Chris Bond tells the story of a Leeds soldier’s posthumous Victoria Cross.
THERE is an air of quiet determination about the young, smartly dressed soldier. With his short dark hair, studious good looks and rimless glasses he wouldn’t look out of place walking down a street today.
But David Philip Hirsch lived in a different, more troubled time. He came of age when the world was embroiled in a war that unleashed carnage on a scale not seen before, a war that by the time the guns fell silent had swallowed 10 million lives and ruined countless more.
The older son of Harry and Edith Hirsch, David was born in Leeds in December, 1896. He was sent to school in Cheshire where he excelled in “every department.”
His academic prowess was described as “quite out of the ordinary” and he developed a keen interest in modern history that saw him win an open exhibition at Worcester College, Oxford.
But it wasn’t just his academic abilities that made him stand out. He was a “fine, all-round athlete” who took more wickets for his school’s cricket team than any other bowler and held its record for running the mile. By the time he left school at the end of 1914 he’d been an exemplary head boy who was tipped for great things.
He joined Leeds University Officer Training Corps and received a commission in the Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) in April 1915, before heading to France the following year – just in time to take part in the Battle of the Somme.
He served with the 4th Battalion and was injured in September, the same month that his brother, Frank Hirsch, an officer with the 6th Battalion Cameron Highlanders, was also badly wounded (he was later treated at Beckett Park Hospital, in Leeds).
David, who was mentioned in dispatches, recovered and was promoted to Acting Captain in November of that year. Writing to his parents at the start of 1917, he was full of hope as a new year dawned. “Dear all, Hurrah! I’m writing a letter in the year we’re going to have peace! It’s great isn’t it? I only wish a little more of it had gone,” he wrote, on New Year’s Day.
By early April the United States had declared war against Germany which he refers to in his letter dated April 13. “I think everyone’s forgotten about USA in the excitement of the movement here,” he writes. “We are in a cave so big that it holds over a division! I’ve never seen anything like it and never want to again for it stinks like blazes and the air is so thin. It’s horribly wet – altogether a beastly place.”
He says they would have been in Berlin now if it hadn’t been for the weather before adding, “You will know a lot more of the news by now at home than we do, I’ve not seen a paper for a week.”
What’s particularly striking about his letters home is their sense of optimism. Perhaps he wanted to spare his parents from the gory details, or simply that he knew they wouldn’t get past the censors anyway. But beyond this there is a stoicism and powerful sense of belief in what he and his comrades were doing, which is a little at odds with the modern consensus that the war was a colossal waste of lives.
“Things are going very well. It’s a great time to be living, though if I could have my choice I might have chosen others,” he writes. He finishes by saying, “Good luck at the auction. No more now. All the best, Pip.”
It was the last letter he wrote home. Ten days later he was killed near Wancourt during the Allied offensive to break through the German defences near Arras. He was 20 years old.
Hirsch’s parents were sent a handwritten telegram informing them of their son’s death which said rather bluntly: “Regret to inform you acting Capt D.P Hirsch was killed in action April 24 [sic], Lord Derby expresses his sympathy.”
As well as a letter of condolence from George V, they received a moving letter from a Lieutenant Colonel FF Deaken who wrote the following: “He [David] was one of the most gallant officers I have ever met and he died a most brave death. He was killed instantaneously and did not suffer. During the whole attack he led his men with the utmost gallantry, and he was killed rallying them under intense machine gun fire.
“I had the very greatest opinion of him, his men, indeed we all, were devoted to him and I cannot tell you what his loss means to us.”
A short time later he wrote again to the family informing them he had put David’s name forward for the Victoria Cross which had been accepted. This was presented to his parents by the King outside Buckingham Palace later that summer.
The citation reads: “For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in attack. Having arrived at the first objective, Captain Hirsch, although twice wounded, returned over fire-swept slopes to satisfy himself that the defensive flank was being established. Machine gun fire was so intense that it was necessary for him to be continuously up and down the line encouraging his men to dig and hold the position.
“He continued to encourage his men by standing on the parapet and steadying them in the face of machine gun fire and counter-attack until he was killed. His conduct throughout was a magnificent example of the greatest devotion to duty.”
For the Hirsch family, like so many others, the end of the war brought mixed emotions – despair at the loss of one son, but relief that another, Frank, had survived. Their younger son went on to live well into his 90s and his taped conversations, along with his brother’s letters, are now housed at the University of Leeds.
It’s impossible to know what David Hirsch would have gone on to achieve had he lived, but it’s a poignant thought. So, too, is the fact that he was just one of countless other talented young men who were cut down in their prime.