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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Corporal John Thomas Davies VC


John Thomas Davies, known as Jack, was born on 29th September, 1895 in Rock Ferry, Birkenhead, but grew up in St Helens, Lancashire.  In the great surge of patriotic fervour which followed the outbreak of  World War I  he was one of the first to volunteer for the newly-formed 11th (Service) Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment – the St Helens Pals. First deployed to France with his battalion in November 1915, he was wounded twice during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and twice returned to active service.

By 1918, although still only 22 years old, Jack was an experienced and battle-hardened soldier when Germany launched a great Spring offensive in a last desperate attempt to win the war. On 24 March the St Helens Pals were occupying positions 12 miles southwest of St Quentin near the village of Eppeville. After heavy shelling the Germans advanced from their bridgehead across the Somme at Ham and, within an hour, the Pals’ forward companies were in danger of being surrounded and under heavy rifle and machine-gun fire.

In the words of his Victoria Cross citation: –

“When his company—outflanked on both sides—received orders to withdraw, Corporal Davies knew that the only line of withdrawal lay through a deep stream lined with a belt of barbed wire, and that it was imperative to hold up the enemy as long as possible.

“He mounted the parapet, fully exposing himself, in order to get a more effective field of fire, and kept his Lewis gun in action to the last, causing the enemy many casualties and checking their advance.

“By his very great devotion to duty he enabled part of his company to get across the river, which they would otherwise have been unable to do, thus undoubtedly saving the lives of many of his comrades.

“When last seen this gallant N.C.O. was still firing his gun, with the enemy close on the top of him, and was in all probability killed at his gun.”

His parents were notified of his death in action, and his Victoria Cross was gazetted posthumously, before  information was received two months later that, almost incredibly under the circumstances, he was in fact a prisoner. He is therefore believed to be one of only two men ever to have been awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross while still alive (the other being Major Herbert Le Patourel of the Hampshire Regiment in World War II).

Jack Davies returned to St Helens after the war, where he married and lived with his family for the rest of his life. In World War II he served as a captain in the Home Guard. He died aged 59 in 1955, and is buried in St Helens Cemetery.

His Victoria Cross is on display in the Imperial War Museum, London.