Somme VC – Drummer W.P. Ritchie
Progress is coming along nicely with regards to my latest Layman’s Guide which will cover the 1916 Battle of the Somme. There will be a few new things in this Layman’s Guide which have not appeared in other Guides – I will be including a lot more information concerning the German side of things for a starter, also I have the idea of including a few ‘mini biographies’ of some of the extraordinary people that took part in this remarkable part of our history. I thought I might share my writings on one such chap – Drummer Walter Potter Ritchie who won the Victoria Cross on 1 July 1916. I hope you like it.
Walter Potter Ritchie was born at 81 Hopefield Road, Glasgow on 27 March 1892. He was the fifth child out of six for ironworker dad Walter Senior and mum Helen who worked in the warehouse of a local muslin manufacturer. After completing his schooling at Normal School (later Dundas Vale) in the Cowcaddens district of Glasgow, he followed in his father’s footsteps and gained a blacksmith apprenticeship as a young teen, but by the summer of 1908 his thoughts were turning towards a military career – despite him being just 16.
By that time he had already joined up with the part-time territorials of the 8th Scottish Rifles as a boy drummer, but in August 1908 he joined the colours for real, forgetting his age in the process and joining the rank and file of the 8th Cameronians before being transferred to the Seaforth Highlanders as a drummer. His parents were less than impressed and tried to force him to return home, but young Walter was having none of it. He wanted to be a soldier – and that (as they say) was that.
His first few years with the 2nd Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders saw young Ritchie sent off to such glamourous places as Shorncliffe in Kent, and Fort George near Inverness, but at the outbreak of war in 1914 he soon found himself on his way to France, disembarking onto the Continent as part of the original British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on 23 August, 1914, seeing action in some of the Western Front’s earliest skirmishes – including the Battles of the Marne, Aisne, Messines and Armentieres where he sustained a nasty head wound which saw him evacuated back to Blighty during October. He recovered sufficiently to be able to return to his unit before the end of the year though, and even witnessed first-hand the famous Christmas 1914 truce before being shipped off to Belgium to endure the Second Battle of Ypres during the spring of 1915.
The Seaforth Highlanders were later moved down to the Somme sector of the front, being stationed in the vicinity of Mailly-Maillet, near Beaumont Hamel.
During the early hours of 1st July 1916, Walter Junior and the rest of the Seaforth’s lined up in their front-line trenches ready to launch the greatest British infantry assault in the history of British infantry assaults. As part of the 4th Division, they were tasked with capturing enemy positions towards the north of Beaumont-Hamel including the formidable German strongpoint nicknamed the Quadrilateral. After the fearsome artillery barrage finally ceased the infantry of the 4th Division clambered over their parapets and advanced on the enemy. Ritchie’s battalion were part of the second wave and went over the top at approximately 9.30am.
By mid-day, the 2nd Seaforths had actually made a bit of progress – they had penetrated the German defences and were flirting with the third line of enemy trenches, but by this time the Battalion had taken such a beating that the huge loss of men (especially from within the officer class) meant the attack was faltering . The few soldiers who had managed to get to the German lines in one piece were pinned down and rapidly running out of ammunition. Not surprisingly some of them started to retreat and head back to their own lines. Drummer Ritchie, however, wasn’t about to retreat anywhere and, despite a nasty wound to his knee, rushed forward from his position through a hailstorm of enemy machine-gun and grenade fire, jumped onto the parapet of a German trench and, in full view of defenders and attackers alike, took out the captured German bugle he was not meant to have carried into battle and repeatedly sounded ‘the Charge’. The effect was startling. The bugle call rallied all British soldiers within earshot – the withdrawal was nipped in the bud and a potentially precarious situation was somewhat steadied.
It was an extraordinary act of bravery that showed utter disregard for his own safety and not surprisingly he was recommended for the Victoria Cross – the highest decoration for valour the British Empire can bestow. The Official Citation appeared in the London Gazette on 9th September 1916 and read as follows:
For most conspicuous bravery and resource, when on his own initiative he stood on the parapet of an enemy trench, and, under heavy machine gun fire and bomb attacks, repeatedly sounded the “Charge,” thereby rallying many men of various units who, having lost their leaders, were wavering and beginning to retire. This action showed the highest type of courage and personal initiative. Throughout the day Drummer Ritchie carried messages over fire-swept ground, showing the greatest devotion to duty.
Yet, despite his heroics, a lack of men and ammunition meant the forward position was extremely hazardous with the enemy closing in on three sides. By about 5pm the attackers withdrew to the original German front line position and fifteen minutes later the order was given to return to the British lines as quickly as possible. By this time there were about forty men of the Battalion left.
The King presented Drummer Ritchie the Victoria Cross personally at Buckingham Palace on 25 November, 1916. After receiving his VC, Ritchie returned to Scotland for a period of leave but declined all offers to reminisce about his past heroics – instead he could often be heard to say: “I like to forget about these things this side of the Channel.”
In December 1916 Ritchie also received the French Croix de Guerre, which was presented to him by Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston, but it wasn’t long before Ritchie returned to front line duty with the Seaforth Highlanders where he was involved in many more signification battles including those at Arras and Passchendaele in 1917 and the fight for the Hindenburg Line in the final year of the war. By the end of it all he had been wounded no less than five times and gassed twice – but he had survived.
Ritchie stayed in the army after the war, transferring to the 1st Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders he was promoted to Sergeant and took up the position as the Battalion’s Drum-Major. He was also part of the VC guard of honour for the internment of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey on 11 November, 1920.
Drum-Major Ritchie retired from the army in 1929 but kept close ties with the military by working as a recruitment officer in Glasgow. When the Second World War came knocking, Ritchie re-joined the colours and served as a Staff Sergeant in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in Scotland until he was discharged in 1941 on health grounds.
Walter Ritchie VC died on 17 March 1965, ten days short of his 74th birthday.
Although his medals are in the hands of private collectors after being sold at auction a number of times over the years, the bugle with which he rallied the men during the Battle of the Somme is held at the Queen’s Own Highlanders Museum in Inverness, Scotland. On 1 July 2016, a hundred years to the day of Ritchie’s VC action, a centenary paving stone outside the People’s Palace in Glasgow was unveiled in his memory. Fifty members of his family were present at the ceremony.