Stories of Victoria Cross-worthy acts of bravery rarely fail to amaze. With so many men giving their all for Britain in the course of the Great War, only the most daring of acts could qualify a serviceman to receive the Armed Forces' very highest award for gallantry in the presence of the enemy. One imagines that, assuming they were lucky enough to get their courageous sons back (and a great many weren’t), the mothers of those awarded this prestigious decoration would have given them a smack round the head and told them never to do anything so foolhardy again.
Take Private Thomas Alfred “Todger” Jones, 5th Division, Cheshire Regiment, 1st Battalion. The 35-year-old was with his unit helping to consolidate defences around Lesboeufs, Morval, in the Pas de Calais region of France on September 25, 1916, when he noticed an enemy sniper at a distance of 200 yards. Most people would shout to their fellows to duck, then hit the turf sharpish. Instead, according to ‘The Great War, Part 186, March 9th', he turned to a nearby officer and remarked, “If I’m going to be killed, I’ll be killed fighting, not digging.”
With that, he grabbed his rifle and strode out towards the German trenches alone, collecting bullet holes through his helmet and coat as he went. He shot the sniper, plus two other Germans who were waving a white flag, but shooting at him at the same time, and continued on towards the enemy lines. His mates, understandably, gave him up for lost. Perhaps they guessed that he was suffering from shell shock, like other men who had wandered dazedly into No-Man’s Land, never to be seen again. You can imagine the collective sigh and eye-roll just before, eight minutes later when he hadn’t come back, a clutch of them went out to find him.
The sight that they witnessed on arriving at the German trenches was one that his would-be rescuers never forgot. An eyewitness is quoted in the magazine as saying, “There was Todger Jones, standing by a hundred of the enemy in a bog hollow. He was threatening them with bombs, and they all had their hands up.” Private Jones captured 102 men that day, including three or four German officers, and was received with delighted disbelief by his unit back at the British trenches. No less than 11 officers immediately recommended him to receive the Victoria Cross.
Private Robert Edward Ryder, of the Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge’s Own), 12th Battalion, could reasonably be described as far less foolhardy that Private Jones. His actions, though still reckless, were provoked by the desperation of the situation in which he found himself. According to the 'London Gazette' citation detailing his actions on September 26, 1916, at Thiepval, his company was held up by heavy gun fire, and one by one his officers were killed or injured. The attack was in trouble, as the men, with nobody left to lead them, were beginning to panic and flag. Somebody needed to step up, or the action was sure to end in defeat.
That somebody was Private Ryder. All alone he bolted off to the enemy trench, lugging his heavy Lewis Gun with him, and with great skill managed to completely clear it. The men, buoyed by his success, charged with renewed enthusiasm, and the seemingly doomed action ended in success for the Allied soldiers. His mother, no doubt, still felt like swatting him when she heard what he’d been up to, but Private Ryder was heralded as a hero by his grateful mates (not to mention his grateful king). Mind you, he wasn’t put up for the Victoria Cross by 11 officers… perhaps the frenzy of admiration surrounding Private Jones had a lot to do with his peers’ amazement that he’d lived to claim his award!Do you have a recipient of a gallantry award in the family? Would you even realise if you did? To commemorate the actions of brave servicemen awarded the Victoria Cross, such as Privates Jones and Ryder, we’re giving two years’ subscription to the Forces War Records site for the price of one to the first 100 customers to sign up for full membership using the code VC-DOUBLE. The offer starts from 00.01 on September 24 and ends 23.59 on September 26. Membership will give you access to over 10 million military records, 2,000 documents in our Historic Documents Archive and our exclusive interactive WW1 Troop Movements map, allowing you to kick start your research today and find that family hero.