The three VCs of Thatcham

For many towns, the honour of having a Victoria Cross winner from the town is an immense source of civic pride.  Streets and parks are often named in honour of the towns heroes.  Given the scarcity of the award, with only 1355 having been awarded since its inception in 1856, it’s quite understandable why the holders of the medal are held in such esteem.  Only three men have won the VC twice (two of whom were Doctors and never fired a shot in anger) and only four sets of brothers have both been awarded the VC.

The small Berkshire town of Thatcham, holds a remarkable place in the history of the Victoria Cross. To have one VC winner would be a source of pride enough, but remarkably, Thatcham was home to no less that three Victoria Cross winners, including two brothers!  Indeed until WW2, Thatcham held the record for the town with the most VC winners per capita, until Culdane in Scotland with just 8000 inhabitants received a third VC in 1944 which took it to the top of the list.

The three VCs were won in three different wars, the first in the Boer War, the second in the Great War and third in the Second World War.  The first and second World War winners were brothers.

William John House VC was born in 1879 in Thatcham where his family were living.  His father Thomas House was a plate layer by trade.  A plate layer was a skilled trade involving the inspection of the integrity of railway tracks, which required a steady eye.  The 1891 census shows the family living at 15, Park Lane, Thatcham with William being the oldest of the House’s four children.  He joined the Royal Berkshire Regiment at the age of 17 in 1896, and with three years’ service under his belt he found himself on a ship bound for South Africa to fight with his regiment in the Second Boer War.

The second Boer War, fought between 1899 and 1902 was a conflict between the colonial British and the two Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, mainly over the influence of the British in South Africa.  The discovery of large quantities of diamonds and gold in the two Boer provinces may have been a subsidiary factor!  The highly skilled British army were dragged into a guerrilla war against the Boers, and adopted a brutal policy of scorched earth.

On the 2nd August 1900 the regiment was involved in an attack against the Boers in the Magaliesberg mountain range, at a place called Mosilikatse. During the attack a Berkshire’s sergeant was seriously wounded by Boer gunfire and lay wounded in front of the British positions.  Despite being warned not to go out due to the danger of sniper fire, Private House ran from cover and picked the wounded man up onto his back and ran back towards the British lines.  He was, himself, seriously wounded during the action and was heard shouting to his comrades not to come out and try and rescue him.  It is not known whether the Sergeant survived or not.

House’s VC was gazetted on his 23rd birthday in 1902 and he was awarded the BVC by King Edward VII in London in 1902 having recuperated from his wounds. 

He remained with the Berkshire regiment until 1912, when he was stationed at Shaft Barracks in Dover. On the 28th February he was cleaning his rifle when it went off and shot him in the head.  While recorded as an accidental death it is widely believed that he took his own life. He is buried in Dover and his VC medal is in the Rifles Museum in Salisbury.

Thatcham’s next VC was awarded in 1915 to 2nd Lieutenant Alexander Buller Turner of the 3rd Battalion the Royal Berkshire Regiment on the afternoon of the 28th September 1915 during the fighting near Vermelles during the Battle of Loos in northern France.  His father Charles Turner, was a career soldier being a Major in the Royal Berks and his mother was the daughter of Admiral Sir Alexander Buller.

1915 had been a sanguinary experience for the British, with the failed campaign in Gallipoli and the massacres at the Battles of Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge and Festubert earlier in 1915.  The Battle of Loos was conducted in September 1915 in the grim industrial wasteland of Artois, near the mining town of Loos.  The battlefield was pancake flat with no cover, and covered with heavily fortified mine workings and slag heaps. It marked a paradigm shift in British tactics, the battle being the first time the British used poison gas against the Germans.

On the afternoon of the 28th September the Berkshire’s were fighting in the vicinity of the slag heap known as Fosse 8 which sat behind the formidable German strongpoint of the Hohenzollern Redoubt, near the village of Vermelles.  The fighting was centred on a German trench called Slag Alley and was brutal hand to hand combat, with grenades and bayonets being used freely.  After a number of bomb (grenade) attacks had failed, Turner volunteered to lead a fresh attack against the Germans.  He made his way down the German trench throwing grenades like a mad man and in a matter of moments had cleared over 150 yards of German trench.  Despite facing a hail of German grenade and rifle fire he pressed on until the remainder of his regiment was able to join him.  As he rounded the final bend in the German line he was shot in the stomach, but the Berkshire’s successfully took the German trench.  There is no doubt that his actions saved the lives of countless men.  He died of his wounds on the 1st October 1915, and lies buried at Chocques Military Cemetery in France. His medal is the regimental museum in Salisbury.

As we have mentioned only four sets of brothers have been awarded the VC, and Thatcham’s third VC was awarded to Alex Buller Turner’s younger brother Victor Buller Turner.  Like his older brother Victor had been a pupil at Wellington College, and studied at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst.  Having been commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade, by 1942 he was a Colonel and found himself in the Western Desert of North Africa in the 2nd El Alamein campaign. On the 27th October his Rifle Brigade company had taken a German position on high ground near to a feature called the Kidney, and dug in awaiting the expected German counter attack.  It duly came and over the next 36 hours, the men of the Rifle Brigade fought off over 90 German tanks, destroying 55 of them.  At one stage Turner acted as gun loader for a 6lb gun being manned by a Sergeant and a 2nd Lieutenant.  He was seriously wounded in the head but refused to leave and seek medical attention until the final German tank had been seen off.  Through his cool leadership, disregard of his own safety and personal bravery he was awarded the Victoria Cross.  He survived the War and his medal is held in the Rifle Brigade museum in Winchester.

Miraculously, the Turner’s mother Jane was a direct descendant of Sir Redvers Buller was awarded the VC in 1879 in the Zulu War.

Three remarkable men of whom Thatcham should be rightly proud.

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