This Day In History

  • 1691 Castleton’s Regiment (later 1st East Lancashires) embarks at Portsmouth for active service in Flanders as part of the largest English Army sent abroad since the days of Henry the Eighth.
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Drummer (later Regimental Sergeant Major) Spencer John Bent VC MM

Spencer John 'Joe' Bent VC MM

Spencer John ‘Joe’ Bent VC MM

Spencer John Bent was born on 18 March 1891 in Stowmarket, Suffolk, the son of a serving soldier in the Royal Horse Artillery. By the age of 10 he was an orphan, his mother dying when he was very young, and his father killed in the Boer War. He was brought up by an uncle and aunt.

In 1905, at just 14 years of age, he enlisted in The East Lancashire Regiment as a Drummer. He took up boxing, which led to him being nick-named ‘Joe’, a corruption of ‘Chow’ Bent, a well-known professional boxer at the time. It was the name by which he was to be known in the Army to the end of his life.

‘Joe’ Bent deployed to France on the outbreak of World War I with the 1st Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment. He rapidly proved himself to be an outstanding soldier, seeing action in the early skirmishes of the war as his battalion was caught up in the retreat from Mons and the battles on the Marne where the Allied armies finally halted the German onslaught.

He received the first Victoria Cross to be awarded to a member of the East Lancashire Regiment in WWI. Unusually, the citation does not record a single event, but a whole series of actions in and around Le Gheer, Belgium, in late October and early November 1914, any one of which might have justified the award.

In the words of his citation:

“For conspicuous gallantry near Le Gheer on the night of the 1st / 2nd November 1914 when, after his Officer, Platoon Sergeant and Section Commander had been struck down, he took command and with great presence of mind and coolness, succeeded in holding the position. Drummer Bent had already distinguished himself on two occasions, 22nd and 24th of October, by bringing up ammunition under a heavy shell and rifle fire, and again on the 3rd November, when he brought into cover some wounded men who were lying exposed in the open”

It was one of these final rescues which was to become particularly well known, when he rescued a Private McNulty, from Burnley, Lancashire.

‘Joe’ Bent recalled the incident shortly after the war in an interview with his local newspaper, the Suffolk Chronicle and Mercury:

“After we had had breakfast, Private McNulty went out of the trench, and on returning was hit in the pit of the stomach. He fell, and the Germans were trying to hit him again; you could see the earth flying up all around him. I said, ‘Why doesn’t someone go and help him?’ and got the reply, ‘Why not go yourself?’ I went, and to make it difficult for the Germans to hit me, I zigzagged to him. They did not snipe at me whilst I was advancing, but as soon as I got hold of McNulty’s shoulder something seemed to take my feet from under me, and I slipped under McNulty. This took place close to the walls of a ruined convent, and just as I fell, several bullets struck the wall, sending a piece of plaster against my left eye. I thought I was wounded and started to rub the blood away, as I thought, but fortunately the skin was only grazed. I felt it was time to get out of it, and knowing it was impossible to stand up, I hooked my feet under McNulty’s arms, and using my elbows I managed to drag myself and him back to the trenches about 25 yards away. When I got him there safely, I went for a doctor and stretcher-bearers. As far as I know he is still alive. At any rate, [he] was the last time I heard of him.”

Within days, ‘Joe’ Bent was himself shot in the leg and seriously injured. Already suffering from shrapnel wounds and the head injury sustained while rescuing McNulty, he was invalided to England.

It was while recovering that he read in his local newspaper that he had been awarded the VC. He was invested with it personally by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 13 January 1915.

He also received the then-considerable sum of £50 from a citizen of Ipswich who had offered it for the first local man to be awarded the VC.

‘Joe’ Bent spent 1915 and much of 1916 in Britain, recovering from his wounds and being employed on administrative duties. He was promoted to Corporal, and then to Sergeant. While serving in Plymouth he met his future wife, Alice, the daughter of the chief boilermaker at Devonport Dockyard.

In the summer of 1916 he re-joined the 1st Battalion, but was sent home again in November, this time suffering from rheumatic fever.

‘Joe’ Bent and Alice were married in January 1917, just a few weeks before he returned yet again to France. Serving with the 7th East Lancashires, he was back in the thick of the action, taking part in the assault on Messines Ridge – which he was later to describe as “as good a work as ever I did in the war” – and, after promotion to Company Sergeant Major, the hell of Passchendaele.

Posted back to the 1st Battalion, he fought in the battles of 1918, first in resistance to the German Spring offensive, the enemy’s last great effort, and then as the Allies went over onto their final, decisive attack.

Even then this formidable soldier, who already done more than his fair share and so much more than most, was not finished. With only days to go to the end of the war, he won a Military Medal to go with his VC. In the words of the citation:

“In the fighting around the village of Sepmeries, East of Cambrai, Colour Sergeant-Major Spencer Bent VC for leading two patrols which were sent out to gain touch with the enemy on the afternoon of 29th October 1918.”

As a regular soldier Spencer John Bent continued in the Army after the war, serving with his regiment in the United Kingdom, the West Indies and Malta and achieving the pinnacle of non-commissioned Regimental service by being appointed Regimental Sergeant Major.

He finally retired in 1926 after 21 years service with the colours, still aged only 35.

‘Joe’ Bent took his wife and three children to live in London, where he worked first as a school caretaker and then, for the rest of his life, as a commissionaire with Courage, the brewers.

In 1968 Courages invited him to open a new public house, called The Victoria Cross, in Chatham, Kent.

He remained with Courages until he was 85 years old, only finally retiring the year before he died.

He often attended Victoria Cross Association functions, and was on parade when the Queen reviewed the surviving holders at the Victoria Cross Centenary Review in Hyde Park on 26 June 1956.

He  also remained closely in touch with his old regiment. Four days before his death he was the Guest of Honour at a passing-out parade of new recruits to the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment at the Divisional Depot in York.

He died peacefully in his sleep at home in Hackney, London, on 3 May 1977, aged 86, and was cremated at West Norwood Cemetery and Crematorium.

In June 2000 his Victoria Cross, Military Medal and other decorations, which include the Russian Cross of St George for gallantry and distinguished service, were purchased at auction by Lord Ashcroft.

They are on display at the Imperial War Museum, London, as part of the Ashcroft Collection.

An illustrated biography of Joe Bent VC is available for purchase from our on-line Bookshop, click HERE