How I Won the VC - my single-handed fight with the Huns at Hill 60
They gave me the VC because I was in a dead funk at the idea of being taken prisoner by the Germans.
It happened at 'Hill 60' on 20th April 1915. My trench was heavily attacked by German grenade-throwers. I climbed onto the parapet, and, although subjected to a hail of bombs at close quarters, I succeeded in dispersing the enemy by the use of hand grenades.
I am the youngest VC in the British Army, being what is known as 'eighteen and a bit'.
There was a time when I was a greengrocer's assistant in Fulham, in the far-off days when I lived with my father and mother.
But I got tired of the greengrocery and said to myself, 'The Army's the thing for a Man'. I was a very little chap, and not more than sixteen at the time when I ran away from home to joint the British Army.
I think the recruiting sergeant must have been just a bit short-sighted on purpose, because he enlisted me without any trouble in the 1st Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment.
The other day, they gave me a few days' leave, which I was lucky enough to get extended, but I go back to the front in a few days' time. When I came home the King sent for me to go to Buckingham Palace. His Majesty shook hands with me, and I told him what I had done. He was ever so nice to me, and smiled when he shook hands after pinning the VC on my breast. He's a King worth fighting for, King George.
What I mean when I say that they gave me the VC because I was in a dead funk at the idea of being taken prisoner by the Germans, is that the Huns never take one man alone alive. Anything less than a batch they won't be troubled with. So you can understand why I was afraid. If I have to die, I thought, I will die fighting.
Fear's a funny thing. It gets at you in all kinds of funny ways. When we've been skirmishing in open order under heavy fire all the while. I've felt myself go dumb, my tongue a bit of cotton. Then the blood has rushed into my face - head and ears hot as fire, and the tip of my tongue swollen into a blob of blood. It's not nice, I can tell you, but the feeling passes. I've never expected to get out of any fight I've ever been in. And so I always just try to do my bit, and leave it at that.
Well, they were shelling our trench pretty badly, and after a time all our chaps were either killed or wounded. Some of the papers have said that the other chaps retired. They didn't retire - the wounded may have crawled.
At last I was the only unwounded man left in the trench. There were three steps leading up to the parapet of the trench, and I sat crouched on the middle step. Shells and hand bombs were bursting all over and around, but nothing touched me at all. We had a lot of hand grenades in our trench, and I added to my stock by gathering up all I could find. I suppose I had about three hundred in all.
Then I went back to crouch on the middle step of the trench. The fear of being taken prisoner was very strong upon me. A straight shot, a round hole in the forehead, is all right. A soldier can't complain at that. But to be taken prisoner by those Huns - ugh!
But funking drives a man to do mad things - I found myself on the trench parapet hurling hand grenades. I won't say it wasn't fine fun, but there was the dread at the back of my mind that the devils might miss me, and take me alive before the trench was relieved. So I gave it to them good and hot. I did a few of them in. If they had only known that I was the last man left they would have rushed me, and by now I should have been - a dead prisoner.
Cpl Dwyer kept his home leave secret for three days - then word got out and the ladies of Fulham showed their appreciation!
I was pretty well done when help did come; but I jumped down into the trench, mad with joy and without a scratch. The relieving party chipped me a lot and called me 'The King of the Hand Grenades'.
I got wounded by a flying piece of shrapnel about a week later and went into hospital, and while I was there the news came that they had given me the VC.
Since I returned home I have been doing a bit of recruiting. One day I got about thirty chaps to join. I tell them just straight that because we've not enough men there are soldiers still in the firing line who have earned a dozen holidays but can't be spared because there's nobody to take their places.
Some of the slackers who won't join grouse about the fighting conditions they'd have to put up with. I say if the officers can put up with the grub and the grind, and men with money can serve as privates, who've always lived soft before, nobody has any right to be too particular. The Army's what a man makes of it.
The Daily Chronicle War Budget, July 8th 1915.
Cpl Dwyer went on to spend 6 months helping the national recruiting drive, and became well-known as 'The Little Corporal'. He was recorded in late 1915 talking about the Retreat from Mons and the day to day routine of trench live. You can find these recordings on CD - Vol 1 of 'Oh it's a Lovely War' available from CD41.
10523 Cpl E Dwyer was killed on the Somme on 3rd September 1916, aged 20, and is buried at Flatiron Copse CWGC Cemetery. I hope he got his 'straight shot'.