Gateway to the Classics: Heroes and Heroic Deeds of the Great War by Donald A. Mackenzie
Heroes and Heroic Deeds of the Great War by  Donald A. Mackenzie

A Group of Heroes

A thrilling deed of heroism was accomplished by a Highland soldier in the vicinity of Soissons on the River Aisne. About 150 men of his regiment were told off to guard a bridge in case any Germans should attempt to cross. It was not expected that a strong attack would be made at that particular place.

The day was warm and pleasant; sunlight twinkled on the river and birds sang among the trees. But for the booming of guns in the distance there was nothing to suggest war and bloodshed in that peaceful spot. The Highlanders chatted about home and the harvest-fields, and enjoyed the rest they were experiencing after long, weary marching and heavy fighting. One said: "If I had a fishing rod I should like to try that shady pool yonder. There is a nice ripple on the water."

He had hardly spoken when the "spit-spit-spit" of rifles rang out in the silence. A strong force of Germans had crept through the wood opposite them, and were evidently going to rush the bridge. Several Highlanders fell, and the rest took cover and opened fire. When the Germans made their appearance their ranks were swept by a Maxim gun, which cut them down in dozens.

For a time the attackers were held back. Then a strong column of Germans came in sight, hurrying along the highway to cross the bridge. The Highlanders were outnumbered by about seven to one.

"It will take us all our time to hold them back," one muttered.

"The Maxim will shatter that column in a twinkling," answered another cheerfully.

But suddenly the Maxim became silent. Snipers lying concealed in the wood had shot down, one after another, the men who had been working it, and it stood there unattended on its tripod among a heap of bodies. Meanwhile the Germans approached closer and closer to the bridge. The rifle-fire was not of sufficient volume to keep them back. It looked as if the little group of British soldiers would be exterminated.

A gallant Highlander who took in the situation at a glance leaped up, and, throwing down his rifle, ran towards the Maxim gun. The German snipers tried their best to hit him, but he seemed to have a charmed life. Bullets whizzed past his head like bees swarming from a hive; but he never faltered. Reaching the Maxim, he swung it, without detaching the tripod, across his back as coolly as though he were a fisherman lifting a creel of fish; then, instead of returning to his comrades, he ran across the bridge and placed the gun in front of the German column advancing along the highway. The belt which revolves to "feed" the Maxim was well charged with ammunition, and the Highlander opened a withering fire. "Rat-tat-tat" sounded the deadly gun as the Highlander crouched down, working it expertly and coolly. The Germans were unable to advance against the terrible hail of bullets, which thinned their ranks faster than it takes to tell. So they scampered to find cover, leaving heaps of their men dead and wounded on the road.

Meanwhile the snipers continued firing at the gallant Highlander, who kept the bridge like the Roman Horatius, but against more fearful odds. Again and again he was wounded, and just as he succeeded in putting to flight the attackers, he fell back dead, and once more the Maxim gun was silent.

The Germans began to reform to renew the attack. Ere they could do so, however, the surviving Highlanders heard reinforcements hurrying up from behind. As soon as they reached the river bank the fresh troops opened so vigorous an attack on the Germans that they were forced to fall back. Their retiral was a hurried one.

When the British soldiers crossed the bridge they found that the dead Highlander who had routed the German column, and given his life to save his comrades, had over thirty bullet wounds in various parts of his body. He will be remembered as one of the great heroes of the British army.

A similar act of splendid daring was performed by Lieutenant Dimmer of the 2nd Battalion of the King's Rifle Corps, whose home is at Wimbledon. He took part in the trench fighting in southern Belgium when the Germans endeavoured to break through the British lines and reach Calais. For some weeks the issue hung in the balance. Then the famous Prussian Guard, the "crack regiment" of the Fatherland, was brought up at the command of the Kaiser to sweep our troops before them. The fighting became very violent. Lieutenant Dimmer had, on one occasion, a narrow escape from death, for, as he was engaged inspecting the position, three bullets, fired by watchful German snipers, passed through his cap.

For several days the Royal Rifle Corps sustained fierce attacks. During the early part of the fighting two British machine-guns were put out of action, but one of them was recovered by Lieutenant Dimmer, assisted by Corporal Cordingley, who would have received the Distinguished Service Medal had he lived; he was killed by a bullet not long afterwards.

The Prussian Guard lost heavily, because the sons of Britain were more than a match for them, and repelled attack after attack. Urged onward, however, to make a final effort, they flung themselves on the British lines, convinced that they must succeed and win great glory.

This attack began about nine o'clock on a cold misty night. Lieutenant Dimmer was in the thick of the fight. He had charge of a Maxim gun, and was assisted by three men. But just when the Maxim was brought into action the leather of the cartridge-belt stuck fast, being swollen by the drizzle of thin rain. Meanwhile the enemy approached nearer and nearer, keeping up a fierce fire. Rifle-bullets and shrapnel splinters spattered about the gun like hailstones. It was a galling situation. But Lieutenant Dimmer was cool and brave and resourceful. He at once knelt down to adjust the silent gun, using a spanner so that the cartridge-belt might have room to move. While so engaged he was exposed to the deadly fire which swept along the trench. A bullet struck him in the jaw. It did not, however, cause him to flinch. "I did not mind," he has since said; "the wound only made me wild."

At length the cartridge-belt was got to work, and the gun poured out its fusillades of bullets on the advancing hosts, in which it made great gaps, while the men in the trenches kept up the rifle-fire with unerring aim, as steadily as if they were practising at targets on a shooting-range.

The German shrapnel crashed overhead, and many brave men were killed or wounded by scattering fragments of metal. Snipers also paid special attention to those working the machine-guns, and one after another the three men at this particular Maxim were picked off. But Lieutenant Dimmer stuck to his post, despite his wound, working the gun alone. A bit of shrapnel then grazed his right eye and almost blinded it. Still he kept the Maxim working. Another shell burst near him, and a splinter tore open a ragged wound on his forehead, from which the blood streamed down into his left eye. Twisting his head sideways, and occasionally wiping away the blood, he scarcely faltered at his task. Sometimes he was almost completely blind; at best he could only see through a haze of blood and perspiration. But he kept the gun in action while the Prussian Guard was sustaining frightful losses. Then, for a moment or two, the Maxim remained silent. Wearied and weakened by his wounds, he found it necessary to take rest, and especially to recover his vision. After cleansing his eyes and pressing his handkerchief against his fore-head bruise, to stop the flow of blood, he looked up and saw that the enemy were retreating. This gave him fresh courage and strength, and once again he staggered towards the gun. "I wanted," he has told, "to give them something to go on with, and banged away for all I was worth."

When one belt of cartridges was exhausted he fitted on another. Many a Prussian was laid low by that courageous British officer, who was still working his gun without assistance. Then another shrapnel shell burst in front of him, and he received a wound on his left shoulder. But his right arm remained free, and he resumed firing. At length, however, a rifle bullet sank deeply into his left shoulder, near the other wound, and he fell back unconscious. He had done heroic service in assisting to scatter the renowned Prussian Guard, and had certainly saved the position occupied by his battalion. In all he fired 900 cartridges, and most of these must have taken effect.

When Lieutenant Dimmer was picked up it was found that he had sustained five wounds. Temporary dressings were applied, and he recovered consciousness. Before he was conveyed to hospital, however, he insisted on going to his quarters, supported by two men, to make up his report. For his great bravery he has been awarded the Victoria Cross, and given promotion.

A touching story is told of an heroic Irishman who gave his life to save two chance acquaintances near Cambrai. He had been brought up in Glasgow, and was a private in the Royal Scots. Those who knew him say he was a rough character, given to quarrelling, and ever ready to use his fists. But there was a tender spot in his heart, and he had certainly much courage.

Along with a sergeant of the Leicestershire Regiment and a private of the Dorsets, who was wounded, he took shelter in a farm-house. The little party were cut off from the British forces, and Germans swarmed in their vicinity. They hoped to steal away in the darkness, and it looked as if they would manage to, for their presence was not suspected. But the Irishman was reckless, and, ignoring the appeals of the others, wandered outside. The Germans saw him and opened fire. He returned promptly to the house, and was greatly troubled because he had carelessly drawn attention to his companions. "I have just come in", he said, "to warn you that a party of the enemy is near. Hide yourselves; I am going out for a walk."

The sergeant saw at once that the Irishman had made up his mind to risk his life by performing some wild escapade, and ordered him to remain where he was. But he ignored the sergeant and made for the door; then, pausing on the threshold, he said: "It's like this, my son. You and your friend there are married, and have children who would mourn for you. As for me, I'm not the best, and nobody will be any the poorer if I'm shot. Am I not to blame in this matter? If I hadn't shown myself the Germans wouldn't have looked near the place. But they don't know there's anybody here but myself. So I'm going to rush out, and perhaps I may get off. If they catch me, they'll be quite satisfied, no doubt. But you must remain behind, Sergeant, for the sake of that poor wounded fellow there." His face never showed a sign of feeling until the sergeant began to move towards him. "Stop!' he exclaimed. "Stay where you are. If you follow me the Germans won't get a chance, for I'll shoot you down myself. Stop where you are, I tell you."

It was no use reasoning with him. He shut the door and walked off as coolly as if he were going to the barracks. When he came in sight of the Germans he pretended to be surprised, and made a sudden dash to escape across a field. But he had not gone far when he was brought down by a volley. He must have died before he fell. But he saved the lives of the other two men. The Germans thought he was a solitary straggler, and went off in another direction.

Night came on, but the two English soldiers did not get an opportunity to escape safely. They kept in hiding for three days before they were able to return to the British lines. The body of the heroic Irishman, who had died for others, was recovered and buried by the Red Cross men, and the "Last Post" was sounded over his grave.

It has been related that when King Robert the Bruce rode out against De Bohun, before the battle of Bannockburn, and slew that dashing knight, his officers remonstrated with him for risking his life, while they also praised him for his prowess. But what concerned the King most was that he had broken his battle-axe. An English soldier who had displayed great daring at the battle of Mons retired from it in a similar frame of mind. His right hand had been badly wounded, and he was found sitting by the roadside looking most dejected. "Is your wound very painful?" he was asked. "It's not my hand that worries me," he said. "I'm blessed if I haven't lost my pipe in that last charge!"

Scorching motor-cyclists are regarded as a nuisance on country roads in time of peace; but in war not a few of them have proved to be of great value. The story of how a "scorcher" won a French medal is of stirring character.

During the course of one of the many engagements fought on the banks of the River Aisne a small but determined French force occupied trenches facing those of the enemy. There were clumps of woodland on either side of the space between the opposing lines. In one English troops lay concealed; in the other there were Germans with machine-guns. For a time neither of these hidden forces was aware of the presence of the other.

The highway skirts the wood in which the Germans lay, and along it a strong force of French infantry came marching to support their entrenched countrymen. The Germans waited for them.

Suddenly the men in the trenches perceived that a trap had been laid. They caught glimpses of the enemy moving into position between the trees. As the force of infantry would be decimated as soon as they came into range, it was necessary that they should be warned in time. To accomplish this, attempts were made to signal to them, but the German sharpshooters promptly picked off each man who rose up from the French trenches to send a message.

The threatened danger was perceived also by the Englishmen in the opposite wood. It was no use for them to try to signal, because their message would not be understood. The only chance was to send a cyclist along the road which ran past the German ambush.

A daring Englishman leaped on his machine, and in a few minutes had crossed to the highway and was careering along it. He bent low in the saddle and scorched for all he was worth. "Teuf-teuf-teuf", sounded the motor in the tense stillness. The Germans were amazed at the man's daring. Their snipers, however, opened fire, and the brave scorcher was shot down. His bicycle tumbled over and was wrecked on a bank.

But no sooner did he fall than another "scorcher" made his appearance. This man was also killed, and did not even get so far along the road as his predecessor. Then a third brave Englishman made his appearance. He was as fearless as the others, and rode similarly at the highest speed. The German sharpshooters opened against him a brisk fire, and the bullets buzzed about his ears like mosquitoes. It was an exciting spectacle. The Englishmen peered from the wood and the Frenchmen from the trenches, watching the scorching cyclist careering along the highway, his back bent and his head stretched for-ward as if he were racing for a prize in some competition. "Snap-snap-snap", rang out the German rifles, but still the messenger whirled onward. He passed the wood in a cloud of dust and raced towards the French column of infantry, which was now drawing perilously near. Would he reach it safely and in time? The Germans did their best to prevent him. But they could only snipe. If they opened volley-fire they would reveal their presence to the force they intended to ambush.

At length, after several moments of breathless anxiety, the heroic "scorcher" reached the French force, dismounted, and warned them. He had risked his life for the sake of the allies of his native land, and saved hundreds of brave soldiers from certain death.

The French officer was astounded, not only at the message of warning he received, but at the daring displayed by the courageous Englishman, whom he saluted as though he confronted one of his superiors in rank. Then, taking from his tunic the French military medal which is the equivalent of our Victoria Cross, he pinned it above the breast of that dashing cyclist who so richly deserved such a high honour.

Another daring feat was accomplished by an officer and non-commissioned officer of the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. Early one morning a company of Germans conducted a fierce and sudden attack on one of the forward trenches of the Manchesters and compelled its occupants to retire. Two attempts were afterwards made to drive them back, but without success. It looked as if the Germans would hold out until reinforcements came to their aid to assist them to advance still farther.

Second-Lieutenant Leach declared in the afternoon that he would attack the enemy alone and compel them to retire. "I will go with you, sir," said Sergeant Hogan. The lieutenant consented, and they set out together.

One after the other these two brave soldiers crept along the communication-trench leading to the forward trenches, and when they got to close quarters opened fire on the enemy. Both were good shots, and almost every bullet took effect. Darting from point to point along the zigzagged route, they compelled the Germans to retreat to the far end of the trench after having killed eight of them and wounded a couple. Fourteen remained to be accounted for, but after firing a few random shots they threw down their rifles and held up their hands to signify that they surrendered. They were greatly astonished to find that they had been hopelessly beaten by only two men.

Lieutenant Leach had a marvellous escape. Several bullets had gone through his cap, and his muffler came to pieces when he took it off. Neither he nor Sergeant Hogan received a single wound.

A private of the Royal Irish Regiment one day sacrificed himself to save a force of the West Yorkshires from extermination. He had been taken prisoner during the previous night, and was confined in a farm-house on the outskirts of a little village near Reims. The Germans kept so well under cover that the British were not aware of their presence at this particular point.

When day dawned the West Yorkshires were ordered to advance and occupy the village. The Germans chuckled when they saw them coming, and word was passed round among the houses not to fire a shot until they were at close range. It seemed as if the unsuspecting Englishmen were to be exterminated.

Looking through a window, Pat took in the situation. He saw the Yorkshire lads marching forward as unconcernedly as if they were on parade. The Germans chattered gleefully round about him, laughing now and again. Pat did not understand a word they said, but he knew only too well that they were making merry over the surprise they were going to give to the force of Englishmen drawing near.

His heart was touched. He wanted to pick up a rifle and give the alarm. But if he attempted to seize one in that little room he would be quickly overpowered.

At length he resolved to do what the Germans would never think a man capable of doing—to rush out and let his comrades know they were in danger. It meant certain death for him. He realized that, but did not care. What although he lost his own life, if by doing so he saved the lives of many? He was a brave, generous, self-sacrificing man. The blood of generations of heroes ran in his veins.

On came the Yorkshires. The Germans got into position with loaded rifles, taking cool, deliberate aim. They paid no attention to Pat. Then, cautiously and softly, the Irish soldier slipped back from the window, crossed the room, and went out into the backyard. No one heeded his movements. Little did the enemy dream that Pat was resolved to spoil their murderous game by raising the alarm.

There was no time to be lost. The yard gate stood open, and the Irishman ran out. In another minute he was in the open, and was observed by friend and foe alike. He raised his arms above his head, to signify to the Yorkshires that danger threatened him, and he ran towards them for a few yards. Then the concealed Germans opened fire. The brave Irishman fell on his face, his body riddled with bullets.

But he had accomplished his purpose. The Englishmen at once realized what lay in store for them.

"Halt, and take cover," shouted the officer. The men obeyed promptly. They knew only too well why the order had been given.

"Who was that man, I wonder?" a private asked.

"One of our lads who has been taken prisoner," another said.

"Well, he's a game one!" the first speaker exclaimed.

"If he had not dashed out," a third declared, "we would have been caught in a trap."

Soon the fighting became brisk. The Yorkshires brought a machine-gun into action, and before long they had silenced the firing from the farm-house. Advancing in short rushes, they reached at length the prostrate body of Pat, whom they found to be still alive. His face was deathly pale, a stream of blood ran down his left cheek, and his left arm was almost cut through with bullet wounds. But he smiled when he saw an Englishman bending over him.

"I'm done for," he said faintly.

"You've saved many a life this day," a Yorkshire lad told him with deep emotion.

"Thank God for that!" the Irishman murmured. Then he became unconscious.

The Germans were driven from the village with considerable loss. Two Yorkshire lads carried the Irish hero to the farm-house and laid him gently on a bed. He died as his wounds were being dressed. As his identification badge was missing his name could not be ascertained. Next day he was buried in the little graveyard beside the village chapel, and few of the soldiers could refrain from shedding tears. Over the grave a wooden cross was erected, and on it a Yorkshire man wrote: "He saved others; himself he could not save."

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