In June 1917, a large crowd gathered for a ceremony in Hyde Park where the King awarded medals to hundreds of men and women. George V paused during the ceremony for a longer chat than usual with one London veteran, Albert James Mason, who had been blinded during the Battle of the Somme the previous autumn.
The crowd that gathered in Hyde Park on 3 June 1917 saw over 300 servicemen and 12 women awarded medals for gallantry and good work during the war, along with 50 relatives of those who had died since or during their actions.
Towards the end of the ceremony, once the order of precedence had reached the Military Medal. As the Times (4/6/1917) described it:
A murmur ran through the round…, for an orderly was leading a blind man to the King’s presence. It was Corporal Albert Mason, in mufti, for he is a soldier no longer, but he won the Military Medal when in the London Regiment. He was halted in front of the King, who spoke to him for some time and reached down and grasped the wounded man’s hand.
The scene was a far cry from the battlefields of France, where Mason had earned his medal and suffered his wounds the year before. He had enlisted as a 19-year-old on 1 September 1914, at the peak of the recruiting boom, joining the Civil Service Rifles. His address was recorded as the Central London YMCA (the original YMCA) on Tottenham Court Road, but his widowed mother lived in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa; it is not clear whether he was a South African in London or his parents had moved to Natal before the war.
Mason soon took the Imperial Service oath and joined the battalion of his unit that was due to go to France, the 1/15th Battaltion of the London Regiment. For some reason, he remained in the UK for a year while the unit was in France, only joining them on the Western Front in March 1916.
That summer, he was part of that unit during the Battle of the Somme, serving in the 47th (2nd London) Division. It is not clear when or for what he was awarded the Military Medal. Although it was not formally awarded until December 1916, the divisional history and his service record give the date as 9 October 1916. Mason was promoted to Corporal on 15 September 1916, the first day of the battle of Flers-Courcelette, which saw the first use of and where the Civil Service Rifles were in the heart of the battle at High Wood. It may be that actions on that day earned him both his promotion and his medal. Supported by the tanks, the infantry were to attack the German lines without the benefit of a preliminary artillery bombardment, but the Civil Service Rifles found that their tanks were held up and arrived after the attack started. They and their London Division comrades were held up in no-man’s land, suffering casualties all the time, until additional bombardments cleared the German defences and the Londoners broke through to take High Wood – an objective that the British had been trying to take since July. The Battalion, and the Division, had suffered an enormous number of casualties in the attack; by the time they withdrew from the front line on 20 September the Battalion had lost 15 officers and 365 other ranks.
Overall the attack was successful, in the context of the Battle of the Somme, but it was still a horrendous experience for the men involved. Jill Knight’s excellent book The Civil Service Rifles in the Great War quotes M.J. ‘Paddy’ Guiton, an Irishman who served in the battalion (having been a clerk in the London County Council Education department, living is Islington before the war:
I saw men torn to fragments by the near explosions of bombs and – worse than any sight – I heard the agnoised cries and shrieks of men in mortal pain…
We don’t know whether Mason earned his Military Medal at High Wood, or a few weeks later when he was blinded. The battalion had been filled up with hundreds of new reinforcements (which may explain Mason’s promotion, as a relatively old hand in the unit) and attacked the Butte de Warlencourt. In the afternoon of 7 October, the Division attacked the Butte, under heavy enemy bombardment, while the British ‘creeping bombardment’ crept on too quickly and the infantrymen were left behind. The attack was a failure.
On 8 October, Mason was evacuated away from the unit with a gunshot wound in the right eye – probably either a bullet or a piece or shrapnel. After medical treatment at the front, he was transferred back to the UK at the start of November, and was discharged on medical grounds and with an excellent character reference in January 1917. Sadly, this is where his record ends so we do not know where he went or what he did after being awarded his Military Medal for bravery in the field.
Albert Mason was just one of the Londoners flung into battle in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. His unit suffered heavily in both the successful attack on High Wood and the failed attempt to take the Butte de Warlencourt. In one (or both) of those two battles, Mason performed with remarkable bravery. Within days, though, he was blinded and his military career was over.
Illustrated London News (6/6/1917) and Times (4/6/1917)
The Civil Service Rifles in the Great War by Jill Knight – an excellent book, which I used for the descriptions of the battalions actions in 1916.