The Keep Military Museum, Dorchester, Dorset
On 20 July 1916, at the height of the Battle of the Somme, it was planned that 8th Devons were to repeat their success of the 14th July, when they successfully took the German Second Position at Bazentin Wood by surprise, with another attack before dawn. The Germans, however, were not to be taken by surprise twice and preparation for 20 Brigade's attack had not been as through.
The aim was to take German trenches on the open ridge between Delville and High Woods. The attack started well but the Devons, with 2nd Gordons on their left, soon discovered that the first line of enemy trenches barely existed and was in fact an just an outpost line. Pressing on over the crest line and through the waist high wheat, on towards the second and main German trench, the Devons came under withering fire. The attack was halted by this fire with many casualties.
The soldiers consolidating 20 Brigade's positions knew that in the five hundred yards of corn covered no-man's-land there lay wounded men, many of whom would die for the lack of first aid treatment. However, a few brave men went out to bring them in. On 9th Devon's front, Lance Corporal Goddard, was commended by Second Lieutenant Green for 'volunteering to bring in wounded under heavy fire and making a valuable reconnaissance, finding out the exact position of enfilading machine guns (in High Wood)'. However, on 8th Devon's front Private Theodore William Henry Veale displayed 'conduct beyond the call of duty'.
Private Veale went out into no-man's-land to help the stretcher-bearers and having been told by a Corporal that someone was lying in the corn wounded and waving his arm for help. Armed with rifle and bombs and under rifle fire, he approached to within twenty-five yards of the enemy position. In a letter to his mother, Veale described his action:
'I flopped down on the ground, but got up again and ran on till I got to the spot where the man had been waving. To my surprise, it was one of our wounded officers (Lieutenant Savill). I laid down and did all I could for him, and I was well fired at while I was there. He had been (hit) so close to the Germans, I pulled him back about 15 yards, for I found to my surprise that I was only about ten yards from the Germans. I pulled him back, thinking they were going to pull him in. I went back to get some water, and I took it out to him. They fired at me again, and it was surprising how it was that I was not hit. But I meant to save him at all costs; so off I crawled back again, because it was all open, and I got two more men and a Corporal to come out with a waterproof sheet, which we put him on.'
With Corporal Allen, Private Lord and another soldier helping, Veale crawled dragging Lieutenant Savill back another eighty yards, before having to rest 'for you know how one's back aches after stooping'. Private Veale continued his account:
'Well, the Corporal stood up like on his knees, and we saw five Germans pop up out of the grass about 100 yards away. We had to go over a bit of a (trench) bridge and they shot the Corporal through the head. That made the other two with me nervous, and they wanted to get back. So I said,'Get back, and I'll manage'. So they went, and I pulled the wounded officer into a hole, and left him comfortable, and went back. Then I sent a team out to cover any of them that might try to fire at him, and tracked out to him myself with water.'
Lieutenant Savill had to be left in a shell hole till dusk, when Private Veale then took out another party, among them Mr Crosse, the Battalion's chaplain, who was up in front as usual, helping the stretcher-bearers with 'conspicuous courage and self-devotion'.
In the last light of the day, a German patrol was seen approaching Veale's small group of Westcountrymen through the corn. Private Veale returned once more to Black Road in order to fetch a Lewis gun and returned to find that Lieutenant Duff, who had joined the party in no-man's-land, had kept the patrol off with his revolver. Then Private Veale and Lieutenant Duff gave covering fire, while Padre Crosse, Sergeant Smith and a stretcher-bearer carried Lieutenant Savill back across the remaining hundred yards to Black Road and relative safety.
8th Devon's commanding officer, Major Dawes, submitted a list of nominations for awards, which included three Victoria Crosses. In highly irregular circumstances, Private Veale discovered that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross when he read about it in a newspaper during a quiet moment in the trenches! Veale received a VC ahead of other worthy nominations, as not only was his 'courage and determination of the highest order' but also his conduct, example and leadership had been consistently above that expected of a soldier of his age, rank and experience.
Private Veale eventually received his well-deserved medal from the King at Buckingham Palace on 5 February 1917.
Private Veales' Citation
8th Battalion, The Devonshire Regiment
West Of High Wood, France 20.7.16
Veale No. 10799, Private Theodore William Henry, 8th Bn
Hearing that a wounded Devonshire officer was lying out in front, Private Veale went out in search, and found him lying amidst growing corn within fifty yards of the enemy. He dragged the officer to a shell-hole, returned for water and took it out. Finding he could not single-handed carry in the officer, he returned for assistance and took out two volunteers. One of the party was killed when carrying the officer, and heavy fire necessitated leaving the officer in a shell-hole. At dusk Private Veale went out again with volunteers to bring in the officer. While doing this an enemy patrol was observed approaching. Private Veale at once went back and procured a Lewis gun, and with the fire of the gun he covered the party and the officer was finally carried to safety.
The courage and determination displayed was of the highest order.