First published in the Daily Express on Tuesday, 06 November 2018.
All is tranquil and peaceful on the River Sambre in northern France. Trout swim in the water, wild ducks fly overhead and the only noise, other than birdsong and church bells, comes from the occasional vehicle that rumbles over Quartes Bridge. It could hardly be a greater contrast to the events of exactly a century ago today when, amidst an atmosphere of apprehension and danger, Major Brett Cloutman risked his life under heavy fire to take part in what was to become the last Victoria Cross action of the Great War.
For Cloutman realised that, with the Germans in retreat, they were planning to blow up Quartes Bridge as the Third Army pushed forwards and he wanted to give the Allies the chance to secure it before it was destroyed.
So, in bitterly cold temperatures, he swam from out into the river in to cut the “leads” that were attached to the charges. Not only could he have been shot as he tried to achieve this, but the charges could have been detonated at any moment, blowing him to pieces.
Brett Mackay Cloutman was born in Muswell Hill, north London, on November 7, 1891. He was the youngest of three sons of Alfred Cloutman, the director of a furniture company, and his wife Jane.
After school he went to London University where he read modern languages.
In 1913, aged 22, Cloutman was employed by his father’s furniture firm Maples. But just a month into the Great War, he enlisted in the 12th Battalion, London Regiment, on September 2, 1914. He was originally refused a commission on the grounds of his poor eyesight.
However, on March 3, 1915, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the Kent (Fortress) Royal Engineers at Gillingham and on July 2 he was elevated to temporary captain.
During 1917, he was present at several of the major battles, notably Vimy Ridge in France, and, later, Passchendaele, Belgium.
In December of that year, he was moved to Italy with 59 Field Company, Royal Engineers, where he spent the winter on the Piave with the Italian Army. In the spring of 1918, he was transferred first to Belgium and then to France.
It was in August, after the Battle of Amiens, that he took part in the advance of the Third Army from the Somme to the Sambre.
On September 30, he took part in an action at Banteux for which he was later awarded the Military Cross (MC). Under heavy machine-gun fire, he made a reconnaissance on foot to assess the possibility of bridging the Canal de l’Escaut.
By early November, the Allies were closing in on victory after well over four years of war. On the night of November 5-6, the Third Army established a bridgehead across the River Sambre, north-east of Maubeuge.
As no artillery had yet crossed the river, it was important to secure this and other nearby bridges. Quartes Bridge was a single span crossing on stone abutments on the outskirts of the small town of Pont-sur-Sambre.
The citation for his VC takes up the story: “Maj. Cloutman, after reconnoitering the river crossings, found the Quartes Bridge almost intact but prepared for demolition. Leaving his party under cover he went forward alone, swam across the river, and, having cut the ‘leads’ from the charges, returned the same way, despite the fact that the bridge and all approaches thereto were swept by enemy shells and machine-gun fire at close range.
“Although the bridge was blown up later in the day by other means, the abutments remained intact.”
The enemy soldiers, concealed along the riverbank, had concentrated their fire on the section of the river where they knew he had to return. It meant that, having been in service for all but the first few days of the war, Cloutman was almost killed just five days before the hostilities ended.
Despite being unable to save Quartes Bridge, the Third Army managed to push forward until Armistice Day on November 11.
Cloutman survived the Great War and his VC was announced in The London Gazette on January 31, 1919. His MC was announced in the same official newspaper just a day later on February 1. He received his gallantry medals from George V at an investiture at Buckingham Palace on February 13.
He had married Margaret Hunter in Chiswick, west London in February 1916 and the couple went on to have two daughters, Mary and Jill. W henCloutman returned to work at Maples, he was presented with writing tables in recognition of his war effort. However, he later took up law and joined Gray’s Inn, London, before being called to the Bar in 1926.
Fluent in Spanish, French and German as a result of his university degree, he also served in the Second World War when he was appointed as second-in-command of 26 Field Company, Royal Engineers.
He saw action in Syria before commanding the Royal Engineers training depot in Egypt. His final wartime role was as Chief Engineer in the Levant Engineer Battalion. He retired as lieutenant-colonel, having been Mentioned in Dispatches for “gallant and distinguished services” in the Middle East.
Cloutman survived the Second World War and in June 1946 attended the victory parade. Later, he became a divorce commissioner and was Senior Chairman of the War Pensions (Special Review) Tribunals.
In 1957, he became a judge and was knighted, and, the following year he attended the inaugural meeting of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association.
In 1970, Cloutman gifted his gallantry and service medals to the Royal Engineers. He died at his home in Highgate Village, north London, on August 15, 1971, aged 79.
After being cremated at Golders Green, Barnet, on August 17, his ashes were taken to France where they were placed on the grave of his elder brother, Lieutenant Wolfred Cloutman, at Norfolk Cemetery, near Albert. His brother, who also served with the Royal Engineers (178th Tunnelling Company), had died from gas poisoning in August 1915, after attempting to rescue a sergeant who was trapped in a mining operation to plant explosives.
Although I have built up the world’s largest collection of VCs (currently standing at more than 200) and put them on public display at the Imperial War Museum, London, I do not own Cloutman’s. His medal group remains, quite rightly, at the Royal Engineers Museum, Gillingham, Kent.
I felt hugely privileged to visit Quartes Bridge just days ago in order to see the precise spot where Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Brett Cloutman VC MC KC – as he later became – took part in the very last VC action of the Great War (the medal was awarded 628 times during the 1914-18 conflict). I also visited Norfolk Cemetery to pay my respects to Cloutman and his brother.
On this day, above all others, we should all remember the gallantry of a VC recipient who thoroughly deserves to be described as “the bravest of the brave”.
Read this article on the Daily Express.co.uk