Wartime stories of brave Chorley soldiers told in new book

James Miller
James Miller

Two brave Chorley soldiers feature in a new book called ‘Victoria Cross Heroes of World War One’.

To coincide with Remembrance Day, the book’s author Robert Hamilton shares the stories of the borough’s war heroes with Flashback.

William Mariner

William Mariner

James Miller (Private)

May 4 1890 – July 31 1916

King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment)

Bazentin-le-Petit, France, 
July 30-31, 1916

James Miller was born near Preston in 1890 and was later a resident of Withnell.

James was working in a paper mill when war broke out, and one of the first to heed Kitchener’s call to arms.

By summer 1915, Private Miller was serving at the Western Front with the King’s Own Royal Lancasters, and a year on his battalion was in action as the Allies geared up for the Somme offensive.

A month into the battle, on July 30, 1916, the 7th King’s Own Lancasters captured an enemy position at Bazentin-le-Petit, a village lying on a ridge between the Somme and River Ancre.

William Mariner,  awarded the VC in First World War

William Mariner, awarded the VC in First World War

Taking the position was one thing, consolidating it required accurate and 
up-to-date information to be fed back to those orchestrating the battle.

Miller was ordered to carry a vital message, “and to bring back a reply at all costs”, as the VC citation put it.

His race should have been run almost immediately, for a bullet struck him in the back almost as soon as he left the trench.It exited from the abdomen, leaving a “gaping wound”.

Miller used compression to stem the flow of blood and carried out his task to the letter.

He was staggering as he delivered the response, at which point he collapsed and died at the receiving officer’s feet. He was 26.

James Miller’s heroic deed was the subject of a poetic panegyric written by a former member of the King’s Own, Ellis Williams.

Entitled ‘The Message’, it ends with the words:

‘This deed stands aloof from all, heroic, grand, alone;

The pride of all of British race, the pride of the old King’s Own.

So when you hear folk talk of heroes, tell this story far and wide,

The story of ‘The Message’, and how Miller of Withnell died.’

William Mariner (Private)

May 29 1882 – July 1 1916

King’s Royal Rifle Corps

Cambrin, France, 
May 22, 1915

William Mariner was born in Chorley in 1882, the illegitimate son of a cotton-weaver.

Around the turn of the century he joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and though he cut a diminutive figure, Mariner was no lightweight, as his impressive record in the regimental wrestling championships shows.

Nor was he a shrinking violet when it came to authority. Transgressions during his army service, much of it spent in India, familiarised him with life behind bars.

He returned to civvy street two years before war broke out, and soon added to his list of misdemeanours.

This time it was housebreaking, and there followed another period of incarceration, this time at His Majesty’s Pleasure.

When war was declared, Mariner re-enlisted with his old regiment and was in France before Christmas 1914.

The action for which he won the VC took place on May 22 the following year, near Cambrin.

A German machine-gun emplacement had been proving particularly troublesome, and on that thundery night Mariner decided to do act.

He was not alone, at least not for the first part of what was seen as a one-way trip into no man’s land.

He took with him a callow 18-year-old to help cut the wire before going on by himself – with a few grenades for company.

He was soon on top of the German parapet hurling bombs for all he was worth.

His teenage accomplice, whose eyewitness account came to light relatively recently, described the scene: “Pieces of bodies, limbs, heads were all flying out and up into the air. Again I thought, that’s the last I’ll see of him because the Germans had opened up with every gun. I managed to get back to our line and as I dropped over on to the fire-step, my mates grabbed me and one even kissed me, saying ‘My God, you got back alive’. But we all thought we’d never see Mariner again.”

But fortune favoured the bravery of William Mariner that night.

He not only returned in one piece but had a couple of captured Germans in tow.

Three months later, he went to Windsor Castle to receive his VC from King George V, but it was not quite a complete return to the straight and narrow.

There was another run-in with the authorities when he went AWOL, carousing in London when he should have been back on duty.

He received a ticking-off from a judge who took exception to the defendant sporting the highest award for gallantry in court. The latter clearly saw it as a cynical ploy that besmirched the honour and standing associated with the Cross.

William Mariner’s luck ran out as the Somme offensive opened up on July 1 1916, killed in a diversionary attack at Loos.

His body was not recovered but his name is recorded at the Thiepval Memorial, which lies off the Bapaume-Albert road.

More than 70,000 names are listed there, men “to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death”.

William Mariner is one of seven Victoria Cross winners etched in stone on Sir Edwin Lutyens’ monument, completed in 1932.

Meanwhile, the medal awarded to the “Convict VC” found its way into a family drawer and lay undisturbed for decades, presumed lost.

It turned up in 2005 following the death of one of Mariner’s relatives and fetched more than £100,000 at auction a year later.

- ‘Victoria Cross Heroes of World War One’ by Robert Hamilton is published by Atlantic Publishing and is priced at £40.