Museum volunteer Mike Crisp relates the human story behind a very special set of medals in our collection …
“My object of the month is a medal group that is currently on display in the medal room and was awarded to Company Sergeant Major (CSM) Herbert Atkinson.
It includes the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and Bar, 1915 Star, Victory, and British War Medals.
Just after starting as a volunteer at the museum, I was asked to research the archive for anything relating to CSM Atkinson, as his great grandson was coming to look at the medal group. What I found has moved me and stayed with me since. The archive revealed several letters, documents and a pocket note book, all donated by CSM Atkinson’s wife which, together with war diaries and Green Howard Gazettes, helped piece together his story.
Born in Egglescliffe in 1890 to Thomas and Florence Atkinson, Herbert married Emily Harrison at their parish church on the 6th June 1913 before setting up their home in Westlands Road, Egglescliffe. As soon as war was declared on the 4th August 1914 Herbert volunteered to join the army, enlisting at Northallerton into the Yorkshire Regiment. On the 11th November, Emily gave birth to a son, Maurice. Herbert was given a few hours leave and walked from Hurworth to Egglescliffe to see his new baby boy.
Rapidly promoted to Corporal, Herbert was posted to France in April 1915 with the 4th Battalion. On the 6th June, whilst in the area of Sanctuary Wood, near Ypres he was wounded in the thigh and sent home to recover.
He returned to France in October before being wounded, this time in the head, in February 1916, and then becoming seriously ill with Trench Fever (contracted through lice bites) causing him to be sent home once again.
Once he had recovered, Herbert was temporarily posted to the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion at Redcar to regain his fitness, and then subsequently stationed at Catterick. It was while he was here that on 7th May 1917 Emily gave birth to a second child, a girl who they named Cicely. He was given 2 days leave, borrowed a bicycle and pedalled from Catterick to Egglescliffe to see his daughter.
By now promoted to Company Sergeant Major, Herbert returned to his battalion in France in July 1917. It was during November or December 1917 that CSM Atkinson perfomred the actions which earned him the DCM. The citation reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on two separate occasions in digging out men who had been buried by exploding shells. He was finally buried himself, and on being dug out fainted. Although severely bruised and shaken he remained with his company until relieved.”
In February 1918 CSM Atkinson was given 10 days home leave, returning to his battalion at the beginning of March at Esqueries close to Ypres, where they were at rest in billets and carrying out training.
On the 21st March 1918, the Germans launched Operation Michael, their major spring offensive. The 4th Battalion on 24 hours notice to move were immediately sent to Hancourt into a reserve line between the Omignon and Cologne rivers.
The following day, the 66th Division broke off contact with the Germans and retired through this reserve line, placing the 4th Battalion in the front line. A fierce action then took place during which most of the battalion officers became casualties, and it was here that CSM Atkinson was awarded the Bar to his DCM. The citation reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. This Warrant Officer was most capable and energetic in rallying the front companies at a critical stage, when the left flank had given way under intense machine gun fire. When the commanding officer and all senior officers had become casualties he assisted the officer who assumed command in collecting stragglers, reorganising the battalion, and establishing a system of defence, until wounded a day or two later.”
As the citation states, Herbert was wounded on the 25th March, and as a result was evacuated to a Military Hospital at Boscombe, Dorset.
It was here on 4th April he wrote what was to be his last letter to his wife.
He describes the action during which he was wounded and that he received a compound fracture of his right leg and knee, a shrapnel wound to his left thigh and a slice taken off his right thumb, which was making his writing difficult. He goes on to say that he had been given sleeping draughts and chloroform for the pain, had just had an x-ray and was due to be operated on that evening. He concludes by saying “All my fondest love and tons of kisses xxx Maurice and Cicely xxx”
Included in the archive are 2 telegrams sent to Emily on 6th April. The first informs her that her husband was seriously ill, and that if she wished to travel to see him she should present the telegram to the Police who would issue a travel warrant. This was timed at 4.16pm.
At 5.54pm a further telegram was sent, reporting that CSM Atkinson had died at 5.30pm and requesting her instructions for his funeral arrangements.
On the 6th and again on the 13th April, a Sister Margaret Bailey who had nursed Herbert, wrote to Emily expressing her deepest sympathy, explaining that he had suffered a severe haemorrhage that had been impossible to stop, and that a Canadian soldier had donated his blood to provide a transfusion, but to no avail.
Herbert was brought home to Egglescliffe on the 11th April, on what would have been his 28th Birthday. He was buried the same day at the church where he and Emily had been married five years previously.
It is clear to me that CSM Atkinson was a highly-respected soldier who rose rapidly through the ranks, a loving husband and father, who cared for the men of his company. To be awarded the DCM once is hugely significant, to receive a Bar to the medal in such a short space of time is remarkable.
CSM Atkinson’s great grandson was surprised and moved to be able to read the archive material providing the story of his great grandfather’s wartime service. He had no idea the documents existed, and was completely unaware of Herbert’s war record. The museum was able to provide him with copies of all the documents.
To me as a volunteer, it is highly rewarding and an honour to carryout family history research and to be able to provide the results to families of the men who served in the Green Howards. I love the personal stories behind the museum objects. It’s what brings them to life for us as volunteers, and to our visitors when we share what we have found.
If you think you have a relative who may have served with the Green Howards, why not contact the museum regarding our Family History Research Service. You never know what you may discover…”
About the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM)
The DCM was established by Queen Victoria in 1854 during the Crimean War. It was awarded for gallantry in the field to non-commissioned officers and private soldiers, until it was discontinued in 1993 when the rank distinction for gallantry awards were abolished, the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross succeeding it.
Although it is the second highest award for bravery after the Victoria Cross it is an older award, the VC not being established until 1856.
During the First World War, there was concern that the number of DCM’s being awarded would devalue the deeds of previous recipients, so the Military Medal (MM) was instituted in March 1916 as an alternative, with the DCM then awarded in exceptional circumstances.
A Bar to a bravery award could be given in recognition of each subsequent act of courageous conduct for which the medal would have been awarded.