Henry May VC was one of five servicemen to win a VC on the Western Front in October 1914 and will have a commemorative paving stone dedicated to his memory at a ceremony to be held in the City of Glasgow on or around 22 October 2014. His stone will be the second one laid to a Glasgow VC, the one of Capt Harry Sherwood Ranken being the first. Both men were awarded their VCs for saving the lives of their colleagues.
It was 11 weeks since the beginning of the war, which was meant to have been over by Christmas, and the Allies and the German Army were finding that they were fighting a very different war than that of the first few weeks of September and October.
After the Battle of the Aisne ended on 28 September 1914, the main action moved further to the north and, during October, there was fighting around Arras. The Germans were determined to try and capture the Belgian ports including Antwerp in a dash towards the Belgian coastline. In addition the Kaiser was desperate to capture the Belgian city of Ypres and thus the First Battle of Ypres began on 19 October. On 22 October the Germans took the town of Langemark and, on that day, the battle around the industrial town of La Bassée also began.
Private Henry May was a member of the 1st Battalion Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). His battalion, together with the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers, 1st Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge's Own) and 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, formed the 19th Infantry Brigade of the 6th Division under the command of Maj Gen L G Drummond. The Cameronians had landed in France on 15 August and joined up with the other three battalions on 22 August at Valenciennes. The next day, 19th Brigade was ordered to join up with Gen Sir H Smith-Dorrien's II Corps. The Cameronians moved to Mons on the extreme left on the left flank of the Mons-Condé Canal. However, they subsequently withdrew before encountering the enemy. On 26 August, at Le Cateau, the 19th Brigade had only a supporting role to play before retreating to St Quentin and Ollozy, covering 56 miles in 37 hours. Later they were to fight on the Marne and on the Aisne.
The brigade returned northwards and became a link between the British II and III Corps where it was to be heavily engaged in the region of Fromelles, south-west of Armentières, against units of the German XIII Corps.
At daybreak on 22 October, Pte Henry May was in a platoon under the command of Lt D A H Graham. This platoon was acting as a covering party in a ditch to hold the enemy in check while the main section of the Cameronians entrenched positions about 700 yards to the rear. This took place on the eastern side of the village of La Boutillerie. During this time the enemy, who were only 50 yards to the front of Graham's platoon, attacked them in force which resulted in the Cameronians falling back, but not before the trench-digging to the rear had been completed. During the fighting L/Cpl Lawton had been wounded, about a hundred yards to the right of May, who then quickly ran across the firing line through a hail of bullets. L/Cpl James McCall and Pte James Bell accompanied him. May initially removed Lawton's equipment and then dragged him up to his feet and, assisted by McCall, the two men tried to carry Lawson back to safety, but the wounded man was suddenly shot dead and McCall knocked unconscious. May then flattened himself on the ground determined to fight to the last. At that moment he saw his platoon commander, Lt Graham, fall to the ground with a bullet in his leg. May calling to Bell to follow then ran over to the officer; the two men then carried him step by step, zig-zagging as they stumbled on. When they had covered about 300 yards they reached a ditch when Bell was shot in the hand and foot but they managed eventually to reach a position of safety.
By now May was exhausted but struggled to drag Lt Graham a little nearer to his lines and, at this point, a Cpl Taylor came to their assistance. Lt Graham, who had lost a lot of blood by this time, then ordered the men to leave him and return to their lines but they disobeyed him. Cpl Taylor lifted the officer onto his shoulders but the NCO was then shot dead. May, by some supreme effort, then dragged the wounded officer to the British trenches and safety.
Private May's heroism and utter disregard for the safety of his own life was in the true tradition of the holders of the VC. On 2 November 1914, eleven days after May earned his VC, he was wounded by shrapnel during attacks on the city of Ypres. He was attended to at a base hospital before being invalided back to England. He was at home with his family in Glasgow in time for Christmas and the New Year. In mid-January 1915 he departed once more for the Western Front. His VC was gazetted four months later on 19 April 1915.
Henry May was the son of William May and his wife Margaret and was born in Bridgeton, Glasgow on 29 July 1885. He was educated at Dalmarnock Public School in Glasgow and enlisted in the army on 29 August 1902 at the age of 17 when he joined the 1st Scottish Rifles.
Twelve years later, as a reservist, he joined the colours at the outbreak of war. Three months after his VC was gazetted, he was informed that he was entitled to return home for a short leave. He arrived at Glasgow Central Station at 19.45 hours on Saturday, 31 July 1915 and was met by a representative of the Lord Provost. After leaving the train he was briefly carried shoulder high by the enthusiastic crowd. On 4 August, he was invited to a civic reception and, in replying to a toast, he said, 'I feel proud to be present. I only did what any other soldier would have done. Plenty of men have equalled what I did.' A week later he addressed a group of Clyde munition workers during a dinner break, telling them 'Stick to your work for the sake of the boys in the trenches.'
On 12 August he travelled to London to receive his VC from the King at Buckingham Palace. After the ceremony he was mobbed yet again by an eager crowd who were keen to shake him by the hand, together with two other VC winners, Pte Mariner and Cpl Tombs. 'Good old May!', 'Good old Mariner!', 'Good old Tombs!' shouted the crowd. ' Come on, shake hands, old sports!' The three men were glad to make their escape.
May was discharged from the army on 28 August 1915 when his regular engagement of thirteen years expired. He re-joined on 27 October 1917 and was posted to the ASC (MT) and was discharged a second time on 3 March 1918 having been appointed to a commission with the Motor Transport Corps. He continued to serve as a temporary lieutenant in Archangel, North Russia, in 1919, and returned home sick from there on 17 October 1919, when he entered the City Hospital in Edinburgh. By 30 October he was fit again and resigned his commission on 15 November. After leaving the army he became a reserve and was also a tenter with Forrest Frew and Company, muslin manufacturers, close to Rotherglen Bridge, Bridgeton, Glasgow. He later joined a hosiery firm, the Glasgow Manufacturing Company, and became a partner in the firm.
May's former platoon commander Lt D A H Graham, whose life he saved, later became Major General Graham DSO MC and eventually colonel of the regiment. May had been the first man from the Cameronians to earn a VC for 35 years.
In 1941 May was taken ill at his home on on 26 July and was taken to the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow where he sadly died, leaving a wife together with four children. His widow didn't qualify for a widow's pension as her husband hadn't held a commission in the regular army.
May's funeral took place at Riddrie Park Cemetery, Glasgow, and was the largest seen in the East End for a long time. It was attended by 4 holders of the VC: Messrs John McAulay, R Downie, D R Lauder, and W Ritchie. The commanding officer of the Cameronians, Col CB Vandaleur, also attended the ceremony. May's grave is in Section B, lair 146, and the original headstone didn't include his name but only those of his children. It was later vandalised and a new stone erected, which was unveiled on 12 September 2006 in the presence of members of his family and of his former regiment.
May's home address was at No 903 Cumbernauld Road, Riddrie, Glasgow which, at the time of writing, still exists.
Henry May's VC was sold at auction on 7 June 1994 by Wallis and Wallis for £18,250 and, together with his other medals, is on display at the Cameronians (Scottish) Rifles, Museum, Hamilton. The medals include: the 1914 Star-clasp "5th Aug-22 Nov 1914"; British War Medal; Victory Medal; and the King George VIth Coronation Medal (1937).
Article submitted by Gerald Gliddon © 2014
This account of the life of Henry May VC is based on the account published in VCs of the First World War: 1914 issued by The History Press in 2001.
Image courtesy Wikipedia.