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Forgotten First World War Hero from Norwich is well worth remembering

PUBLISHED: 14:53 14 January 2015 | UPDATED: 14:53 14 January 2015

Sidney James Day VC, of Lakenham, second right, awarded the medal after his heroic actions in France in 1917.

Sidney James Day VC, of Lakenham, second right, awarded the medal after his heroic actions in France in 1917.

Archant

He is the forgotten hero of the First World War... his name was Sidney James Day VC. A Norwich boy who grew into a mountain of a man on the bloody battlefields where he saved countless lives.

Sidney Day VC (centre right) with members of the Church Lads Brigade at Lakenham.Sidney Day VC (centre right) with members of the Church Lads Brigade at Lakenham.

There was a plaque on the wall of his old school saying: “Boys of St Mark’s – Remember Him.”

Sadly few people do.

• Norwich’s forgotten First World War hero is to be remembered

Norwich VC hero Sidney Day (centre) outside the Guildhall with officers of the Church Lads Brigade.Norwich VC hero Sidney Day (centre) outside the Guildhall with officers of the Church Lads Brigade.

He was the butcher’s boy whose extraordinary acts saved many lives with little or no thought for his own safety.

When he returned to Norwich after being awarded the highest British military decoration for valour in the face of the enemy crowds turned out to cheer him and everyone wanted to shake Sidney’s hand.

This quiet young man was a real-life “celebrity” yet now his memory has been lost in the mist of time.

Corporal Sidney James Day, the Lakenham lad who won the VC in the WWI.Corporal Sidney James Day, the Lakenham lad who won the VC in the WWI.

A memorial honouring him was unveiled at the church where he was a choir boy, St Mark’s, Lakenham, following a campaign by Ron Mace, Ray Brown and others, a few years ago but calls for a more prominent tribute were forgotten.

A move to get a road named after him on the new developments built on and around King Street near to where he was born in 1891 came to nothing. Now there is hope that he will be remembered, eventually, on a street sign, say Norwich City Council.

Former Lord Mayor Roy Blower said: “We should all be proud of this man in Norwich. He was such a brave soldier. He could have been awarded a VC for his actions on more than one occasion for what he did yet few people have heard of him.”

“I think it is unbelievable that a man who gave so much, an extraordinary and brave soldier should not even have a road named after him,” he added.

Memorial plaque to Cpl Sydney James Day VC at St Mark's church in Lakenham. Photo: Bill SmithMemorial plaque to Cpl Sydney James Day VC at St Mark's church in Lakenham. Photo: Bill Smith

“We should be shouting his name from the rooftops and show how proud we are of Sidney Day and his achievements all those years ago,” he said.

It was 40 years ago when Roy’s uncle Walter Blower, who lived in Trinity Street and was also a former pupil at St Mark’s, was campaigning for Sidney to be remembered along with other pupils Billy Bligh and Reg Stone.

So who was Sidney Day?

The youngest in a family of nine boys and girls living in a house at Morgan’s Old Brewery off King Street in Norwich. His father was the head cellar man for several years before starting his own business “up the hill” at Ber Street. Day’s Lodging House went on to become the famous Jolly Butchers where Black Anna sang the Blues.

Young Sidney went to school at St Mark’s on Hall Road. He was in the church choir, attended the Sunday School and was a sergeant in the Church Lad’s Brigade.

After leaving school he was taken on as an apprentice butcher by Mr Miller at St Catherine’s Plain, not far from his home. He later moved to work at a butcher’s shop in Saxmundham and that’s where he was when war was declared so he joined the 11th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment.

It soon became apparent this butcher’s boy was a decent soldier and after his training he was promoted to lance corporal before travelling to France in the summer of 1915 – and straight into the thick of the action at the Battle of Loos.

On the front line his platoon lost touch with their battalion and were slaughtered. Sidney was the only one left alive. He saw his officer, Lieutenant Stevens, lying nearby, badly hurt.

Without a thought for his own life Sidney ran forward under fire, grabbed the officer and was carrying him to safety when a bullet from a sniper’s rifle killed him but Sidney was not hit.

The family of the officer later presented the boy from Norwich with an inscribed cigarette case for doing all he could to save him.

It took Sidney several days to reach his battalion as they moved north into Belgium and to Ypres in the winter of 1915.

By now he was gaining a reputation as a skilled and brave soldier, respected by his fellow men and officers.

By the following year, 1916, he was at Mons where his war almost came to an end.

Once again he was on the frontline leading the way when he was shot, not once not twice but four times across his body. One bullet struck him over his heart, but field cards, notebooks and postcards in his breast pocket saved his life.

A second bullet hit him in the groin, a third passed through his thigh and another hit his side.

Bleeding profusely, close to death, he lay in a hole for a day before making his escape at night, dragging himself, bloody and dirty, three agonising miles to a dressing station. Many thought he had been killed but it took more than four bullets to finish him off.

After treatment for his wounds he was returned to England where he found himself in the Norwich War Hospital at Thorpe St Andrew. He was home.

Surrounded by family and friends, Sidney, by now a corporal, slowly recovered. After two months he was transferred to a convalescent home at Wymondham before re-joining his unit involved in savage fighting around Ypres and Passchendale.

It was there, on the afternoon of Sunday, August 16, that his extraordinary acts of bravery earned him the biggest honour of all – the Victoria Cross.

His deeds were recorded in the London Gazette:

“For most conspicuous bravery. Corporal Day was in command of a bombing section detailed to clear a maze of trenches still held by the enemy. This he did, killing two machine gunners and taking four prisoners.

“On reaching a point where the trench had been levelled, he went alone and bombed his way through to the left in order to gain touch with the neighbouring troops.

“Immediately on his return to his section a stick bomb fell into a trench occupied by two officers (one badly wounded) and three other ranks.

“Corporal Day seized the bomb and threw it over the trench, where it immediately exploded.

“This prompt action undoubtedly saved the lives of those in the trench.

“He afterwards completed the clearing of the trench and, establishing himself in an advanced position where he remaining for 60 hours at his post, which came under intense hostile shell and rifle grenade fire,” reported the London Gazette.

Concluding: “Throughout the whole operation his conduct was an inspiration to us all.”

On hearing the news he was to be awarded the Victoria Cross he wrote to his parents saying: “When my officer told me that, you might have knocked me down with a feather, for little did I dream that I should ever be one to gain that much-coveted honour.

Thousands of men, women and children lined the streets of Norwich to cheer their hero when he returned to Norwich.

They all wanted to shake his hand.

The former butcher’s boy was the guest of honour at a civic reception in the Guildhall and the flags were flying over Lakenham when he went back to see his friends at St Mark’s... school and church. He was presented with his medal at Buckingham Palace. After the celebrations he was back fighting in France and this time he was captured and was held as a PoW until the armistice.

Back in Norwich and he got a job with the Electric Light Company in the city wiring homes for electricity – he was recognised wherever he went and people loved having Sidney knocking on their door.

But times were tough and by the time the 1930s arrived Sidney was forced to leave Norfolk and travel to Portsmouth where he found work in the docks and got married. He went on to run a shop before dying in 1959. He was 68.

That was Sidney Day VC. A man worth remembering.

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