This Unbelievable WWI Soldier Single-Handedly Captured 100 Soldiers, After Eliminating Two Machine Guns
This Unbelievable WWI Soldier Single-Handedly Captured 100 Soldiers, After Eliminating Two Machine Guns

This Unbelievable WWI Soldier Single-Handedly Captured 100 Soldiers, After Eliminating Two Machine Guns

William McLaughlin - December 4, 2017

On the ongoing 100th anniversary of “the Great War”, we have been remembering the massive battles and political implications of a war that too often gets overshadowed in academia and popular knowledge by the WWII. We can remember the epic and terrible battles such as those fought at Verdun, Ypres, and Megiddo, but it is also important to remember the amazingly heroic deeds of individuals. And few deeds were as singularly awesome as Horace Augustus Curtis’ actions that would win him the Victoria Cross.

Curtis joined the war as soon as he could, at 23 years old in 1914, years before his eventual heroism. He joined the mostly Irish 10th Division of the British army, one that was personally inspected by King George V. first up for the new division was an attack against the Ottomans at Gallipoli, landing at Sulva Bay. This would be the first of four theatres of war Curtis would fight in, truly showing the “world” aspect of World War One.

The Gallipoli Campaign was a monumental struggle between the over-confident Brits and the wholly underestimated power of the Ottoman Empire. As Russia was an important ally of France and Britain, the fact that the only sea route through the Dardanelles was controlled by the enemy Ottomans was a problem.

This Unbelievable WWI Soldier Single-Handedly Captured 100 Soldiers, After Eliminating Two Machine Guns
A look at the all-important Gallipoli Peninsula. Image: Wikipedia

Almost half a million troops invaded the narrow peninsula with the main objective of securing a trade route to Russia through the Black Sea. The Ottoman Empire had been in an undeniable state of decline for generations. The Ottomans were even referred to as “the sick man of Europe,” but Gallipoli gave them a chance to prove themselves.

Though a relatively small and reasonable target for hundreds of thousands of troops, Gallipoli was a slugfest where the Ottomans would gain one of their greatest victories of the war, stalling the invasion and relegating the British invasion to a series of beachheads reaching, at most, four miles inland.

Though the attacks were halted, it in no way diminishes the service of the British Australian and New Zealand troops, solidifying their national pride. ANZAC day, the veteran’s day equivalent in Australia and New Zealand began in remembrance of the ANZAC involvement in Gallipoli

This Unbelievable WWI Soldier Single-Handedly Captured 100 Soldiers, After Eliminating Two Machine Guns
ANZAC troops desperately try to scamble up the rocky and hostile terrain. Image: Wikipedia

After months of making no progress, the Brits sought a large push to break through the lines and take the pesky peninsula once and for all. This is where Curtis and the 10th came in. Sulva Bay, just north of the small ANZAC beachhead could break open the Ottoman defense.

Despite good initial landings and decent progress, British commanders became almost lethargic and further gains came slowly in the wake of estimations saying that they had over a day before Ottoman reinforcements would arrive. A late forced march during the evening hours to reach a ridge was thwarted as the Ottomans crested the heights just before the exhausted British troops arrived. A barrage of fire and a downhill Ottoman bayonet charge decimated the British attack.

Though the troops were ready to fight, command incompetence led to a disastrous battle with twice as many casualties as the whole allied losses at the D-day landings 30 years later. The rest of the campaign didn’t fare much better. Reports estimated that a full quarter of the 10th was killed in the campaign and only 25% got through the campaign still fit to fight. Curtis fought in these terrible conditions, being sent without adequate fresh water in the sweltering heat and then having to wait for unsure commanders to make decisions.

This Unbelievable WWI Soldier Single-Handedly Captured 100 Soldiers, After Eliminating Two Machine Guns
The Gallipoli campaign featured some devastating and deadly amphibious assaults. image: Wikipedia

Experiencing the many theatres of the War

The 10th would move only a short way away from the Gallipoli campaign, heading to Greece to fight on the Macedonian front. One of the more varied and confusing fronts in the war, the Macedonian front involved the Allies setting up camp in Greece. The only issue was that the King of Greece was a supporter of the Germans while his Prime Minister supported the Allies. The Greek troops were often ordered to stand down despite conflicts raging just miles from their borders.

Almost every European power involved in WWI had troops fight at the Macedonian Front. Austria-Hungary and the Bulgarians pushed into Serbia and even the tiny Montenegro. Fierce defenses caused massive Central Powers losses but territory was still lost. Though it was an established front, the lines here moved as much or more than any other front of the war. Small gains were taken by either side.

This Unbelievable WWI Soldier Single-Handedly Captured 100 Soldiers, After Eliminating Two Machine Guns
The map here shows just one year’s changes along the Macedonian front. Image: Wikipedia

The line stretched from Thessaloniki in modern Greece, through the mountains of southern Macedonia and to the Adriatic coast of Albania. The two years Curtis spent here were spent in everything to hot and dry valleys to snow capped mountains. He would have also faced the familiar foe in the Ottomans, but also would have waged war against Austro-Hungarians, Germans and Bulgarians while working with the entire range of European Allies.

Curtis used the opportunity of near-constant and mobile fighting to earn a few promotions and commendations for his bravery. Pulling out from Macedonia in 1917, Curtis and the 10th again took on the Ottomans, this time in Palestine. Curtis would have seen the impressive Alexandria before being shuffled off to the Holy Land They would be quickly thrown into the fire against the Ottomans entrenched in Gaza.

This Unbelievable WWI Soldier Single-Handedly Captured 100 Soldiers, After Eliminating Two Machine Guns
This map does an excellent job showing the tough task that Curtis and the 10th had in pushing the Ottomans out of the area. Image: Wikipedia

Like Gallipoli, the British faced a determined and dug in Ottoman force, but unlike Gallipoli, the British were able to grind their way through the terrible desert terrain to push the Ottomans from Gaza. Later in the year, just before Christmas on 1917, Curtis and the 10th captured Jerusalem. Though not entirely strategically important, the 10th successful campaigns against the Ottomans spelled the beginning of the end of the war in the east.

With a Jerusalem front established, Curtis saw some shuffling as his division went through changes to incorporate more Indian troops. So, while the 10th remained to win the war in Palestine, Horace Curtis was sent to the heart of the war, landing at Marseilles on the Western Front.

This Unbelievable WWI Soldier Single-Handedly Captured 100 Soldiers, After Eliminating Two Machine Guns
By 1918, most areas were completely torn apart by years of constant war. Image: http://www.inniskillingsmuseum.com

Horace’s Great Charge

After all his travel it was some bitter irony that Curtis would be diagnosed with malaria just a month into his French campaign. This got him sent to London where he spent a month recovering and was given a ten-day furlough to visit home. This was Curtis’ first time home since the start of the war, and after his leave, he was sent right back to the front lines.

As the Americans were pouring into the front it was time for the allies to slowly push forward. Fighting at Le Cateau, a site fiercely fought over and won by the Germans four years earlier, Curtis would use the courage and likely a feeling of invincibility to earn his Victoria Cross.

Pinned down by heavy machine gun fire, Curtis and his platoon found their attack stalled. Le Cateau was very near the border of German-occupied Belgium. Belgium had been conquered except for a sliver of territory for the entirety of the war and this attack was key to its liberation.

Knowing he had to do something, Horace Augustus Curtis ran through no-man’s-land, risking fire from crossfire from both sides. He charged directly towards a group of six machine guns, enough to level the whole platoon. Somehow Curtis crossed the field unscathed and hopped into the enemy trench.

This Unbelievable WWI Soldier Single-Handedly Captured 100 Soldiers, After Eliminating Two Machine Guns
A deadly machine gun emplacement. Image: Wikipedia

Once in Curtis wasted no time killing the surprised crews of the first two guns. Seeing the one-man army at work, the remaining gun crews surrendered on the spot. To sweeten his victory, Curtis noticed a troop reinforcement train approaching. All he needed to do was get in a threatening position and he forced the surrender of no less than 100 German soldiers as they filed out of the train.

Curtis just had to wait for his platoon to catch up and secure the prisoners. Though he was likely wounded to some degree, no official mentions were made of his injuries. Though it was a relatively small action in a war of millions, Curtis’ heroism was a spectacular example of heroism that existed all along the front during the final pushes of the war.

This Unbelievable WWI Soldier Single-Handedly Captured 100 Soldiers, After Eliminating Two Machine Guns
A map of the last German offensives of 1918. just a few months after these, Curtis would lead his award-winning charge. Image: Wikipedia

Aside from artillery, machine guns were one of the biggest killers of the First World War. The position and role of machine guns on the battlefield was precisely to stop massive straight-ahead infantry charges. Multiple emplacements together were not able to stop the lone Horace Curtis.

The exact way Curtis approached is unknown; perhaps he had an expert use of cover learned from years of combat experience. Maybe he sprinted like his life depended on it. And it was very likely that the defending Germans were shocked into inaction, a counterintuitive result, but one that we have a few examples of during the World Wars.

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