The son of humble folk and a war hero
Historian DONALD STANLEY looks at the life of VC recipient Alfred Burt who made his home in Chesham
WHEN Donald Trump, president elect of the United States said “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war” it is unlikely he had in mind the lessons of the First World War Battle of Loos or that commemorating it would include Chesham remembering an outstanding act of bravery.
Alfred Burt was a gas fitter in Hertfordshire who joined his county regiment as a part-time territorial soldier and took part in the AngloFrench offensive to break through the German defences at Loos, the British army’s biggest attack in 1915.
The Royal Flying Corps, later renamed the Royal Air Force, carried out its first tactical bombing operation by attacking the routes for German reinforcements. However, on the ground there was a lack of ammunition for the preliminary artillery bombardment of the enemy defences, poor communications and a lack of reinforcements.
In addition the terrain was unsuitable for the proposed attack and inexperience in using poison gas for the first time resulted in selfinflicted British casualties. The battle lasted nearly three weeks during which 20,000 of the British and Commonwealth attacking force, were killed or wounded.
Amid the defeat and carnage, which included the lives of three major-generals, were many individual acts of bravery and devotion to duty which led to the awarding of six Victoria Crosses. Burt’s company had lined up in the front trench preparing to attack the enemy some 40 yards away when a German mortar bomb fell amongst them.
Rather than dive for cover he put his foot on the fuse which he wrenched out and threw to safety. He was decorated by King George V at Buckingham Palace.
The classless nature of this, the highest award for bravery, was recognised in Burt’s home town where the local newspaper wrote that he had given rise to ‘the additional joy of knowing he was just one of the people – the son of humble working folk, an elementary schoolboy, an artisan, a common soldier’.
He survived the war and from 1925 managed a pub in Waterside. He died in Chesham in 1962. In 2013 a new housing development in the town was named after him.
In the inimitable way of our people not only were the fallen commemorated but the defeat itself remembered by the renaming of a town in Canada and Robert Graves and others writing of their experiences.
Hero: Corporal Alfred Burt VC from Chesham. Circa 195