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Memorial service for local World War One hero

King George V - William Beeseley King George V - William Beeseley

A courageous World War One soldier from South Derbyshire will be honoured 100 years on from his “most conspicuous bravery” action.

He was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1918 after singlehandedly rushing a post, armed with just his revolver, shooting four of the enemy troops and capturing six prisoners. His comrades lay wounded around him.

The gallantry of Private William Beesley, who was 22 at the time, will be marked at a special ceremony which will see the unveiling of a commemorative paving stone at noon on Tuesday, May 8, which is the 100th anniversary of his heroism in France.

Anthony Barnett, William Beesley’s grandson said:

“The memorial service will be a very moving and poignant event, marking 100 years to the day that William Beesley fought defending his comrades until he was the last one standing.

“The Victoria Cross is the highest honour for acts of extreme bravery and is only awarded for “gallantry of the highest order”. My Grandad fought bravely for this country and now he will be remembered in a lasting legacy at the memorial service.”

Cllr Jim Hewlett, Chairman of Housing and Community Services at South Derbyshire District Council, said:

“The memorial paving stone will be a lasting tribute for the bravery and courage that Private William Beesley carried out in World War One. The service is chance for his proud family as well as members of the public to pay tribute to this local hero.

“We are honoured to come together and commemorate this Victoria Cross recipient who fought so bravely for his country.”

The courageous solder was born in 1895 in the Parish of Church Gresley and moved to Nuneaton with his family in 1901 aged five. He worked in the same local collieries that his father did before his death in 1901. When war broke out, William eagerly enlisted and was allocated to the 9th King’s Royal Rifle Corps at the age of 18. Wounded three times he was transferred to 13th Rifle Brigade in 1916.

The young soldier singlehandedly took command after his platoon sergeant and all the section commanders around him were killed.

Armed with just his revolver, he rushed a post and killed two of the enemy at a machine gun and then shot dead an officer who ran across from a dug-out. He then got three enemy officers appearing from the dug-out to surrender and shot another enemy soldier after seeing him trying to get rid of a map. He took four more prisoners from a dug-out and two others from a shelter.

Private Beesley and his comrade, who had brought him a Lewis gun at that moment, held on to the position under heavy machine-gun fire. After his comrade was wounded, Private Beesley carried on by himself, and maintained his position long after fellow comrades on his right and left had been practically wiped out and the survivors had fallen back.

King George V presented the VC to Corporal William Beesley, 13th Battalion, Rifle Brigade, at Third Army HQ at Frohen-le-Grand, 9 August 1918.

He was promoted to Corporal following the action. He returned to coal mining after demobilization in 1919. He achieved the rank of sergeant when he served in the Royal Artillery as an instructor at the beginning of World War Two. In 1965, aged 70, he was suddenly taken ill while on holiday in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, Wales, and died in hospital there on September 23.

The stone honouring William Beesley will be unveiled as part of the nationwide Victoria Cross commemorative paving stones programme that sees every recipient of the Victoria Cross in World War One remembered at their birth places.

William Beesley will be celebrated on the upcoming Swadlincote Heritage Trail which is set to be launched in June and is funded by a range of different organisations including the Heritage Lottery Fund.

With support from local history archive, The Magic Attic, the trail will consist of 25 plaques, three lecterns, an interactive map on the SDDC website and 2 leaflets which will be available from Swadlincote Tourist Information Centre and online.

The lasting legacy of Private Beesley will be led by the Vicar of Gresley and the Royal British Legion at the War Memorial Garden, Market Street, Church Gresley, at noon on Tuesday, May 8. The public are also invited to mark their respects for South Derbyshire’s fallen hero.

3 May 2018

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