For twenty minutes I paced along rows of graves looking for a gleaming white headstone. It was white in the photo I had in my hands. When I found it I realised the photo had been taken years ago and the grave had darkened again. Oh well, I thought, it's Victoria Cross soldier who lies here so he was worth the time and effort anyway.
John was born in Sheffield and after leaving school he worked for his dad who was a painter and decorator. Normally these VC folk I find join the forces when a war has started but when the 17-year-old John joined up in October 1904 the First World War was a decade away.
Aged 19 he married Mabel and they'd go on to have four children (two died in infancy.) For some reason he left the army when he was 23 and was a policeman in Leeds. He was 27 when World War One started and he was recalled to duty. By 28 he was fighting in France. On Monday 11th October 1915 he was in a dugout under at Fosse de Bethune in northern France. His battery was being heavily bombarded by machines guns and gas shells. John spotted Sergeant Ayres about 40 feet into No Man's Land. He was dying or badly injured. John called a cease fire and went out under an intense shell fire to help. He bandaged the sergeant but the owing to the intensity of the enemyís bombardment he returned to the dugout. He called two gunners to help him bring the sergeant back to safety. When they made their way out both gunners were killed. Somehow John wasnít shot despite moving slow as he carryed the sergeant back to the dugout. A gas shell exploded at the mouth of the dug-out but they survived. John ran across the open ground to fetch his gas mask and put it on the injured sergeant. Though badly gassed John staggered back to serve his gun.
Brave stuff and the next day John just kept going. He was in a house with three other soldiers When it was bombed it collapsed. They were all buried (two had been in the cellar.) John was rescued first and even though he was wounded in the head and leg he stayed behind to help rescue the others. His wounds were dressed and he reported himself ready for duty.
King George V presented John with a Victoria Cross medal at Buckingham Palace on 4th December 1915. A number of jobs followed but he didnít fight on the front line again due to ill health. In December 1918 the 31-year-old was no longer fit for service. He returned to the Leeds Police as a Sergeant but being gassed while fighting had ruined his lungs and he had to take a desk job. Aged 36 worsening spinal problems forced him to give up work and the Leeds Watch Committee recommended him for an annual pension. He was forced to leave his home due to his ill health but an MP started a fund that quickly raised money for the hero and a there was enough to buy a new bungalow. John suffered paralysis for the last three years of his life and was too ill to attend the VC Dinner at the House of Lords on 9th November 1929. He became so depressed over his inability to attend that he died at home three days later aged 42.
Here I am at the grave. Eleven fellow Victoria Cross recipients attended the funeral. The headstone was renovated in 2008 but Iím afraid the grime is returning. I was saddened to see the grave was without a single flower or wreath. The poor lad was only 42 - about half way through life. I did a few hearty salutes and left.
Touching the "VC" on the grave...