Private Paxton

Private Paxton

On 26 November 1915, the West Lothian Courier published this letter:

Heroic Efforts to Aid his Wounded Comrades

Sir,-  Would you be kind enough to publish this letter in order if possible that I may get into correspondence with one who has saved not only my life but the lives of many others. I refer to Private Paxton of Fauldhouse.

While we made the attack on the village of [Loos] on the 25th of September [1915], by pure accident I was mixed up with some of the Royals. After we had held the village for several hours, we were counterattacked by the Huns. It was in this rush that I was first struck by a piece of shrapnel in the back, and while trying to retire to our own line for dressing, I was shot through the arm. Being unable to continue on my course, I lay down and prayed that death would come soon. Our men held the support trench for a while, then were forced to retire also. I saw one chap (I afterwards found out that it was Paxton) being knocked down with a bullet through the leg. It was the quickness of him that drew my attention to him. He wasn’t down two minutes till he was up again and grabbed a box of bombs [grenades] and continued his work of slaughter in the open. He was knocked down again, shot through the arm, and I never saw him again until he was by my side asking what was wrong with me. I told him and he calmly started to dress my wounds. After they were dressed he gave me a hand to go back to our lines.

On our way down the German first line of trenches, we came upon a score of our men lying in the trench. Paxton left me while he tried to dress those who were still alive and put them in a comfortable position. You can take my word of honour as a British solder that there were about 60 or 70 he treated thus. Although he was shot through the arm and the leg, he didn’t even dress his own wounds. I am sure that he saved the wounded from getting worse and myself from capture. I have never seen him since I came into England, so I would be greatly obliged if you would print this note on the chance of his parents seeing it and communicating with him on my behalf. In closing, I wish him every success that life can bring and all the happiness that this world can bestow. God bless you, Paxton. –

Yours etc.

Private John Stevenson, 8th Battalion Black Watch.  Whitworth Street Hospital, Manchester.

This letter is a puzzle. Such bravery and compassion should surely have merited a gallantry award, but there is no mention that any medal was awarded. The tale has a flavour of exaggeration, and possibly a hoax. There is no further evidence either way.

The first name of Private Paxton is not mentioned so the question arises, which of the three Paxton brothers was the hero? All served in the Royal Scots: James was not in France at the time of Loos, but Alfred and William were. A further report in the Courier mentions that Alfred was home on leave after being wounded in the arm and leg at Loos, and spending some time in Manchester. There is no mention of his heroics, only that he was about to go to Glencorse at the end of his leave. So it’s probable that the letter refers to Private Alfred Paxton, 11th Royal Scots.

The Battle of Loos was fought among coal mines and bings, the sort of landscape very familiar to West Lothian soldiers. In the left background of the image can be seen the tall entrance building to some of the coalmines, known to British soldiers as Tower Bridge. It was destroyed in the fighting.

Huge numbers of Scottish soldiers were involved at Loos – Scottish casualties that day were even higher than the first day of the Somme. It was so nearly a victory: the German trenches were broken through, but no reinforcements were available, nor sufficient shells, and the ground taken was swiftly lost again.

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Battle of Loos
The Battle of Loos. The Illustrated London News, 9 Oct 1915, page 13, Issue 3990, Vol CXLVII.
Troops in gas cloud
Photo taken by a soldier advancing through clouds of poison gas at Loos. - This is photograph HU 63277B from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 9306-11)