Heroes of the Great War - G. A. Leask

Private George Wilson, Who Carried Off a Maxim Gun

War is no respecter of persons. Fame and death on the battlefield come to rich and poor alike. The most illiterate private stands as great a chance of distinguishing himself as does the aristocratic and cultured officer. This has often been demonstrated during the present conflict, as the pages of our book will amply show. One of the many humble heroes in the ranks is Private George Wilson, who has made for himself a name that will not be forgotten. He is a Scotsman, and his native country is very proud of the fact that he is 'of the people.' He is to every Scot what Sergeant O'Leary, V.C., is to the Irish—the type of national valour. Ask any native of Scotland, who is their most representative V.C. hero, and he will at once say 'Geordie' Wilson. This does not mean that Wilson's deed surpassed all others, but that it caught and held the public imagination.

Private Wilson was selling newspapers in the streets of Edinburgh up to within forty-eight hours of the declaration of war. He is twenty-nine years of age, well set-up and fair, and a typical Highland soldier. He joined the Army ten years ago, his regiment being the famous Highland Light Infantry. He served part of his time at the historic Edinburgh Castle, under the shadow of which is now his home. After serving three years with the Colours, Wilson went into the Reserve, and had just completed seven years as a reservist when he was called back to his regiment. During part of the period he was in the Reserve, Wilson worked in the coal-pits at Niddrie.

Then he again took up the selling of newspapers, an occupation he had followed before enlisting at the age of seventeen. Many an evening paper has he sold to the soldiers outside the Castle, and few who saw him at this time could have foreseen that a few years later all Scotland would be ringing with his amazing exploit in France in the greatest war in history.

There are many stories told about 'Geordie' by the newsboys of Edinburgh, who were delighted when "one of us did for eight Germans," as one of them put it on hearing the news. Wilson was always a 'good pal,' always willing to give a helping hand. He once stopped a runaway horse in the Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, and his sister, on hearing of this brave act, said he ought to have the V.C., little dreaming that he would one day write to her from France to announce that he had actually been recommended for the great prize.

A very serious illness he went through is still remembered by his chums. They thought at the time that he would not leave the hospital alive. He pulled through, however, and lived to make Scotland proud of him. It is said that Wilson remarked to a friend before leaving for the Front that he would not return to Scotland if he did not bring back the Victoria Cross.

In a letter to his sister, he wrote:

"I am recommended for bravery for capturing a machine-gun and going into the German firing-line and shooting an officer and six men, and turning their gun on them, and carrying in a mate of the King's Royal Rifles who was riddled with bullets." This was his own modest way of describing his great deeds. In another letter to his sister, Wilson, who is one of a family of eight orphans, wrote: "If it's God's will I will return quite safe and sound back to bonnie Scotland beside my ain folk . . . I am both meek and humble, God's my only Saviour." The latter letter reveals the modest, noble fellow as possessing the typical Scottish virtues—love for Country and family, and deep religious feeling.

A man of his regiment once referred to Private George Wilson as a ' rough diamond.' The description is the highest compliment that can be paid to him—he has shown himself to be a soldier to the finger-tips, daring, impetuous, and absolutely fearless. His blunt speech is another characteristic, as will be seen later; he does not stand upon useless ceremony or consider convention when there is stern work to do. One account of his V.C. deed states that Wilson went into the wood to capture the German gun after being expressly forbidden by his officer to do so. This is exactly the thing he would do, knowing the permission was denied out of consideration for his own safety.

After the battle of the Marne, the Germans retreated in hot haste to the River Aisne, pursued by the Allied armies. Before each side settled down to trench warfare it fought for positions, and the British advanced and retreated. During one of the retreats the Highland Light Infantry, supported by the King's Royal Rifles, acted as rearguard, and with wonderful doggedness contested every inch of ground.

On September 14, 1914, the Highland Light Infantry reached Verneuil, and hastily dug themselves in. The pressure of the enemy was, however, very severe, and to relieve the situation a party of sixteen men, under the leadership of Sir Archibald Gibson Craig, charged the Germans, only to be swept away by the fire of a machine-gun in a wood. This gun commanded the trenches, and matters began to assume a very serious aspect.

Meantime Wilson, who was in the trenches, had been using his powers of observation. His sharp eyes detected the enemy moving among the trees in the wood already referred to. He at once informed his officer that he could see at least two Germans. The officer could not credit this, but, as Wilson persisted in his statement, he levelled his field-glasses and at the same moment was struck down with a mortal wound.

The men who were standing around were deeply affected, for the dead officer was greatly beloved. Wilson set his teeth, and, taking careful aim at the enemy in the wood, he fired and one of the Germans fell. Wilson raised his rifle a second time, a second shot rang out, and the other German fell. This success excited the hero to further action and he sprang forward to seek more targets. His companions, more cautious, cried to him to come back. "It's no use; there's a machine-gun there!" was their warning.

Wilson was in no mood to study prudence. He dashed forward, his bayonet fixed to his rifle, his finger at the trigger. On he went, heedless of the risk he was running, until he came to a hollow. In this sheltered position he saw eight Germans all armed, and in their midst two British soldiers whom they had taken prisoner. Not in the least daunted he shouted: "Come on men! Charge!"

He had calculated that the Germans would think that he was the advance-guard of a body of Highland soldiers, and, true enough, the enemy flung up their hands, while the two prisoners found themselves at liberty. Thus one man by his amazing audacity had captured eight Germans and set free two of his comrades. By this time his cautious companions had ventured out, and Wilson shouted to them to assist with the prisoners.

Wilson now acted impetuously for the third time that day. Not content with the heroic exploits already accomplished he wanted more. His companions were amazed to see him dash off. Again they called to him to stop. This time he paused for a second to shout, "What is it?" They cried, "Look!"

Wilson turned and saw a sight calculated to unnerve the bravest soldier. The Maxim gun in the wood had commenced once again to deal out death. His comrades were falling in large numbers. As his companions were dashing to cover, Wilson asked if they could not seize the gun. Being told that this was impossible, Wilson reflected for a moment, then turning to a private of the King's Royal Rifles who was nearest to him, coolly remarked: "Mon, I'm angry wi' yon gun—and I'm gaun to stop it!"

Having said this he made for the wood. To reach the gun he had to crawl and dodge amid a perfect hurricane of bullets which was being directed on to the British position. The rifleman to whom Wilson had spoken followed, and shortly overtook him. Very soon the two men were discovered and the rifleman fell badly wounded.

Wilson now proceeded alone and managed to dodge the bullets by dashing from haystack to haystack. All the while he was inwardly raging. He remarks that the sight of the brave man on the grass spurred him on. He was determined to reach the gun and put it out of action, if for no other reason than to avenge the poor rifleman. He did not pause to reflect that some might have characterized the undertaking as dare-devilry; all he thought about was how to silence the murderous gun.

He reached another haystack, leveled his rifle, took careful aim, and the German behind the Maxim fell dead. Wilson's shooting that day was unerring. Another German took the place of the dead man and started a stream of bullets. Wilson exposed himself to make sure of his aim; his rifle clicked, and a second operator fell. A third man started to fire the gun, only to meet the fate that had befallen his predecessors. A fourth and a fifth and a sixth German fell. Wilson's shooting has been described as uncanny, and to its deadly accuracy the hero owed his life. Had he missed once, the operator at the Maxim would no doubt have speedily riddled him with bullets.

Wilson waited for a few minutes after the sixth man fell. Then having come to the conclusion that the gun's entire crew had been killed, he crept forward to secure his prize. A German officer rose in his path. Wilson remained cool at this alarming development. The German fired point-blank, but luckily missed, and Wilson quickly bayoneted him. This was the narrowest of Wilson's many escapes, for the officer's bullet had all but grazed his head.

With the Maxim in his possession, Wilson's troubles, far from being over, started afresh. He had gained the prize for which he had risked his life, but was not to be allowed to retain it undisputed. Wilson observed a large number of Germans approaching. Instead of losing heart and beating a speedy retreat, the brave Scottish hero instantly slewed the gun round and opened fire. He worked the gun as skillfully as he had handled his rifle, mowing down hundreds of the enemy. He was fired at by the German artillery as well as by the infantrymen, and as the place became unpleasantly warm, Wilson decided it was time to advance to the rear. He estimates, however, that he fired 750 bullets, and accounted for about 300 of the enemy before he was forced to desist.

After First Marne


The Scottish lion reached the British lines unscathed, notwithstanding the shells that continually burst around him. Then the terrible strain he had endured told on his strength and he fainted. On recovering, his first words were, had the gun been brought in? Being told that it had not been fetched, he said nothing, but staggered up, and again went out to face the shells. He soon returned carrying the Maxim gun on his shoulders.

"There's the gun, sir!" he said, saluting his officer.

Even this did not satisfy him and he must needs go to fetch the ammunition, which he succeeded in bringing back. It really seemed as though he was bent on tempting Fate. Having successfully accomplished his purpose, and, incidentally, achieved the greatest individual feat of bravery in the war up to that day, Wilson remembered the comrade who had started off with him, and without a word to anybody of his intentions, faced the shrapnel yet again. He found his pal still living, though riddled with seventeen bullets, and dragged him to the trench, where he died the next day. "Thank God you got the gun," were the poor fellow's last words to Wilson.

Later in the campaign Wilson was an inmate of one of the hospitals in France. One day there was some slight commotion in the ward. Presently Private George Wilson became aware that something unusual was happening. A little procession was approaching his cot. In the centre was one with a kindly face, wearing a full-dress field uniform. The officer was, somehow, familiar—where had he seen him before? Then he remembered—it was His Majesty, King George. He recognized him from photographs he had seen. The King was on a visit to his brave troops in France. He came to Wilson's side, and, pinning the Victoria Cross on the hero's breast, remarked warmly that he had done the bravest deed ever accomplished on the battlefield.

"If there's such a thing as two V.C.'s," His Majesty is reported to have said, "you have earned them. You're not a very big man, but you have a very big heart."

That January day there was no happier man in the British Army than Private George Wilson, the ex-newsvendor of Edinburgh.