Biography of Corporal John McNamara - the bravest of the brave

Corporal John McNamara's medals
Corporal John McNamara's medals
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Corporal McNamara was born in 1887 to John Thomas McNamara and Margaret McNamara (nee Kelly) in Walton-le-Dale.

In 1911, he was living with his uncle, John Eckersley at 6 Charnley Fold, Bamber Bridge and was working as a ring jobber at A.S. Orr’s cotton mill in School Lane.

Corporal John McNamara

Corporal John McNamara

He married Mary Ann Atkinson of Higher Walton in 1912 at the Preston register office. They would go on to have four daughters together.

He at first enlisted as Private 25097 in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and transferred on April 9, 1918, along with the entire 10th Loyals to the 9th East Surreys under Lieutenant Colonel Ewen Cameron to reconstitute that battalion after their losses during the German Spring offensive.

The signaller was just 30 years old when he was killed in battle in France.

The medal

The medal was presented on February 27, 1920, by King George VI at Buckingham Palace.

For many years Cpl McNamara’s VC was housed in the East Surrey Museum based in the stately Clandon House in Surrey.

In 2015 a catastrophic electrical fire took hold and completely destroyed the interior of the building.

It was thought that the VC and other priceless artefacts of the regiment were lost, including a football kicked along on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.

But miraculously, it transpired that the VC had survived after curator had moved it to a bank vault a few days previously.

Dr David Hunt, curator of South Ribble Museum, said: “The museum’s safe had literally melted and sealed itself.

“After a struggle the safe was eventually forced open, revealing the rather melted contents. Amongst these was John McNamara’s original death plaque, which had melted into a mass of plastic and other items.

“It has proven possible to fully restore it, and the original can be seen here (at South Ribble Museum).

“Alongside it can be seen a small but precious medal presented to McNamara by officers of the East Sussex Regiment on the news that he had been nominated to receive the Victoria Cross. This was purchased from a collector in Ireland using the contents of our Donations Box.”

Letter home

He wrote: “No sooner had we entered this trench than I heard the voices of the enemy, and I at once reported to the captain leading our party, but before he had time to answer me he was shot right through the head and died at once.

“Then our second, third and fourth officers were all badly wounded... We were left to fight or die, so I at once took the situation in my hands and got a few of the party together and we fought hand to hand in a very narrow trench with dead on both sides and the wounded moaning in the bottom of the trench, helpless.”

Cpl McNamara went on to describe how his comrades were all wiped out; leaving only two of them to fight before their enemy ran off.

“Just picture two men in a trench with dead and wounded all around and [we] could not help the lads. So I held the trench myself while my mate rushed back for a party of stretcher-bearers who were following us to pick up the wounded.”

The men were told that they had got too far and were ordered to retire to the second German line, but they refused to leave the wounded and helped the stretcher-bearers to carry them under intense enemy fire. In the letter, he described how he had been recommended for ‘some decoration’ and expressed his hope that it would blossom into something that would carry a month’s leave.

How the VC was won

On November 15, 1918, The London Gazette, the official public record, recorded his action as:

“No. 28939 Cpl. John McNamara, E. Surr. R. (Preston). For conspicuous bravery, initiative, and devotion to duty.

“When operating a telephone in evacuated enemy trenches occupied by his battalion, Cpl McNamara realised that a determined enemy counter-attack was gaining ground.

“Rushing to join the nearest post, he made the most effective use of a revolver taken from a wounded officer. Then seizing a Lewis gun, he continued to fire it till it jammed.

“By this time he was alone in the post. Having destroyed his telephone, he joined the nearest post, and again displayed great courage and initiative in maintaining Lewis gun fire until reinforcements arrived.

“It is undoubtedly due to the magnificent courage and determination of Pte McNamara that the other posts were enabled to hold on, and his fine example of devotion is worthy of the highest praise.”

In a letter wrote a letter home, he recalled a dangerous mission on September 3, 1918, which he escaped without injury.

He would never know his heroics that day would win him the VC as he was killed in action on October 16, 1918, in fighting in and around the town of Haussy, where the East Surreys were pushing the Germans back.

His death

Just weeks after penning the correspondence, Private McNamara was killed near Solesmes, France, on October 16, 1918.

On November 22, 1918, Cpl McNamara’s CO, Lieutenant Colonel Ewen A Cameron wrote to his widow offering to accompany her to receive the Victoria Cross.

Cpl McNamara’s identity disk was pinned to the to of the letter.

The Lieut Colonel describes Cpl McNamara as one of the “most gallant” fellows he had ever seen.

He added: “The whole Regiment, Brigade and Division are thoroughly proud of him, whilst I myself feel it a distinct honour to have had him serving under me.

“We have been together for a long time now and my only wish was that we both should be spared to come home together.”

He describes how her husband had been buried close to where he had died in a village called Haussy and a cross had been put over his grave.

He is buried at the Romeries Communal Cemetery near the town of Solesmes.