War hero's medals go under the hammer

DESCENDANTS of the youngest battalion commander of the first World War have said it is a "great pity" that his medals are to go under the hammer.Lieutenant commander Walter Sterndale-Bennett, great-grandson of the famous English composer Sir William Sterndale-Bennett, was awarded four medals for great gallantry and bravery on the battlefields of France and Flanders.

DESCENDANTS of the youngest battalion commander of the first World War have said it is a "great pity" that his medals are to go under the hammer.

Lieutenant commander Walter Sterndale-Bennett, great-grandson of the famous English composer Sir William Sterndale-Bennett, was awarded four medals for great gallantry and bravery on the battlefields of France and Flanders.

Walter was 23 years old when he was forced to take over command of Drake Battalion during the storming of Gavrelle in March, 1917. His career was short-lived. He was mortally wounded in November of the same year, during a hostile bombardment at Gavrelle and died aged just 24.

The most distinguished of his medals, the double Royal Naval Distinguished Service Order was one of only four such awards to the Royal Naval Division. He was also recommended for the Victoria Cross.


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His descendants, including his brother's son, 89-year-old naval commander Robert Dawson Sterndale-Bennett, of Woodbridge, are proud of their ancestor's unflinching courage.

Barry Sterndale-Bennett, Robert's son and a business executive who lives in Hampshire, said he would be sorry to see the medals go to a private bidder. The four, the property of a lady, are to be auctioned by Spink in London. The family would not disclose how the medals came to leave their possession.

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Mr Sterndale-Bennett added: "I've known about Walter's medals all my life. It is a pity to auction them but I sincerely hope they will go to a museum."

He said he had no plans to reclaim the medals, which are expected to fetch around £4,000.

Even before going to war Walter who was born in Derby and is buried in a Belgian military cemetery, had crammed a lot into his short life. He sailed around the world from 1910 to 1912 and was also a student at the Slade school of painting - a talent inherited by his nephew, Robert, a marine artist.

Walter was one of six brothers, one of whom was Robert's father, also called Robert and a former director of music at Uppingham School in Rutland, who died in 1963.

Walter's miltary record, as told by his glittering medals, was impeccable.

He won the DSO for conspicuous gallantry in the Battle of the Ancre Heights in 1916 and The Bar, for a successful attack on Gavrelle in March 1917.

As acting commander of Drake Battalion he held his ground against heavy enemy intrusions and was responsible for large numbers of German casualties.

The citation from the London Gazette, for his first DSO from his actions during the assault on Beaucourt in November 1916, reads: "For conspicuous gallantry in action. He assumed command of and handled his Battalion with marked courage and ability. He personally collected a party and bombed the enemy out of part of their second line, where they might have held up the attack."

On the same day the Royal Naval Division lost more than 1,700 men, around 100 of whom were officers, but took more prisoners than any Division had done in one day. At the close of battle, Walter was one of only four officers to escape unscathed.

His second citation in the Gazette, alludes to his conduct at Gavrelle, which earned him the Bar to his DSO.

It reads: "On discovering the wire uncut, except in a few places, he went forward himself and led his Battalion through the partially cut gaps. He finally gained his objective and held on against very strong resistance. The success of the operation was almost entirely due to his personal example."

Sir Winston Churchill mentions Walter by name in his introduction to Douglas Jerrold's book, The Royal Naval Division.

He refers to Walter's tragic death at Gavrelle and the battles at Passchendaele "with its daily and nightly flounderings through the swamp, and ghastly struggles in the dark for enemy pill-boxes".

Barry Sterndale-Bennett said: "In Walter's case it was dead man's shoes. He was promoted to temporary commander because there was no one left in front of him. It is a reflection of the tremendously high loss of life during the war. Yes, we are very proud of him."

John Hayward, executive consultant for Spink, said: "By these four pieces of metal, you can find out so much about who this man was and what he did. His whole military career is mapped out. They are fascinating little pieces of history."

The auction of Orders, Declarations, Campaign Medals and Militaria will be held at Spink in Southampton Row, Bloomsbury, London today. For further information contact Spink on 020 7563 4000.

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