Harold Ackroyd was born on 18 July 1877 in Southport Lancashire the youngest son of Edward Ackroyd who ran a textile and tailoring business. Edward inherited a sizable fortune from his mother`s family in 1878 and became Chairman of the Southport and Cheshire Lines Extension Railway, a change in fortune which made a private education possible. Harold went to Mintholme College, Southport, a preparatory school and then on to a place at Shrewsbury School where he did well, participating in school sporting activities and as a member of the school Officers Training Corps. Harold then achieved entry to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge matriculating in October 1896 to follow his elder brother Edward, who had matriculated in 1893. Harold was present at the vote to admit women to the title of degree in May 1897 which was defeated by 1707 to 661 votes. Harold completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1899 and continued his medical studies at Guy’s Hospital, London.
Harold was appointed a House Officer at Guy’s Hospital. He then went on to hospital appointments at the Birmingham General Hospital and the David Lewis Northern Hospital, Liverpool. Harold was of the generation and class where a doctor’s salary was not essential for a comfortable life. During the next few years, between medical jobs, he travelled to Europe on a number of occasions favouring river cruises. In 1908 he secured a British Medical Association scholarship and became a Research Scholar at Downing College, in the Pharmacological Laboratory and then in the Institute for the study of Animal Nutrition, Department of Agriculture, Cambridge. Harold worked with Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, Professor of Biochemistry and published three papers on Purine metabolism. The last paper was published in 1916 and was introduced by this generous tribute to Harold by his co-author:
“Several of the experiments described in this paper were made in 1914, the rest in 1915. My colleague has been long at the front, and in writing this paper I have been unable to consult him. He has had moreover no opportunity of reviewing the experimental results as a whole. If therefore it be held that the conclusions are not warranted by the facts I am alone responsible.”
Harold met Mabel Robina Smythe (1877–1947) matron of Strangeways Hospital while at Cambridge. They were married on 1 August 1908 and lived in Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire where their children Ursula (1909–1993) and Stephen (1912–1963) were born. They then moved to Brooklands, 46 Kneesworth Road, Royston, Hertfordshire, where Anthony (1914–1988) was born. The house is presently owned by an investment company where there is a memorial to Harold on the street-facing wall and inside the house. Another road in the town has been named after him.
Britain entered the First World War on 4 August 1914. Initially the British Expeditionary Force (World War I) bore the brunt of the fighting but it soon became clear that general mobilisation was required and Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener was tasked with the job of forming his “New Army”. Harold was a loyal and extremely conscientious person, typical of his generation. In spite of being deeply involved in scientific research at Cambridge it appears Harold decided to join up in early 1915 and was commissioned Temporary Lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps on 15 February 1915. He was attached as Medical Officer to the 6th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment which formed part of the 53rd Infantry Brigade in the 18th Division. He went to training camps in Colchester and at Codford St Mary on the edge of the Salisbury Plain. The Division sailed for France on 25 July 1915 and was posted to the Somme front taking over a portion of the front line held by the 5th Division on 22 August. By the end of 1915 the 18th Division had suffered 1247 casualties.
On 15 February 1916 Harold was promoted to Temporary Captain (all enlisted officers, volunteer officers, were given a temporary rank to distinguish them from regular Army officers). The first half of 1916 saw a stalemate between the Allies and the German forces and the time was spent by the British preparing for the battle of the Somme that began on 1 July. The 18th Division was now part of the Fourth Army (United Kingdom) under Sir Henry Rawlinson. By the end of the first advance the Division had covered 3000 yards on a 2500 yard front and had seized Montauban Ridge on the west end of Montauban village. Six hundred and ninety five prisoners had been taken but the Division suffered 3307 casualties.
Harold’s letter of 9 July 1916 written from the rest area behind the lines described how the Battalion fared. Delville Wood might with every justification be regarded as the grave of the 53rd Brigade as it was constituted when it landed in France. It was here during fierce fighting for the possession of the wood on 19 July 1916 that Harold Ackroyd acted with such bravery that he was recommended eleven times for the award of the Victoria Cross. He was in the event awarded the Military Cross for this action.
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during operations. He attended the wounded under heavy fire, and finally, when he had seen that all our wounded from behind the line had been got in, he went out beyond the front line and brought in both our own and enemy wounded, although continually sniped at.” The following account of the action is based upon “The 18th Division in the Great War” by Captain G H F Nicholls (1922). Captain Ackroyd, the Medical Officer of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, was described as a heroic figure during those two days of July. “The fighting was so confused and the wood so hard to search that the difficulties in evacuating the wounded seemed insuperable but Ackroyd, bespectacled and stooping, was so cool and purposeful and methodical that he cleared the whole wood of wounded British and Bosh as well.”
Harold rescued many of the wounded from the 1st Infantry Brigade (South Africa) and there is a memorial to him in the room commemorating Delville Wood at Fort Beaufort Historical Museum, South Africa. He left the battalion on 11 August 1916 to return to England on sick leave. He was given six weeks’ leave by the Army Medical Board and convalesced with his family in Cornwall and Royston. The nature of his injury is uncertain although a letter from Alfred J Clark dated 13 August 1917 to his widow Mabel suggested:
“We were all half sorry when he returned after getting blown up last July, we knew that if he came back he would go on taking appalling risks and that the end was almost a certainty. He of course knew this equally well.”
This confirms that Harold was indeed injured in some way: when he returned to the front in the middle of November he took to wearing goggles to protect his eyes. However, he seems to have recovered quickly because in a letter to his brother Edward, dated 4 September after one week, he stated that “I am now quite well and fit to return to duty”. He could not understand why he had been given so much sick leave and called the Army Medical Board “a bunch of old fossils.” He also said ″I would hate the Battalion to go into action without me″. He was passed fit for service on 3 October and on 20 October was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in Delville Wood. He rejoined the regiment in November 1916.
The month of July 1917 was spent in preparation for the Ypres offensive: the third battle of Ypres, known as The Battle of Passchendaele. The battle commenced on 31 July 1917. The role of the 18th Division was to leapfrog the 30th Division (United Kingdom) after they had taken what became known as “the Black Line” through Glencorse Wood. Disaster struck and by a tragic mistake the 30th Division infantry wheeled to their left and assaulted Chateau Wood instead of Glencorse Wood. The misleading information that Glencorse Wood was in British hands caused the 53rd Brigade to plunge into a fatal gap. During 31 July and 1 August the 53rd Brigade fought against a fully prepared enemy for ground which the 30th Division should have taken. This fateful error caused the offensive in Glencorse Wood to be held up for several days with fierce fighting throughout this period.
Captain Nicholls in his history of the 18th Division records ″in all that hellish turmoil, there had been one quiet figure, most heroic, most wonderful of all. Dr Ackroyd, the 6th Berks Medical Officer, a stooping, grey haired, bespectacled man rose to the supreme heights that day. He seemed to be everywhere; he tended and bandaged scores of men for to him fell the rush of cases around Clapham Junction and towards Hooge. But no wounded man was treated hurriedly or unskilfully. Ackroyd worked as stoically as if he were in the quiet of an operating theatre. Complete absorption in his work was probably his secret. When it was all over there were 23 separate recommendations of his name for the Victoria Cross.″ Harold came through 31 July unscathed but died eleven days later on 11 August in Jargon Trench on the western edge of Glencorse Wood, shot in the head by a sniper.
Harold`s batman Private Albert Scriven wrote to his widow Mabel on 16 September describing what happened:
“I was acting orderly corporal and on hearing the news I took a party of stretcher bearers but on arrival found he was dead. There were six other poor fellows in the same shell hole who met the same fate, it was a perfect death trap. He was visiting each company about 150yds ahead of us to see if there were any wounded to attend to and was shot in the head by a sniper.” Harold`s body was evacuated and buried in Birr Cross Roads Cemetery, Zillebecke near Ypres. His headstone reads “Believed to be buried in this cemetery.”
Harold’s Victoria Cross was gazetted on 6 September 1917. A medal investiture was held outside Buckingham Palace on 26 September 1917. His widow Mabel and their five-year-old son Stephen received both the Victoria Cross and the Military Cross from King George V.
Mabel was devastated by her husband’s death and she remained in mourning for many years afterwards. On Mabel’s death in 1947 the medals passed to their eldest son Stephen; on his death in 1964 they were inherited by their second son Anthony and on his death in 1988 by Harold`s grandson Christopher Edward Ackroyd who was an Orthopaedic Surgeon.
The 1956 Centenary Exhibition of the Victoria Cross at Marlborough House displayed Harold`s medals. After the exhibition the medals were given on loan to the RAMC, although the originals were kept in the bank at Aldershot, replicas were displayed in the VC room at the RAMC headquarters Millbank, now the Chelsea College of Art and Design. In 1993 Christopher Ackroyd decided once again to take possession of the medals. The medals were handed over to the family in a moving ceremony on 12 April 1994 at the RAMC headquarters in Millbank by the then Director General of Medical Services Major General Frederick Mayes. They were displayed in the orthopaedic surgery waiting room in Bristol and numerous patients noticed the medals and enquired about Harold`s history.
By the 2nd millennium Christopher Ackroyd was considering the future of the medals and how best to remember Harold’s brave deeds. After much discussion, the family finally decided to realise the value of the medals, which had risen considerably in the past years, and approached Harold’s Cambridge College, Gonville & Caius to see if they would be interested in founding a scholarship in Harold’s name. Contact was made with Spink and Son and it transpired that there was interest from an anonymous purchaser: in April 2003 £120,000 was realised from the sale. There was an implicit suggestion that it was likely that Harold’s medals would form part of a collection which one day might be available for the nation.
Negotiations took place with Neil McKendrick, the Master of Gonville & Caius College, and on 17 November 2003 an agreement was signed by Christopher Ackroyd and Neil McKendrick endowing a medical scholarship which would be awarded after the first year of the Natural Sciences Tripos and run for a total of four years. In addition, an annual memorial lecture would take place in the Easter term on a scientific subject connected with medicine. To date, nine scholars have been appointed, the most recent of whom was Miss Grace Kiew in September 2012. There have also been nine memorial lectures given by distinguished scientists of whom at least five are Nobel Prize winners in their subject. Details of the lectures are recorded in the Caius Medical Association’s annual newsletter.
In 2006 it was confirmed that Harold`s medals had been purchased by Lord Ashcroft and would be displayed in a new purpose-built gallery at the Imperial War Museum. In November 2010 the Lord Ashcroft Gallery was opened by the Princess Royal, and lilies of the valley were presented to her by Harold’s great-great-granddaughter Mia Pearlman. The collection now has at least 240 Victoria and George Crosses, with some belonging to the museum and some on loan.
- July, 18, 1877
- Southport, United Kingdom
- August, 01, 1917
- Ypres, Belgium
- Birr Cross Roads Cemetery
- Ypres, Belgium