The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson

Margaret Watson.
Margaret Watson.

IT WAS on the afternoon of 14 April, 1917, that Sergeant John William Ormsby, of Dewsbury, fought his bravest battle, which earned him the Victoria Cross, the most distinguished decoration a sovereign can bestow.

With no thought for himself and in the midst of violent fighting he dashed through the full force of heavy machine gun fire to capture an important enemy position.

FAMILY MAN: Sergeant Ormsby is pictured outside his house on Victoria Road, Springfield, with wife Catherine and two children.

FAMILY MAN: Sergeant Ormsby is pictured outside his house on Victoria Road, Springfield, with wife Catherine and two children.

Although the inscription on the VC says simply “For Valour”, the citation he received gives the full story of his heroic deed.

It reads: “For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during operations which culminated in the capture of an important position.

“Acting as company sergeant major, he showed throughout the attack absolute indifference to the heavy machine-gun and rifle fire and set a fine example.

“After acquiring the village, he pushed further forward. When the only surviving officer was wounded, he took command of the company, led them forward under heavy fire for 400 yards to a new position.

UNDER FIRE: Sergeant Ormsby took commend of his company, holding the line with determination.

UNDER FIRE: Sergeant Ormsby took commend of his company, holding the line with determination.

“He organised his new position with great skill and held his line with determination until relieved of his command.

“His conduct throughout was admirable and inspired confidence in very man under his command.”

A professional soldier who had fought earlier in the South African war, Sgt Ormsby was presented with his Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 21 July.

He said after the ceremony that his only regret was that a fellow Dewsbury soldier, Private Horace Waller, of Batley Carr, also awarded the Victoria Cross, had not been there to receive his. Horace had been killed on 10 April, 1917, in hand-to-hand fighting and continuing to fight long after being wounded to defend an important army position.

His medal was presented to his parents, John and Esther Waller, by King George V on the same day Sgt Ormsby received his.

Sgt Ormsby never forgot his many comrades who had lost their lives, and would say to those who admired his Victoria Cross “I wear this for those who never came home – the real heroes”.

Sgt Ormsby, who, like Horace, had fought with the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, was married with two children and living in Springfield, Dewsbury, at the time he received the award.

He was later to move to Westtown, where he died in 1960, and where he was much loved and respected by the local community. A large framed photograph of him in uniform still hangs behind the bar at Dewsbury Irish National Club where he was a member.

Sergeant Ormsby, married with two children, came from a humble family background and attended the Catholic school of St Joseph’s, Batley Carr. His parents were Irish immigrants.

Despite his poor background, Sgt Ormsby was to later receive personal letters from kings and queens and dine with them at Buckingham Palace.

He soon became a living symbol that courage is classless and bravery knows no boundaries. His medal was for many years to take pride of place at every civic function in Dewsbury.

But within months of being presented with the VC, Sgt Ormsby was back in the thick of the war fighting in violent and bloody battles in France.

He wrote to his wife Catherine: “We have been over the top again – it was a big battle.”

After the war he was always guest of honour at local military events and was regularly invited to royal events and presented to royalty.

Although the present Ormsby family have most of the personal items belonging to their famous ancestor, it is ironic that the most important is out of their care and keeping.

The Victoria Cross was presented to the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry museum by Sgt Ormsby’s only son, the late William John Ormsby.

He wanted to make sure that his father’s medal would go where it was appreciated and where it would stay forever.

There was great rejoicing in Dewsbury when it was announced that two of their sons had been awarded the Victoria Cross.

But there was also great sadness that one of them, Private Horace Waller, would not be returning home to receive his medal.

A public appeal for Sgt Ormsby was set up which quickly raised £500, a great sum in those days, and he invested his new-found wealth in a horse and cart and set up business as a “General Carrier and Marine Store Dealer”.

A huge crowd attended the presentation in Crow Nest Park and many speeches were made by civic dignitaries in his honour, including mill owner Sir Mark Oldroyd.

When Sgt Ormsby was not going round the streets in search of business, he was teaching deprived youngsters from the back streets and slums how to play rugby and how to box.

A keep-fit fanatic with a strong sense of discipline, Sgt Ormsby was concerned about the young men in Dewsbury who were out of work and getting into trouble with the law.

He started his own boxing academy – “The Ormsby Boxing Troupe” – which soon became a popular attraction at local fairs and functions.

He helped train many locally famous boxers, including Paddy Lyons, who won a number of middleweight championships.

Up to his death in 1960, Sgt Ormsby was one of the most highly respected citizens in Dewsbury. He is buried in Dewsbury Cemetery where many of his fellow comrades were laid to rest.

After he moved from Springfield to Westtown, Sgt Ormsby attended St Paulinus Church and went to Mass there every day of his adult life.

Even in old age, he took part in all the ex-servicemen’s parades and functions.

He is buried in Dewsbury Cemetery where many of his fellow comrades from Dewsbury were aid to rest.

The fact that a town the size of Dewsbury could produce two holders of the Victoria Cross, was always a source of great pride to the people of Dewsbury.

Two streets in Dewsbury, near to Shaw Cross Business Park, were named after the two heroes.