THE heroic story of a pitman-turned-soldier will be the focus of a museum’s World War One commemorations next month.
Private Michael Heaviside won the Victoria Cross after repeatedly risking his life under heavy fire to rescue a wounded comrade in 1917.
Now his story is to be shared with visitors to Beamish during February’s school half-term week, to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the “war to end all wars”.
“This is a very local story, but it’s almost like a forgotten story. It is important that it is remembered,” said Rosie Nichols, keeper of social history at Beamish. Michael Heaviside, son of grocer John and his dressmaker wife Ann, was born at 4 Station Lane in Gilesgate, Durham City, on October 28, 1880.
The family moved to Kibblesworth just a few years later, when John secured work as a pit inspector. A transfer to Sacriston followed, after he became a colliery labourer.
“Michael joined the army after the death of his mother, serving as a stretcher-bearer in the Royal Army Medical Corps in South Africa during the Boar War,” said Rosie.
“He then found work as a miner at Burnhope Colliery after leaving the regular army, but also signed up with the 4th Durham Light Infantry, to serve as a reservist.”
By the time of the 1911 census, Michael was living at 3 Marvins Buildings in Sacriston with his wife Elizabeth and children Richard, John and one-year-old Annie.
In about 1913, however, he moved the family to Craghead, near Stanley, after starting work as a hewer at Oswald Pit.
“Michael re-enlisted in the army on September 7, 1914 – just a month after Britain declared war on Germany – joining the 15th (Service) DLI Battalion,” said Rosie.
“He once again served as a stretcher-bearer and fought throughout the war. His bravery was immense, yet how many people today know of his courageous deeds?”
It was on May 6, 1917, that Michael won honours for bravery – after crawling across No Man’s Land under heavy fire at Font les Croiselles, France.
Just 100 yards separated the British and German positions on the Hindenburg Line at that time, with snipers and machine-gunners primed to fire at a moment’s notice.
But, after spotting a wounded British soldier hiding in a shell hole and waving an empty drinking bottle, Michael volunteered to help out – risking his own life to do so.
“He reached the man, despite heavy enemy machine-gun fire, finding him demented with thirst, as he had been there for four days,” reported the London Gazette.
Once he had helped the wounded soldier take a drink, Michael dressed the man’s wounds before promising to return – despite facing almost certain death if he did.
“We could see bullets striking the ground where Heaviside was crawling. Every minute we expected to be his last, but the brave chap went on,” reported a witness.
“As he crawled closer to the German lines the firing increased. The enemy seemed to be more determined to hit him; the bullets spluttering more viciously than ever.”
Michael, however, was determined to make good on his promise. Later that night he led two stretcher-bearers across to the injured soldier - and carried him back to safety.
Without a doubt, Michael had saved the man’s life. The award of the VC medal was announced on June 8, 1917, for his “most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty”.
Michael returned to a hero’s welcome – with the festivities captured on film and now available to view on the museum’s YouTube channel via www.beamish.org.uk.
“This grainy but amazing black and white film shows flag-waving crowds lining the streets to welcome their hero home, and eager to shake his hand,” said Rosie. “A parade of bands, banners and troops can be seen marching through the streets. You can see all these people smiling and waving at the camera.”
Within days, however, modest Michael was back at work at Craghead pit. Sadly, years toiling underground, as well as on the battlefields, took their toll on his health.
He died at his home, in Bloemfontein Terrace, in 1939 – aged just 58. Hundreds of mourners paid their last respects at his funeral at St Thomas’s Church in Craghead.
“Private Heaviside was so brave to go out into No-Man’s Land, not once but twice, putting himself in that kind of danger. His story should not be forgotten,” said Rosie.
•Details of Michael’s bravery will be highlighted during WWI events this half term at Beamish, from February 14-22, with further information available on the website.
December 1914 roll of honour
Here we remember the Wearside soldiers who died during the Great War in December 1914:
•Alexander Allender: Private in Prince of Wales’s (North Staffordshire Regiment) 1st Battalion. Killed in action in France and Flanders on December 24.
•Henry Conlon: Private in Highland Light Infantry, 1st Battalion. Killed in action in France and Flanders on December 19.
•Robert Cuthbert: Private in 2 DLI. Killed in action in France and Flanders on December 28.
•John Dryden: Private in Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment) 2nd Battalion. Killed in action in France and Flanders on December 19.
•Joseph Hedley: Sergeant in Royal Minster Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion. Killed in action in France and Flanders on December 21.
•James Heppell: Sergeant in Border Regiment, 2nd Battalion. Killed in action in France and Flanders on December 18.
•Robert Herdman: Rifleman in King’s Royal Rifle Corps, 2nd Battalion. Killed in action in France and Flanders on December 31.
•Robert Lear: Private in Household Cavalry, 18th (Queen Mary’s Own Royal) Hussars. Died of wounds in France and Flanders on December 1.
•Robert Leithead: Private in Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment), 2nd Battalion. Killed in action in France and Flanders on December 19.
•Patrick Manning: Private in Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment), 2nd Battalion. Died of wounds in France and Flanders on December 21.
•William Smailes: Private in 2 DLI. Killed in action France and Flanders on December 6.
•Thomas Steel: Driver in Royal Army Service Corps. Died France and Flanders on December 10.
•Thomas Stuart: Gunner in Royal Horse Artillery and RFA. Killed in action in France and Flanders on December 3.
•William Tarditto: Private in Black Watch (Royal Highlanders), 2nd Battalion. Died of wounds in France and Flanders on December 5.
•William Todd: Driver in Royal Army Service Corps. Died in France and Flanders, December 10.
•George Whilems: Private in Coldstream Guards. Killed in action in France and Flanders on December 26.