When he went to war in 1915, at the age of 38, Harold Ackroyd was one of the older soldiers who would see action on the Western Front.
Born in 1877 in Lancashire, Harold Ackroyd was an intelligent young boy and achieved great success at school, both academically and physically, taking a very keen interest in the school’s Officer Training Corps.
In 1896, Ackroyd was enrolled in Gonville and Caius College, part of the University of Cambridge, completing his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1899. From there he continued his medical training by taking up a position at Guy’s Hospital, London.
After completing his training, Ackroyd also took up postings in Liverpool and Birmingham, spending his time in between jobs travelling around Europe. In 1908, he became a research scholar at Downing College, also part of the university of Cambridge, where he continued to release research papers even after he had been posted to the Western Front (his co-author completing his work after he left for France in 1915).
Despite being heavily involved in medical research, and therefore in an occupation where military service was unnecessary, Ackroyd joined up in the first month of 1915, becoming a lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps in February. He was subsequently attached to the 6th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, who set sail for France on 25th July 1915, taking over a section of the frontline on the Somme.
By the end of 1915, the 18th Division (of which the Royal Berkshires formed part) would have suffered well over 1,200 casualties in the short time that they had been there.
A Captain by the time of the British offensive at the Somme, Ackroyd was put to work in dealing with many of the casualties on the first few days of the attack. By the end of the first advance, although the division had made some very important gains, over 3,300 casualties had been sustained by the division.
The 53rd Brigade, which encompassed the 18th Division, was completely decimated at the battle of Delville Wood, which is where Ackroyd was awarded his Military Cross, cited in the London Gazette on 20th October 1916:
Captain Nicholls, writing of the 18th Division portrays Ackroyd as ‘bespectacled and stooping, (he) was so cool and purposeful and methodical that he cleared the whole wood of wounded British and Bosh as well.’
Ackroyd was injured, possibly by an artillery shell and returned home for some leave, re-joining his men in November 1916.
In July 1917, the British began the Ypres offensive and, after a mistake made by the 30th Division, Ackroyd’s 18th Division found themselves attacking a heavily defended and well-prepared enemy, that should have already been defeated by the 30th. Consequently, this held up the advance, and led to many days of bitter fighting between the two sides.
It was a desperate time for the 18th Division, but there was one figure ‘most heroic, most wonderful of all.’
‘He (Ackroyd) seemed to be everywhere; he tended and bandaged scores of men for to him fell the rush of cases…But no wounded man was treated hurriedly or unskilfully. Ackroyd worked as stoically as if he were in the quiet of an operating theatre.’
Such was the courage and bravery of Dr Harold Ackroyd that, after the fighting had ceased, there were 23 separate recommendations for Britain’s highest military honour; the Victoria Cross.
It is unknown if Ackroyd was ever notified of his recommendation for the VC at the end of the fighting on 31st July, as just 11 days later, on 11th August 1917, Dr Harold Ackroyd was killed.
After tending to as many men on the frontline as he possibly could, Ackroyd rounded the corner of a trench and fell into a perfect sniper trap, one that had befallen six others before him, where he was struck through the skull with a single round, killing him instantly.
Less than a month later, his citation for his Victoria Cross was posted in the London Gazette, which solemnly rounded off with, ‘this gallant officer has since been killed in action.’
Ackroyd’s medals, including the Victoria Cross, have since been purchased by Lord Ashcroft, and are displayed as part of the Imperial War Museum’s collection in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery.
One character in ‘As If They Were My Own’ is based on thefigure of Captain Harold Ackroyd M.C., V.C.