Military brasshats harboured grave misgivings once Queen Victoria unveiled the idea of bestowing a medal on the ‘common’ soldier for outstanding gallantry. Their headstrong opinion questioned whether it could well undermine team spirit out on the battlefield. Remaining resolute in their desire to see the award happen, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert introduced the concept in 1854. Jewellery firm Hancock’s pride themselves on having commissioned the VC since its inception, the medal itself struck from an antique Chinese bronze cannon supposedly captured during the Crimean War. Historians dispute this theory, more convinced it hadn’t seen any action at all. Several medals are kept on deposit ready-in-waiting for awarding. Although worthless blank, when inscribed they can fetch upwards from £30,000 to £250,000 at auction. Over 75 per cent of the 1,357 medals awarded up to 2013 were achieved by a person, who as a sibling made personal sacrifices for family betterment in difficult circumstances. Although possibly coincidental, duty, dedication and responsibility to others in troubled times are essential characteristics in achieving the top honour.
Brave footballers not only placed heroism on the field of play, but also scattered it across the battlefields worldwide. One such hero named Willie Angus signed pro forms for Celtic in 1911. Taking the call to arms, he excelled on the frontline at Givenchy. Bombarded by heavy shell-fire, Willie noticed a seriously injured soldier lying prostrate beneath a German machine-gun turret desperately pleading for drinking water. Showing no clemency, a German soldier tossed a grenade at the helpless chap. In an outstanding act of bravery and fearless for his own personal safety, Willie mounted a charge through the hostile terrain to reach his fallen comrade. Adrenalin and heartbeat pumping uncontrollably, a rope was instantaneously secured around the wounded soldier’s waist in attempting a rescue mission. Cutting fine an escape bid under intense duress, he began worming a safe passage back, ever aware of a counter-attack. The Germans didn’t hesitate in their anger. Firing off a volley, 40 bullets riddled Willie’s body. Although stumbling on numerous occasions, his thinking remained resolutely focused on delivering his comrade back into safe hands. This bravest of soldiers would never kick a football again, suffering the loss of an eye and eventual leg amputation. Incidentally, his rescued buddy, Lt. James Martin, was a fellow native from Carluke.
Willie gained an honourable distinction as the only Scottish territorial soldier to be awarded the VC.
Englishman Donald Simpson Bell turned out as an amateur for both Crystal Palace and Newcastle United. In 1912, Bradford Park Avenue stepped in offering a professional contract. On the outbreak of war this fearless soldier demonstrated great courage and patriotism. Setting a precedent, he became the first professional footballer to enlist in the British Army. Rising rapidly from Lance Corporal in the Yorkshire Regiment, he worked his way through the ranks to attain Temporary Second Lieutenant in the 9th Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment. At the age of 25, he also excelled during trench warfare at the Somme, bravely carrying out the initiative after British troops encountered an incessant bombardment. Accompanied by two comrades armed with grenades, they sped across open, hostile territory to take out the enemy positions. The story goes, a letter arrived back home from Donald explaining the action must have been a fluke. Five days later, his life was cruelly cut short attempting a similar act.
Donald Simpson Bell VC… the only Football League professional recipient of this award.
A game fit for heroes
We’ve all heard tales of the many heroes of The Greatest Game on the field of play but there’s certainly been no shortage of rugby league players who have distinguished themselves in their off-field activities also. One such person is 2nd Lt. John Harrison VC MC. Born the fourth of seven children, to John and Charlotte Harrison on 12th November 1891, the first son to this boilermaker/plater and his wife was also given the name John but was soon called Jack to distinguish him from his father. Life in East Hull in the late 19th century was difficult at best and young Jack soon learned to look after himself, growing up strong, courageous and well able to fight his corner. In 1901, Jack became a pupil at Craven Street School, where he remained until he reached the age of eighteen, leaving with a Preliminary Certificate in mathematics. It was the usual practice for male children of manual working families to leave school at twelve but John and Charlotte had decided to set aside whatever the family could afford to help develop the talents of their children. Their unselfish sacrifice was eventually rewarded when Jack gained entry on a teacher training course at St John’s College, York. Jack’s departure coincided with a lock out in the shipbuilding trade, bringing yet more hardship to the family. Strife such as this coupled with the death earlier in the year of King Edward VII brought to an end the golden era of Edwardian England. The principal of St John’s College, Revd. Henry Walker, was a strict disciplinarian, believing in regular attendance in chapel as well has hard work in the classroom and on the playing field. Jack thrived in this environment, excelling at football, cricket, tennis, swimming and athletics but it was his prowess on the rugby field that first brought him to the attention of York Northern Union Rugby Football Club. It was during this period that Jack’s leadership qualities first surfaced when the college made him Captain of Rugby Football.
In 1912, Jack returned to his native city as a certificated teacher at Lime Street Senior Boys School, at an annual salary of £80. Jack’s exploits with York preceded his return and an invitation to join Hull NURFC was accepted, making his debut in the black & white irregular hoops on 5th September 1912. Between that date and 1916, he played 116 matches, scoring 106 tries and two goals and was selected for the 1914 tour of Australia and New Zealand. In the 1913/14 Challenge Cup final he scored one of Hull’s two tries that ensured a 6-0 victory over Wakefield Trinity and in the following season clocked up 52 tries, a club record that stands to this day.
There was of course another side to Jack Harrison, away from the rugby field, he was a more than competent violinist and pianist and was once described by a female friend as being “a handsome chap who was attractive to women, he knew it and took full advantage of it.” On 1st September 1914 Jack married Lillian Ellis at Hull Registry Office. The Great War had already been in progress for one month at this time, although it had little impact on this new family in Hull. By September 1914 the introduction of ‘Pals Battalions’ saw men enlisting at the rate of 33,000 per day although at this time with a new wife and soon a child on the way, Jack saw no reason to join them. On 15th June 1915 a son named John was born to Jack and Lillian, although he was known to the family as Jackie to avoid confusion. Meanwhile, the battles across the Channel were taking their toll on officers and men and it was felt necessary to offer immediate entry for officer training to men whose qualifications were deemed appropriate. It goes without saying that Jack’s qualifications were more than appropriate and on 4th November 1915 Jack reported for nine months training at Berkhamsted. It was during this training period that two of the bloodiest battles of the campaign were started which, before the end, would see the deaths of over a million men. On 5th August 1916, Jack Harrison was commissioned as Temporary 2nd Lieutenant and posted to the 11th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment and was posted to active service on September 19th. It is interesting to note that during October 1916, when the Hull Brigade was sent back from the front for rest and recuperation, the 11th Battalion won the Brigade Rugby Tournament.
Life in the trenches was as just as horrible for junior officers as it was for enlisted men. Extremes of heat and cold, bluebottle infested corpses, putrefying in No-Mans-Land, where rats and feral cats also fed and infested the trenches, accompanied inadequate rations. Disease was rife, pneumonia, meningitis, dysentery and typhoid took their toll, as did trench foot which was caused through standing in freezing water and could cause toes or even feet to fall off. Constant barrages from heavy artillery, shrapnel shells, machine guns, trench mortars and flame throwers all combined to ensure a death rate, even in ‘quiet’ periods of 300 Allied men per day. By the war’s end, one man would be killed for every minute it lasted. This is where Jack Harrison learned the trade of a front line officer.
The 11th and 12th East Yorks re-entered the frontline at Arras on 20th February 1917 and at 2.30 am on the 25th, they were ordered to stand to. The attack started at 6.00am and by 7.50 Jack had sent word back that the battalion had taken the German frontline. By 9.00am they were in the German third line, by 9.40 they were ordered to withdraw and for his courage that day, the following appeared in The London Gazette on 17th April 1917, under the heading ‘Military Cross’. “T/2nd Lt. John Harrison, East Yorks Regiment. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He handled his platoon with great courage and skill, reached his objective under the most trying conditions and captured a prisoner. He set a splendid example throughout.”
Preparations for the Spring Offensive were soon underway, and on 20th April the Hull Brigade were moved to Ecurie, north of Arras, to await orders. By this time, the thousand or so officers and men of the original Pals Battalions had been reduced to half that amount, their replacements literally joining from anywhere. Casualties meant that the original Pals had virtually disappeared. The area around the village of Oppy was well fortified, the Germans had laid a blanket of barbed wire in front of their lines, machine guns and trench mortars complemented the defences. The line itself was guarded by crack troops from the 1st and 2nd Guards Divisions. The men of the Hull Brigade set out on the night of 2nd May under a clear sky with a full moon and had to surmount a ridge that left them clearly silhouetted against the night sky. This led to an immediate bombardment of the holding areas behind the British line, No-Man’s-Land and the Brigade’s assembly area. When the British barrage opened up at 3.45am, the Germans responded, the dry weather meant that the area was soon enveloped in thick choking dust. The British barrage was timed to advance a hundred yards every four minutes and soon outran the attacking battalions, leaving them exposed to heavy machine gun fire, which decimated the Yorkshire men. Two attacks by ‘B’ Company were repulsed with heavy losses. Jack Harrison, leading ‘B’ Company, made another attempt to penetrate the barbed wire defences, only to be pinned down by a machine gun firing from the Southern end of Oppy Wood. Exploding shells rained steel splinters and shrapnel balls to the rear of the Company, while machine guns poured six hundred rounds per minute to their front. Desperate measures were required and Jack showed no hesitation in taking them.
Telling his men to keep the machine gun under constant fire, he left the line. Armed only with a pistol and a Mills Bomb, he ran towards the source of the enemy fire. Using his skills of side-step and speed gained from the rugby field, he dodged and weaved his way from shell-hole to shell-hole until he was close enough to hurl his grenade. Silhouetted by flares, Jack’s men saw him fall forward as soon as he had thrown the bomb, with the machine gun silenced. On 14th June 1917 The London Gazette announced that King George V had approved the award of the Victoria Cross to Harrison with the following words. “T/2nd Lieutenant John Harrison, MC, 11th (S) Bn. East Yorkshire Regt. Oppy, France, 3rd May 1917 for most conspicuous bravery and self-sacrifice in attack.”
Jack’s body was never found. Sadly, Jack’s son John lost his life during the evacuation of Dunkirk and is buried in the town’s cemetery. An excerpt from Rugby League In Its Own Words.
Next up, an eccentric Welsh goalkeeper