Heroes of the Great War - G. A. Leask

The Great Deeds of Corporal Holmes at Le Cateau

Corporal Fred W. Holmes, and Battalion the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, won the coveted Victoria Cross at Le Cateau on August 26, 1914. He carried a wounded man out of the trenches under heavy fire, and later assisted to drive a gun out of action by taking the place of a driver who had been wounded.

Holmes was born in populous Bermondsey, where, in Abbey Street, his parents still live in the same house that saw the birth of the hero twenty-five years ago.

In addition to shedding lustre on his native Bermondsey by winning the V.C., Holmes has honoured it by gaining the Medaille Militaire  of the Legion of Honour, France's chief military decoration. This was awarded for gallantry during the fight on the Aisne in the following circumstances. Holmes saw a platoon of French struggling against heavy odds, whereupon he dashed over the river for a machine-gun, carried it to the platoon, and turned it on the enemy, with such effect that the German pressure was immediately relieved.

The story of how Holmes won his V.C. is a thrilling chapter in the records of this war of heroic deeds.

The King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry were in the thickest of the fighting at Mons, and in the great retreat that followed they helped with might and main to uphold the honour of Britain. At the little colliery town of Warmb they received a severe shaking from the enemy, but gave as good as they got. It was after the warm engagement at this place that the brave fellows, footsore and tired, but still cheerful, tramped many weary miles to the famous battlefield of Le Cateau.

It is not necessary to describe the glorious stand made by our troops here, but only to mention a few facts, without knowledge of which Holmes's great feat would be unintelligible.

Orders were given to entrench, and the men set to work with zest, glad of the change from the continuous retreating. The task accomplished, the regiment then lay down in the trenches, while the booming of the German guns grew ever louder.

At dawn of August 26, the great day, memorable for ever in our annals, there was suddenly a fierce bombardment from the enemy's artillery. According to Holmes, "We could feel the breath from their guns. It was awful." The gallant Yorks stuck to their trenches, firing incessantly and with unerring aim. They had been told that French troops would reinforce them, but as the day dragged on no French appeared. The British artillery kept up a hot fire from behind Holmes's trench, which suffered the proverbial discomfort experienced by the unlucky victim who is placed between two fires.

Late in the afternoon the Yorks received orders to retire; to have remained longer would have meant annihilation. The troops retired in small sections, Holmes remaining with five men to the last to cover the retreat of the others.

Holmes was actually the last man to leave the trench. No sooner had he climbed over the parapet than he met the full brunt of the enemy's fire, which by this time had become fiercer than ever. He had seen many of his comrades drop to earth, but his brave heart was undaunted. Suddenly, when he had proceeded a few yards from the trench, he felt his boot clutched and heard his name called.

"For God's sake, save me, Fred!" said a feeble voice.

Holmes paused. There at his feet, unable to move, was one of his chums, his knees shattered by shrapnel. Holmes had only a brief moment for reflection. To delay meant certain death. The problem was how best to help the poor fellow. To take him back into the trench was the quickest way out of the difficulty, and the easiest. Had he done this the Germans would soon have discovered the wounded man, and in all probability would have put an end to him, in their usual callous and brutal way. Holmes quickly dismissed this plan and decided upon the nobler and more dangerous course. He determined to make a dash with the wounded man to our lines, trusting to Providence to reach them in safety.

He stooped down and gently took the poor fellow in his stalwart arms. He confesses that this in itself was no light task, since his chum weighed twelve stone. Exerting his full strength Holmes slung the man across his back. His only thought now was how to escape the bullets. All around him were the British dead and dying, heroes who had done their bit in the great battle.

A slight drizzling rain was falling; it made the ground slippery, so that when Holmes resumed his dangerous journey he had the utmost difficulty in avoiding treading on the men who were at his feet. With infinite care he succeeded in reaching more open ground.

After proceeding about one hundred yards he paused to take breath, for the burden on his back was a heavy load. At this stage his companion began to complain that Holmes's equipment hurt him. Holmes gently laid the man down and removed the equipment. Knowing that he might have to make a long journey before he could reach assistance, he decided at the same time to drop his pack and rifle.

The next few hundred yards were the most difficult, for a fierce hailstorm of bullets and shells raged around. Holmes could hear them whistling as he staggered painfully along. Had he not been possessed of a splendid constitution he must have given in, but he was determined at all costs not to give in. So he continued on and went doggedly forward, with clenched teeth and grim countenance.

On the way he came upon a wounded officer seated on the ground, his head between his hands. The officer looked up as he heard Holmes approach, and when he saw what the hero was doing suggested to him to leave the man with him and look after himself. Holmes, having once set his hand to the noble work he had undertaken, was in no mood to relinquish it, and after resting for a little while bade the officer good-bye and continued his perilous journey. Yard by yard he plodded steadily along. Then a difficulty of another sort arose, one not easily surmounted. The poor fellow he was carrying began to lose heart. Holmes, although in terrible mental anguish himself, had to cheer him all the weary and dangerous way.

Slowly but surely he made progress. Half a mile, then a mile was passed. Holmes took another rest. Then on again, until he came to a church flying the Red Cross. The Germans were shelling this, so he picked up his chum once more and proceeded to another village, where at length he was able to deposit his charge in the careful keeping of the British Red Cross.

In all, Holmes carried his chum three miles, and every inch of the way was attended by danger from the enemy's fire. It was certainly one of the most unselfish of the many courageous deeds which it is the purpose of this book to record.

In order to rejoin his battalion Holmes had now to make another dangerous journey across a fire-swept zone. His road lay past a hill, at the bottom of which was a British i8-pounder quick-firing gun. The horses were quietly grazing; the gunners and drivers lay around dead. Near by was a trumpeter, a lad of seventeen, who was wounded. This lad shouted that the Germans were coming. Holmes looked round and saw that the enemy were surrounding the gun. Now, the British soldier has ever had a fondness for guns, and will die rather than let one fall into the enemy's hands. It was in this spirit that Holmes now performed his second marvellous act of heroism.

Placing the trumpeter on one of the horses, he yoked the team to the gun, then thwacked them with a bayonet he had picked up, and swung into the saddle. The Germans were all around; some actually grasped at the reins. Holmes shouted to the horses, and they rushed madly forward. One after another he bayoneted the nearest Germans, while bullets whistled by his ears. The horse Holmes rode had its right ear shot off. For eight miles the terrific ride went on until the rear of a British column was reached and all danger passed. The poor trumpeter had fallen off in the furious rush.

At Lille, on October 13, 1914, Holmes received a shot in the leg which necessitated a stay in hospital in France and later in England. When sufficiently able to stand the fatigue, he was given a reception worthy of royalty by his native borough of Bermondsey. He was the man of the hour, and all sections of the community united in honouring the gallant fellow.

A procession was formed from the station to Bermondsey Town Hall, where Holmes was presented with an illuminated address and a purse of white Bermondsey leather containing 50, this sum being a part of a fund which later reached over 250. The hero of the hour rode by the side of the mayor in a carriage. Bands formed part of the procession, which included Boy Scouts, National Reservists, wounded Belgians, and others. It was an occasion unique in the annals of Bermondsey.

When decorated by the King, Corporal Holmes was taken to Buckingham Palace in a motor-ambulance. "It was quite simple," he said afterward. "I was taken in, I saluted, the King then pinned the Victoria Cross on my breast, and he said to me: 'I thank you very much for your gallant conduct for which this V.C. is awarded.' He shook my hand, and I came out."