31 July 2017 marks 100 years since the Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele, began. The fighting continued until 10 November 1917 and although Field Marshal Douglas Haig claimed the offensive to be a success, Passchendaele has become infamous for its great number of casualties and for its muddy battlefields. In this guest blog post, Becky Taylor, who has been doing a student placement with us, remembers John Kendrick Skinner, who fought at the Battle of Passchendaele and won the Victoria Cross for his bravery and leadership.
- Life before the First World War
John was born in Glasgow in 1883 and was the third son of Walter and Mary Skinner. He attended Allan Glen’s Secondary School and after he left school he worked in a factory making pumps and valves. He didn’t enjoy school or factory work, instead he seemed to have his heart set on joining the army. On one occasion he ran away from home and joined the Hamilton Militia, giving a false age. Although his father bought him out the first time, when he enlisted in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers on Boxing Day 1899, John got his wish and he served in the Boer War.
- Victoria Cross
John established himself as a great soldier early on in the First World War. On 12 October 1914, he led a bold investigation near Cuinchy, France, of enemy positions which led to the award of a Distinguished Conduct Medal. However, it was on 18 August 1917 that he finally won his Victoria Cross, during the Third Battle of Ypres. He won his VC for capturing ‘60 prisoners, 3 machine guns and 2 trench mortars’, despite being wounded in the head (From the London Gazette, 14 September 1917). John received his VC from King George V on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace on 26 September 1917. It was a time of celebration, as three days later he married Annie Lee in Glasgow. Whilst on leave, despite his record and fame as one of the greatest front line soldiers of the war, he was handed a white feather while at home, branding him a coward.
- Returning to the front
It was felt by many that John had fulfilled his duty, having been wounded five times since the start of the war. As a result, once he returned from leave, he was posted to the Reserve Battalion in Edinburgh. However, John was determined to return to his men on the front line and he boarded a ship heading to France, risking a court martial. This decision proved to be fatal as, on 17 March 1918, John was killed in action. He died heroically, trying to rescue a wounded man from No-Man’s-Land. Ignoring the rule that said the dead were to be buried near the trenches, John’s friends carried his body 17 miles to Vlamertinghe, where they conducted his funeral; six other VC winners acted as pallbearers. John Skinner was remembered by his fellow soldiers as a brave and great man.
‘The bravest man I met in a war won by brave men.’ – Sir Beauvoir de Lisle
I chose this life story to write about because I was struck by his sheer determination to, one, join the army and, two, return to his men on the front line. He displayed non-stop bravery throughout the war and was a great comrade to the other men, demonstrated by his remarkable funeral.