“Hero of the month” for Britain at War

First published in Britain at War in December 2014.

Spencer “Joe” Bent: Initiative

Drummer Spencer Bent arrived in France on 22 August 1914, the first day of armed skirmishes between Britain and Germany. By then, he was twenty-three years old and had not enjoyed an easy start to his life.

Bent was born on March 18 1891, in Stowmarket, Suffolk. By the age of ten, he was an orphan: his father was killed during the Boer War and his mother had died too. Bent was largely brought up by his uncle and aunt, who lived near Ipswich.

He was just fourteen when he joined the Army in 1905 as a drummer in the 1st Battalion, the East Lancashire Regiment. When he boxed at lightweight in Army championships, he was christened “Joe”, a corruption of “Chow” Bent, a well-known professional boxer at the time.

After the outbreak of the Great War, Bent accompanied his regiment to northern France and saw action at the Battle of Le Cateau. However, it was for gallantry in the first Battle of Ypres that he was awarded his VC. His platoon was holding one of the front-line trenches near Le Gheer, Belgium, after a ferocious day’s fighting the previous day.

On the night of 1/2 November, an exhausted Bent was trying to get some sleep but he awoke to find his comrades abandoning their positions. There was no officer in the trench to give the order to withdraw, nor even a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) because the platoon’s sergeant was visiting an advance post. Yet, someone had passed word down the line that the battalion had been ordered to retire.

Bent started following the others, but then decided he could not bear to leave his treasured French trumpet so he made his way back for it. When Bent reached the trench, he spotted a soldier, raised his rifle and demanded that the man, whom he assumed to be a German, identify himself. It turned out to be the platoon’s recently returned sergeant, who told him that no orders to retire had been given.

Bent immediately ran after some of his comrades to call them back and encountered an officer who helped him round up the rest of the platoon. Early the next morning, the German infantry advanced towards the trench, clearly believing that it had been abandoned.

When they reached to within 400 yards, the British platoon’s machine-gun and rifles opened fire, causing the advancing infantrymen to run for cover. However, before long the German artillery launched a heavy, continuous bombardment, and the officer, platoon sergeant and a number of the men were killed or injured. Bent therefore took command and repelled several more infantry attacks until he was relieved later in the day.

This was just one of several courageous actions by Drummer Bent in the autumn of 1914. On 22 October he had carried ammunition to a patrol that had been cut off by the Germans and, two days later, he brought food and ammunition to a front-line trench under heavy fire.

On 3 November, he repeatedly risked his life by venturing into no-man’s land to rescue several wounded men. One of these was 25 to 30 yards from the British trench and, when Bent attempted to lift him, the two men came under a hail of enemy bullets. So, in order to get him to safety, Bent hooked his feet under the private’s dragging the injured man as he edged backwards.

Just days later, Bent himself was seriously injured, sustaining a gunshot wound to his leg. By then, he also had shrapnel injuries to both arms and hands and a head wound. He was sent back to England, where he received several months of medical care.

Bent only learned he had been awarded the VC when he read about it in a local paper after his decoration was announced in the London Gazette on 9 December 1914. His citation identified four separate acts of braver and he also received the considerable sum of £50 from an Ipswich resident who had offered it to the first local man to receive the VC.

Bent was the first man from his regiment to be awarded the VC in the Great War, receiving his decoration from George V at Buckingham Palace on 13 January 1915.

At around the same time, Bent was promoted to corporal.

Bent returned to France in the summer of 1916 and rejoined his old battalion on the Somme, remaining there until November when he again returned to England to convalesce from rheumatic fever. After recovering, he returned to France and took part in the assault on Messines Ridge.

After being promoted to company sergeant major, Bent fought at the third Battle of Ypres and then rejoined the 1st Battalion in time for the German Spring Offensive and the subsequent battles later in 1918, being awarded the Military Medal (MM) on top of his VC.

Following the end of hostilities, Bent returned home in May 1919. He remained in the Army until 1926, leaving with the rank of regimental sergeant major after twenty-one years’ service.

Bent, a married father of three, went on to work as a school caretaker, continuing part-time work until he was eighty-five. He died in his sleep in Hackney, London, on 3 May 1977, aged eighty-six.

I have huge respect for Bent’s initiative in a crisis and his repeated courage, and so I was delighted when I was able to purchase his gallantry and service medals at auction in 2000.

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