Friday, March 24, 2006

‘A picture paints a thousand words’.

This is the Memorial Plaque at Whitehaven, Cumbria outside the birthplace of Abe Acton VC. In WW1 Abe Acton and another of the West Cumbrian 'pals', Jimmy Smith from the neoghbouring town of Workington were awarded the Victoria Cross for the gallantry at Rouges Bancs, France on 21 December 1914.

Unlike a number of the contributors to this 'Second World War' forum, I have no personal experiences of wartime. Hence anything I have written about wartime events has been based on personal research and by recording personal memories of relatives, friends and others who have been good enough to share some of their wartime experiences with me. Many of these I posted to the BBC "People's War" website. Strangely, however, I have ended up writing about the experiences of some family members and their friends in the Great War. I hope anyone reading this article enjoys reading it and learns something new to them.

For the rest of this article click on Comments


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Continuation of my Post:

In 2005, I answered a request made on my local BBC Radio Station (BBC Radio Cumbria) to become a volunteer to help people with wartime memories write down their own stories for the "People's War". Those who were accepted as volunteers for the Radio Station attended training sessions. The training sessions were really useful and there was a good exchange of views and ideas.
The traditional county regiment for Cumbrians was the Border Regiment, or since 1959, the King's Own Royal Border Regiment. During the training session I attended the KORBR Regimental Museum made a request asking if volunteers picked up any stories about the Border Regiment could forward copies to them. Another volunteer at the training session mentioned it was often helpful to look at any medals that people we were likely to be talking to had gained during the war. This gentleman had a medal with him, and although it was a WW1 'Victory Medal' he had shared quite a useful hint to all the volunteers.
As Fate would have it, in the bottom drawer of my bedside table I had some WW1 medals that had belonged to two of my mother's uncles who had served with the Border Regiment. The medals are apparently known colloquially as 'Pip', 'Squeak', and 'Wilfred'. In addition to the medals, there were a few photographs, postcards, newspaper cuttings and other items about my relatives from the WW1 period. This article deals with what I learnt about the Great War from these few items while I was actually researching the Second World War.

The Border Regiment
Many of the accounts I posted to the BBC "People's War" website were a from various sources. While undertaking this research I was able to obtain additional and accurate information about some of the accounts I was researching about servicemen of the Border Regiment at the Regimental Archives which are based at the former Regimental Headquarters in Carlisle Castle. Staff at the Museum were really helpful in guiding me to the relevant documents and especially, as I have never personally served in the Army, in explaining some of military terms.
Hence with a combination of some personal testimonies, personal documents and photographs I was able to write a number of articles about the Border Regiment for the "People's War" project. In the meantime, having talked it over with other relatives I donated the medals of my mother's two uncles, 4562 Michael McCrink and his half brother 4577 Tommy Savage, and copies of the photographs to the Regimental Museum on behalf of their family. I was also able to provide the Museum with some information about these two and several of their 'pals' with whom they had served in the Great War.

Winning the Victoria Cross
Although I had been in possession of the WW1 medals and photographs of my Great Uncles for over 20 years I had never really looked at them very closely. Yet, when I finally did look at the medals and photographs in 2005 they turned out to tell such a lot. As the song goes, ‘A picture paints a thousand words’. I had heard a lot about the First World War from different family members, and especially from one of my Great Uncles, Michael McCrink, who used to talk about his time in the Army and some of his 'pals'. Among the things Uncle Michael was always proud of was that he had witnessed two of his pals during the action in which they had both been awarded the Victoria Cross. These two close pals were Abe Acton from Whitehaven and Jimmy Smith from Workington, and they won the Victoria Cross for gallantry on 21 December 1914.

Abe Acton had been in the Territorial Army before the Great War and was a member of 5th Border like many of his West Cumbrian pals. Jimmy Smith had previously served as a regular soldier with the 1st Battalion The Border Regiment before the Great War. James Smith had signed up to the Army at the age of 13 by taking his mother’s maiden name of Smith. His real name was James Alexander Glenn, although he only ever seems to have been known as Jimmy Smith by everyone afterwards.

Checking the archives
One of the photographs I had kept in my bedside drawer was a group of eight Border Regiment soldiers. One of them was my Tommy Savage. It turned out two of the others in the photograph were 10694 Abe Acton VC and 6423 Jimmy Smith VC. At the Regimental Museum I learnt that Tommy Savage, Abe Acton and Jimmy Smith had all been posted to 'B Company', 2nd Battalion The Border Regiment in 1914. In the Regimental records I found Michael McCrink had been posted to ‘A Company’, 2nd Battalion The Border Regiment.

Checking the records of other fellows my Uncle Michael used to mention when talking about signing up to the Army in the Great War, I found that they too had served with 2nd Border early in the Great War. Among these West Cumbrian ‘pals’ Uncle Michael used to mention were two nephews of my paternal grandmother: James Burney and his brother John Burney MM. As the Burney brothers and Michael McCrink went on to survive the Great War, they were among those whose Second World War experiences I wrote about for the “People’s War” project.

Some of this small group of West Cumbrian ‘pals’ who went away to war in 1914 never came back home. Older relatives and their friends who had known these fellows would occasionally mention them in family conversations, even 50 or 60 years later. Luckily, I have always remembered the names of many of these friends who paid the ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ in the Great War. Checking the Regimental records the accounts I found confirmation that what I had heard about the Great War was indeed correct about all of these ‘pals’.

Casualties of 2nd Border in the first months of war
One of those killed was Abe Acton VC. He did not survive to be presented with his Victoria Cross by King George V. Five months after winning the VC, Abe Acton was killed at the Battle of Festubert in May 1915 and has no known grave. Jimmy Smith VC had earlier been wounded at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. Fortunately this gunshot wound to the arm proved a blessing in disguise. It was what became known as a ‘Blighty’ wound. Jimmy was brought back to Britain, visited his hometown of Workington, went to Middlesborough to marry his sweetheart, and then was presented with the VC by the King. Jimmy Smith survived the war, later settling in Middlesborough and went on to serve in the Home Guard in the Second World War.

Despite being feted as a hero, Jimmy Smith never seems to have talked much about winning the Victoria Cross. According to a newspaper cutting I have from 1915 when Jimmy was on the train back home to Workington in March 1915 he was recognised on the last leg of the journey from Carlisle to Workington. Word was sent forward to Workington by telegram that he was on the way. It than appears a hastily convened reception committee made their way to the railway station and Jimmy Smith was carried shoulder high by well wishers from the railway station to his father’s house. The newspaper article records that Jimmy spoke very little about the war.

The reality was that even by then, at the end of March 1915, several of the West Cumbrian ‘pals’ in 2nd Border had already experienced great suffering on the Western Front. Between October 1914 and May 1915, 2nd Border required replacements more than 1½ times the Battalion strength. For example, one of the West Cumbrian ‘pals’ had been killed in action on 18 December 1914. The soldier’s name was 4369 William ‘Billy’ Doran. This was just three days before the action in which Jimmy Smith and Abe Acton won their Victoria Crosses, which was for rescuing other wounded comrades under enemy fire.

My Great Uncle, 4577 Tommy Savage, had been sent temporarily sent back to hospital in Britain in February 1915 suffering from frostbite. Tommy rejoined the 2nd Battalion in April 1915. In the same battle that Jimmy Smith had been wounded, at Neuve Chapelle, yet another West Cumbrian ‘pal’, 5882 Isaac ‘Ike’ Cartmell had suffered a serious head wound, resulting in the loss of his right eye, and eventually his life on 9 April 1915. Looking back at these times so many years later, perhaps all these injuries and deaths to close pals partly explains why Jimmy Smith did not want to talk much about the war upon his return to Workington.

Abe Acton’s own story of how he won the VC alongside Jimmy Smith never seems to have been told because he was killed in action in May 1915. Before the end of the war, more of the West Cumbrian ‘pals’ died as a result of the war, including my Great Uncle Tommy Savage. Tommy was wounded in 1916 and ‘died of wounds’ on 1 December 1918. He is buried in Whitehaven Cemetery only a few paces away from the grave of Ike Cartmell.

An unwritten story
Jimmy Smith’s medals, including the VC are in the Border Regiment Museum. The Museum were delighted to receive the medals, photographs and information I was able to give them, particularly about two of the Regiment’s Victoria Cross winners. I was able to find additional information about the West Cumbrian ‘pals’.

Although I had heard about many of these fellows virtually all my life, it turned out very little if anything has ever been written about them: even about Abe Acton and Jimmy Smith. Since the end of the “People’s War” project I have written up my notes about the West Cumbrian First World ‘pals’, at least those I either remember or have information about. Luckily, as I had some original photographs, discharge papers, newspaper cuttings etc, as well as some family memories, it did not prove to be any more difficult than writing about the Second World War.

As many of those reading this item will know, sometimes when I referred to official sources to conform some details it proved to be contradictory, incomplete or incorrect. For example, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website records the death of 5882 Isaac Cartmell as 9 April 1918, when I know for certain he died on 9 April 1915. Strangely, however, the engraving on Ike Cartmell’s headstone, maintained by the CWGC, gives the correct year of 1915. Unfortunately, persuading the Commission to correct their records is not easy even with proof, such as contemporary newspaper cuttings. No doubt the CWGC have a good reason for wanting certain documentary evidence before amending their records, such as a birth or death certificate. However, I do not have a death certificate for Ike Cartmell, although I do know he died at King’s College Hospital, London.

In many respects it was strange that I should end up writing about the First World War because of something that was mentioned at a training session for a Second World War Project. Perhaps because my relatives were connected to Abe Acton and Jimmy Smith and I have heard about them winning the VC from a young age, it has never seemed that unusual. Yet, it turned out that this ‘family and friends information’ has not been widely known outside a small group of families. Sadly, all those with the first hand knowledge of what really happened have passed on.

Luckily, some original photographs and other items have survived. With these, I have been able to put together some details about a number of the West Cumbrian ‘pals’ who went to fight for King and Country in 1914. Why one man should win the VC rather than another, I could not say. Abe Acton and Jimmy Smith won their Victoria Crosses early in the war for volunteering to rescue comrades and coming under fire from the enemy.

Abe Acton and Jimmy Smith had previously had some military experience before the war. On the other hand, some of the other pals, including my two Great Uncles, were early volunteers for Kitcheners ’New Army’. My Uncle Tommy was actually one of those who had signed up under age, as he was not quite 18 at the time. Writing about the First World War I have felt it was rather more tragic than the writing about the Second World War. All the young fellows I wrote about seemed to have had an idealistic optimism that turned out to be unfounded even before Christmas 1914.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of war, they were all brave fellows and good pals. Those who survived cherished the memory of their comrades for the rest of their lives. I have now finished writing up my notes about my relatives and their friends and donated them to the Border Regiment Museum. Perhaps it may help other researchers at some future date to learn about some brave Cumbrians of the First World War. Had I not agreed to act as a volunteer for the “People’s War” project I would probably never have got the items I had about the First World War from my bedside table and I would never have written the story of these brave men.

Saturday, 25 March, 2006  

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