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Book tracks down the lost heroes of Yorkshire
11:26am Saturday 9th June 2012 in Books
A new book celebrates the Yorkshire heroes who were awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous gallantry. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
IN a shaded corner of York Cemetery, just to one side of an avenue of spreading lime trees, there stands a neat headstone. “Honour to the brave,” says the inscription. “To the memory of Thomas Wilkinson, pensioner RMA, who died in the City of York 22 September 1887 and was interred with full military honours.”
Beneath this headstone lie the mortal remains of Bombardier Thomas Wilkinson of the Royal Marine Artillery: a young York man born in Marygate who, during the Crimean War of 1854-56, displayed such conspicuous courage and gallantry that he was later presented with the Victoria Cross by Queen Victoria.
Bombardier Wilkinson was 23 when the Crimean War, famous for Florence Nightingale and the Charge of the Light Brigade, broke out. Britain had allied itself with Turkey and France to resist Russian expansion.
Bombardier Wilkinson saw action at sea and in various land battles. On June 7, 1855, he was with an advanced British gun position besieging the city of Sebastopol in the Crimea. He used sandbags to carry out repairs to his gun position’s defences, while under intense enemy gunfire, a feat for which he was written up in despatches and subsequently awarded the VC.
Bombardier Wilkinson went on to be promoted to sergeant instructor, before being invalided out of the Marines on October 12, 1859. He returned to York where, according to the York Cemetery Trust, he became manager of Rymer’s coal and sand yard in North Street.
He received his VC in 1857. “And I believe he was awarded it personally by Queen Victoria herself,” says David Poole of the Friends of York Cemetery.
We know little more about this authentic York hero, other than that when he died in September 1887, at the age of 55, he was buried in a public grave, along with ten other people. “So he obviously had no money,” David says.
Records show that the grave was open for just over a month while it was filled. The bodies of six adults were interred there first: among them Bombardier Wilkinson. Above the adults, five children were laid to rest – one of them, William Skinner, heartbreakingly only eight hours old.
This was a sad end for a man who had fought so gallantly for his country. He was not forgotten for long, however.
At some point, the officers and men of the Royal Marine Artillery clubbed together to pay for a headstone. The stone at York Cemetery was erected by them, says an inscription, “as a token of respect to their late comrade, who received the Victoria Cross, Legion of Honour, Crimean and Turkish medals, for his conspicuous bravery during the Crimean War”.
At least his grave is now well cared for. “It is very well maintained,” says David. Two small wooden crosses were even laid three on Remembrance Day last year.
Bombardier Wilkinson is one of 68 Yorkshiremen to have been awarded the Victoria Cross whose stories are told in Yorkshire VCs, a new book by Whitby local historian Alan Whitworth.
Several of them are from York or North Yorkshire: including Lt Col Bertram Best-Dunkley, killed near Ypres in the First World War at the age of 27 while commanding officer of the 2/5th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers.
“On 31 July 1917 at Wieltje, Belgium, where the leading waves of an attack had become disorganised by rifle and machine gun fire at very close range from positions that were believed to be in British hands, Lt Col Best-Dunkley dashed forward, rallied his men and personally led them in the assault of these positions which, despite heavy losses, were carried,” writes Mr Whitworth.
Later that day, when the position was threatened again, Lt Col Best-Dunkley gathered his men and beat off the attack. He died subsequently of his wounds.
The colonel’s links with York are fairly tenuous. He was born in the city – in Mount Vale – in August 1890, the son of a commercial traveller, Alfred Dunkley, and christened at St Paul’s in Holgate. But by the time he was four years old, the family had moved to London.
David Poole, a family historian as well as Friend of York Cemetery, admits he doesn’t know where the colonel got his double-barrelled name. He was born plain Dunkley, David says – that’s how the family appeared in the York census in 1891 – and Best wasn’t even his mother’s maiden name. But who cares? Lt Col Best-Dunkley was another true Yorkshire hero.
Other VCs featured in Mr Whitworth’s book include Corporal Harry Blanshard Wood of the Scots Guards, from Newton-upon-Derwent, who helped his unit secure a vital bridge crossing of the River Selle during an advance into France in October 1918, towards the end of the First World War.
The space in front of the bridge was covered by withering enemy sniper fire. “Corporal Wood boldly carried a large brick out into the open space, lay down behind it, and fired continually at these snipers, ordering his men to work across while he covered them by his fire,” writes Mr Whitworth.
Despite his courage, Corporal Wood’s nerves were badly affected by his wartime experiences. In 1924, he was walking with his wife along a street while on holiday in Bristol. A car mounted the pavement and hurtled towards them. His wife pushed him out of the way, and became pinned against a wall herself. She suffered only minor injuries, Mr Whitworth writes. But “her husband was so shocked that he collapsed and fell into a deep coma, from which he never recovered. He died several days later in hospital”.
Corporal Wood is buried in Arnos Vale Cemetery, in Bristol. But his VC is right here in York, at the Castle Museum.