I love going up to Scarborough for the weekend. It takes about three hours in my three-piece-suite on wheels but it took an hour longer went I decided to go through Hull. I went to find the grave of a Victoria Cross recipient (easily worth an hour of my time and £5 of petrol.)
It was late one Friday afternoon and the Hull pavements were busy with school children and traffic. I pulled into Western Cemetery and had a sandwich and coffee to keep my going until a belly-bursting meal at the hotel later on. Though I had a photograph of the headstone it looked like thousands of others around me. Thankfully I had a pencil jotting in my notebook: “Near gate in Chanterlands Avenue. Grave on left about ten rows down from fence. Faces AWAY from gate.” I was flaming lucky; this was quite accurate and here I am at the grave mentioning brave dude John Cunningham.
When I was 19 I’d finished college and was on the dole (£42 a week - I was rich compared with the £5/week spends I used to receive each Saturday) and looking for a job. I’d mess about in my bedroom all day and watch films late into the early hours (had a phase of watching The Twilight Zone.) When John Cunningham was 19 years old he was in The East Yorkshire Regiment and fighting at the Battle of the Somme during World War One.
On Monday 13th November 1916 the final offensive of the battle began. The troops were storming German trenches. John went with a bombing section up to a communication trench where opposition was fierce and deadly. Machine guns poured bullets on them but John survived. He pressed on passing wounded, dying and dead men. From dead soldiers them he collected many grenades and went ahead alone. He threw them at the Germans and, when used up, he returned to the dead comrades to collect more. Though he was expecting to be shot at moment he ran ahead, a one-man suicidal battering ram. Suddenly he came upon a party of ten Germans, killed them all and cleared the trench. Somehow he’d managed the feat without a cut or graze.
Later back at home on 2nd June 1917 John was invested with a Victoria Cross by the King at a special public ceremony at Hyde Park in London. He was one of 350 men and women to be decorated at a special public ceremony (the Royal Flying Corps patrolled the skies overhead in case of a surprise German air attack.) Each recipient had a number but “13” was not used due to superstition (Roland Bradford was number 14 but would be killed by a stray shell about six months later.) When John came to be paraded in front of the King there was a roar from the crowd who had read of his deed in their programmes.
Aged 20 he married Eva Harrison in Hull and they’d go on to have two children (one dying in infancy.) Sadly he was soon fighting again and was badly wounded in both legs and in the lungs. He was demobilised aged 22. After the war he couldn’t settle and his marriage to Eva was turbulent and he’d often be in court for brawling and being drunk. He even went to jail for failing to pay maintain to her. There’s no justice is there? This body of brave bones was soon a body of dead bones. John died aged just 43, injuries sustained in the war meant he’d never been a healthy man. He died in a sanatorium in Hull.
Here I am at the grave of John’s parents and brother. He’s not buried here exactly but is somewhere in the cemetery – he’s in grave 17509 compartment 180 but nobody seems to know where this is. He hadn’t had a good life - born in a caravan in the back streets of Scunthorpe to a gypsy travelling family (along with six brothers), poorly educated due to the family moving on, fighting at nineteen and wrecking his lungs at twenty-one.
There’s a little footage of him here. He must have been a nice lad as he looks to own a whippet. That small Victoria Cross you can see on his chest is worth about £120,000.
The grave is the black one just behind the leaning stone…
John was never a healthy man after war, note the stick…