As the world commemorates the centenary of the end of the First World War this year, it is timely to remind ourselves that the conflict widely described at the time as “the War to end all wars” put more people in dangerous situations than at any previous point in human history. As millions-strong armies, navies and air forces clashed on battlefields, seas and in skies across the globe, the people on the front line of the war often had no choice but to summon supreme courage to deal with the immense challenges put before them. In doing so, they often saved the lives of others but sacrificed their own.
The First World War created new definitions of the word “hero”. Many were people who would never have found themselves in the thick of previous conflicts. They weren’t just male soldiers, sailors and airmen – though plenty of extraordinary acts of courage were performed by men – they were women and, in some cases, young people considered scarcely more than children. The history of the 1914-1918 war is full of awe-inspiring examples of ordinary people living ordinary lives who, when called upon to do so, did extraordinary things.
Inevitably, many stories of the most supreme acts of valor performed in the most deadly and challenging of circumstances during the First World War will have already died untold with those who performed and witnessed them.This article sets out only a small handful of them which history has thankfully saved. As we reflect on them, it’s tempting to consider how we would behave were we to be thrust into the same situations of mortal peril, bullets and immense pressure: would we crumble and freeze, too afraid to move? Or would we find from somewhere inside ourselves the ability to stand strong and perform feats so brave the annals of history will immortalize them and us forever?
The individuals in the stories summarised in this article found the courage necessary when it counted. With any luck, one hundred years on, they are capable of inspiring us to confront and overcome the challenges we face in life today.
At the time of the First World War, not many people would have regarded Mary O’Connell-Bianconi (or “Molly”, as she was known) as the likeliest of war heroes. Born on December 22, 1896, she grew up in County Clare in Ireland and was descended from two prominent Irish figures of the nineteenth century: Daniel O’Connell, a leading proponent of the efforts to repeal legislation binding the parliaments of Britain and Ireland, and Charles Bianconi, known among other things for bringing public transport to Ireland.
O’Connell-Bianconi was educated at Laurel Hill Convent in Limerick before moving to finishing schools in Paris and Southern Belgium. Her education came to an abrupt end during the First World War when she swapped what was no doubt quite a genteel existence at finishing school for life enrolled in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), a voluntary unit of civilians established to give nursing and medical care to the military forces of the British Empire during the First World War. She was one of thousands of women to step forward and offer to do what she could. As the war dragged on and the carnage spread, the help volunteer nurses such as O’Connell-Bianconi provided, often in field dressing stations and hospitals cose to the fighting, proved vital in saving the lives of many wounded servicemen.
As leading First World War historian Lyn MacDonald puts it, “If the ghost that haunts the towns of Ypres and Arras and Albert is…the British Tommy…then the ghost of Boulogne and Etaples and Rouen ought to be a girl. She’s called Elsie or Gladys or Dorothy, her ankles are swollen, her feet are aching, her hands reddened and rough. She has little money, no vote, and has almost forgotten what it feels like to be really warm…She sleeps in a tent…She is twenty-three. She is the daughter of a clergyman, a lawyer, or a prosperous businessman, and has been privately educated and groomed to be a ‘lady’. She wears the unbecoming uniform of a VAD…She is on active service and as much a part of the war as Tommy…”.
Having been trained in the ins-and-outs of driving and car mechanics during a “Motor Car Maintenance Course” (rare among men during the early part of the twentieth century left alone women), Molly later joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANYs), another significant unit providing medical support to the armed forces during the First World War.
In August 1917, at the age of 21, O’Connell-Bianconiwas sent as part of her unit of the FANYs to the front at Amiens, in Northern France. Here her work was to drive ambulances to where they were needed, often under seriously dangerous and hostile conditions of enemy fire and bombardment, to administer medical treatment to wounded men and transport them away from danger, carrying out the necessary repair work to her vehicle when required. All available accounts indicate that O’Connell-Bianconi was exemplary among her peers in her hard work, courage and innovation.
The moment for which she is best remembered came in 1918. Deployed to St Omer at the start of the German Army’s final major offensive on the Western Front (known as Operation Kaiserschlacht), she was forced to drive her ambulance in hostile conditions during a period in which the Germans came perilously close to smashing through the Allied lines and winning the war. As the Allied armies retreated under heavy bombardments, reeling from the full force of the desperate German assault despite being ordered to hold the line “to the last man”, she and her fellow FANYs drove her ambulance in the other direction, responding to the danger and going straight to where soldiers wounded and endangered from the enemy’s violence needed her the most.
On the occasion in question, O’Connell-Bianconi drove through a heavy barrage of enemy artillery to an ammunition dump where there were multiple casualties. In the face of sustained and ferocious bombing from the air, O’Connell-Bianconi worked tirelessly for hour after hour, doing her very best to save the lives of men injured and buried in caves and dug-outs by pulling them from the earth, providing them with on-the-spot medical attention and helping to evacuate them from immediate danger.
For her courageous efforts in saving multiple lives, O’Connell-Bianconi was awarded the Military Medal by King George V, along with a citation for bravery. General Plumer also mentioned her in dispatches for her bravery, making one of the very few women to be honoured in both ways during the First World War.
It seems O’Connell-Bianconi simply went home, got married and lived a humble life after the war, with no ceremony or films made about her actions during the conflict.
Frank Luke Jr was one of thousands of men who answered the call to fight the enemy in the skies in the service of the United States Air Force during the First World War. Born in 1897 in Phoenix Arizona, Luke’s family had emigrated from Germany in the 1870s.
When America entered the war in the early part of 1917, Luke joined the Aviation Section of the US Signal Corps. He trained to be a pilot and, after his commission as a Second Lieutenant in early 1918, deployed to France. In July 1918, he joined the 27th Aero Squadron, a unit which was under continual standing orders to attack and destroy German observation balloons which hovered above the front lines and watched the movement of enemy troops and artillery often very far away.
Many accounts of Luke describe him as arrogant and inclined to disobey orders. He was therefore disliked by a number of his fellow airmen and superiors. In spite of this, Luke persistently volunteered to go on missions to attack strategically significant targets which were heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns on the ground. Surviving records confirm that between September 12 and 29, 1918, Luke was responsible for the shooting down of fourteen German balloons and four planes, achieved during ten flying sorties in only eight days. No other pilot of the First World War beat this record. It seems he wasn’t known as the “The Balloon Buster” among his comrades and his superior officers for nothing.
The final flight of Luke’s life was arguably his bravest. It is certainly the one for which he has been best remembered. On September 29, 1918, the United States military was engaged in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a key component of the Allies’ final offensive of the First World War and the largest in the history of the United States up to that point. Luke was ordered by his squadron’s commanding officer, Captain Alfred A. Grant, to remain grounded that night. Grant informed Luke, in no uncertain terms, that if he flew the next day he would be charged as being absent without leave. But Luke directly disobeyed the no-fly order and defied the threat of arrest. So eager was he to continue his spectacular run of attacks against the enemy, he took off on September 29 without authorization and flew to a forward air base at Verdun. Here, his group commander, a Major Hartney, revoked the arrest order and that evening Luke flew out to go balloon hunting again. On his sortie over the front that night, Luke flew six miles behind the German lines to the area of Dun-sur-Meuse, where he shot down three enemy balloons, one after the other. In doing so, however, he was severely wounded by a single machine gun bullet fired from a hilltop above him, a mile east of the last balloon, which passed through his body.
Luke’s plane fell out of the sky and landed in the village of Murvaux. He shot at and killed a group of German soldiers as he came down. Alone and weakened by his wound, miles behind the enemy’s lines, Luke staggered out of his plane towards the nearby stream, known as Ruisseau de Bradon, leading to the Meuse River. On being approached by German infantry soldiers, Luke fired his pistol at his attackers and then finally died.
For his bravery, the American Air Force promoted Frank posthumously to the rank of First Lieutenant.
When we think of acts of courage in war, we often imagine grown men standing strong against bullets and bombs. But in the First World War, many much younger people exhibited incredible bravery far beyond that expected for people of their years.
John Travers Cornwell (known as “Jack) was scarcely a child when the First World War forced him to behave with the utmost gallantry in the heat of battle. He was born in 1900, in what is now part of the area of Greater London, England, to a working-class family, his father being a former soldier. He attended a local school, like most boys at the time, and left education at the standard school-leaving age of 14.
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Cornwell’s father enlisted as a soldier to fight among some of the first British forces to confront the Germans in France under Lord Kitchener. His brother Arthur also fought in France for an infantry regiment. It wasn’t until October 1915, when Cornwell was that much older, the war had been dragging on longer than military planners had originally anticipated and with many boys and young men clamouring to join to serve their country, that Cornwell quit his job as a delivery boy and enrolled in the Royal Navy without obtaining his father’s permission.
Cornwell completed his basic training at HMS Vivid Keyham Naval Barracks in Plymouth and obtained the rank of Boy Seaman First Class. At Easter 1916, Cornwell travelled to Rosyth, Scotland, where he joined his first assignment in the navy on HMS Chester. As the major clash between the Royal Navy and the German Imperial Navy known as the Battle of Jutland raged in the North Sea on May 31, 1916, the Chester scouted ahead of the Royal Navy’s 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron, looking for enemy craft to attack and sink. When its crew heard gunfire in the distance, it steered towards the sound. At around 5:30pm, four German naval vessels emerged from the haze and smoke of the battlefield and bombarded the Chester with intense gunfire. When the German vessels attacked, Cornwell was positioned at a shielded 5.5-inch gun with the rest of its crew, ready to perform his duty as a sight-setter. During the confrontation that followed, at least four hits from enemy fire landed near to the gun, splinters and shrapnel killing or fatally wounding all of the gun’s crew apart from Cornwell. Though shards of steel penetrated his chest, Cornwell remained at this post for fifteen minutes throughout the skirmish until the Chester withdrew from the fray. The Chester was left with eighteen holes in it and only one gun working. Medics from another ship arrived onboard after the action to find Cornwell the only man left alive at his gun crew, still staring through the gun sights, waiting for orders.
HMS Chester was deemed incapable of further military engagements for the time being and was accordingly docked at the port of Immingham, England, to undergo essential repairs. From there, Cornwell was transferred to Grimsby General Hospital, where he died on June 2, 1916. Tragically, his mother arrived at the hospital after he had passed away.
Cornwell was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award British and Commonwealth forces can receive for gallantry in the face of the enemy.
During the First World War, people from all over the world did things which required immense amounts of courage. Albert Jacka was an Australian who history records as one of the bravest warriors of the war. He was born in Victoria, Australia, in 1893. He was working for the Victoria State Forests Department when the First World War broke out in 1914 and Australia came to the aid of the British Empire.
Jacka joined the Australian Imperial Force in September 1914, beginning at the rank of private and later being assigned to the 14th Batallion, 4th Brigade, 1st Division of the Australian Army. When the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) entered the war in support of Germany, Jacka’s 1st Division was deployed to Egypt to protect the Suez Canal. The unit arrived in Egypt on January 31, 1915 and soon afterwards was merged with some New Zealand Brigades to form the body of soldiers known as the New Zealand and Australian Division.
In April 1915, the Allies launched their audacious offensive to storm the beaches of the Turkish coast around Gallipoli in an attempt to conquer the Ottoman capital Constantinople and so defeat the Ottoman Empire. It was a desperate gamble destined not to pay off and to result in the deaths of thousands of men. On April 26, the New Zealand and Australian Division launched a sea-borne invasion on the coast of the Dardanelles where it bravely fought the Turkish defenders on a narrow beach. Through heavy gunfire, they succeeded in establishing a bridge head and in building a series of trenches known as “Courtney’s Post”. It was here that Jacka was stationed.
When on May 19, 1915, Turkish forces launched an assault against the Australian and New Zealand line, they captured a section of Courtney’s Post which Jacka was defending. After the initial attack, Jacka waited for reinforcements to arrive and then charged the taken trenches with three others, all of whom were either killed or pinned down by enemy fire in the process.
Demonstrating an impressive ability to think strategically under immense pressure, Jacka then decided to organise a diversionary attack at the enemy’s flank while planning himself to hit the enemy from the rear. Jacka’s men bombarded the Turks with rifle fire and bombs as Jacka ran round to the enemy’s flank. Climbing out into No Man’s Land between the Allied and Turkish positions and jumping into the trench over its parapet, Jacaka single-handedly shot five Turkish soldiers and stabbed two others with his bayonet. The remaining enemy soldiers fled the trench and Jacka guarded the position alone until daylight, when he was relieved.
Jacka became the first Australian of the First World War to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at Courtney’s Post and accordingly became a national hero. He was rapidly promoted through the ranks, from Corporal to Company Sergeant-Major. In April 1916, he finished officer training and received his commission as a second-lieutenant. He went on to perform further extremely heroic acts in the trenches of the Western Front in Northern France. On the morning of August 7, 1916, for example, after the Germans had launched a surprise assault, captured his section of the line, taken a number of Australian men prisoner and rolled bomb down into his dug-out, he led seven of his men out of a dug-out and charged the enemy against overwhelming odds. In the severe and bloody hand-to-hand fighting that followed, Jacka and his men killed and captured a large body of German soldiers and recaptured the section of the line. Though wounded in seven places, Jacka is recorded as personally having killed between twelve and twenty Germans during the engagement.
There were calls for Jacka to receive a second Victoria Cross medal for what he did at Pozieres but he never did. Some attribute this to snobbery among the higher ranks of the Commonwealth forces who may not have liked the idea of a “rough colonial” receiving such as prestigious award. Others say it’s because Jacka would never have had to fight his way through such a dangerous situation if he had ensured that there were enough sentries on duty to prevent the Germans from seizing the section of trenches in the first place. In any event, Jacka would have had to call upon immense courage to charge his way out of that dug out and his actions inevitably saved the lives of many men.
He ended the war with a Victoria Cross from Gallipoli and two Military Crosses for other feats of bravery, making him one of the most decorated Australian soldiers of the First World War.
It wasn’t just Australians who answered the call in defence of Britain during the First World War. When Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, it was also able to muster vast numbers of men from India, then the Crown Jewel of its Empire, to serve and potentially die in the conflict.
One such soldier was Darwan Singh Negi. He was born in 1883, in Karbartir Village, India. He served as a rank equivalent to a Corporal in the 1st Battalion of 39th Garhwal Rifles of the Indian Army and was deployed to France on the First World War, during the first months of the conflict. On the night of November 23, 1914, Negi’s unit was ordered to retake some British trenches which had been captured by German soldiers in the area of Festubert, Northern France. In the engagement that followed, Negi was among the first to charge against the Germans, fighting along one stretch of enemy-occupied trenches after another and encountering explosions from bombs and rifle fire from the enemy who fought hard to resist the advance and hold the trenches it had captured. By the time the action ended, and the Allies had succeeded in retaking the trenches, Negi had been wounded twice in the head and also on the arm and was recorded as being drenched in blood from head to toe.
Like so many brave individuals of the First World War, he was also awarded the Victoria Cross. When King George V presented Negi with his Victoria Cross on December 5, 1914, the monarch reportedly asked him “What can I do for you?”. Negi replied that his local village in India was without a school and that a middle school should be started at Karanprayag. The request was immediately actioned.
Acts of supreme bravery were performed everywhere during the First Word War. We have already seen heroism of the highest order on land, at sea and in the air. Courage was also required deep beneath the ground in some of the most dangerous and claustrophobic conditions of the war.
William Hackett was born in 1873 in Nottingham, England. By the time the First World War erupted in 1914, he had been working as a miner for twenty-three years in the Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire areas and was married. Like millions of other men in Britain, he volunteered for the armed forces, but his army regiment of choice, the York and Lancaster Regiment, rejected him for being, in his early forties, too old to serve. Hackett persisted, however, and on October 25, 1915, presumably when the military authorities had relaxed their recruitment criteria after astounding losses in the war so far, he was accepted into the British Army, despite being diagnosed with a condition of the heart.
Hackett’s many years’ experience as a miner was valuable. On the Western Front, both sides reached a stalemate of two fiercely opposing networks of trenches with neither side immediately able to overcome the other. At numerous points along the front line, both the German and Allied Armies dug deep tunnels underground, packed them full of explosives and blew them up in the hope of creating a gap in the enemy trenches wide enough for infantry forces (and later tanks) to pour through. Once his training was complete, Hackett, now 43, became a Sapper in the 172nd Tunneling Company and then the 254th Tunneling Company of the British Army. It was not long before he was deployed to the front in Northern France where he performed the brave deed for which he is still remembered today.
On June 22, 1916, Hackett and four other miners were working on a tunnel around thirty-five feet under the front line in the Givenchy sector of the front. A single shaft led down to the tunnel from the surface, known as the “Shaftesbury Shaft”. Hackett and his comrades worked for hours in conditions of intense darkness, heat and claustrophobia. They had to be as quiet as they could in case their subterranean efforts were overheard by German soldiers digging tunnels back towards the British line.
At just before 3am in the morning of June 23, a German mine exploded nearby and cut Hackett and four other men off from the shaft down to the tunnel and safety. On the surface, a rescue party instantly set out about trying to get the trapped miners out. They worked tirelessly for two days and eventually reached Hackett and the others through a hole they had burrowed into the earth. Hackett assisted three of the men to the surface. Then, in an act of immense selflessness, he decided to return from the surface and work to rescue his fourth colleague, 22 year-old Thomas Collins, who was seriously injured and still trapped. As he turned to climb back into the earth, he is reported to have said to the men around him: “I am a tunneler, I must look after the others first.” The rescue party worked on, but German shelling in the area made it more and more dangerous and the tunnel shaft more treacherous. Ultimately, the tunnel collapsed and entombed both Hackett and Collins under the ground, where they still lie today.
Hackett was awarded a Victoria Cross for his supreme act of self-sacrifice. At Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée today, the Tunneler’s Memorial commemorates the action in which Hackett died. It stands where the entrance to the Shaftesbury Shaft once was for all posterity.
Flora Sandes was was the only British woman who officially served as a soldier during the First World War. Women were not permitted to serve in combat roles on the front line. Sandes is therefore a fascinating exception.
She was born in 1876, in Yorkshire, England. From an early age, she exhibited an adventurous spirit, loving the outdoors, learning to ride horses, shoot and drive and reportedly expressing her wish she had been born a boy. When she grew up, she worked as a secretary and in her spare time she volunteered to train with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), in which she learned first aid, skills for riding horses and drill, among other skills. In 1910, she joined a similar organisation known as the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy.
When the First World War began in 1914, Sandes applied to be a nurse but was rejected on the basis she lacked sufficient qualifications. Despite this, Sandes joined a St John’s Ambulance unit and left England for Serbia with a group of thirty-six other women to assist in the aid effort for the humanitarian crisis then happening in that part of the world as Serbian forces fought against the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She joined the Serbian Red Cross and, in her capacity as an ambulance driver, became attached to the Second Infantry Regiment of the Serbian Army. As the Serbian Army retreated through Albania, Sandes was separated from her unit and in the process enlisted as a soldier in a Serbian regiment. She served with distinction and was promoted to the rank of Corporal.
In 1916, as the Serbs advanced on Biotola, Sandes took part in an engagement involving serious hand-to-hand combat. In the struggle, a grenade exploded and seriously wounded her. For her courage, she was awarded the highest possible decoration in the Serbian military, the Order of the Karadorde’s Star. She was simultaneously bumped up to to the rank of Sergeant-Major.
Jeanne Macherez was a Frenchwoman, of advancing years, when the First World War broke out. The fact she was a civilian, with no military training, makes the act of courage with which history credits her all the more extraordinary.
She was born in Guise, France, in 1852. She married, moved to the town of Soissons, France, before he husband died in 1904. When the German army invaded in 1914, she was aged 63 and in charge of 201 Auxilary Hospital, which had ten ambulances. On August 31, 1914, a German officer entered Soissons, shepherding a group of French civilians in front of him which he had taken hostage so he was protected by human shields. The German officer addressed people in the town and demanded to speak to the mayor, proclaiming that if the mayor did not make himself known, he would make sure that the city would be burned, sacked and its population killed. It was at this point, with next to no regard for her personal safety, that Macherez left the ranks of the watching townspeople and offered herself to the German officer. “The mayor?” she is reported to have said to him. “It’s me!”
For the next twelve days, Macherez acted as go-between between the German forces and the town. Her skilled negotiation with the Germans and ability to act courageously under intense pressure ensured without question that the people of Soissons suffered less under the German occupation than they otherwise would have done. Macherez voluntarily placed herself in a position of peril and fewer people died as a result.
On September 12, 1914, the Germans were beaten back in the Battle of the Marne and were forced to retreat to the right bank of the River Aisne. Soissons was therefore released and Macharez returned to her role of running the hospital with modesty and without a fuss. But she retains a special place in the heart of the people of the town to this day, an ordinary woman who did something extraordinary when it mattered.
Henry Johnson was a US soldier who performed heroically in the service of the first African American unit of the US Army during the First World War. He was born in 1892, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and moved to Albany, New York, during his early teenage years, where he worked as a redcap porter at the Albany Union Station on Broadway.
When the United States entered the First World War, Johnson enlisted in the all-black New York National Guard 15th Infantry Regiment, which when fully mustered was redesignated the 369th Infantry Regiment. When the unit was deployed to France, it was assigned to the 93rd Infantry Division. General John J Pershing assigned the 369th Infantry Regiment to the 161st Division of the French Army. The black soldiers of which Johnson’s unit, commanded by mostly white officers, suffered considerable racist harassment from white soldiers and so the move was arguably made to minimise the tensions within the unit. In contrast to the American forces, the French Army was happy to accept the unit. Its arrival in France was delayed on a number of occasions (including transport delays and weather) but it deployed at the front eventually and more than made up for its delay.
In early 1918, Johnson’s regiment was assigned to the Argonne Forest, in the Champagne region of France, to a position known as “Outpost 20”. They were issued with French rifles and helmets. On the night of May 14, 1918, a large German raiding party – made up of as many as twenty-four men – attacked Johnson’s position. With supreme heroism and courage, Johnson single-handedly used grenades, his rifle butt, a knife and his fists to repulse the enemy, thereby saving his comrade Needham Roberts from capture and saving the lives of his fellow comrades. By the end of it he had twenty-one wounds and had earned the epithet “Black Death” from his fellow soldiers: not a term of racist abuse, but a recognition of his military prowess.
Johnson’s heroic actions received attention from the press back in the United States. Having been promoted to Sergeant, Johnson took part in a victory parade on Fifth Avenue in New York in early 1919. He then took part in a number of lecture tours. In one lecture, he ruffled feathers by revealing the abuse which black soldiers had suffered during service in the war, explaining how white soldiers had often refused to enter trenches with black soldiers. A warrant was later issued for his arrest for wearing his uniform beyond the date of his commission and his engagements for lectures quickly came to an end. Records show Johnson spent the final years of his life as registered with a “permanent and total disability” resulting from contracting tuberculosis. He died in Washington DC on July 1, 1929 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, where he still lies today.
In 2015, President Barack Obama presented a serving sergeant of the New York National Guard with a posthumous Medal of Honor for Johnson. Johnson had no surviving next of kin relatives who were able to accept the award on his behalf.
In the decades since the First World War came to an end, far more attention and commemoration has been given to those who fought and died among Allied forces than has been bestowed on their enemies. But brave and courageous acts were performed by both sides, such as that performed by German soldier Oskar Niemeyer.
It’s not clear from surviving records exactly when Niemeyer was born, but he was originally from Hidesheim, Germany. He enlisted in the 84th Infantry Regiment of the German army in Autumn 1913, having previously worked as a gardener. With the First World War having broken out in early August 1914, on August 23, during the Battle of Mons (the offensive in which the British Expeditionary Force clashed with the German Army, before both sides later got bogged down into opposing networks of trenches), Niemeyer’s regiment encountered serious resistance and closed a swing-bridge across the Mons-Condé canal while trying to extend their position to the east of the canal.
In a considerable act of bravery, Niemeyer swam the canal with a small boat, paddled back across the canal with a team which positioned itself in a house and opened fire on the British forces from there. At the same time, Niemeyer opened the bridge and so allowed the German troops to cross in greater numbers. He was killed after opening the bridge and is buried in St Symphorien Military Cemetery.
For his actions on the bridge that day, Niemeyer was awarded the Iron Cross, one of Germany’s highest military decorations.