Dresser; and William McNally. The 'Last Post' was played by a member of the Royal British Legion and a large detachment of Legion members was present, together with the Mayor of Teeside.
Smith's VC was bequeathed to the Border Regiment OCA and presented to the regiment at a ceremony on 5 September 1968 at Carlisle Castle, where it is currently on display. Together with Abraham Acton, his name is also included on the VC Memorial in Carlisle Cathedral and his name is also listed on the VC Memorial in Middlesbrough Town Hall.
Article contributed by and © Gerald Gliddon.
The above article on the lives of Abraham Acton and James Alexander Smith is based on material published in the book on 1914 VCs in the VCs of the First World War series in 2011 by The History Press.
VCAbrahamActon" by Unknown - migrated from the Victoria Cross Reference site with permission. Photo submitted by Franklyncards.Originally uploaded to EN Wikipedia as en:File:VCAbrahamActon.jpg by en:User:R Arman 15 July 2004.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Imade of James Alexander Smith VC courtesy Cumbria Museum of Military Life.