This article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page. (Learn how and when to remove these template messages)(Learn how and when to remove this template message)
|Born||18 July 1877|
Southport, Lancashire, England
|Died||11 August 1917 (aged 40)|
Passchendaele salient, Belgium
|Years of service||1915–1917|
|Unit||Royal Army Medical Corps|
|Battles/wars||First World War|
An officer with the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in late July–early August 1917, during the Battle of Passchendaele.
Education and medical career
Harold Ackroyd was born on 18 July 1877 in Southport, Lancashire, the youngest son of Edward Ackroyd who ran a textile and tailoring business. Edward inherited a sizeable fortune from his mother's family in 1878 and became Chairman of the Southport and Cheshire Lines Extension Railway, a change in fortune which made a private education possible. Harold went to Mintholme College, Southport, a preparatory school and then on to a place at Shrewsbury School where he did well, participating in school sporting activities and as a member of the school Officers Training Corps.
Ackroyd then achieved entry to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, matriculating in October 1896 to follow his elder brother Edward, who had matriculated in 1893. Ackroyd was present at the vote to admit women to the title of degree in May 1897, which was defeated by 1707 to 661 votes. He completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1899 and continued his medical studies at Guy's Hospital, London.
Ackroyd was appointed a House Officer at Guy's Hospital. He then went on to hospital appointments at the Birmingham General Hospital and the David Lewis Northern Hospital, Liverpool. He was of the generation and class where a doctor’s salary was not essential for a comfortable life. During the next few years, between medical jobs, he travelled to Europe on a number of occasions favouring river cruises.
In 1908 Ackroyd secured a British Medical Association scholarship and became a Research Scholar at Downing College, in the Pharmacological Laboratory and then in the Institute for the study of Animal Nutrition, Department of Agriculture, Cambridge. He worked with Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, Professor of Biochemistry and published three papers on Purine metabolism. The last paper was published in 1916 and was introduced by this generous tribute to Ackroyd by his co-author:
Several of the experiments described in this paper were made in 1914, the rest in 1915. My colleague has been long at the front, and in writing this paper I have been unable to consult him. He has had moreover no opportunity of reviewing the experimental results as a whole. If therefore it be held that the conclusions are not warranted by the facts I am alone responsible.
Ackroyd met Mabel Robina Smythe (1877–1947) matron of Strangeways Hospital while at Cambridge. They were married on 1 August 1908 and lived in Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire where their children Ursula (1909–1993) and Stephen (1912–1963) were born. They then moved to Brooklands, 46 Kneesworth Street, Royston, Hertfordshire, where Anthony (1914–1988) was born. The house is presently owned by an investment company where there is a memorial to Ackroyd on the street-facing wall and inside the house. Another road in the town has been named after him.
Britain entered the First World War on 4 August 1914. Initially the British Expeditionary Force bore the brunt of the fighting but it soon became clear that general mobilisation was required and Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener was tasked with the job of forming his "New Army". In spite of being deeply involved in scientific research at Cambridge it appears Ackroyd decided to join up in early 1915 and was commissioned temporary lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps on 15 February 1915. He was attached as medical officer to the 6th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, which formed part of the 53rd Infantry Brigade in the 18th Division. He went to training camps in Colchester and at Codford St Mary on the edge of the Salisbury Plain. The division sailed for France on 25 July 1915 and was posted to the Somme front taking over a portion of the front line held by the 5th Division on 22 August. By the end of 1915 the 18th Division had suffered 1247 casualties.
On 15 February 1916, Ackroyd was promoted to temporary captain. The first half of 1916 saw a stalemate between the allies and the German forces and the time was spent by the British preparing for the Battle of the Somme that began on 1 July. The 18th Division was now part of the Fourth Army (United Kingdom) under Sir Henry Rawlinson. By the end of the first advance, the division had covered 3000 yards on a 2500-yard front and had seized Montauban Ridge on the west end of Montauban village. Six hundred and ninety five prisoners had been taken but the division suffered 3307 casualties.
Ackroyd's letter of 9 July 1916 written from the rest area behind the lines described how the Battalion fared.
Delville Wood might with every justification be regarded as the grave of the 53rd Brigade as it was constituted when it landed in France. It was for his actions here during fierce fighting for the possession of the wood on 19 July 1916 that Ackroyd was awarded the Military Cross:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during operations. He attended the wounded under heavy fire, and finally, when he had seen that all our wounded from behind the line had been got in, he went out beyond the front line and brought in both our own and enemy wounded, although continually sniped at.
The following account of the action is based upon The 18th Division in the Great War (1922) by Captain G. H. F. Nicholls.
Captain Ackroyd, the Medical Officer of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, was described as a heroic figure during those two days of July. "The fighting was so confused and the wood so hard to search that the difficulties in evacuating the wounded seemed insuperable but Ackroyd, bespectacled and stooping, was so cool and purposeful and methodical that he cleared the whole wood of wounded British and Bosh as well."
Ackroyd rescued many of the wounded from the 1st South African Infantry Brigade and there is a memorial to him in the room commemorating Delville Wood at Fort Beaufort Historical Museum, South Africa.
Ackroyd left the battalion on 11 August 1916 to return to England on sick leave. He was given six weeks' leave by the Army Medical Board and convalesced with his family in Cornwall and Royston. The nature of his injury is uncertain although a letter from Alfred J. Clark dated 13 August 1917 to his widow Mabel suggested:
We were all half sorry when he returned after getting blown up last July, we knew that if he came back he would go on taking appalling risks and that the end was almost a certainty. He of course knew this equally well.
This confirms that Ackroyd was indeed injured in some way: when he returned to the front in the middle of November he took to wearing goggles to protect his eyes. However, he seems to have recovered quickly because in a letter to his brother Edward, dated 4 September, he stated that: "I am now quite well and fit to return to duty". He could not understand why he had been given so much sick leave and called the Army Medical Board "a bunch of old fossils." He also said "I would hate the Battalion to go into action without me". He was passed fit for service on 3 October and on 20 October was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in Delville Wood. He rejoined the regiment in November 1916.
The month of July 1917 was spent in preparation for the Ypres offensive: the third battle of Ypres, known as the Battle of Passchendaele. The battle commenced on 31 July 1917. The role of the 18th Division was to leapfrog the 30th Division after they had taken what became known as "the Black Line" through Glencorse Wood. By mistake the 30th Division infantry wheeled to their left and assaulted Chateau Wood instead of Glencorse Wood. The misleading information that Glencorse Wood was in British hands caused the 53rd Brigade to plunge into a fatal gap. During 31 July and 1 August the 53rd Brigade fought against a fully prepared enemy for ground which the 30th Division should have taken. This error caused the offensive in Glencorse Wood to be held up for several days with fierce fighting throughout this period.
Captain Nicholls in his history of the 18th Division records:
... in all that hellish turmoil, there had been one quiet figure, most heroic, most wonderful of all. Dr Ackroyd, the 6th Berks Medical Officer, a stooping, grey haired, bespectacled man rose to the supreme heights that day. He seemed to be everywhere; he tended and bandaged scores of men for to him fell the rush of cases around Clapham Junction and towards Hooge. But no wounded man was treated hurriedly or unskilfully. Ackroyd worked as stoically as if he were in the quiet of an operating theatre. Complete absorption in his work was probably his secret. When it was all over there were 23 separate recommendations of his name for the Victoria Cross.
Ackroyd came through 31 July unscathed but died eleven days later on 11 August in Jargon Trench on the western edge of Glencorse Wood, shot in the head by a sniper.
Ackroyd was attached to the 6th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment when the following deed took place for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross:
For most conspicuous bravery. During recent operations Capt. Ackroyd displayed the greatest gallantry and devotion to duty. Utterly regardless of danger, he worked continuously for many hours up and down and in front of the line tending the wounded and saving the lives of officers and men. In so doing he had to move across the open under heavy machine-gun, rifle and shell fire. He carried a wounded officer to a place of safety under very heavy fire. On another occasion he went some way in front of our advanced line and brought in a wounded man under continuous sniping and machine-gun fire. His heroism was the means of saving many lives, and provided a magnificent example of courage, cheerfulness, and determination to the fighting men in whose midst he was carrying out his splendid work. This gallant officer has since been killed in action.
Private Albert Scriven wrote to Ackroyd's widow Mabel on 16 September describing what happened:
I was acting orderly corporal and on hearing the news I took a party of stretcher bearers but on arrival found he was dead. There were six other poor fellows in the same shell hole who met the same fate, it was a perfect death trap. He was visiting each company about 150yds ahead of us to see if there were any wounded to attend to and was shot in the head by a sniper.
Ackroyd's Victoria Cross was gazetted on 6 September 1917. A medal investiture was held outside Buckingham Palace on 26 September 1917. His widow Mabel and their five-year-old son Stephen received both the Victoria Cross and the Military Cross from King George V.
Mabel was devastated by her husband's death and she remained in mourning for many years afterwards. On Mabel's death in 1947 the medals passed to their eldest son Stephen; on his death in 1964 they were inherited by their second son Anthony and on his death in 1988 by Ackroyd's grandson Christopher Edward Ackroyd, who was an orthopaedic surgeon.
The 1956 centenary exhibition of the Victoria Cross at Marlborough House displayed Ackroyd's medals. After the exhibition the medals were given on loan to the Royal Army Medical Corps, although the originals were kept in the bank at Aldershot, replicas were displayed in the VC room at the corps headquarters Millbank, now the Chelsea College of Art and Design. In 1993 Christopher Ackroyd decided once again to take possession of the medals. The medals were handed over to the family in a ceremony on 12 April 1994 at the corps headquarters by the then Director General of Medical Services, Major General Frederick Mayes. They were displayed in the orthopaedic surgery waiting room in Bristol.
After much discussion, the Ackroyd family decided to realise the value of the medals and approached Ackroyd's Cambridge College, Gonville & Caius, to see if they would be interested in founding a scholarship in Ackroyd's name. Contact was made with Spink and Son and it transpired that there was interest from an anonymous purchaser: in April 2003 £120,000 was realised from the sale.
Negotiations took place with Neil McKendrick, the Master of Gonville & Caius College, and on 17 November 2003 an agreement was signed by Christopher Ackroyd and Neil McKendrick endowing a medical scholarship which would be awarded after the first year of the Natural Sciences Tripos and run for a total of four years. In addition, an annual memorial lecture would take place in the Easter term on a scientific subject connected with medicine. To date, eleven scholars have been appointed. There have also been eleven memorial lectures given by distinguished scientists of whom at least six are Nobel Prize winners in their subject.
In 2006 it was confirmed that Ackroyd's medals had been purchased by Lord Ashcroft and would be displayed in a new purpose-built gallery at the Imperial War Museum. In November 2010 the Lord Ashcroft Gallery was opened by the Princess Royal, and lilies of the valley were presented to her by Ackroyd's great-great-granddaughter, Mia Pearlman. The collection now has at least 240 Victoria and George Crosses, with some belonging to the museum and some on loan.
- "Ackroyd, Harold (AKRT896H)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- Biochemical Journal, 1916: p. 551.
- Francis, Peter (2013). Shropshire War Memorials, Sites of Remembrance. YouCaxton Publications. p. 78. ISBN 978-1-909644-11-3.Mentioned in connection with the Shrewsbury School war memorial, which lists his name.
- "No. 29793". The London Gazette (Supplement). 20 October 1916. p. 10174.
- "No. 30272". The London Gazette (Supplement). 4 September 1917. p. 9259.
- "Casualty Details; Ackroyd, Harold". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 8 January 2013.
- "Known graves of holders of the Victoria Cross in Belgium". victoriacross.org. Retrieved 26 June 2011.
- "THE VICTORIA CROSS AWARDED TO CAPTAIN HAROLD ACKROYD, ROYAL ARMY MEDICAL CORPS, ATT'D ROYAL BERKSHIRE REGIMENT, HAS BEEN SOLD PRIVATELY". victoriacross.org. 1 April 2004.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Harold Ackroyd.|
- Obituary notice (Biochemical Journal (1918) 12 1–3)