Private William Speakman, VC,  Kings Own Scottish Borderers

William Speakman VC.

Private Speakman, originally a Black Watch soldier, was attached to the 1st Bn Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to serve in Korea. He subsequently transferred to the 1st Bn the Kings Own Scottish Borderers also in Korea.

In November 1951, his section was holding the left flank of his company's position and suffering serious casualties. The British positions were being over-run by thousands of Chinese.

On his own initiative, Private Speakman, collected a pile of grenades, and led six others as they carried out a series of charges. These charges had the effect of breaking up several of the enemy attacks, causing them heavy casualties.

Even after he was wounded by shrapnel, he continued to lead charge after charge. The battle went on for six hours and when they ran out of ammunition they threw rocks and stones, in fact, anything they could lay their hands on.

Press reports of the time reported that Private Speakman began throwing bottles at the enemy after running out of grenades.  The bottles were in fact beer bottles sent to the line for platoon consumption (40 men-approx 4 per man). By the time the platoon were attacked, the bottles were empty, thus constituting suitable weaponry.

In all, he led 15 counter-charges, delaying the enemy long enough to allow for his company's safe withdrawal. His decoration was highly acclaimed in Britain and the first VC to be awarded by Queen Elizabeth II.

Bill Speakman, however, was a modest man who preferred to concentrate on his military career rather than court the attention the medal inevitably brought. He later served in Malaya (with the SAS) Borneo and  Radfan. At the time of writing he is still alive.

His Victoria Cross is displayed in the National War Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle, Scotland.

Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell, VC

Jack Cornwell, VC

Victoria Cross winners inspire for all kinds of reasons. But very few combine a shining example with young age. Jack Cornwell showed that age need be no barrier to heroism and devotion to duty.

At the age of 16 Jack Cornwell found himself serving onboard HMS Chester, a light Cruiser of the Royal Navy. Early in the battle of Jutland Chester came under fire. Cornwell, manning a 5.5inch gun, stayed at his post throughout a heavy bombardment that killed the rest of his colleagues and caused carnage on the Chester’s upper deck.

All the time, Cornwell, although seriously wounded, waited obediently for orders and with no thought for his own safety. After the action, ship medics arrived on deck to find Cornwell the sole survivor at his gun, shards of steel penetrating his chest, looking at the gun sights and still waiting for orders. Although Cornwell was taken to hospital after the battle, sadly he died on 2 June 1916.

Admiral Beatty, the commander of the British Battlecruisers at Jutland, recommended in the strongest possible terms that Cornwell’s incredible feat should be recognised:

“the instance of devotion to duty by Boy (1st Class) John Travers Cornwell who was mortally wounded early in the action, but nevertheless remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders till the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded around him. He was under 16½ years old. I regret that he has since died, but I recommend his case for special recognition in justice to his memory and as an acknowledgement of the high example set by him.”

In September 1916 it was announced in the London Gazette that Jack Cornwell had been posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross:

“The King has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the Victoria Cross to Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell. Mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders, until the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all round him. His age was under sixteen and a half years.”

Cornwell’s VC can be seen at the Imperial War Museum

Warrant Officer Norman Jackson VC (deceased)

Norman Jackson, VC

Norman Jackson joined 106 Squadron as a flight engineer, and his 30th operational raid earned him the Victoria Cross. While climbing out of the target area over Schweinfurt, his Lancaster was hit by an enemy night-fighter and the inner starboard engine set on fire. Although injured by shrapnel he jettisoned the pilots escape hatch and climbed out on to the wing clutching a fire extinguisher, his parachute spilling out as he went. He succeeded in putting out the fire just as the night-fighter made a second attack, this time forcing the crew to bale out. Norman was swept away with his parachute starting to burn but somehow survived the fall to spend 10 months as a POW in a German hospital.

The story as it appeared in the London Gazette :

In recognition of most conspicuous bravery. This airman was the flight engineer in a Lancaster bomber detailed to attack Schweinfurt on the night of 26th April 1944. Bombs were dropped successfully and the aircraft was climbing out of the target area. Suddenly it was attacked by a fighter at about 20,000 feet. The captain took evading action at once but the enemy secured many hits. A fire started near a petrol tank on the upper surface of the starboard wing, between the fuselage and the inner engine. Sergeant Jackson was thrown to the floor during the engagement. Wounds which he received from shell splinters in the right leg and shoulder were probably sustained at that time. Recovering himself, he remarked that he could deal with the fire on the wing and obtained his captain's permission to try to put out the flames.

Pushing a hand fire-extinguisher into the top of his life-saving jacket and slipping on his parachute pack, Sergeant Jackson jettisoned the escape hatch above the pilot's head. He then started to climb out of the cockpit and back along the top of the fuselage to the starboard wing. Before he could leave the fuselage his parachute pack opened and the whole canopy and rigging lines spilled into the cockpit. Undeterred, Sergeant Jackson continued. The pilot, bomb aimer and navigator gathered the parachute together and held on to the rigging lines, paying them out as the airman crawled aft. Eventually he slipped and, falling from the fuselage to the starboard wing, grasped an air intake on the leading edge of the wing. He succeeded in clinging on but lost the extinguisher, which was blown away.

By this time, the fire had spread rapidly and Sergeant Jackson was involved. His face, hands and clothing were severly burnt. Unable to retain his hold, he was swept through the flames and over the trailing edge of the wing, dragging his parachute behind. When last seen it was only partly inflated and was burning in a number of places.

Realising that the fire could not be controlled, the captain gave the order to abandon aircraft. Four of the remaining members of the crew landed safely. The captain and rear gunner have not been accounted for. Sergeant Jackson was unable to control his descent and landed heavily. He sustained a broken ankle, his right eye was closed through burns and his hands were useless. These injuries, together with the wounds received earlier, reduced him to a pitiable state. At daybreak he crawled to the nearest village, where he was taken prisoner. He bore the intense pain and discomfort of the journey to Dulag Luft with magnificent fortitude. After 10 months in hospital he made a good recovery, though his hands required further treatment and are only of limited use.

This airman's attempt to extinguish the fire and save the aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands was an act of outstanding gallantry. To venture outside, when travelling at 200 miles an hour, at a great height and in intense cold, was an almost incredible feat. Had he succeeded in subduing the flames, there was little or no prospect of his regaining the cockpit. The spilling of his parachute and the risk of grave damage to its canopy reduced his chances of survival to a minimum. By his ready willingness to face these dangers he set an example of self-sacrifice which will ever be remembered.
British (Scottish) Victoria Cross recipient.

Allan E Ker VC
Born in Leith

Allan E Ker, VC

Allan Ebenezer Ker was born in Leith. During the First World War, he served as a Lieutenant with the 3rd. Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders; but, at the time of his action, he was attached to the 61st. Battalion of the Machine Gun Corps.

On the 21st. March 1918, near St. Quentin in France, the enemy had penetrated the British lines, and the flank of the 61st. was exposed. Lieutenant Ker had one Vickers gun, but managed to hold up the attack and to inflict many casualties. He then sent word back to his Battalion Headquarters that he was going to remain at his post, along with a Sergeant and several men who had been badly wounded, and fight on until a counter-attack could be launched to rescue them. Just as the Vickers gun was, finally, destroyed, his party were attacked from behind with bombs, machine guns and bayonets, but Lieutenant Ker and his men managed to repulse these attacks with their revolvers.

The wounded were collected into a small shelter, and it was decided to defend them to the last and to hold the enemy for as long as possible. In one of many hand-to-hand encounters, a German rifle and bayonet were secured, along with some ammunition, and these were used with good effect.

His citation concluded: "Although Lieutenant Ker was very exhausted from want of food and gas poisoning, and from the supreme exertions he had made during ten hours of the most severe bombardment, fighting and attending to the wounded, he refused to surrender until all his ammunition was exhausted and his position was rushed by a large number of the enemy. His behaviour throughout the day was absolutely cool and fearless, and by his determination he was materially instrumental in holding up for three hours more than five hundred of the enemy." Lieutenant Ker was, later, promoted to the rank of Major, and he died in Hampstead, North London, where he is buried.

Adam Archibald VC
Born in Leith

Adam Archibald, VC

World War I Victoria Cross Recipient. A native of the Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland, Archibald was a plasterer by vocation and an enthusiastic gardener and bowler by avocation. After enlisting in November 1915 Archibald initially served with the 7th Durham Light Infantry before transferring to the 218th Field Company, Royal Engineers, as a sapper.

He was awarded the VC for action while his unit was attempting to bridge the Sambre-Oise Canal at Ors, France. From his citation: “For most conspicuous bravery and self-sacrifice on 4 Nov. 1918 near Ors, when with a party building a floating bridge across the canal. He was foremost in the work under a very heavy artillery barrage and machine-gun fire. The latter was directed at him from a few yards’ distance while he was working on the cork floats; nevertheless, he persevered in his task, and his example and efforts were such that the bridge, which was essential to the success of the operations, was very quickly completed.

The supreme devotion to duty of this gallant sapper, who collapsed from gas-poisoning on completion of his work, was beyond all praise.” (Archibald’s C.O. in the operation was Maj. A.H.S. Waters, who was also awarded the VC.) Archibald had recuperated enough to receive his VC medal from King George V at Buckingham Palace in May 1919 and participate in the abortive Allied Archangel expedition later that year.

After his discharge he returned to his job with Stuart’s Granolithic Works in Edinburgh, eventually rising to a position as manager of their Duff Street works. He passed away at his home in Leith at the age of 76. His medals are on display with those of Major Waters at the Royal Engineers Museum, Gillingham, Kent.

Charles Thomas Kennedy, VC
Lived in Leith

Private Charles Thomas Kennedy

Owing to vandalism, neglect and the uncertainty of the future of North Merchiston Cemetery in Edinburgh, efforts by the Royal Highland Fusiliers to place a marker over the unmarked plot of Private Charles Kennedy had been thwarted. However, recently Edinburgh City Council decided to take over the cemetery, clearing unwanted trees, bushes and undergrowth allowing the marking of Charles Kennedy's grave to go ahead. The ceremony took place on the 28th April 2001, 94 years after his funeral. It was organised by the Royal Highland Fusiliers and attended by two relatives, one from Canada who had carried out extensive research into Kennedy.

Charles Thomas Kennedy was born in Westport, Edinburgh but moved to Leith early on, on 6th January 1876 and owing to the depression in 1891 joined the 2nd Battalion, Highland Light Infantry. He spent the next three years training and taking part in manoeuvres with the regiment before it was posted to service in India in 1894. Whilst Kennedy was with the Regiment in India he took part in the supression of an uprising on the North West Frontier, the HLI being part of the Malakand Field Force. Charles Kennedy returned to Scotland in 1898 after completing his seven year enlistment term, and was placed on reserve status. However, a little over a year later the 2nd Boer War erupted and Kennedy was recalled to the colours in October 1899.

As part of the Highland Brigade, the Highland Light Infantry's first major action was in the disastrous battle of Magersfontein. Charles Kennedy also participated in the decisive encircling operation that became known as Wittebergen which resulted in the capture of a large portion of the Boer forces. In the days that followed the Boers resorted to well organised guerilla tactics. As a counter-measure, most regiments, including the HLI, were broken into smaller units and then given assignments to guard certain towns and villages.

Kennedy's company was assigned to the garrison at Dewetsdorp which is about forty miles south-east of Bloemfontein, the capital of Orange Free State. On the 18th November 1900 they were attacked by Boer forces led by Christian DeWet which took a position on one side of the hills overlooking the town. Private Kennedy and six other men volunteered to retake the position. Private McGregor, one of the seven, went to get some water but was shot down. Kennedy immediately went to his aid.

[ London Gazette, 18 October 1901 ]. Dewetsdorp, South Africa, 22 November 1900,

Private Charles Kennedy, 2nd Bn, The Highland Light Infantry. Carried a comrade, who was dangerously wounded and bleeding to death, from Gibralter Hill to the hospital, a distance of three-quarters of a mile, under a very hot fire. On the following day, volunteers having been called for to take a message to the Commandant across a space over which it was almost certain death to venture, Private Kennedy at once stepped forward. He did not, however, succeed in delivering the message, as he was severely wounded before he had gone twenty yards.
Charles Kennedy was invested with his Victoria Cross by King Edward VII at St James' Palace on the 17th December 1901.

He subsequently failed to meet the Army's physical requirements owing to his wound and was discharged from the Service on 25th June 1902. He then returned to Edinburgh.

At Edinburgh on 24th April 1907, he was again called on to show his bravery when a horse bolted with a contractor's cart in Leith Walk and in attempting to stop it he was knocked down and the wheels passed over him. Kennedy died on the way to the Royal Infirmary and was buried in the North Merchiston Cemetery on 28th April 1907. Following Kennedy's funeral however, a headstone was not erected over his grave.

Captain William Henry JOHNSTON VC 

Born: Leith, Scotland - 21 December 1879  
Died: Ypres, Belgium - 8 June 1915

William Henry Johnston, VC

Burial details: Perth Cemetery (China Wall), Zillibeke, Belgium (Plot III, Row C, Grave 12)
Corps service: Commission in the Corps on 23 March 1899. He saw foreign service in Gibraltar from 1900-1905 in the Intelligence Department. Promoted Lieutenant 19 November 1901. On his return to England he was attached to Survey Department until 1908. He was Gazetted as a General Staff Officer 3rd Grade for service in China. Attained Captain on 23 March 1908. 

From 11 July 1908 to 26 October 1911 he served in North China engaged in intelligence work, visiting 11 of the 18 provinces. He was transferred to South China Command. On his return to England he served in the Geographical Section of the War Office until 1913, when he entered the Staff College, Camberley.

At the outbreak of the war he joined the 59 Field Company of the Royal Engineers in the British Expeditionary Force serving throughout the winter of 1914-15. He saw action at the retreat from Mons and the battles of Aisne, the Marne, Neuve Chapelle and the first and second battles of Ypres. He was killed by a sniper on 8 June 1915 near Zwarteleen in the Ypres Salient, just four days after being appointed Brigade Major of 15 Brigade.

VC awarded: Won VC at Missy, near Moulin des Roches, River Aisine, France on 14 September 1914. (First World War 1914-18)  VC unit: 59 Field Company. VC presented: VC presented by King George V at General Headquarters, France on 3 December 1914 

VC citation: At Missy on 14 September, under a heavy fire all day until 7 p.m. worked with his own hands two rafts, bringing back wounded and returning with ammunition, thus enabling advanced Brigade to maintain its position across the river.
(London Gazette: 25 November 1914) 

Heroes, No Less


Private Harry Farr

              ‘Shot at Dawn’              

Private Harry Farr of the Yorkshire Fusiliers served in the trenches during the 1914/18 war and with his nerves shot to pieces, he was given a leave home to recuperate but when it was time for him to return to France he could not face the ordeal and on Oct; 16th 1916,  he was arrested and sentenced to be shot at dawn for desertion.

Over the years his descendants have tried to have his name exonerated from all charges claiming that he was suffering from ‘Shell Shock’. However under the ‘Access to Information Act’ all information relating to  the 306 men who were charged with desertion and shot at dawn  was sealed in the archives until  Jim Hipken searching the archives found the details and was amazed to learn that  none of the  men had been examined to find if they had suffered from shell shock, known to be a common trauma of war at the time.

He was so disgusted that he felt he had to act on behalf of those 306 men and with the help of some friends they set up a memorial to them in Staffordshire, England  called  ‘The Shot at Dawn Cemetery’ and each man is memorialized with a white stake bearing their name rank, age, and the date of their execution.

It is interesting to note that the Australian and New Zealand governments would not allow their soldiers to be treated in this disgraceful manner and any of their men so charged were shipped home and exonerated.

It is now a known fact that men serving under extreme conditions of warfare do suffer from stress disorder and when the British Defense Minister, John Reid was once again petitioned the British Government passed a law exonerating all men who  were shot at dawn for desertion and Canada followed suit shortly afterwards.

Thanks to Peter Sellar for this contribution

Drummer James Roddick

He won the DCM for saving the life of an officer in Afghanistan at Kandahar in 1880.
Buried in North Merchiston Cemetery, Edinburgh.
Harry Angier:Weston-Super-Mare

Who do you think could be added?

British Heroes
Leith Victoria Cross Winners