If the history of war teaches anything, it is that the physical stature of a man has little to do with the gallantry he can display. Standing only 5 feet 6 inches and weighing a bit more than 115 pounds, this warrior proved that he was a real hero.
When Great Britain became engulfed in the flames of WWI, they turned to men like Frederick Barter to break the stalemate. Leading a group of 8 volunteers, Barter stormed through the trenches cutting wires, having advanced through a German minefield and capturing over 100 men before the assault was over. This man of short stature returned a giant, and his nation embraced him as its newest hero and the recipient of the Victoria Cross.
Big Fight in Small Packages
Frederick Barter was born in Cardiff on January 17, 1891. He was initially turned down for service in the military based on his size. However, determined to enlist he eventually succeeded in joining the Royal Welch Fusiliers in December 1908. His initial service was less than eventful, and by the time WW1 broke out, his time with the Fusiliers was over, although he was serving his obligatory stint in the reserves. In August 1914, he was called back to active duty at the rank of Sergeant Major.
Very quickly, Barter and the 1st Battalion of the Regiment were headed for France. Few anticipated the horrors that awaited them in the trenches and the blood that would be shed to capture just a few yards of terrain. By 1915, the British had adopted a policy of substantial bombardment for days before pressing forward with a major offensive and such was the case in May of that year in the Artois region of France.
The overarching plan was an assault across a 4-mile front by the British to capture approximately 1,000 yards of territory from the Germans. Over 16,000 British soldiers fell during the attack – one of whom was not Frederick Barter. Despite his gallant charge through the trenches, he emerged without a scratch and was responsible for capturing nearly 25% of the total German terrain eventually taken. He proved a big fight can indeed come in small packages.
Storming the Trenches
Preceding the Battle at Festubert, the British opened up with three days of continuous shelling, and over 100,000 artillery rounds spent to soften the defense. The resulting landscape was a wasteland, void of vegetation and life apart from the well dug in Germans who weathered the storm and awaited the inevitable attack.
However, as is often the case in war, it boiled down to the infantry and men like Frederick Barter to make victory possible. Seeing an opportunity to expand the British lines and capture the enemy flank, Barter was tasked with raising a team of volunteers to charge ahead into the German trenches and do their worst upon the enemy.
On May 16, 1915, Sergeant Major Barter had gathered eight volunteers for the treacherous task across no man’s land and up a steep hill towards the German lines. Barter and his team were to utilize small arms, bombs and hand grenades to clear the trenches as the fighting would be up close and in tight quarters. Further heightening the danger, German trenches were often lined with mines rigged to collapse if they were ever to fall into enemy hands.
Leading from the front, Barter leaped into the trenches and began throwing hand grenades at a frenzied pace. However, he still had the presence of mind under fire to be on the lookout for the explosives set to collapse the trenches.
Barter personally was able to locate and cut 11 mine leads during the assault. The team continued to bomb and fire their way through the trenches with such speed and violence that the numerically superior German troops could not ascertain the size of the assaulting force. By the time Barter was finished, his small team of men had captured 3 German officers and 102 additional men. In a war where a hefty price was paid for every yard of the battlefield, Barter successfully seized 500 yards of German trenches.
A Modest Hero
For leading a gallant charge that captured nearly an entire German garrison, Sergeant Major Frederick Barter was awarded the Victoria Cross and decorated at Buckingham Palace by King George V on July 12, 1915.
When he returned to his home in Cardiff, he was welcomed by thousands of cheering fans ready to celebrate their new hometown hero. Despite having made his gallant charge through the trenches without injury, his first wartime injury came from an adoring fan throwing a box of chocolates right in his face giving him a black eye.
He continued to serve throughout the rest of the war in various capacities mostly with the British Indian Army where he was eventually given a commission and promoted to Captain. However, his time was spent in a more unassuming fashion befitting the modest man’s personality.
He did not set sail from Britain with heroism on his mind, and he was content to live out the rest of his life in modest anonymity. He passed away in a nursing home in 1952, and his Victoria Cross can now be viewed at the Museum of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.