Jack Counter – Blandford’s VC
A nineteen-year-old Blandford boy displayed such bravery in the last year of World War 1 that he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Tony Burton-Page tells the story of Jack Counter.
Published in February ’15
Usually visitors to Blandford Forum are encouraged to look upwards, at the superb Georgian architecture above the more mundane shop fronts – ‘one of the most satisfying Georgian ensembles anywhere in England’, as Nikolaus Pevsner put it. But since the year 2000 there have been good reasons to look downwards – the inscriptions on Purbeck paving stones in the centre of the town that were created by the Blandford poetry group as a project for the millennium. The most notorious of these encapsulates the cause of the Great Fire of Blandford in 1731 as well as how the town recovered from it: ‘Recipe for regeneration: take one careless tallow chandler and two ingenious Bastards’ – the latter pair being the architect brothers John and William Bastard.
However, there is a more recent stone for downward-looking visitors to observe, and this one is far less enigmatic. It simply reads: ‘Private Jack Counter The King’s (Liverpool Regiment) 16th April 1918’. The key to this blunt statement is the carved Victoria Cross above the inscription, for it was on that day in the last year of World War 1 that Blandford-born Jack Counter won that coveted decoration for valour ‘in the presence of the enemy’.
There was nothing in Jack Counter’s early life to suggest that anything remotely heroic was to follow. He was born in Blandford on 3 November 1898 to Frank and Rosina Counter, the youngest of their three children. They lived in Queens Road but later moved to 20 Dorset Street in what is now known as Dorset House. Jack went to Blandford’s National School, whose original buildings still stand in Park Road and were only recently vacated by the Archbishop Wake School. On leaving school Jack got a job with the International Stores (then officially ‘The International Tea Company’) at their branch in Salisbury Street.
When World War 1 broke out in August 1914, Jack Counter was still only 15, well below the age limit for enlisting. He was still too young to join up when conscription was introduced on 2 March 1916, but after his eighteenth birthday he joined the King’s (Liverpool Regiment). This was February 1917, and he was posted to France to join the 1st Battalion of the regiment on the Western Front. After the slaughter of the Somme the previous year, the Allies were preparing for the Arras Offensive, which, combined with the French army’s Nivelle Offensive, was intended to end the war in 48 hours. The 1st Battalion, which had been in France since the beginning of the war, was in the Arras area for all of the action in a campaign which lasted well beyond the predicted duration.
They were still there in April 1918, by which time the battalion was entrenched near a village called Boisleux Saint Marc, five miles south of Arras. The Germans had launched their Spring Offensive in March and had regained much lost ground. The battalion came under attack from them, good cover for their approach being provided by a sunken road which ran between Boisleux and nearby Boyelles. During the morning of 16 April, the British front line came under a barrage of heavy artillery and the Germans were able to penetrate it in several places. In the ensuing chaos Battalion HQ lost contact with the front line and, desperate for up-to-date information about the situation there, sent a party of men out along the sunken road. Every inch of it was swept by German machine guns, however, and as soon as they ventured out the NCO was killed, one man was wounded and they could go no further. Individual volunteers were then called for, but the first man was gunned down: the Germans had a clear view of any activity in front of them. The second, third, fourth and fifth volunteers all perished the same way. The sixth was 19-year-old Jack Counter, whose courage considerably exceeded his war experience. But he had enough of the latter to realise that by keeping close to one of the high banks and lying flat on his face, he could drag himself inch by inch down the road. Twice, where barbed wire blocked the road, he had to cross it to crawl through a gap on the far side.
German machine guns had been firing the whole time but, incredibly, he reached the front line unscathed apart from a few scratches. He duly gathered the vital information – only to have to carry it back the same way. One terrifying hour later he arrived at Battalion HQ with his precious cargo. Acting on the information that Counter brought (enemy numbers, positions of British troops and their remaining strength), his colonel that evening launched a counter-attack and drove the Germans back into their trenches, recovering much ground that had been lost.
This deed alone was an act of extraordinary courage, but he went on to carry another five messages to Battalion HQ across the battlefield under heavy artillery fire. After the last of these missions the authorities decided to award him the Victoria Cross, and this was duly reported in the London Gazette on 22 May. The citation records the events and concludes: ‘Private Counter’s extraordinary courage in facing almost certain death, because he knew it was vital that the message should be carried, produced a most excellent impression on his young and untried companions.’
He returned to his home country for his investiture by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 27 June and the next day he travelled to Blandford, arriving, according to newspaper reports, ‘by the 7.21 pm train, which entered the station amid the explosions of detonators’. It was a hero’s welcome: he was met at the station by the Mayor and Corporation and a huge crowd, and then taken to the Market Place in an open landau decorated with flags, led by the town band. There, on a platform in front of the Corn Exchange, he was created the first ever Freeman of the Borough of Blandford Forum, given a war savings certificate for £100 (a substantial amount in those days) and presented with a gold watch from his former employers, the International Stores.
In his speech, the Mayor, Alderman J J Lamperd, said: ‘While Englishmen all over the world might rejoice to read such exploits, those in Blandford had special reason to do so, for Private Counter was a Blandfordian through and through.’ He was taken to his home in Dorset Street by the enthusiastic crowd, who cheered his elder brother Percy when he appeared, much to Jack’s delight. Percy had lost a leg earlier in the war.
Counter survived the remaining few months of the conflict, being promoted to the rank of Corporal, although he told friends that he only accepted this as a way out of ‘spud-bashing’ – the tedious task of peeling potatoes by hand. He never intended to make a career out of soldiering, though, and after the Armistice his regiment went in 1919 to Jersey, where he was demobilised in 1922. He took to the island so much that he decided to settle there and soon found a job as an auxiliary postman at St Ouen.
Carrying messages, it seems, was to be his life’s work. In 1925, the Post Office transferred him to Sunbury in Middlesex, but he returned to Jersey four years later. He married a local girl, Ada Vauvert, and they bought a house in First Tower, near St Helier. They had one daughter, Pearl, and Jack worked as a postman until his retirement in April 1959. He became a well-known and well-liked personality on the island, especially among his comrades in the Royal British Legion, in which he took an active part. He was regularly to be seen carrying the standards and colours at Legion parades and events, and he became known as ‘Jersey’s VC’.
His retirement years were darkened by the death in 1963 of his daughter at the age of only 39, but his free time had given him the opportunity to return to Blandford occasionally and visit the family home in Dorset Street. He also kept in contact with his sister Gertrude, who was now living in Bristol. But another blow fell in 1970 when his wife died. A few months later Jack visited Bristol and went on a day trip to Blandford with his sister to see brother Percy’s widow in Dorset House. While having a cup of tea shortly before catching the coach back to Bristol, Jack collapsed and died in his old home.
There were many tributes, among them a plaque at St Andrew’s, his local church in Jersey, a stamp issued by the Jersey Post Office, and most recently the paving stone in Blandford. Yet to the end of his life he maintained that it was not he who should have been honoured but the five men who died attempting what he achieved. ‘The ones who died before me should have had it,’ he used to say. ‘I was lucky.’ Lucky maybe, but extraordinarily brave. ◗