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Remembering the Hertfordshire war heroes of the past

Battle of Loos where Alfred Burt won his VC
Battle of Loos where Alfred Burt won his VC

With November being the month of Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday when we reflect on the sacrifices made by the millions of men and women who have fallen in wars and conflicts, it’s the perfect time to focus on Hertfordshire’s soldiers who demonstrated such bravery on the battlefield they were awarded the Victoria Cross.

We’re talking soldiers – often little more than teenagers - who disabled bombs in trenches under heavy enemy fire, soldiers who died in hand-to-hand combat and those who refused to save their own skins by leaving their dying wounded comrades to a certain death.

Private Edward Barber was one such man. He died aged just 21 when he was killed serving with the British Army on the Western Front in France. Edward or ‘Ted’ as he was known would go onto receive the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a soldier, but he’d pay for it with his life.

Great British Life: Edward Barber (c) Tring CouncilEdward Barber (c) Tring Council

Edward had been born in Miswell Lane, Tring on June 10, 1893. He was the third of four sons of William Barber, a blacksmith and his wife Sarah Ann. His parents had married in Berkhampstead in December 1882. Before Edward was born, his parents had previously had a son called Edward, who died as a baby, aged just one, in 1891.

After being educated at the National School in Tring, Barber went to work as a bricklayer's labourer, before joining the Grenadier Guards in October 1911, age 18.

After three years in the army, Barber considered joining the Buckinghamshire police. However, when war was declared in 1914 he was posted to France with the 1st battalion of the Grenadier Guards.

Barber was a giant of man. He stood 6 feet 2 inches tall and was described as ‘a man of buoyant spirits, an iron will, reckless to a degree, and absolutely without fear.’

In 1898 a local paper in Hertfordshire had reported how a little boy from Tring named Edward Barber was knocked over by a horse and broke his thigh. He was taken home by his brother and was progressing well in hospital. Could this have been the same Edward who grew up to be a VC war hero? Judging by the grit shown by the youngster and refusal to give in, it’s likely the two were the same.

On March 12, 1915, Barber was involved in the offensive to capture Neuve Chappelle from the German army. According to eye-witnesses Barber ‘ran in front of the grenade company to which he belonged and threw bombs on the enemy with such effect that a very great number of them surrendered at once’. When the grenade party reached Private Barber, they found him alone and unsupported, with the enemy surrendering all about him’.

Barber didn’t have long to enjoy the many compliments of his military success that came from his friends and comrades. Just two days later, he was shot by a German sniper in the head and fatally injured. The news of his death and the announcement that he was to be awarded the Victoria Cross, was sent in a letter from Lancy Corporal Fuller, Barber’s friend to Barber’s cousin in Slough.

It read: ‘As I was a great friend of Ted, and the NCO which he was under, I think it my duty to write and let you know what has happened to him. He was a great favourite in the Grenadiers, from our officer to the ranks he was highly respected. He had won the highest honour that could be won, the Victoria Cross, and by doing his duty was picked off by a German sniper, and a bullet.

“Your cousin feared nothing and he was the finest man we had, both in wit and courage.”

In the last letter Barber had sent his parents, which was received in early March, not long before he was killed, Barber said he was training Canadian troops, who he described as ‘very nice fellows indeed’.

As a coincidence the Prince of Wales, who would go onto become King Edward VIII before abdicating to marry Wallis Simpson, had been drafted into the same company as Barber- the 1st Grenadier Guards.

Writing home to his family soon after the young royal had joined the regiment when the Prince was not doing well (he had fallen out of the ranks), Barber demonstrated his kind nature by, saying “not to worry, we shall soon make a fine soldier of him.”

He was right as the Prince of Wales went onto become a respected soldier who witnessed trench warfare first-hand and visited the front line as often as he could. He was even awarded the Military Cross in 1916.

Barber’s body was never recovered and in February 1916 he was officially classified as dead. His mother told a London journalist: “Of course, we are very proud, but I can’t bear to lose my boy. What is the Victoria Cross to the loss of my son?’

Great British Life: A British Victoria Cross with a crimson ribbon. Medals issued to the Royal Navy prior to 1918 were suspended from a blue ribbon. With the creation of the Royal Air Force the crimson ribbon became standard. (c) GettyA British Victoria Cross with a crimson ribbon. Medals issued to the Royal Navy prior to 1918 were suspended from a blue ribbon. With the creation of the Royal Air Force the crimson ribbon became standard. (c) Getty

In 1965 the street ‘Barber’s Walk’ in Tring was named in his honour and a portrait of Barber today hangs in Tring Council Offices His name is on the memorial at Le Touret Memorial in Pas de Calais, France, and his Victoria Cross is on public display at the Guards Museum in London.

The Victoria Cross was sent to his mother in March 1916 and was presented to her formally by King George V at Buckingham Palace on November 16. In addition to the VC, Barber was awarded the 1914 Star with Mons clasp, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19.

It’s difficult to comprehend the gravitas and honour of being awarded The Victoria Cross. It was and remains the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. The medal was introduced by Queen Victoria in 1857 to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War. Since then, the medal has been awarded 1,358 times to 1,355 individual recipients.

The VC is highly prized and in the rare instances they do go up for auction, they sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds. In 2022 a Victoria Cross won by Irishman Thomas Henry Kavanagh from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, fetched a world record price for the medal at auction. It went for £930,000 (€1,075,000).

Great British Life: Alfred Burt - wikiAlfred Burt - wiki

Other Hertfordshire soldiers have been awarded the VC for showing immense bravery. Alfred Alexander Burt was just 20 years old when he received his. Burt had been employed as a gas fitter for the Broxbourne Gas Company before the First Word War. He enlisted as a territorial soldier in the Hertfordshire Regiment in 1911.

On the outbreak of war he was mobilised and arrived on the Western Front in November 1914. On September 27, 1915 he was among the soldiers taking party in the third day of the British offensive known as the Battle of Loos. His battalion was preparing to assault the German lines beside the village of Cuinchy.

What Burt did during this battle is nothing short of super heroic. He was among fellow soldiers in a trench when a large minenwerfer (mine-thrower) bomb was lobbed into the trench.

A report of the incident described: “Corporal Burt, who well knew the destructive power of this class of bomb, might easily have got under cover behind a traverse, but he immediately went forward, put his foot on the fuse, wrenched it out of the bomb and threw it over the parapet, thus rendering the bomb innocuous. His presence of mind and great pluck saved the lives of others in the traverse.”

Unlike Edward Barber, Burt survived the battle and got to receive his Victoria Cross medal from the King in person. He then returned to the front to serve for the remainder of the war, being promoted to the rank of Sergeant. Alfred Blurt died at the age of 67 in Chesham in 1962, his health having suffered from complications caused by his exposure to a gas attack during the war. There is a road named in his honour in Chesham – ‘Alfred Burt VC Close’.

In 1979 Burt’s daughter presented his Victoria Cross medal to the town of Hertford in a ceremony at Hertford Castle in which the Mayor of Hertford accepted the medal. It is now kept at Hertford Museum.

Great British Life: Frank Edward Young (c) ArchantFrank Edward Young (c) Archant

Another lion-hearted hero of the Great War was Second Lieutenant Frank Edward Young who won the Victoria Cross in September 1918 for his actions at the Battle of Havrincourt in France. Actions which ended his short life at the age of 23.

Young had been born in Cherat, British India in October 1895. Having returned to Britain for his schooling, he joined the Hitchin Company of the Hertfordshire Regiment as a Boy Bugler in November 1909, serving as a part-time territorial soldier.

In the late afternoon of September 18, 1918, during an attack while being bombarded by enemy fire Young ran to all Allied posts and warned the garrisons of the attack. He encouraged all the men to keep going and not to give up.

His Victoria Cross citation report described the heroics: “During an enemy counter-attack and throughout an extremely intense enemy barrage he visited all posts, warned the garrisons and encouraged the men.

“In the early stages of the attack he rescued two of his men who had been captured, and bombed and silenced an enemy machinegun. Although surrounded by the enemy, 2nd Lt. Young fought his way back to the main barricade and drove out a party of the enemy who were assembling there. By his further exertions the battalion. Throughout four hours of intense hand-to-hand fighting 2nd Lt. Young displayed the utmost valour and devotion to duty and set an example to which the company gallantly responded.”

Young was last seen fighting hand to hand against a considerable number of the enemy. Initially Young was listed as missing, however his body was found by a British patrol on September 27 at the edge of Havrincourt Wood. He was subsequently reburied nearby in Hermies Hill British Cemetery in France.

His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regimental Collection at the Wardown Park Museum, Luton.

Great British Life: Arthur Martin Leake- wiki Arthur Martin Leake- wiki

Then there was Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Martin-Leake, who was a British physician officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He won the Victoria Cross not once but twice! The first time was while fighting in the Boer War in South Africa.

Arthur had been born in Standon near Ware and was educated at Westminster School before studying medicine at University College Hospital, qualifying in 1893.

He was employed at Hemel Hempstead District Hospital before enlisting in the 42nd (Hertfordshire) Company, Imperial Yeomanry in 1899 to serve in the Boer War.

He was 27 years old and a surgeon captain in the South African Constabulary attached to the 5th Field Ambulance during the Second Boer War. On February 8 1902, at Vlakfontein he was awarded his first VC.

A report of the drama said: “During the action, Surgeon-Captain Martin-Leake went up to a wounded man, and attended to him under a heavy fire from about 40 Boers at 100 yards range. He then went to the assistance of a wounded officer, and, whilst trying to place him in a comfortable position, was shot three times, but would not give in till he rolled over thoroughly exhausted.

“All the eight men at this point were wounded, and while they were lying on the Veldt, Surgeon-Captain Martin-Leake refused water till everyone else had been served.”

He received the VC decoration from King Edward VII at St James's Palace.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Martin-Leake returned to service as a lieutenant with the 5th Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps, on the Western Front. He was awarded his second VC, aged 40, during the period between October 29 and November9 1914 near Zonnebeke, Belgium, whilst serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps.

It was wrote about him “Braving constant machine gun, sniper and shellfire, he rescued a large number of wounded comrades lying close to the enemy’s trenches. By his devotion many lives have been saved that would otherwise undoubtedly have been lost. His behaviour on three occasions when the dressing station was heavily shelled was such as to inspire confidence both with the wounded and the staff. It is not possible to quote any one specific act performed because his gallant conduct was continual.”

His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Army Medical Services Museum in Aldershot.

You can find out more about Hertfordshire’s VC recipients via the historic archives website



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