This Day In History

1918 Battle of the Selle. In a carefully-planned attack, rehearsed over 5 days, 5th East Lancashires mount a remarkably successful night assault near Briastre. They move off at 2 a.m., in a heavy downpour which lasted throughout the engagement, to the sound of the Regimental March being played by the battalion band. Met by heavy machine-gun fire and an artillery barrage which causes 50 casualties, they charge through with a yell and are on their final objective well before the 7 a.m. deadline set, taking 300 prisoners in the process. Casualties are 2 officers and 13 men dead, and 6 officers and 109 men wounded. Some 22 German dead were counted on the battalion front. Study of the ground the next day shows that the battalion had gone through no fewer than 6 defensive belts, including a very strongly-held railway embankment, before reaching its final objective. The 300 prisoners were ‘of far better physique and appearance’ than any of the enemy previously encountered, and turn out to be picked troops. They said that they were members of Kaiser Wilhelm’ bodyguard; that they had never before known defeat; and that they had been sent to hold the line at all costs.
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2nd Lieutenant Gabriel George Coury VC

Gabriel Coury VC

Gabriel Coury VC

Gabriel Coury was born on 13 June 1896, in Croxteth, Liverpool. He was the second son of four, and two daughters, born to a wealthy Armenian-Lebanese father and a French mother. He was educated at St Francis Xavier’s School, Liverpool, and Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, where he excelled at sport and also served for four years in the College’s Officer Training Corps.

In 1913, at the age of 17, he was apprenticed to a Liverpool firm of cotton brokers, but when World War I broke out the following year he enlisted into one of the hastily-raised battalions of Lord Kitchener’s New Armies. With his public school and OTC background, Gabriel was inevitably selected to become an officer and in January 1915 he was commissioned into the 1/3rd Battalion, the South Lancashire Regiment (Prince of Wales Volunteers).

On completion of his training in Blackpool, Canterbury and Margate he was posted to the 1/4th Battalion, South Lancashires, which was serving as a pioneer battalion in the 55th (West Lancashire) Division.

In August 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, the 55th Division was ordered to attack the German-held village of Guillemont. On 8 August 2nd Lt Coury was in command of a half-company of pioneers attached to the 1/4th Battalion, Kings Own (Royal Lancaster) Regiment.

The dry, official language of the citation for his Victoria Cross outlines the basics of what happened:

“For most conspicuous bravery. During an advance (2nd Lieutenant Coury) was in command of two platoons ordered to dig a communication trench from the firing line to the position won. By his fine example and utter contempt of danger he kept up the spirits of his men and completed his task under intense fire. Later, after his battalion had suffered severe casualties and the Commanding Officer had been wounded, he went out in front of the advanced position in broad daylight and in full view of the enemy found his Commanding Officer, and brought him back to the new advanced trench over ground swept by machine-gun fire. He not only carried out his original tasks and saved his Commanding Officer, but also assisted in rallying the attacking troops when they were shaken and in leading them forward.”

But one of Gabriel’s corporals, an eye-witness who saw everything, told the full story in the Liverpool Post very soon afterwards, on 30 October 1916:

“He was the bravest officer I ever served under … The task given to the men under him was no soft one. To dig a new trench in the thick of a battle is a thing that requires some nerve, and a better officer than Lt. Coury could not have been chosen to direct the operation. He showed absolute contempt for death, and made us all feel that a dozen deaths were as nothing compared with the necessity of completing the task given to us.

It was when we got into the captured position that Lt Coury showed what he was capable of. We had gone through a hellish ordeal. We had suffered severely, and a lot of our officers and men lay out there in the open, wounded. It blew hurricanes of fire across the open, and it seemed to invite certain death to go out there.

Word was brought that our commanding officer was among the wounded. Lt Coury determined to go out to him. He started out under fiendish fire. The enemy’s snipers were after him from the first, but he ran on regardless of the hail of bullets flying around him. He reached the spot where our commander lay, and after resting for a while started back again, carrying the commander.

The journey back was one of the most thrilling sights I have ever seen. The enemy redoubled their efforts to pick off the brave officer as he toiled painfully towards our trench. Both he and his burden disappeared out of view for a short time, and we thought he was done for. After a time he appeared again, making his way amidst a storm of bullets and bursting shells. There was intense excitement, and we waited with bated breath, praying that he might be spared, but fearing the worst.

The brave officer toiled slowly forward. Several times he stumbled, and we gave him up for lost. Once he fell. We thought he would never rise again; but rise he did, and resumed the terrible journey. Before he got back the enemy’s machine guns were turned on full-blast and it was nothing short of a miracle that the lieutenant was able to make his way through it all.

At last he got within a few yards of our trench. We rushed out to meet him. He stumbled again, but regained his footing and continued straight on. Then there was another furious gust of fire. Down he went again. Would he ever rise … Under heavy fire all the time, rescuer and rescued were helped into the trench, which was now being subjected to very severe artillery fire.

Then the enemy tried a counter-attack, and it was the duty of Lt Coury to organise the defence. This he did with wonderful skill. He got together the men of different units and thoroughly organised the position. When the enemy tried to attack they were thrown back in confusion, and the counter-attack was pressed home.

The men were very enthusiastic over the capable way the situation had been handled when it was most difficult, and all were loud in their praise of our lieutenant. Undoubtedly he saved the day at its most critical stage.”

Less than a month later the newly-promoted Lieutenant Coury transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, flying initially on operations as an Observer in BE-2 reconnaissance aircraft.

Gabriel Coury was invested with his Victoria Cross by King George V in November 1916, at a ceremony on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. He also returned to Liverpool where he received a Civic Reception and was given the freedom of the Cotton Exchange, the highest honour in the trade.

Coury returned to operational flying over the Western Front in March 1917, where his incredible luck continued. The BE-2 aircraft in which he flew was a death-trap which the enemy shot down in droves, yet he survived “Bloody April” 1917, the worst month in the history of the Royal Flying Corps, when the Germans almost drove the British from the sky. It was his last contact with the enemy in World War I.

A month later he was back in Britain to re-train as a pilot. However, two serious crashes ended his flying career and he ended the war in the administration branch of the Royal Air Force.

Gabriel Coury married in 1919 and raised a family of three daughters. Returning to Liverpool, he continued to work in the cotton industry.

He re-joined the army in World War II, serving with an anti-aircraft unit. In June 1944 he once again entered France, landing over the Normandy beaches. He ended the war in Germany, with the rank of Major.

After World War II, with the collapse of the cotton industry, Gabriel Coury opened a popular fish and chip shop in Brunswick Road, Liverpool, called ‘The Frying Pan.’

He returned to the cotton industry when the Liverpool Cotton Exchange re-opened in 1954, but his health broke down soon afterwards. He died at home on 23 February 1956, aged 59.

He was buried with full military honours at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Crosby, on 26 February 1956. The bearer party came from the South Lancashire Regiment, and the Royal Air Force was also represented.

In 1962 Mrs Katherine Coury presented her husband’s Victoria Cross to what had by then become the Lancashire Regiment (Prince of Wales’ Volunteers), and is today the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment.

Gabriel Coury’s VC is held in our Museum, and is among our proudest possessions.