The V.C. exploit of Trooper Frederick William Owen Potts, 1/1st Berkshire Yeomanry (Territorial Force) was unparalleled in the war, for he rescued a member of his regiment in Gallipoli by dragging him down a hill on a shovel. This commonplace tool, it has been said, is now consecrated for all time as a life-saving implement.
For nearly fifty hours, between August 21st and 23rd, 1915, Trooper Potts remained under the fire of the Turkish trenches with his severely wounded comrade. His experiences during the long vigil are among the most thrilling the war has produced. Although he could himself have returned to safety, he preferred to risk death rather than desert a helpless chum.
The first Yeoman to gain the coveted distinction, Trooper Potts joined the Berkshire Yeomanry when only fifteen, and was the youngest trooper in England. He was twenty-two years of age at the time of which we are to write. In civilian life he is an engineer in his native town of Reading.
As Potts is one of the many heroes of the arduous Gallipoli campaign, a brief summary of the military situation in the summer of 1915 will not be out of place.
The arrival of reinforcements enabled Sir Ian Hamilton (then Commander-in-Chief) to undertake a flanking movement to drive the Turks from their strong positions. A new landing was effected early in August 1915, the point of disembarkation being the little Anafarta Bay, or Suvla Bay as it is more popularly known. The British troops on landing were able to deploy on a big front, and penetrated three miles inland. Lower down the Gallipoli Peninsula other troops were landed to strengthen the brave Anzacs—as the Australians and New Zealanders had come to be named. This was the occasion when the Anzacs 'fought like lions,' and, along with a battalion of Gurkhas, reached the crest of the commanding Sari Bair height, and saw beneath them the waters of the Narrows. This glimpse of the 'Promised Land' was brief, for the brave men were soon compelled to fall back owing to the non-arrival of supports.
Among the many gallant soldiers who landed at Suvla Bay was Trooper Potts. It had been decided to bombard and attack a very strongly fortified Turkish position near the Bay, stretching from Hill 70 to Hill 112. Previously an attack had been made on the Anafarta Hills, but unsuccessfully. This time a more desperate effort was attempted, the attack being launched on the afternoon of August 21st, after a terrific bombardment by our battleships and heavy land batteries.
The Berkshire Yeomanry had been on the Peninsula about a week, during which time they were employed in making roads from Suvla Bay to Anzac, when they were informed that they were to take part in the attack on Hill 70, or Burnt Hill as our soldiers called it, because of its appearance. In order to reach the hill the Berkshires and other units had to skirt Salt Lake, which at that time of the year was partially dried up. During their advance they witnessed a British division going into action under heavy shrapnel fire. The surface of the ground across which Trooper Potts made his way was composed of sand and shrubs, while long creepers and grass impeded movement. Added to these discomforts was the awful heat. Owing to the broken nature of the ground the troops had to advance in extended formation, with the inevitable result that they speedily became separated and out of touch with their officers and each other.
Potts states that his regiment was overjoyed at the thought of going into action, after days of uninteresting work along the coast. Moving out from under cover these splendid troops, officered by gallant 'gentlemen of England,' many of whom, until recently, had been leading the life of county squires, were exposed to a murderous fire from the Turkish trenches. The shrapnel had set the shrubs ablaze, and this added to their danger. Advancing by short rushes Potts and his comrades reached the shelter of Chocolate Hill, where they rested for half an hour. Then, as coolly as if on parade, they advanced and formed up behind an infantry brigade in front of Hill 70.
So far Trooper Potts had escaped injury, although experiencing several narrow escapes. Arrived at the bottom of Hill 70 the Berks and Dorsets and other regiments prepared for their heroic charge.
When the order came to advance to the assault of the Turks' trenches the men fixed bayonets, gave a hearty cheer, and dashed up the hill. Not a man faltered, although the enemy poured a stream of shells full upon their ranks. The order had been to take Hill 70 at all costs, and it was splendidly carried out. Trench after trench was stormed, the occupants bayoneted or taken prisoner. Foot by foot the dashing Yeomanry fought their way up. A final desperate charge made them masters of Hill 70. "Over we went in fine style," says Potts, "nothing could stop us—it was a proper sort of charge, for our blood was up."
When about twenty yards on the other side of the hill Potts received a wound in the thigh, which knocked him off his feet. He rose and tried to follow his comrades, but sank down, bemoaning his hard luck. He had sufficient strength and sense to crawl to a little avenue of shrubs not more than six yards long, where he was forced to lie inactive, safe from shells for the time being.
It was about five o'clock in the evening when Potts received his wound, and not long after he observed his regiment coming back, but was unable to attract the notice of any of his comrades.
When he had lain in the shrubs about an hour his strength revived. He was on the point of making a move when he heard some one calling. He started—for the voice was familiar. "Is that you, Andrews?" he shouted. Potts looked round, but could see no one. Just as he was about to shout again he saw approaching a member of the Berkshire Yeomanry, and by a strange coincidence it proved to be Private Andrews, a fellow-townsman. He had been shot in the groin, and was suffering terribly. He joined Potts, and the two wounded men were forced to remain where they were, for the hail of fire maintained by the Turks made it impossible to move. Even in their sheltered position fragments of shells dropped rather too near them to be pleasant.
About ten minutes after Andrews came in Trooper Potts was startled to hear a groan. He peered into the rapidly-deepening twilight and discovered another British soldier. He was a member of the Bucks Yeomanry and was wounded in both legs. The two men, already cramped for space, moved up to make room for him; every time he moved the Turks fired. The poor fellow was suffering intensely, and he lived only a short time after reaching the shrubs.
During the night Potts and his companion obtained some little relief. There was less danger of being seen, although the deadly shooting of the Turkish snipers made escape impossible. In the morning Potts and Andrews felt more refreshed, for during the night they had snatched sleep at intervals. Nevertheless they were stiff and sore, and it speaks well for their British pluck that neither complained to the other of his suffering. Potts had dressed Andrews' wounds with the iodine he carried on his person, and Andrews in turn applied it to Potts's wound. Then, as the sun became strong, thirst tortured the two men, and all day long they suffered intensely. At last their suffering became intolerable, and Potts boldly ventured into the open and succeeded in obtaining water from the bottles of men who had fallen. The water put new life into both men and helped them to endure the fierce heat.
On the second night, August 22nd, Potts decided to make a move to a safer place. He argued that if they remained they would die of thirst and hunger, although death might be deferred if they did not venture within reach of the bullets which buzzed all around the shrubs. One bullet actually grazed his ear. Andrews agreed to the move, and, crawling on their stomachs, the men reached another shrubbery some yards distant. They had not been long in the new position when they heard the Turks moving about in the place they had just vacated. Potts describes the awful moment that followed. Each thought the end had come. "We actually shook hands and said good-bye." Here again Potts displayed wonderful coolness and resource, for when he realized how near they were to death he went out and, under cover of darkness, picked up a discarded rifle and some ammunition. Groping his way back to Andrews he cleaned the rifle, loaded it, and prepared to give the Turks a warm reception. But the enemy never came their way, although the two men were kept in suspense throughout the night.
The morning brought fresh anxieties and disappointments. Firing was still going on, and this prevented all hope of a dash to the British lines. Potts had sufficient knowledge of the Turkish snipers' deadly aim to make him cautious. During this day they were spectators of an actual fight in progress. The Inniskillings, whose trenches were not far away, were engaging the Turks, and shells and bullets from both sides fell dangerously near. This day was particularly oppressive, and both men were thoroughly done up.
When darkness fell Trooper Potts made up his mind that in this third night they would make a dash for the British lines, cost what it might. To make the attempt would be far better than to lie there to die of hunger and thirst, or to be discovered by the Turks. They were then lying in what is known as 'dead ground '—that is, in a hollow on the slope of a hill, so that neither from above nor below could they be seen.
At first Andrews was able to crawl with the help of Potts, but soon showed signs of exhaustion, and was forced to give in. He would have died had not Potts found a way to help him. The young trooper had puzzled his brains to solve the difficulty. To carry Andrews was out of the question.
As he crouched beside his companion he had one of those strange flashes of inspiration which come to all men at some time, often in the most unlikely circumstances and places. He had seen nearby a number of shovels discarded by our soldiers. He now went out and procured one of these, and returning he gently placed the wounded man upon it. Andrews sat with his back to Potts and, with his hands over his shoulders, he grasped Potts's hands. Although he was becoming weaker every minute, Potts braced himself for the heavy and dangerous task before him. Fixing the shovel to his equipment he started, carefully and slowly, to drag his human freight down the hill. The journey was risky as well as tedious, for there was the ever-present possibility that they would be seen or heard by the cunning Turkish snipers, who were always very active by night. Says Potts: "I prayed as I have never prayed before, for strength, help, and guidance, and I felt confident we should win through all right."
One of Andrews's legs was quite useless, and this added to the difficulty of getting him down the hill. As they progressed painfully they were fired at, and had some extraordinary narrow escapes. Potts was forced to stop about every six yards and lie down, owing to his weak state. At frequent intervals he had to replace Andrews's disabled leg on top of the other, letting that one trail on the ground.
At length Potts reached the foot of the hill and gained the shelter of a wood. He breathed a deep sigh of relief, for the worst part of the ordeal was over. His prayer had been answered. He rested for about five minutes, then went forward to look for a path through the wood, leaving his companion seated on the shovel. He had not proceeded more than twenty yards, when suddenly he received a sharp command to 'halt.' His heart almost ceased beating, while tears coursed down his cheeks. He had struck the British lines, and found himself facing a bayonet. Unconsciously Potts was in the greatest danger when he started to walk through the wood—glad to be able to stand upright after many hours of crouching. But Potts's hurried explanation saved his life. The first man to grasp him by the hand was Sergeant-Major Stubbing, 6th Royal Inniskling Fusiliers, who was on night duty. He it was who reported Potts's heroism to the captain, who, in turn, put the case before the authorities.
Meantime the sentry had gone to the trench and brought back several men. These carried a blanket, and accompanied Potts to the place where he had left Andrews. Potts had started his journey about 6 o'clock in the evening and it was now 9:30.
Both the wounded men were speedily conveyed to a field ambulance dressing-station, where their wounds were tended. Potts was invalided home at once, and it was while en route to England that he was surprised by the news that he had been awarded the great prize so dear to every British soldier. He had regarded his thrilling exploit as an ordinary incident, and was startled when he learnt how highly it was esteemed. "You could have knocked me down with a feather," said the 'Shovel V.C.,' "for I never thought I had done anything wonderful."
The V.C. deed of Trooper Potts is the most extraordinary, in its way, of any that we have recorded. The distance he had dragged his wounded fellow-townsman was, perhaps, no more than three-quarters of a mile, but every yard was slow and painful, as must be apparent from the fact that the journey took three and a half hours to accomplish. Potts was wounded on August 21st, and did not reach the British trenches until late in the evening of August 23rd. All this time he was exposed to the enemy's fire.