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The Potts Story
The VC incident
P2200 updated 1/2/2017
The VC incident
As the Yeomen rose as one man and raced towards the summit of Scimitar Hill they were hit by a murderous machine-gun fire from their front and flanks which tore through the ranks. Fred Potts had made about twenty yards before he was hit in the upper thigh and went down. ‘I did not get very far after the order to charge was given’, he later recalled, ‘I was knocked off my feet. I knew I was hit. I had a sort of burning sensation. Utterly helpless I lay there while the boys rushed around me and scattered in the charge.’
‘Is that you Andrews?’
Fortunately for Potts he had fallen into a patch of scrub which gave him some cover from the Turkish machine guns. In considerable pain and pondering his next move he heard a sound nearby and was amazed to see another, ‘poor wounded chap, a Trooper of the Berkshires, crawling towards me.’ Potts recognised him as a fellow townsman. ‘“Is that you Andrews?” I asked. He simply answered That was all he could get out.’ Arthur Andrews, a bicycle repair man by trade and employee of the Great Western Railway, lived in the yard behind the central Reading pub owned by the father of Charles Rex, the young boy Potts had saved from drowning two years earlier. Ironically Potts and Andrews had lived all their lives just a mile or so apart.
The two men passed that dreadful afternoon under the baking sun as the battle raged around them. Some men had managed to reach the Turkish trenches but could not hold on and eventually were forced to retire to their own lines some 600 yards away down the slope, leaving their wounded out on the battlefield to do, as Potts later put it, ‘the best they could’. Arthur Andrews had been hit in several places and was bleeding badly. Potts, who had also been hit again on the ear, had his face smeared with blood. As for the rest of the Berkshire Yeomanry, the regiment had suffered almost 50 per cent casualties.
As night began to fall so did the temperature but the fighting had slackened. Potts and Andrews decided to stay put and remained under cover throughout the next day. Potts recalled that they suffered, ‘indescribably…the sun, thirst, hunger and our wounds, all added to our pain.’ Picking stalks off the shrubs they sucked them for moisture with little relief and then had to listen, helpless, to the screams of wounded men who had been caught, unable to move, in patches of burning scrub and were now being burned alive.
As night fell on the second day they decided to move as lack of food and water meant certain death. Dressing each other’s wounds they began to crawl downhill on hands and knees barely ‘half a dozen yards’ at a time. With hands, knees and faces scratched and torn by thorns, every movement caused ‘torture and misery.’ Despite his wounds and the dangers of breaking cover, Potts felt he had no choice but to crawl out to recover water bottles from the dead to slake their raging thirsts. By the end of that night they were still less than halfway towards safety and getting weaker by the hour.
Throughout the long, hot hours of a third day out on the battlefield they hid in patches of scrub and with the coming of nightfall they decided to move again but by now Andrews especially was almost finished. There seemed no hope of escape. Then, ‘literally, like an inspiration’ a way out was revealed to Potts. Seeing a discarded entrenching shovel Potts crawled and retrieved it, sat Andrews on the blade and, using the shovel as a sledge, began to drag his comrade downhill to safety. Slowly at first and then, crouching, Potts began to make more progress.
All that night Potts toiled; Arthur Andrews his precious cargo on the blade of his shovel. Many times Andrews fell off in great pain but Potts refused to be beaten or to abandon his comrade despite Andrews pleading with him to leave him and save himself. After several hours Potts dragged Andrews into an olive grove and froze at a shout of ‘halt’ from a sentry of the 6th Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers. Potts and Andrews were helped in and were given rum, bully beef and biscuits; the ‘most delightful meal’ Potts had eaten, ‘because I was famishing and I was safe, with Andrews, after those dreadful hours on the hillside which seemed as if they would never end.’ It had taken them over 48 hours to travel just 600 yards.
When they heard the full story the officers of the Iniskillings were incredulous and determined that Potts’ act of ‘conspicuous bravery and devotion’ should be recognised at the highest level. A recommendation was written up by a Major Frazer and endorsed by more senior officers of Potts’ division as being worthy of the Victoria Cross as it was passed up the chain of command. As Potts and Andrews began their long journey home for medical treatment the word spread within days amongst their Berkshire Yeomanry comrades. ‘A man named Potts’ wrote one on 31 August, 1915, ‘has been recommended for and will probably get the Victoria Cross for rescuing a comrade under fire.’
The Victoria Cross was the first of this war awarded to the Yeomanry. The recommendation together with the names of witnesses as required read:-
31st Infantry Brigade
I have pleasure in bringing to your notice an act of conspicuous bravery and devotion by No 1300 Pte Potts W of the Berkshire Yeomanry, Mounted Division, who, though himself wounded in the thigh and buttocks in the attack on Hill 70 on 21st August 1915 after lying out for over 48 hours under the Turkish trenches succeeded in fixing a shovel to the equipment of his comrade Pte Arthur Andrews of the same Corps, who was severely wounded in the groin, and dragging himself across 600 yards of ground to within a short distance of our lines though fired on by the Turkish trench, reaching our line at about 9.30pm on the 23rd instant. Pte Potts remained beside his comrade during the 48 hours, though he could himself have reached the trenches during that period.
Witnesses: Capt R H Scott, No. 11290 Sgt W. Brown, No 12854 L/Cpl E Crawlee
All 6th regiment Innis. Fus, 31st Infantry Brigade
The recommendation was accepted and on the 1st October 1915 The London Gazette (page 9641) published the following:-
1st October, 1915.
His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to award the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned Man:
—No. 1300 Private Alfred Potts, I/1st Berkshire Yeomanry, Territorial Force.
For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to a wounded comrade in the Gallipoli Peninsula Although himself severely wounded in the thigh in the attack on "Hill .70 " on 21st August, 1915, he remained out over 48 hours under the Turkish trenches with a private of his Regiment who was severely wounded and unable to move, although he could himself have returned to safety. Finally he fixed a shovel to the equipment of his wounded comrade, and, using this as a sledge, he dragged him back over 600 yards to our lines, though fired at by the Turks on the way. He reached our trenches at about 9.30 p.m. on 23rd August.
A big debt
Potts received news of his award whilst in hospital in England and on his discharge in October 1915, much to the bemusement of this most modest of men, he returned to the family home in Edgehill Street, Reading to a hero’s welcome. ‘Fred will simply hate seeing all this in the papers’, his sister told a journalist, ‘I feel awfully sorry for him to have to go through it all. I am sure he would sooner charge up Hill 70 with all its terrors.’ Still in his hospital bed in Malta, Arthur Andrews, wrote a letter to ‘Dear Freddie’ with his ‘heartiest congratulations’ on the award. ‘If ever one was earned, you have earned it Freddie. You have put me under a big debt, one I can never hope to repay. My people will be everlastingly thankful to you.’ Andrews spent two years in hospital and was discharged from the Army as medically unfit.
To read about the investiture and Potts' subsequent career click HERE
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