The Victoria Cross has been awarded to men of practically every branch of our Army. Cavalrymen and artillerymen have gained the distinction as well as engineers and army doctors. The largest number of V.C's have gone to the infantrymen, and a proportion of these have been won by soldiers who are not classed as combatants. The army bandsmen, whom we have seen in times of peace marching with their regiments, stirring every heart with their martial music, have often acted heroically in battle; not a few have earned high praise for their services, while the one of whom we are now to read has secured the coveted Victoria Cross. Bandsmen usually act as stretcher-bearers at the front, but although classed as non-combatants they have on many occasions emulated the cooks and camp attendants at the first battle of Ypres. They have taken a hand in the fight and helped to stem the torrent of advancing Germans. The brave army musician, whose great achievement is narrated here, however, was not decorated for any such belligerent deed, his heroism was displayed in more trying conditions.
Bandsman Rendle was born at Exeter, and as a boy, both at school and play, gave much promise. He was always to the fore when pluck and resource were needed, and was regarded by all his comrades as a lad of fearless character. After leaving school Rendle joined the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, a famous regiment which has many deeds of daring to its credit, and while serving with this regiment he saw much fighting in the Boer War.
On the outbreak of war in 1914, Rendle's regiment was sent at once to the front, and his great opportunity found him at the little village of Wulverghem on November 20.
"There is really nothing in it," he explained, when asked to describe his bravery, for he is very modest.
The British were facing fearful odds, holding their line against massed attacks of the Germans, who were making frantic endeavours to break through. Rendle had been in the trenches for many weeks, and saw, in his own words, "sights enough to move the heart of a stone."
They were disagreeable days, for the weather at that time of the year is severe. Mist, rain, and damp sorely tried our gallant lads, as, day in and day out, they held their position. The enemy's artillery had made a special target of the trenches in the neighbourhood of where the Cornwalls were posted, and many casualties occurred.
As a bandsman it was Rendle's particular work to succour the wounded, but he was determined to do more than his bare duty. The sight of so many brave fellows struck by the deadly shrapnel moved him to pity and to forgetfulness of self. Again and again he was told to "come down" when he had ventured out of the trench to take a wounded man to the rear.
On November 20, the enemy subjected the Cornwalls' trench to a particularly severe bombardment. Two shells pitched into it, and blew ten men to pieces. They also ruined the front parapet, and the earth fell in and filled up a section. Matters were looking serious, for the Germans, having discovered that they had made a breach in the trench, poured into the gap an unending stream of shot and shell. This breach was five or six yards wide, and it had the effect of isolating one-half of the trench from the other.
The events immediately leading up to Rendle's heroic deed are as follows:
Lieutenant Colebrook, a young subaltern, was wounded on the afternoon of the 10th in that part of the British trench which was cut off from the communication trench, and lay on the ground unable to move. When he had somewhat recovered he asked for Lieutenant Wingate. To go to his friend meant crossing the exposed part of the trench, but Wingate fearlessly made the journey and escaped the bullets which the Germans were raining on that particular place. He was able to help and comfort his friend, but decided it was quite impossible to attempt to have him removed until dark, as there was no way of getting him across the exposed gap, upon which the enemy continued to send an unceasing stream of machine-gun bullets. Later on the enemy's fire slackened, only to start half an hour after with redoubled fury. Two shells whistled overhead, a third fell right in front of Lieutenant Wingate and smothered him with mud. This, he thought, was getting too warm, and he called out that the wounded officer must be taken away. At this point he was summoned to another part of the trench.
Bandsman Rendle had seen the terrible danger to his officer, and the third shell decided him. His bravery was not of 'the sudden' character. Many heroes acting on the spur of the moment have performed miraculous feats without counting the cost. Others have calculated all the chances and then gone out to face death deliberately. To the latter category of brave deeds Rendle's belongs. He well knew the terrible risks but did not flinch. Setting his teeth and placing his life in the keeping of Providence he started forth.
His own account, stated in modest language, conveys some idea of the heroic nature of his deed.
"Lieutenant Colebrook," he says, "lay in an isolated section, wounded in the thigh, the main artery being severed. When Lieutenant Wingate and I got to him, we bandaged him up. The Germans were firing all the time with shell and machine-guns. To get Lieutenant Colebrook back, I started digging a shallow burrow with my hands, as I lay on the ground."
All the time he was doing this Rendle was in imminent danger. Every time he moved in the act of throwing away the soil, the Germans fired at his head, which became an excellent target. Rendle's purpose was to remove the earth that had fallen into the choked-up part of the trench, in order to make a safe pathway through this to the trench beyond. With feverish haste he tore at the loose soil. His nails were bleeding and his hands cut, but still he went at it heedless of the bullets which flew around. One almost grazed him, yet he never stopped. Another fell in front of him sending up a cloud of dust that nearly blinded him.
Suddenly a shell dropped nearby and partly choked him. It was clear that the lieutenant must be got away without delay, or both of them would be killed. The officer was too weak to stand, and to carry him was out of the question. There was only one way, and Rendle seized upon the idea and put it into instant practice.
His novel and daring plan was to get the wounded man on to his back and attempt to crawl to safety. He gently raised Lieutenant Colebrook a few inches from the ground, made him place his hands round his neck, and edged him on to his back. Then with consummate coolness and daring he started to worm his way to the trench from which he had started.
Crawling on his stomach, with the wounded man clutching him tightly, he advanced inch by inch across the dangerous gap. The bullets fell around, but luckily none found their intended billet. As he crept nearer and nearer to his goal, Rendle could feel his heart thumping against his ribs, while the groans of the wounded officer increased his anxiety. How he survived that perilous journey he does not know, but he never thought of giving in. He had made up his mind that he would save the young subaltern, and nothing was able to deflect him from his stern purpose.
So crawling slowly and carefully across the danger-zone, with the officer on his back, this brave bandsman eventually succeeded in reaching the section of the trench where he would find help and safety.
After this all danger was past. Rendle delivered his precious freight to the Red Cross detachment, and went back to his comrades to receive their congratulations upon one of the most heroic rescues of the war.
"We have Rendle's name in for distinction," wrote Lieutenant Wingate in a letter home, "and if you see his name among the V.C.s, you will know what he got it for."
Later in the campaign Bandsman Rendle received an injury to his sight caused by shell-fire, and was sent home to a hospital in Exeter, where his wife and two children live. It was in this hospital that he received the glad news that his name was upon the coveted list, and nurses and wounded comrades vied with one another in congratulating the hero upon his V.C.
A further token of the esteem in which he and his brave deed were held was the presentation to Rendle by the Worshipful Company of Musicians of an inscribed gold watch. Two other musician heroes were honoured in a like fashion. The presentation to these was made by the Lord Mayor of London in the historic Mansion House, but Rendle's gift was forwarded to him, as he was not sufficiently recovered from his wounds to be present.