The many battles of Norwich VC winner Sidney Day
PUBLISHED: 07:32 26 August 2017
As Norwich prepares to unveil a lasting memorial to one of its bravest sons, Steve Snelling charts the life and myriad battles of Sidney Day whose wartime gallantry reached a peak of valour a century ago.
Fortune favours the brave, or so the saying goes. Though hardly a universal truism, it certainly held good in the remarkable case of citizen soldier Sidney James Day.
In a war of industrialised slaughter and indiscriminate tragedy his survival bordered on the miraculous.
Three times in the course of three titanic struggles on the Western Front, he cheated death by the narrowest of margins and in between he defied the odds to earn the country’s highest battlefield honour for a display of single-handed daring that all but beggared belief.
His was a saga of carnage and courage that was lauded one hundred years ago and which is now about to be celebrated all over again in the city of his birth.
It is a story of uncommon valour that defied easy explanation then as it does today, of extraordinary deeds performed by an ordinary man possessed of unexceptional virtues of modesty and stolidity.
For the man hailed as one of the greatest heroes of the First World War and whose superhuman feats ensured his fame straddled the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk was the same man remembered by family and friends as “quiet” and “unassuming” by nature and deed.
His son, Michael, had no memories of him ever discussing the exploits which are being honoured today with a civic ceremony marking the laying of a commemorative stone in front of Norwich’s city centre war memorial. “Like most veterans,” he recalled, “he didn’t talk about the war or his part in it.”
All that he knew was gleaned from official records and faded press cuttings which painted a picture of heroic manhood that seemed far-removed from the mild-mannered father and family man who made toys out of scraps of Lino and wood, enjoyed playing the piano until arthritis made it impossible and whose failing health was as much a legacy of his war service as the medals that were among his most prized possessions.
Those yellowing accounts told of a life transformed by the cataclysmic events that ravaged Europe and sparked revolutions which destroyed empires.
Sid was born in St Ann’s Lane, Norwich, on July 3, 1891, the youngest of nine children to William and Elizabeth Day. His father was a head cellar man at Morgan’s King Street brewery and later proprietor of the Jolly Butchers pub and lodging house in Ber Street and he enjoyed a relatively comfortable upbringing in what was a solidly working class district of the city.
Described as a “smart, robust lad but modest withal”, Sid attended St Mark’s School in Lakenham, the local Sunday School and was a member of the Church Lads’ Brigade, where his conduct was said to be “exemplary”.
What might have then been a steady if unspectacular career path, via a butcher’s apprenticeship, took a sharp detour in August 1914 with the outbreak of war and Lord Kitchener’s famous call to arms.
Determined, like thousands of others, to do his ‘bit’, Sid, who was then living and working in Saxmundham, joined up on September 7, becoming Private, No 15092, Day, in the newly-formed 9th Battalion, the Suffolk Regiment. He was 23.
His first action, just a month after arriving in France, at Loos in September 1915 set a pattern for much of what followed. Separated from his battalion and with every man in his platoon either dead or wounded, he displayed resource and bravery in equal measure.
Refusing to abandon his seriously injured officer, 24-year-old Lieutenant Thomas Stevens from Bury St Edmunds, he attempted to carry him to safety only to see him killed in his arms by a sniper’s bullet.
It took Sid three days to make it back to his unit, by which time he had been given up for dead.
An even narrower escape followed a year later during the fighting on the Somme. During an ill-starred attack on a German redoubt known as the Quadrilateral in September 1916, he was among more than 200 casualties in his unit.
In all, he was struck by four bullets, one of which pierced his breast pocket just above his heart only to be deflected by a pack of postcards and a couple of books into the side of his body.
Wounded and exhausted, he lay in a shell-hole from seven in the morning till dark when he crawled three miles to a dressing station, before being evacuated back to England and, as luck would have it, the Norfolk War Hospital at Thorpe St Andrew.
His war, however, was far from over. Following months of treatment and convalescence, he returned to France where, in August 1917, as a recent transfer to the 11th (Cambridge) Suffolks, he was promoted corporal just nine days ahead of the most celebrated action of his short but eventful military career.
By the standards of the convulsions at Loos, the Somme and Ypres, where a massive British offensive was under way, the attack on a portion of the enemy’s much-vaunted Hindenburg Line around dawn on August 26 was something of a sideshow.
The 11th Suffolks was one of just three battalions tasked with capturing a system of trenches on a ridge near what remained of the small French village of Hargicourt.
Sid was in the van of the assault, in charge of a small party of grenade-throwers whose job it was to follow up the barrage and bomb their way into their company’s objective, a German strongpoint known as Malakhoff Farm.
The close-quarter fight that followed in the maze of trenches was claustrophobic and savage. At one point the fighting was hand-to-hand but the Suffolks battled on only to be held up by a well-sited machine-gun.
The impasse was broken by Sid Day. Leading his section forward, he killed two machine-gunners, captured four more and then, single-handedly, bombed his way leftwards across the shambles that was the flattened and exposed remains of the shell-battered trench.
Having successfully forged a link with the neighbouring unit, he ran the gauntlet a second time, returning to the position he had just captured to find it occupied by two officers, one of whom was badly wounded, and only three men.
Moments later, a German stick-grenade landed in the trench at their feet. Sid’s split-second reaction was one of almost suicidal bravery. Snatching up the missile with only seconds to spare, he threw it over the parapet where it immediately exploded.
What might have been enough for most men merely seemed to galvanise the Norfolk-born Suffolk into renewed action. Sid was like a man possessed. Pushing on, he completed the capture of the enemy position before taking up an advanced position, which he proceeded to hold for the next 66 hours in the face of what the official record called “intense hostile shell and rifle grenade fire”.
Relieved on August 29, Sid found himself the talk of the battalion and, much to his astonishment, his myriad acts of “conspicuous bravery” being hailed as key factors in the operation’s overall success.
Writing home on September 4, he could scarcely contain his excitement. “In about six weeks’ time,” he started, “you will, I hope, be informed of great news, which will make you the proudest parents in Norwich. I am recommended for the coveted honour, the VC…”
Outlining the success, from which he had emerged unscathed “thanks to God’s mercy and care”, he added: “When we got back to our billets my platoon officer, who is a perfect gentleman… called me aside, and told me that he was very pleased with what I had done in the attack, and was recommending me for a reward.
“At first, he said, I was in for a MM [Military Medal, the third highest gallantry award], but the captain himself decided on a DCM [Distinguished Conduct Medal, the second highest gallantry award], but finally the colonel and captain thought me worthy of the Victoria Cross, as he told me personally I thoroughly deserved it, and he hoped I would get it.
“Well, when my officer told me that, you might have knocked me down with a feather, for little did I dream that I should ever be the one to gain that much-coveted honour…”
Sid’s marvellous good fortune continued to hold. Five months after being feted with a civic reception in his home city and four months after receiving his VC at a Buckingham Palace investiture, he survived, albeit wounded and a prisoner of war, the German onslaught of April 1918 that cost his battalion around 500 casualties.
Hospitalised and malnourished in a country starved of basic foodstuffs, he returned home after the Armistice weakened but without bitterness to face far bigger struggles in a land not as ‘fit for heroes’ as the slogan promised.
Like many veterans, he found work hard to come by and a Victoria Cross no guarantee to a well-paid job, leading him to comment: “I don’t think employers… have had that consideration for ex-servicemen that they ought… They don’t seem to realise what the men really endured.”
He eventually re-trained as part of a Government scheme and, after some years working for the Norwich Electricity Department based in Duke Street, he moved to Portsmouth where, trading on his war service, he turned a restaurant in the city’s Arcade into the Sidney Day VC Tearoom.
However, the luck that had brought him safely through the First World War deserted him in the Second World War. In 1941 a German air raid destroyed his home and business and, though he found work as a messenger in the naval dockyards, his health began to fail.
His son, Michael, who was born in 1943, recalled his father’s struggles against arthritis, leg ulcers and tuberculosis. “His health gradually deteriorated,” he said, “probably as a result of all he had been through in the war, and from when I was 11 he was very ill indeed.”
It proved one battle too many. On July 17, 1959, Norwich’s ‘quiet’ hero, a man who had overcome adversity in two world wars, succumbed in Queen Alexandra’s Hospital in Cosham. He was 68 and left a son and widow as well as a legacy of valour which is, at last, being fully recognised with a permanent and prominent memorial in the city of his birth.
The commemorative stone will be unveiled today, August 26, in front of Norwich War Memorial on St Peter’s Street in a ceremony starting at 11am which will be attended by the Lord Mayor, Councillor David Fullman and Lord Dannatt, former head of the army and a Deputy Lieutenant of Norfolk.