First published in the Daily Express on 28 September 2017
A century ago, amidst the horrors of the muddy Flanders fields, Lt Col Philip Bent was preparing for his final stand near Polygon Wood, Belgium.
Two months into the Third Battle of Ypres (later better known as the Battle of Passchendaele), and having been forced back by a sustained enemy counter-attack, Bent rallied his men close to the town of Zonnebeke.
Knowing that the fighting was at a crucial stage, the young officer steeled himself for an advance, inspiring his men with the cry of “Come on the Tigers!”. His Royal Leicestershire Regiment was known affectionately as the “Royal Tigers” or “Tigers”’ after the image on its badge – this derived from a battle honour awarded for service in northern India in the early 1800s.
Over the next hour or so on October 1 1917, Bent would display such bravery that it would later result in the award of a posthumously Victoria Cross (VC), Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious gallantry medal.
This weekend [October 1 2017 ] Bent’s courage will be remembered when, on the centenary of his death, a market town unites to pay its respect to one of the great heroes of First World War.
As well as staging a service of remembrance and dedication at Ashby-de-la-Zouch’s War Memorial, the local museum is publishing a new book that champions Bent’s service and gallantry for the first three years of the war.
Kenneth Hillier, the book’s author and a retired teacher, spent nearly three years researching and writing about a young man who was born overseas but whom the Leicestershire townsfolk have taken to their hearts.
Philip Eric Bent was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on January 3 1891. He was the youngest of three children born to Frank Bent, a superintendent in the railway mail service, and his English wife, Sophia (née Harvey).
While living in Canada, Philip attended Harrow House School. When he was 12, he came to Britain with his mother and he attended the Royal High School in Edinburgh and, later, Ashby-de-la Zouch Boys’ Grammar School (now Ashby School). In January 1909 and having just turned 18, he joined HMS Conway, the Mersey-based Merchant Navy ship, with a view to pursuing a career at sea.
Bent, a talented boxer, was at sea, gaining his second mate’s ticket in early 1914, until the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914. It might have seemed more logical for him to join the Royal Navy but instead, on October 2 1914, he enlisted in the Army, serving initially as a private in the 1st City of Edinburgh Battalion, Royal Scots.
However, in November 1914, he was granted a temporary commission in the Leicestershire Regiment. After being promoted to lieutenant in June 1915, he transferred to the 9th Battalion (from the 7th) and he sailed to France the next month.
As an able solider and talented leader, he applied for a permanent commission in the Army and in April 1916 he was granted his wish and given the temporary rank of captain.
Bent was Mentioned in Dispatches (MiD) in June 1916 before being promoted to temporary major in July, the same month that he saw action at the Somme. In October, he was wounded in action, receiving gunshot wounds to his neck.
Bent was evacuated to hospital in Boulogne but he was back in action within ten days. On October 26 1916, he was appointed acting lieutenant colonel, ending a remarkable series of promotions from the rank of private just two years earlier.
In May 1917, he led his unit into action for the first time at Bullecourt, France. His courage and leadership skill were rewarded with a second MiD in May and the award of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in June.
As previously stated, his VC action took place in Belgium, on October 1, 1917. In response to a major British offensive, the Germans had retaliated with several counter-attacks, one of them to the east of Polygon Wood, which forced back Bent and his men.
The citation for Bent’s VC, announced on January 11 1918, takes up the story: “The situation was critical owing to the confusion caused by the attack and the intense artillery fire. Lt.-Col. Bent personally collected a platoon that was in reserve, and together with men from other companies and various regimental details, he organised and led them forward to the counter-attack, after issuing orders to other officers as to the further defence of the line. The counter-attack was successful and the enemy were checked.
“The coolness and magnificent example shown to all ranks by Lt.-Col. Bent resulted in the securing of a portion of the line which was of essential importance for subsequent operations.
“This very gallant officer was killed whilst leading a charge which he inspired with the call of ‘Come on the Tigers’.”
Bent, who was single and one of the youngest men ever to hold his rank, had died aged 26. He became the first Canadian of the campaign to receive the VC, and one of 70 Canadians who eventually received the award during the Great War. Bent has no known grave and he is commemorated on the memorial wall at Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium.
His VC and DSO were presented to his mother by George V at an investiture at Buckingham Palace on March 2, 1918. Mrs Bent later sent her son’s decorations to what is now Ashby School for “sake-keeping and safe-guarding”. The school, in turn, later loaned the medals to the Royal Leicestershire Regiment Museum.
On Sunday [October 1] representatives from both the Royal Leicestershire Regiment and the Friends of HMS Conway will lay a wreath at the service of remembrance and dedication organised by Ashby-de-la Zouch Town Council. Two of Bent’s relatives will attend the service: Keith Willis, his great nephew and, Liam Willis, his great, great nephew.
The guests will also include Kenneth Hillier, the author of the new book “Come on the Tigers!” The Story of Philip E. Bent VC, DSO”, which is published by Ashby Museum. The museum has also staged an exhibition on the Great War, in general, and Bent, in particular, that will run until November 12.
Mr Hillier, formerly both the head of history and deputy headmaster of what is now Ashby School, said of his book: “Philip Bent was a very brave young man, with undoubted qualities of leadership. It has been a very humbling and moving experience researching his life.”
Mr Hillier kindly asked me to write the Foreword to his book after visiting the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, which is home to my collection of more than 200 VCs, the largest in the world.
As someone committed to championing bravery, I felt privileged to pay a personal tribute to Philip Bent’s immense courage. I am delighted that his self-sacrifice is being acknowledged so fully a century after his death.
* Copies of Kenneth Hillier’s new book “Come on the Tigers!” can be purchased for £8.50 (plus £1.50 p&p) from Ashby Museum, North Street, Ashby-de-la Zouch, LE65 1HU.