Nicholas Lovell

The Five Victoria Crosses of Bromsgrove School

2nd. Lieutenant Frank Wearne                                

Frank Bernard Wearne was the second of three brothers, all of whom served in the First World War. That only one of the three survived demonstrates how great the losses of junior officers were.

Two of the three brothers attended Bromsgrove School: F. B. Wearne joined in 1908, at the age of fourteen, and left in 1912. He was followed to the School by his younger brother, G. W. Wearne, who later served with the Canadians and was the only brother to survive the war. The eldest brother, Keith Morris Wearne, did not attend Bromsgrove but became a regular army officer, joining the First Battalion of the Essex Regiment from Sandhurst before the First World War.

F. B. Wearne showed considerable promise at School, winning a scholarship in 1908 and rising to become Head Monitor before leaving in 1912. He was also a member of the First XV and a corporal in the O.T.C. (what is now the C.C.F.). He went up to Corpus Christi, Oxford as a commoner in 1913.

At the outbreak of war in August 1914, Wearne immediately volunteered for service in a Public School Battalion. He later obtained a commission in the 3rd Battalion of the Essex Regiment, presumably choosing this regiment because of his older brother's association. After training he was sent to the Western Front and received his baptism of fire at the Battle of the Somme, where he was badly wounded on July 3rd, 1916. So severe were his wounds that he was only deemed fit enough to return to active service in May the following year, 1917.

May 1917 was a sad month for the Wearne family. It saw the return of Frank Wearne to the Front and the death of his older brother, Captain K. M. Wearne, on the 21st. When Wearne returned to the Front in May 1917 he was attached to the 11th Battalion of the Essex Regiment. This was based near the town of Lens in Northern France, and was manning trenches facing the enemy just east of Loos (Northern France) or resting at a small village behind the front called Les Brebis.

It is hard for us, some eighty years later, to imagine life for soldiers in the trenches of the Western Front. Usually they occupied a section of the trenches for a period of about ten days, then rested behind the lines for a few days before once more returning to the horrors of the trenches.

During the periods when battles were not in progress there was still great danger. To put one's head above the parapet of the trench -- let alone climb out of the trench -- was to risk one's life: snipers lay camouflaged in No Man's Land ready to shoot any who showed themselves,and the enemy in the trenches opposite were ever vigilant.

Living conditions for the soldiers were filthy and cold. Lice bred in the seams of their uniforms; huge rats, gorged on the dead, lived in the trenches and stole the men's food; sleep was very difficult.

After a period in the trenches, one battalion would be relieved by another and stagger back to a place a few miles behind the front to sleep, wash and recuperate.

It was during a period of rest and recuperation at Les Brebis that a plan was conceived for a trench raid to be carried out by men from the 11th Battalion. The idea was for a force of about 100 men to attack, capture and hold a section of the German front line. Prisoners were to be taken, dugouts were to be destroyed and German mine shafts were to be investigated and blown up. The battalion left Les Brebis and returned to the line on 20th June, 1917, with a strength of 19 officers and 514 men. The raid was set for the 28th June.

On the 27th June Wearne and a number of other officers, including Captain S.E. Silver who was to command the raid, were given temporary leave to visit a café in Les Brebis for an evening meal. Possibly this was allowed because the officers were likely to become casualties. Certainly the planning for the raid at Les Brebis had embraced the idea that the officers might be killed. It was very much in the tradition of the British army that junior officers led from the front and consequently were the first to be killed. Subalterns in World War One had the shortest life expectancy of any infantry soldiers.

During a meal of boiled rabbit and vegetables with poor wine, Wearne discussed the recent death of his older brother with Major Roberts, who had served with K. M. Wearne before the war. Prior to returning to he trenches, Wearne gave Roberts a snapshot of himself. Possibly this was a keepsake from a serious young man who thought he was going to his death.

The raiding party was composed of three parties from the Essex Regiment plus a party of one officer and 20 other ranks of the 3rd Australian Tunnelling Company. Party A of the 11th Battalion, composed of one officer and 30 other ranks split into three squads, would be at the centre of the attack. Its order were to cross No-Man's Land and capture a juntion in the German trenches known as Nash Alley. One in position the men were to hold a length of the German front line trench, destroy dugouts, collect prisoners and "mop up" opposition. Party C, composed of one N.C.O. and six men, was to rush a strongly held position to the right (south) of Party A. The Australian Tunnelling Company was to follow Party C and, under their protection, take prisoners, obtain identification and destroy dug-outs and mine shafts. Party B was to be composed of 20 men split into two squads, and commanded by 2nd. Lieutenant Wearne. Its job was to attack to the left of Party A and its main job was to capture the front line trench to the north and hold it, thus preventing the rest of the force from being attacked from the left by German reinforcements. One squad of Party B was to clear the German trench to the right and link up with Party A; the other squad was to move up the enemy trench (north) and form a block against attack. The raid was to last one hour and whistles would signal the withdrawal to the British front line.

So it was that at 7.00 p.m. on the evening of the 28th June, 1917, over a hundred men assembled in a large dugout at the junction of Scots Alley and the British Reserve Line. A box barrage was laid on by the artillery, presumably to force the Germans to take cover. At a little past 7.10.p.m. Parties A and B left their trench and rushed the German front line. A few minutes later Party C and the Australians followed.

Whilst a squad of Party A occupied and held the junction of Nash Alley, the rest rushed down the trench blowing in dugouts with Mills bombs and shooting all opposition which either came up the trench or over the top from the German support trench. Meanwhile the Australian Tunnelling Party - led by Captain Alex Sanderson - located and destroyed two dugouts and three mine shafts.

Party B, led by Wearne, had also succeeded in taking their section of the enemy front line, to the left. But it was here that the fighting was at its most intense. The Germans repeatedly attacked down the trench and over the top from their support trenches. Wearne's party exacted a terrible toll upon the Germans, with sustained rifle fire, but the situation was becoming desperate and many of his men had been killed or wounded; in fact of the sixteen men who held this point on the left flank only one escaped without injury. Wearne knew that if the left flank collapsed then his comrades in Parties A and C, already hard pressed themselves, would be overwhelmed and the raid a failure. At the point when the German attack was at its most dangerous, Wearne performed an act of the utmost daring and bravery. He leapt onto the parapet of the trench, exposing himself to a hail of machine-gun and rifle fire, and then ran along the top of the trench firing his revolver and throwing bombs down at the enemy below. This courageous example encouraged his men to follow him and the surprise and ferocity of this attack, from an unexpected quarter, threw the Germans back.

Although Wearne succeeded in temporarily repulsing the German attack, he was severely wounded. Despite this, he refused to leave his men and stayed at his post organising the defence of the left flank. He received a second serious wound just before the whistles sounded the withdrawal and sadly, as he was being dragged away from the German positions, was hit for a third time and killed.

The raid was deemed a success, despite the fact that almost fifty percent of the attacking force had become casualties. Two officers had been killed and one wounded; ten other ranks were killed and six reported missing believed killed; thirty other ranks were wounded. Wearne was recommended for the Victoria Cross by his commanding officer, Colonel Spring.

The citation for Wearne's V.C., awarded posthumously, appeared in the London Gazette of the 31st July, 1917. This was read to the School on the first day of Michaelmas Term 1917 by the Headmaster, R. G. Routh.

Wearne's Victoria Cross was the sole V.C to be won by a member of the Essex Regiment during the First World War, and is one of only six won by this famous old county regiment since the Victoria Cross was instituted. Wearne's V.C was presented to his father at Buckingham Palace by George V. Sadly the medal was auctioned at Sotheby's in 1977 for £7,000 and its present whereabouts are unknown.

From the citation for the Victoria Cross:

'By his tenacity in remaining at his post though severely wounded, and his magnificent fighting spirit, he was enabled to hold on to the flank.'

"Frank Wearne wins the VC"
by Christine M. Lovell.

Text Version ©Copyright Nicholas Lovell, September, 1996.

The other four Bromsgrove School VCs are:
 Lieutenant Commander Percy Dean
 Captain Eustace Jotham
 Sergeant Nigel Leakey
 Field Marshall Sir George White

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