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Saturday, 19 April 2014

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For Valour

AS we mark Armistice Day today, it is fitting to note a new presentation about Abraham Acton, the Whitehaven man who was decorated with the highest award for valour, the Victoria Cross.

The story of this World War One hero is the subject of a new illustrated talk by the Beacon’s learning officer, Alan Gillon, who is full of admiration for this “proud and passionate man’’ whose life and times he finds fascinating and intriguing.

Alan would love to know more and is asking local people to share with him any knowledge they may have about the man. He intends to take his Acton VC presentation out to schools so children who might have no concept of such brave deeds nor the conditions in which they were carried out, can learn about their local hero.

Alan premiered his talk to Friends of Whitehaven Museum last week when, amongst the appreciative audience, members of the Acton family were present.

Tragically Private Acton never got to see, hold or wear his medal, as he was killed before he could be presented with it. (There is artistic licence on his portrait, held at the Beacon, which shows the medal pinned to his uniform). The medal itself was accepted by his parents and later donated to the town by his brother Charles (late father of former Copeland mayor June Pickering) who presented it to Whitehaven museum.

There are 15 VCs in the county, but Private Acton’s is the only one from Whitehaven.

Abraham Acton was born in Whitehaven in 1893 and served in the 2nd Battalion Border Regiment. It was his action at Rouges Bancs, near Armentieres, France, during the First World War that brought him such prestigious recognition.

Pte Acton and his brother-in-arms, Pte James Alexander Smith from Workington, went out from their trench and rescued a wounded man who had been lying exposed to the enemy for 75 hours. On the same day they again left their trench, under heavy fire, to bring in another wounded man. They were under fire for 60 minutes while conveying the wounded to safety.

One of the wounded was Davy Ross, a cousin of June Pickering’s mother, Agnes Acton (née Ross).

Sadly Abraham Acton was killed in action only a short time later, falling at Festubert on May 16, 1915. He was just 22.

Private Smith was also awarded the VC. He was injured but survived the war and lived until he was 68.

Acton was given a soldier’s grave, which was subsequently destroyed; his name is on a memorial to the fallen at Le Touret.

Abraham’s family lived at 2 Tysons Court, Roper Street (behind Holt’s Art Shop) and later moved to Peter Street. His grandfather was an Irish-born fisherman who settled in Whitehaven. Abraham, the son of Robert and Elizabeth (née Armstrong) Acton was born in 1893 and went to Crosthwaite School. He was one of 13 brothers and sisters and worked with his father at Harrington No 10 colliery and also, for a time, at Barrow shipyards. He had been in the Territorials and then became a full time soldier with the 2nd Battalion Border Regiment.

Robert and Elizabeth Acton moved to the Isle of Man after the war. Their son is commemorated on the war memorial outside St Matthew’s Church, Douglas.

His name lives on in Acton Court, the housing development next to Whitehaven Castle.

HARRY Christian VC many will remember as the landlord of the Parkhead Inn, Thornhill, Egremont, where he was mine host for 40 years.

Mr Christian was born in Ulverston and his family moved to the Egremont area, at Low Mill, when he was just a baby. He served in the 2nd Battalion, King’s Own (Royal Lancaster) Regiment in the First World War and on October 18, 1915, at Cuinchy, Pas-de-Calais, he held a crater, with a handful of men, in front of the Allied lines.

His citation reads: “The enemy started a fierce bombardment of the position, forcing a temporary withdrawal. When he found that three men were missing, Pte Christian at once returned alone to the crater and although bombs were continually bursting actually on the edge of the crater, he found, dug out and carried one by one into safety, all the three men. Later he placed himself where he could see the bombs coming and directed his comrades when and where to seek cover.”

Like many war veterans, Mr Christian was reluctant to talk about such events. For many years he kept his VC behind his bar.

Another local hero was Silecroft-born Lance Sgt Thomas Mayson, who disabled an enemy machine gun to win his VC during action at Wieltje, Belgium in July 1917. There is a memorial to him in St Mary’s Churchyard, Whicham.

Three ex-pupils of St Bees School were also VC recipients: Flt Commander and Capt William Leefe Robinson, Worcestershire Regiment and 39 Squadron Royal Flying Corps; Capt John Fox Russell, Royal Army Medical Corps, Royal Welsh Fusiliers; and A/Capt Richard Wain, Manchester Regiment, Tank Corps.

Only 13 VCs have been awarded since the end of the Second World War. The most recent was presented to Pte Johnson Beharry for actions in Iraq. In 2004, when exposed to ferocious enemy fire, Private Beharry steered his own Warrior armoured vehicle away from an ambush, leading five other Warriors to safety. Beharry suffered a head injury as a result.

The VC is Britain’s highest award for valour in the face of an enemy. It was founded on January 29, 1856 to recognise the bravery of those who were fighting the Crimean War. Some 3,400 men were killed in battle during the Crimean War.

It was the first conflict in which the courage of the ordinary British soldier was documented. It was decided it would be fitting to take the bronze for the new medals from Russian guns captured in the Crimea. It was many years later that it was found the “VC guns” were in fact Chinese, not Russian, and might not even have been at the Crimea.

A total of 1356 Victoria Crosses have been awarded in its 150-year history

NOVEMBER 11 commemorates the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front, which took effect at eleven o’clock in the morning — the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’’ of 1918. While this official date to mark the end of the war reflects the cease-fire on the Western Front, hostilities continued in other regions, especially across the former Russian Empire and in parts of the old Ottoman Empire.

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