Historian GORDON LUCY on the son of a Fermanagh father who died on the battlefield just weeks before the end of WWI
Richard Annesley West was born in Cheltenham on September 26 1878. He was the sixth child and fourth son of Augustus George West of White Park (near Brookeborough), Co Fermanagh, and his wife Sara, the daughter of Canon Richard Booth Eyre, a Co Galway rector.
West attended Uckfield Agricultural College in Sussex but chose a military career rather than become a farmer. During the Boer War he served in the Imperial Yeomanry and saw action in various engagements.
In August 1914 West sought a commission in the North Irish Horse, intending to sail for France with C Squadron. According to Squadron Sergeant Major Trimble: ‘... as the time for the departure of the squadron came near, [Mr West] wired the War Office asking that his commission be confirmed. There was not any reply to that nor to a further telegram, so he sent yet one more wire, this time “reply paid”. The answer came, that he must wait his turn. Mr West would not wait. Late one night, a day or two before the Squadron left Belfast, he came into the makeshift orderly room in Great George’s Street and awakened the author of this article, who was sleeping on a stretcher on the floor. “Fill in an attestation form for me,” he directed and added forcibly that he was not going to wait for the War Office gazetting but would go to France as a trooper. The form was filled in and Mr West took it away and shortly afterwards brought it back, duly signed by Lord Massereene.’
Private West sailed for France with C Squadron on August 20 1914. Despite his rank he was given command of a troop, allowed to wear an officer’s uniform (though without any badges of rank), and lived in the officers’ mess. His commission as a lieutenant came through in September, backdated to August 11.
West saw action with C Squadron during the ‘Retreat from Mons’ and ‘Advance to the Aisne’ from August to September 1914. He wrote letters home describing his experiences, some of which were published in various newspapers. West’s activities merited mention in Field Marshal French’s first despatch of the war (dated October 10 1914). He was mentioned in despatches on two further occasions.
On June 13 1915 he was attached to the North Somerset Yeomanry, with which he remained until the end of 1917. On September 13 1915 he was appointed a temporary captain which was confirmed on November 18. On March 9 1916 he was made a temporary major.
Despite having seen a great deal of fighting since 1914, it was not until 1917 and 1918 that he acquired the Distinguished Service Order, the Military Cross, a bar to his DSO and the Victoria Cross.
As commanding officer of B Squadron of the North Somerset Yeomanry, he saw action during the Battle of Arras on April 11 1917 and was subsequently awarded a DSO for ‘his excellent example, rapid grasp of the situation and skilful disposition of his squadron’ by which he did much to avert an impending counter-attack.
In December 1917 West was transferred to the Tank Corps, joining the 6th Battalion on January 2 1918.
At the beginning of ‘the Hundred Days’, on August 9 1918, West was wounded while commanding his company of Whippet tanks in the fighting east of Villers-Bretonneux. He was later awarded a MC for his actions that day:
‘For conspicuous gallantry and good leadership. He commanded a company of light tanks with great skill. He had two horses shot under him during the day, and he and his orderly killed five of the enemy and took seven prisoners. He rendered great services to the cavalry by his personal reconnaissances, and later in the day, under heavy machine-gun fire, he rallied the crews of disabled tanks and withdrew them with great skill. He set a splendid example of courage and devotion to duty throughout the operations.’
On August 12 he was made second-in-command of the 6th Battalion.
Nine days later the battalion had moved north to the Third Army’s VI Corps front, their objective being to support the infantry advance to the railway in the vicinity of Courcelles. Lieutenant-Colonel Wood, the battalion’s commanding officer, was killed almost immediately and West assumed command, moving forward with the attack to help maintain cohesion, at first mounted and then on foot after his horse was shot. For his role in the success of the attack he was awarded a Bar to his DSO.
He was awarded the VC for acts of bravery on August 21 and September 2 1918.
On August 21 1918 at Courcelles in France, during an attack, the infantry lost their bearings in dense fog and Lieutenant-Colonel West at once collected any men he could find and led them to their objective, in face of heavy machine-gun fire.
On September 2 at Vaulx-Vraucourt, he arrived at the front line when the enemy was delivering a local counter-attack. The infantry had suffered heavy officer casualties and realising the danger if they gave way, and despite the enemy being almost upon them, Colonel West rode up and down in face of certain death, encouraging the men. He told them: ‘Stick it men, show them fight, and for God’s sake put up a good fight.’ Those were probably his last words. He fell riddled with bullets. His sacrificial courage inspired the troops and saved the day.
He is buried at the Mory Abbey Military Cemetery (grave III.G.4). His headstone is inscribed with John 15:13: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ He is also commemorated on the war memorial in Enniskillen and in St Ronan’s Parish Church, Colebrooke.
His VC, DSO and Bar and MC, a truly astonishing array of medals, were presented to Maud Ethel West, his widow, by King George V in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace on February 15 1919. Mrs West had given birth to their daughter, Gertrude Annesley West, on November 17 1918.