Trailblazing Tankers Remembered – The Tank Museum Opens VC Exhibition

 
Descendants of the four WWI tank crew who were awarded the VC.
 
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Descendants of the four WWI tank crew who were awarded the VC. (l-r) Ian Robertson, great nephew of Clement Robertson, Peter Harbinson, great nephew of Richard Wain, Wendy Shaw, great niece of Cecil Sewell, Kitty Morris, great-granddaughter of Richard West

Descendants of the four men from the Tank Corps who were awarded Victoria Crosses in WWI assembled at the Tank Museum in Dorset for the opening of a new exhibition.

The four VCs have been brought together for the first time and are now on display at the attraction in Bovington.

WWI tank VC winners: Richard Wain, Cecil Sewell, Clement Robertson, Richard West.

Prior to the opening of the exhibition, members of the current Tank Regiment read the citations that explained the astonishing bravery displayed by the men that earned them the highest award for gallantry.

All four were awarded the VC posthumously and their descendants were moved and described how proud they were.

Ian Robertson, the great nephew of Clement Robertson who was from Delgany, County Wicklow, Ireland, said: “I’m deeply proud and wear his replica medals.

“The bridge where he died is called Robertson’s Bridge and has been upgraded to memorial status.” Robertson was 26 when he died.

Peter Harbinson, whose great uncle was Richard Wain from Penarth in South Wales, said: “What he had done didn’t register with us when we were young, but of course we realized later.

Descendants of the four WWI tank crew who were awarded the VC. (l-r) Ian Robertson, great nephew of Clement Robertson, Peter Harbinson, great nephew of Richard Wain, Wendy Shaw, great niece of Cecil Sewell, Kitty Morris, great granddaughter of Richard West

“He could have saved himself but picked up a rifle to continue shooting at the enemy. He was taken to hospital where he died, but there is no known grave although there is a headstone.”

Richard Wain was 20 when he died.

Wendy Shaw, the great-niece of Cecil Sewell from Greenwich whose VC was donated to the museum some years ago, said: “The story has always been in the family.

“Their generation didn’t make much of it, but we’ve always known about Cecil and are so proud.

“The children have done things about him at school. He was only 23 when he died; so young, and these men had no thought for themselves.”

Kitty Morris, the granddaughter of Richard West who was from Cheltenham, Glocestershire, said: “It’s very emotional and I’m very proud.

“He joined up as a trooper as they wouldn’t give him a commission. He’d already served in South Africa and was a professional soldier.

“In the tanks, it was likely that any award would be posthumous because if the tank was hit they’d probably be burned alive and if they got out they’d probably be shot.” Richard West was 23 when he died.

David Willey, curator of the museum, said: “We’re desperately proud to have all four VCs here.

“It means a little more having them at Bovington as it’s a working army base.

“And one day we may ask another generation to do something like this.”

The VC is the highest award for gallantry and the stories of how the tank men won them are staggering.

Cecil Sewell’s VC

Clement Robertson was the first Tank Corps officer to be awarded a VC, and it was for his heroics at Passchendale on October 4 1917.

Prior to an advance, he spent three days in no-man’s-land marking out the routes for his tanks to follow – all under heavy fire.

On the day – even with the routes taped out – he thought the tanks might still lose their way and get bogged down.

So he decided to lead them on foot, refusing to take cover from the shell and bullet fire. As the tanks continued forward Robertson was shot and killed, but his self-sacrifice led to a successful attack.

Captain Richard Wain was awarded the VC following his heroics at the Battle of Cambrai on November 20, 1917.

During the battle he was seriously injured when his tank was hit, but he shunned a stretcher, climbed out with a Lewis gun and attacked the enemy, captured a strong point, took prisoners and allowed the infantry to advance.

He continued shooting at the retreating Germans until he received a fatal shot to the head.

Cecil Sewell was awarded his for two linked actions on August 29, 1918. After seeing one of his fellow Whippet tanks fall into a shell-hole and catch fire he leaped from his own tank and dug away the mud so the men could escape.

VC shown to Sewell’s descendants.

He then saw that his own tank driver Gunner Knox was wounded and he rushed to help. As he ran across open ground he was shot several times. While administering first aid he was shot again, fatally.

One report stated that when their bodies were found, Sewell was slumped over Knox’s body as if he were protecting him.

Richard West was an experienced soldier when the war started and his VC was awarded for two actions in 1918.

The first was leading men to their objective after having two horses shot from beneath him.

The second was on September 2 when, as a Lieutenant-Colonel attached to the Tank Corps and in command of the 6th Light Battalion and their Whippet tanks, he feared a retreat from his infantry due to an enemy counter-attack.

Realising the danger, he rode on horseback up and down the line encouraging them to fight and defend their position.

His last words were: ”Stick it, men; show them fight, and for God’s sake put up a good fight.”

According to his citation he then fell ‘riddled with bullets’, but his words and actions inspired the men and the attack was defeated.

‘The Victoria Cross Exhibition; Men of Extraordinary Bravery’ runs until November 11.

Have a look at the video about the VCs on the Tank Museum Facebook page.