b. 26/09/1878 Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. d. 02/09/1918 Courcelles, France.
Richard Annesley West (1878-1918) was born on 26th September 1878 at 1 Oxford Street, Cheltenham, the sixth child of Irish landowner and former army officer Augustus George West and his wife Sara West (formerly Eyre), of Whitepark, County Fermanagh.
On 8th January 1900 he enlisted at Newbridge in the 45th Company, Imperial Yeomanry (also known as the Irish Hunt Squadron) (No.9697), serving in the Boer War from 13th March 1900 to 4th March 1901. He saw action at Lindley, Dewetsdorp and Riddesberg. Following his discharged at Shorncliffe on 3rd April 1901, he returned to South Africa, where on 16th July 1909 he married Maud Ethel Cushing in Pretoria. They lived in Johannesburg, before moving to Ireland, settling in Dublin.
On the outbreak of war West sought a commission in the North Irish Horse, intending to sail for France with C Squadron. However, according to an account by 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 (No.1015) sailed for France with C Squadron on 20th August 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 11th August.Much later, when the War Office inquired as to the date West was discharged in order to take up his commission, the North Irish Horse replied:
“ … having enlisted on the 20.8.1914 but have since appeared in the Gazette as being Commissioned on the 11.8.1914, it is found difficult to give date of discharge.”
West saw action with C Squadron during the Retreat from Mons and Advance to the Aisne from August to September 1914. He wrote a number of letters home describing his experiences, some of which were published in Irish newspapers. During the first months of 1915, West’s squadron served as corps headquarters cavalry, based at Bailleul. West wrote that he was “never so bored in my life,” and that it was “a bloody existence”.
On 13th June 1915 he was attached to the 1/1 North Somerset Yeomanry. He remained with that regiment until near the end of 1917. On 13th September 1915 he was given the rank of temporary captain whilst attached to the Yeomanry, and that rank was confirmed on 18 November. On 9th March 1916 he was given the temporary rank of major whilst attached.
West, as commanding officer of B Squadron of the North Somerset Yeomanry, saw action during the Battle of Arras on 11th April 1917. He was later awarded a Distinguished Service Order for the part he played, the citation reading:
“His squadron was sent forward to reinforce the right flank of the Brigade under very heavy shell and machine-gun fire. By his excellent example, rapid grasp of the situation and skilful disposition of his squadron, he did much to avert an impending counter-attack. He had shown great ability in command since July 1915.”
West went on leave to England on 31 August 1917, at the same time relinquishing his acting rank. In December 1917 he transferred to the Tank Corps, joining the 6th Battalion in the field on 2nd January 1918. Soon after he was given command of C Company with the rank of acting major. At the beginning of the Advance to Victory offensive, on 9th August 1918, West was wounded while commanding his company of Whippet tanks in the fighting east of Villers-Bretonneux. He was later awarded a Military Cross 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 12th August 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 was killed early on and West assumed command of the battalion, moving forward with the attack to help maintain cohesion, at first mounted and then on foot after his horse was shot. The attack was a success and West was later awarded a Bar to his DSO:
“ For conspicuous gallantry during an attack. In addition to directing his Tanks, he rallied and led forward small bodies of infantry lost in the mist, showing throughout a splendid example of leadership and a total disregard of personal safety, and materially contributed to the success of the operations. He commanded the battalion most of the time, his C.O. being early killed.”
On 21st August 1918 at Courcelles, 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 2nd September at Vaulx-Vraucourt, he arrived at the front line when the enemy were delivering a local counter-attack. The infantry battalion had suffered heavy officer casualties and realizing 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 fell riddled with bullets. His magnificent bravery at a critical moment so inspired the infantry that the hostile attack was defeated. One of the infantrymen he inspired may have been Roland Shaw.
West is the only North Irish Horseman to have been awarded a Victoria Cross, and one of only four Great War Tank Corps VCs. He was also recognised with a mention in Field Marshal Haig’s despatch on 8 November 1918 – his third mention. Lieutenant-Colonel West was buried at Mory Abbey Military Cemetery, Pas-de-Calais, France. West’s medal group containing the VC, DSO with Bar and MC, was purchased privately in 2002 by Michael Ashcroft and displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: MORY ABBEY MILITARY CEMETERY, MORY, FRANCE.
PLOT III, ROW G, GRAVE 4.
Kevin Brazier – Cemetery Map.
Steve Lee www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – Image of the West VC Stone at the Cheltenham War Memorial.