"I clenched my teeth and said to myself I would stick it." This thrilling sentence came from the lips of Glasgow's popular hero in describing the great adventure that won for him the coveted honour. He was referring to his rescue of an officer whom he snatched from the jaws of death. The hero is Private Henry May, 1st Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), who won the V.C. at La Boutillerie on October 22, 1914. He voluntarily endeavoured to rescue, under very heavy fire, a wounded man who was killed before he could save him, and subsequently, on the same day, carried a wounded officer a distance of 300 yards into safety while exposed to very severe fire.
Private May was born in 1885 in the historic Barony Parish. On leaving school he became a mechanic, and in this capacity worked in the mills of Messrs John Brown & Co., of Adelphi Street.
Then the Army called him. He wanted a more active and adventurous life, and accordingly enlisted at Hamilton in 1902. The regiment he chose was the Cameronians, whose history is closely bound up with Scotland. It was originally the 26th Regiment of Foot, raised among the 'hill men' in 1668 and employed soon afterward in restoring order in the Highlands during the troubled days of the Covenanters. May proceeded with the 1st Cameronians to South Africa at the conclusion of the Boer War, and laughingly admits that his only fighting experience there was taking part in some manoeuvres at the Klip River. He served for three years, and after returning to civilian life was a tenter in the factory of a firm of muslin manufacturers at Rutherglen Bridge, Glasgow. He was within a fortnight of the expiry of his time as a Reservist when he was summoned to rejoin the Colours in August 1914. Private May, it is of interest to note, is a member of the Fairbairn United Free Church, which gave considerably over ninety members for active service.
Private Henry May saw very varied experiences at the front. He was in the great retreat, and at Le Cateau his regiment had the honourable and dangerous task of taking up a rear-guard position. The complete story of his hardships during these arduous days would provide thrilling reading. For over 100 miles the Cameronians marched without rations. They had to subsist on what they could pick up on the way. For ten days May was 'missing,' wandering alone, narrowly escaping capture. When the British army moved from the Aisne to Flanders, the Cameronians tramped a great part of the way, usually by night. From a little village near St Omer they entrained for La Boutillerie, where May was to win the V.C.
These were critical days toward the end of October 1914. The Germans were bent on hacking a way to the Channel ports, and the Cameronians had been ordered to La Boutillerie at express speed to fill a gap in the line and stem the torrent of on-sweeping Germans.
On October 22 May's section was ordered to occupy a ditch, a vantage-point not to be despised when a properly constructed trench is not available. A ditch well-manned may prove a formidable obstacle in the path of the enemy.
It was essential that the Cameronians should hold the advancing Germans, and their officer skillfully conducted his section into the ditch. Meantime the muddy fields were swept by bullets, and each man had to follow the officer very carefully, 'ducking' his head and crawling. Once in the ditch the 1st Cameronians settled to real business, and prepared to guard the stronghold to the last man.
After a time the Germans made a furious onslaught. This was the occasion when the Kaiser's crack corps exposed themselves with reckless bravery in their futile attempts to hew a Ray to Calais. There is a limit even to courage, and eventually the ditch became too warm for the Cameronians. In view of the large numbers opposed to them it was deemed necessary to retire, and it was during this retreat that Private Henry May performed the first of the two deeds of gallantry that won for him the V.C.
One of the Cameronians went out at the wrong end of the ditch. Before his comrades could call to him to return he had been shot down. The officer, grieved to see one of his brave lads exposed to the merciless fire of the enemy, cried out:
"Boys, there's one of our men down! We can't leave him to the Germans! Who will fetch him?
Private May jumped to his officer's side, and, in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone, said:
"I will go, sir."
Then he shouted: "Come on, boys!" and with some of his comrades following he leaped out of the ditch.
May was the first to reach the wounded man. He lifted him up, one of his mates assisting. Just as they were starting back to our lines a German bullet struck the poor fellow, and he fell back lifeless in May's arms. More tragedy was to follow; the comrade helping May was next hit. He, too, dropped dead. It had been a narrow escape for May, and he was profoundly impressed by the miraculous incident—two bullets killing two men at his side and missing himself.
Thinking that he must be shot if he continued his way back to his company, May resolved to stay where he was, and sell his life dearly. He dropped over the two dead bodies, deciding to fire from behind them at the advancing enemy until his ammunition was finished.
While thus engaged Private May heard a noise at his back.
"Looking round," he says, "I saw it was my officer, Lieutenant Graham, that had dropped. I knew then what my duty was. I thought I would try and assist him. I am sure every other man in our platoon would have done the same as I did. He had been so kind to us. On our marches, when we were without rations, he would buy biscuits and chocolates, and send them to his men."
Despite the severe fire to which he exposed himself May rushed to the fallen officer and started to drag him toward shelter. Another Cameronian was nearby, and May shouted to him to give a hand. Between them they dragged the officer an additional few yards when once again the brave fellow assisting May was shot down, though this time he was not killed.
A third soldier, named Bell, came on the scene, but he, too, received wounds in the leg, ankle, and wrist, and was forced to crawl back to the ditch. By now May did not doubt that he bore a charmed life. He could only breathe a prayer of thanksgiving as he reflected on his marvellous deliverances. He was determined that his lieutenant should be carried to safety if he should be spared.
The officer, lying wounded, realized the imminent danger May was incurring, and whispered faintly:
"For God's sake, leave me, May!"
The order only worked in May a deeper obstinacy.
"I clenched my teeth," he said, "and said to myself I would stick it since I had managed so far. I saw a little shelter some distance away which I thought I would be able to take him to.
Then another man crept up to his assistance, and for the fifth time in succession Private May escaped while a comrade was shot. This time the man at his side was struck in the wrist, the bullet shattering the arm up to the shoulder.
It was now dark, and May was alone with the lieutenant. He began to think that his own 'number was up'—as he afterward put it, for bullets were still flying plentifully around. He therefore exerted himself for a supreme effort. With difficulty he got the officer into his arms, and struggled through the darkness to a place of shelter which he had noticed some distance away. He was totally unable to make out the Cameronians' lines, and trusted to luck to carry him to safety. The shelter was a little hollow, and, although not quite free from the sweeping fire of the enemy, was safer than the open.
As May gently laid Lieutenant Graham down he was rewarded with the remark, uttered in a low voice: "Thanks, awfully, May."
He replied: "Oh, it's nothing, sir! I think you will do all right now."
When daylight arrived the two men were seen by their own battalion and speedily relieved. To his annoyance Private May discovered that the exertion he had made would have been sufficient to bring the wounded officer right among his friends had he only known the direction to take. The British lines, he found, were but a few yards distant, and he had carried the lieutenant 300 yards. Private May later had the satisfaction of knowing that his officer made a good recovery. Although entitled to a well-earned rest after the exertions of the night, May desired to return immediately to the firing-line. As it happened there was no room for him in the front trenches, and he was sent into billets in a village behind.
A little over a week afterward he was again in the thick of the fighting, and received a wound in his cheek. This necessitated a spell in hospital, which was followed by a visit home, in time for Christmas and New Year with his family, a pleasure richly earned.