Last month in ‘The Creation of the Victoria Cross’ we found that this medal,
the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy,
came into existence in 1856 and is 150 years old this year. We discovered that
prior to the mid C.19th only officers could win medals and following reports of
acts of gallantry, on the battlefields of the Crimea War, a need began to be
felt for a medal of honour which any serviceman could be awarded. The Houses of
Lords & Commons plus the populous as a whole were in favour of the new medal but
military leaders were opposed. We found that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert
were enthusiastic as to its creation, how they had: helped to design the medal;
suggested the inscription; chosen a fitting colour for the ribbon; and how
Prince Albert had given it the name of the Victoria Cross. Also how it was Queen
Victoria who had caused the use of the cannon, taken at the Battle of Balaclava
possibly by the Charge of the Light Brigade, to be used to make the medal, in
her quest for the perfect appearance of the medal. Then lastly we found that the
highest number of Victoria Crosses had been awarded during the First World War
and that one recipient had been Sapper Hackett of Mexborough.
William Hackett, to give him his correct name, was born in Nottingham on 11th June 1873, one of two sons of John and Harriet Hackett. The latter half of the C.19th saw great hardship in this country, as it was the time of the great depression. Education was expensive and therefore he did not attend school and remained to the end of his days completely illiterate. He began work in a factory in his hometown of Nottingham but at the age of eighteen
William walked to Denaby Main, finding work at the colliery, where he was to remain for twenty-three years. Where because of the habit of calling boys, working at the colliery, youth, he was nicknamed ‘Youthey’. He stayed very close to his family in Nottingham and spent the few days holiday he got with them, walking the ninety miles there and back.
On 16th April 1900 he married Alice Tooby at Conisbrough Parish Church and at first the couple set up home, in one of the myriad of tiny terraced houses owned by the colliery at Denaby Main. It is here that we find them, in 1901, with William employed as a ‘Coal Miner’s Filler’ working at the Coal Face filling tubs with coal, living at 22, Cusworth Street, with Alice, his wife and Alice’s niece Ursula A. Tooby.
No One seems to know when he moved employment but after nearly a quarter of a century, working at Denaby Main Colliery, he went to work at Manvers Main Colliery as a Dataller, repairing and making roads or laying rail track. As you could only live in one of the homes owned by Denaby Main Colliery if you were employed by the firm, it must have been at this time that the family left their home at Denaby Main and moved to 49, Crossgate, Mexborough. By this time the family consisted of William, Alice, Arthur (son), Mary (daughter), plus Thomas & Sarah Tooby, William’s parents-in-law.
When war broke out in 1914 he tried three times to enlist in the York and Lancaster Reg. but was turned down as being too old, at the age of forty one years, but most worryingly of all he was discovered to have a slight heart problem. Then in 1915 a plea for experienced miners to enter the Royal Engineers was put out. On 25th October 1915 they accepted him and after two weeks training at Chatham was placed into the 172nd Tunnelling Company. Then the following month was transferred to the 254th Tunnelling Company and after a few days leave was sent to France.
In January 1916 he received devastating news from home. At Christmas 1915 his fourteen-year-old son, Arthur, had left school and begun employment at Manvers Main Colliery. He had worked there for less than a month when a number of tubs came off the rails hitting him. This resulted in the amputation of his right leg, below the knee. As he could not write William had to find someone who was willing to write a letter back home for him, which he at last did in Sapper Evans and in February 1916 his wife, received the following: “It is very hard to be in this foreign land and have a lad placed in hospital. I cannot help him but I know you will do all you can”.
The Battle of Givenchy, in which Sapper Hackett was to win his V.C., is now one of those forgotten battles of the First World War being overshadowed by that of the Somme.
Sapper Hackett was ordered to tunnel under the German Trenches where mines were then to be exploded. What happened next I feel I cannot surpass the description, written by Capt. Grant Grieve in the ‘Tunellers’ of Sapper William Hackett’s valiant deed and feel that I must quote it for you. It reads as follows:
On 22nd June 1916, for two hours a rain of shells, including heavies, fell upon our saps, front, and reserve and support lines. At 2.50a.m. the enemy exploded a large mine, completing the destruction of two saps, wire and front line trench over a considerable distance, and inflicting losses on the garrison. To add to the confusion, a strong enemy raiding party entered our lines, but was later ejected by the remnants of the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, who gallantly counter-attacked. The crater, the largest on the Givenchy front was known as the ‘Red Dragon,’ the sign of the Division to which the 2nd Royal Fusiliers belonged. ‘Red Dragon’ is also connected with one of the most poignant incidents in tunnelling warfare.
Considerable damage was done below ground when the mine was fired. The main drive from the Shaftsbury Shaft had not proceeded very far, and five men were in it at the time of the blow. The shock broke some of the timbers near the shaft, causing the fall of the roof and cutting off the men. Relays of workers set to work at top speed to release the trapped men. After twenty-four hours a small opening was made through the soft fallen ground and broken timber. Three men scrambled through it to safety. It was then discovered that a smaller fall of roof had occurred near the face. Of the two men remaining in the gallery, one, a big man, was badly injured by the fall near the face; the other was Sapper William Hackett.
The opening, which the rescue party had driven through the outby fall, was too small to permit the injured man to be passed through, and as there immediate danger of further falls, Hackett was ordered to come out. Well knowing his fate, he steadfastly refused to leave the injured man, saying: “I am a Tuneller. I must look after my mate”. Scarcely had he finished speaking when both men were overwhelmed by a fall of clay which filled the gallery completely. All efforts to re-open it failed.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend”.
It is also reported by others that it was Sapper Hackett who helped the other men to get through the hole to safety and that after the final roof-fall the party worked for four days to rescue him.
He is buried, not in France as you would expect, but at Ploegsteert Memorial, in Belgium.
A clue as to his self-sacrifice may lie in an interview given to the Mexborough & Swinton Times shortly after the incident. It appears that shortly before his enlistment he was involved in a roof-fall at Manvers Main Colliery where he had narrowly escaped death, receiving a vicious cut across the back. He therefore knew what it was like to be entombed, alone.
A collection was instantly organised among his comrades for the benefit of his bereaved wife and children. She wrote back thanking them and informing them that the £67 they had raised would be used for her childrens’ education and that Arthur, his son, was now attending Mexborough Secondary School (Mexborough Grammar School) and was taking additional tuition in order that he may gain employment in an office.
On 2nd December 1916 the Mexborough & Swinton Times also inform us how King George V at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday 29th November 1916 invested Alice Hackett with the V.C., along with other V.C. widows. Sapper Hackett’s V.C. is now to be found at the Royal Engineers Museum at Chatham.
As soon as it was made known that Sapper Hackett was to be awarded the V.C. a fund was begun by Mexborough Urban District Council, the committee being Chaired by Councillor W. Winstanley, in order to create a monument in his honour. The main donors as listed in the Mexborough & Swinton Times seem to have been the local Collieries of Manvers, Denaby, and Wath Main, these were followed closely by Barnsley British Co-Op and most of the local businesses and gentry.
The Monumental Fund closed in the week commencing 4th December 1916 with subscriptions in excess of £142, a vast amount for those times.
The monument was erected, bearing the Mexborough Coat of Arms as his town of residence, to the right of the main doors to Mexborough Council Rooms and Market Hall displayed proudly for everyone to see.
In the latter half of the C.20th the Market Hall was sold and a new site was sort for the memorial. The most fitting seemed to be that of the Cenotaph, Castle Hills, Doncaster Road, Mexborough and in 1997, following its transfer, a service of rededication took place attended by vast numbers of people.
Information Obtained from:
Mexborough & Swinton Times 2nd December 1916
1901 Census Returns for Conisbrough
Photocopies of: Sapper November 1916, May 1917, and May 1966.
Western Front Association. Cemeteries & Memorials Where V.C’s are buried. www.westernfront.co.uk
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Wikipedia, the free internet encyclopaedia.
1916 Forgotten Battles. www.holts.co.uk
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