Shield Row railway station was crowded with excited people as the 6.13pm train from Newcastle steamed in on time and a great cheer went up as a soldier wearing khaki uniform and cap and carrying a rifle and steel helmet stepped down on to the platform to be met by his father, three of his young children and local dignitaries. Then outside to waiting cars and a procession led by South Moor Colliery Band, "D" Company of the 1st Battalion Durham County Volunteers from Stanley and Church Lads Brigade Cadets from Beamish. As the band struck up "See the Conquering Hero Comes", the cars moved off through crowded streets hung with flags and bunting towards Stanley Town Hall for speeches and yet more cheering. Then on to South Moor, passed "Welcome Home" banners, until finally, about 7.45pm, the procession stopped at Craghead football ground. There, after more speeches, the band played "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" and the children of Craghead and Bloemfontein Council Schools sang "Rule Britannia". Craghead had never seen anything like it. It was Thursday 12th July 1917 and Private Michael Heaviside was home not simply on leave but to be presented with the Victoria Cross for saving a man's life.
Michael Wilson Heaviside, however, was not a native of Craghead. He was born on 28th October 1880 at Station Lane, Giles gate in Durham City. His father, John Wilson Heaviside was, at that time, a grocer. When Michael was still a boy, the family moved to Kimblesworth, where his father worked as head keeper and Michael went to the local Council school. Later, the family moved to Sacriston, when his father transferred to the local pit. Following the death of his mother, Annie, Michael enlisted - as 11796 Private Heaviside - in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He served as a stretcher bearer in South Africa during the Boer War and was awarded the Queen's and King's South African Medals, before he was invalided home suffering from enteric fever.
After he left the Regular Army, he transferred to the Army Reserve and began work underground at Burnhope Colliery. He met his future wife, Elizabeth, whilst living in Burnhope and they married at Lanchester. About 1913, he took work as a hewer at Oswald pit and the family moved to Craghead, near Stanley.
On 7th September 1914, with the First World War just a month old, 4/9720 Private Michael Heaviside re-enlisted, just one amongst the thousands of miners from County Durham who answered Kitchener's call. After training, he crossed to France in June 1915 and there settled into the deadly routine of trench warfare on the Western Front.
The Battle of Arras began on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917, when the British Army attacked the complex system of trenches and barbed wire called the Hindenburg Line. That afternoon, as part of the 64th Brigade of the 21st Division, the 15th (Service) Battalion DLI advanced across a thousand yards of open ground, through two belts of wire and into the German front line trench. The second line, however, was strongly defended with uncut barbed wire and machine guns, and the battalion failed to advance any further, but was able to prevent the Germans from re-taking their old front line trench. In just two days, 15 DLI suffered over two hundred men killed or wounded before the battalion was taken out of the line to rest.
15 DLI returned to the battle on 3rd May, when the battalion was ordered to attack down the Hindenburg Line near Fontaine les Croisilles. Here, both British and German troops held the same trench lines and only barricades kept the two forces apart. At 4 o'clock in the morning, after a fierce bombardment of the German barricades, bombers from 15 DLI stormed the German positions. Once again, however, thick belts of barbed wire and machine guns held up the attackers. A British tank arrived about Sam and began to fire down the German held trench, but it was soon crippled by mortar fire. For the rest of the morning, fierce fighting raged around the barricades. In this unsuccessful action, the battalion suffered over one hundred casualties, including thirty men missing in the confusion. That afternoon, 15 DLI was relieved and moved back to rest.
On the evening of 5th May, the battalion returned to their barricades on the Hindenburg Line. Only one hundred yards separated the British and German positions but the terrible fighting of the preceding days had died down. Snipers and machine gunners were, however, still active and any movement attracted deadly fire. Then about 2 o'clock the next afternoon, 6th May 1917, a sentry noticed movement in a shell hole about forty yards from the German barricade. A wounded British soldier was desperately waving an empty water bottle. Any attempt to help this soldier in daylight would result in almost certain death for the rescuers. Michael Heaviside, however, said that he was going to try. Grabbing water and a first aid bag, this thirty-six year old stretcher bearer scrambled over the barricade and out into no-man's-land.
Immediately, he came under heavy rifle and machine gun fire from the German positions and was forced to throw himself to the ground. He then began to crawl sixty yards across the broken ground from shell hole to shell hole to where the wounded soldier was sheltering.
One eye witness later wrote -
"We could see bullets striking the ground right around the spot over which Heaviside was crawling. Every minute we expected to be his last but the brave chap went on."
As he crawled closer to the German lines, the firing increased. -
"The enemy seemed to be more determined to hit him, for the bullets were spluttering about more viciously than ever."
When Private Heaviside reached the soldier, he found the man nearly demented with thirst for he had been lying badly wounded in the shell hole for four days and three nights, without any food or water. Michael Heaviside gave the soldier water, dressed his wounds and then promised that he would return with help.
That night, Michael Heaviside led two other stretcher bearers out across no-man's-land to the wounded soldier and carried him back to safety. Without doubt, he had saved this man's life.
The London Gazette announced the award of the Victoria Cross to Private Michael Heaviside on 8th June 1917 for his "most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty." [Citation] He was the third soldier of The Durham Light Infantry to gain this award during the First World War.
The next day, a local reporter went to see Elizabeth Heaviside. He found her sitting on the doorstep of her home in Front Street, Craghead, nursing her youngest child and reading about her husband's bravery. The whole village was talking about "Mick's success."
Following the memorable "Welcome Home" parade, Michael Heaviside was presented, during another enthusiastic public meeting at Craghead football field, with a gold watch and chain and War Bonds. After the presentation, he told the crowd that he had only done his duty and that he was proud to have brought honour to Durham and to Craghead, in particular. A few days later, on 21st July 1917, Private Michael Heaviside travelled by train to London and, in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace, was presented with his Victoria Cross by King George V.
After the war, Michael Heaviside VC returned to work as a miner at Craghead. On 26th April 1939, he died at his home at Bloemfontein Terrace, aged just 58 years, his health damaged by his years underground and his time on the Western Front.
Hundreds of mourners, many wearing their Great War medals, followed Michael Heaviside's coffin to St Thomas's Church, Craghead, as the local Colliery Band played the "Dead March in Saul." At the graveside, a firing party from the 8th Battalion DLI fired three volleys of shots, followed by the "Last Post" played by the battalion's buglers, then the mourners filed past, each dropping Flander's poppies into the open grave.
On 12th July 1957, forty years after his "Welcome Home" parade through the streets of Stanley and Craghead, Michael Heaviside's Victoria Cross and other medals were presented by his family to The Durham Light Infantry's Regimental Museum. This presentation took place during a parade at Brancepeth Castle, when, watched by his mother and over thirty sons, daughters, grandchildren and other relatives of Michael Heaviside VC, Company Sergeant Major Norman Heaviside proudly handed over his father's medals. Today these medals may be seen at the DLI Museum in Durham.
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