Heroes of the Great War - G. A. Leask

The Drummer Boy Who Took Command, and Dragged a Wounded Comrade to Safety

When the V.C. was awarded to Drummer Bent the official account cited no less than three separate instances of his conspicuous bravery. Each deed was deserving of the soldier's highest honour, so that Bent may be said to have thrice won the Victoria Cross, and he is thus an outstanding figure even in our gallery of golden deeds. Although only a drummer-boy he was mentioned in dispatches three times within a fortnight. First he twice took ammunition to comrades in an advance trench. Then he dragged a wounded man to safety under heavy fire. His third deed was to assume command of a body of men after his officers had been shot down.

Drummer Spencer John Bent belongs to the 1st Battalion the East Lancashire Regiment, and, like all our heroes, he is very modest and does not care to say much about the gallant deeds which won the prized reward. Before his soldiering days he had spent most of his life in Suffolk, where he lived with an aunt from a very early age.

On the day that he first attracted attention —October 22, 1914—the East Lancashires had been in the trenches about a month. On the right of Bent's station was a small advance trench, with six men and a corporal in it. "We came to hear," says Bent, "that they were short of ammunition. I was in the big trench, removing the earth which a 'Jack Johnson' had thrown up."

An officer came along very anxious as to the sore straits of the lonely corporal and his men. "Who'll take up some ammunition?" he asked.

Bent thought he was just the man for the job. He reasoned within himself thus: "I am the only fellow doing nothing, and I might as well volunteer." Buglers and drummers, it must be understood, are generally non-combatants.

Drummer Bent accordingly went forward on his perilous journey through a heavy shell and rifle-fire. He took about 400 rounds to the corporal, who said that he and his met would 'hang on' all night.

Two days later Bent undertook to repeat his service. "Perhaps the fire this time," he says, "was a bit hotter. Still, I got across to our chaps again, even with some rations, which I took 'on my own.'" Through Bent's splendid bravery our men were enabled to hold that advance trench without the loss of a single man.

These two feats in themselves deserved the V.C., but in Bent's case they were preliminary runs, as it were, for the even greater exploits he was to perform. The day after, his platoon sergeant dropped a hint that he was recommended for a medal. Bent laughed, thinking that he was joking, and answered: "Yes, we'll all have V.C.s yet!

At the beginning of November, during the terrible struggle known as the battle of Ypres, the East Lancashires were in the trenches. They had been sorely pressed for days, and as they breakfasted they asked each other what the day would bring forth.

One of their number, Private McNultry, having finished his breakfast, had to go out of the trench, and on returning he was struck in the stomach by a German bullet. It seemed to our men watching from the trench that the poor fellow must be killed, for it was clear from the earth flying up around him that the enemy, lacking all humane feeling, were firing at the wounded man. Bent remarked that some one ought to go out and help McNultry; the reply of those standing near was: "Why not go yourself?"

Bent knew that to attempt the rescue he must risk his life, nevertheless, to the amazement of his comrades, the gallant drummer slipped over the top of the trench.

In making his way to the stricken man, Bent used some strategy. To make it difficult for the Germans to hit him he moved forward on a zig-zag course. They did not fire at him while he was advancing, but no sooner had he reached McNultry and started to raise him gently by the shoulders, than they fired a regular hurricane of bullets. Luckily none hit him, although he slipped and became unnerved for a minute. But the shock speedily passed. He happened to be near the walls of a ruined convent; just as he slipped several bullets struck the wall and a piece of plaster struck Bent's left eye. At first he thought he was wounded, and put his hand to his eye to rub the blood away. He was overjoyed to discover that only the skin was grazed.

By this time Bent decided that the position was too warm and that it was necessary to make a move if their lives were to be preserved. He was in a difficulty; if he got Private McNultry on to his back and thus carried him, the Germans would make good practice at so conspicuous a target. Suddenly he resolved on a novel plan. If it was impossible to stand up he would save his comrade lying down. Bent lay prone on his back, hooked his feet under McNultry's arms, and, using his elbows, dragged him inch by inch to our trench, which was about twenty-five yards away. It was a thrilling rescue, and must have tried even the strong nerve of Drummer Bent, for the progress was slow and all the while bullets were whistling in the air near enough to be unpleasant. When he got the wounded man to the trench Bent continued to act heroically. He himself went for a doctor and stretcher-bearers, and did everything he could for the wounded man. Still not satisfied, Bent, on the same day, rescued other wounded men who were lying exposed in the open.

Bent's third feat was not less daring than those already enumerated. Where it differed was in its importance and in its effect. The V.C. is awarded not only for rescuing a comrade, but for any military acts which reflect great presence of mind and coolness, and are followed by important consequences. Bent's achievement at Le Gheer on the night of November 1-2 was certainly fraught with vital consequences, as we shall see.

The fighting here was very severe, and the brave khaki lines were sorely put to it to hold their own, for the massed legions of the enemy were determined to break the British front and capture Calais.

On this memorable November night some one had passed the word down the line that the battalion was to retire, and there had been much confusion. Many of the officers had been struck down, others were away rallying different sections who were in difficulties, sergeants, too, were killed, wounded, or separated from their men in the confusion.

The men had left the trench, but Bent had remained behind to search for a French trumpet which he greatly prized, when suddenly a man appeared and fell sprawling on the bottom of the trench.

The sight of the stranger did not daunt our hero. Bent resolved that the man should get no farther. In a moment he had covered him with his rifle.

"Who are you?" he boldly asked.

The answer was unexpected, for he fully believed that the mysterious figure silhouetted in the darkness was an enemy.

"For heaven's sake, Bent, stop this retirement and get hold of the men!" The speaker was Sergeant Waller, who told him that the order for retreat was a mistake.

Bent at once prepared for action, as plucky and as self-possessed as an officer.

He jumped out of the trench and cried to the retreating men, "Come on, boys, carry on now and play the game!"

Just then an officer came up. Bent told him what had happened, and was ordered to be sure and get the men back, while he, the officer, went after others. In a very short time the drummer had got all the men back to the trench in safety. For a couple of hours he acted as their leader, and the brave force stuck to it like heroes until C and D companies came up, when the officers took command.

At early morning the Germans evidently thought that our men had left the trench, for after a bombardment they came on in a confident and aggressive manner, actually doing a sort of goose-step. Our fire was withheld until the enemy was about 400 yards distant, when the Lancashires let him have it. Hundreds of the Germans were mowed down, very few getting back to their own trenches.

Had it not been for Bent's gallant and skilful action the trench would not have been held, and its loss would have involved further important consequences.

Some time later Bent was passing three weeks of convalescence in the village of Witnesham, near Ipswich, when a telegram from a local officer was brought to him: "Heartiest congratulations on obtaining V.C.," it ran. The brave fellow was taken aback. "Well!" was all he could gasp. Later, in a blacksmith's shop, some one showed him a daily paper; only then did he realize the truth—that he had been awarded the coveted V.C.

Bent was one of three V.C. heroes awarded an inscribed gold watch by the Musicians' Company, and he received an award of 50 offered by Mr T. Curtis, an Ipswich resident, to the first man from that city who should obtain the V.C.