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James braved enemy fire to rescue wounded pals

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 05, 2013

  • Private James Henry Finn's Victoria Cross is held in a vault by Bodmin Town Council

  • Royal British Legion poppy wreath placed beneath the memorial plaque on the Finn VC Estate

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Commemorative paving stones are to be laid in the home towns of the thirteen servicemen from Cornwall and Devon who were awarded the Victoria Cross in the First World War. In the fourth in his series, Simon Parker relates the exploits of James Henry Finn, from Truro.

Visitors to Bodmin probably never give a thought to the sign pointing to Finn VC Estate, but the entire sprawling housing development is dedicated to the memory of one man's courage under fire.

Although claimed by the people of Bodmin as one of their own, James Finn was actually born at St Clement in Truro on November 24, 1893. The son of Frederick John Finn and Mary Baxter Finn (nee Uglow), the family moved to Downing Street in Bodmin shortly after his birth – securing his attachment to the town. With five brothers and five sisters, the need to earn a living was vital and after brief schooling James found work as a miner at Cwmtillery colliery near Abertillery in the South Wales Valleys.

At the outbreak of war, and like so many of his generation, he immediately enlisted with the local regiment, joining the 4th Battalion of the South Wales Borderers. His first posting was to the Dardanelles Campaign in Turkey, which ended in a major Allied defeat. Surviving the hell of Gallipoli, his battalion was next posted to Mesopotamia, where James and his comrades were immediately engaged in heavy fighting.

On April 9, 1916, the 22-year-old was in action at Sanna-i-Yat when his battalion came under intense bombardment. Many injured men were trapped close to the enemy lines. Yet despite the clear danger to his own safety, James returned again and again to the battlefield to rescue a number of wounded pals. He single-handedly carried two casualties to safety while under continuous fire and less than 300 yards from the enemy's guns.

His bravery was rewarded by being mentioned in dispatches, which led to him being awarded both the Victoria Cross and the Order of Karageorge, Serbia's equivalent to the VC. The ribbon of the VC was presented to him by Lieutenant General Sir F Stanley Maude at Amarah in Persia in November 1916.

The official citation read: "For most conspicuous bravery. After a night attack he was one of a small party which dug-in in front of our advanced line and about 300 yards from the enemy's trenches. Seeing several wounded men lying out in front he went out and bandaged them all under heavy fire, making several journeys in order to do so. He then went back to our advanced trench for a stretcher and, being unable to get one, he himself carried on his back a badly wounded man to safety. He then returned and, aided by another man who was wounded during the act, carried in another badly wounded man. He was under continuous fire while performing this gallant work."

Sadly, James died a few months later when a shell hit the field ambulance he was travelling in after he received leg wounds at Noel Plain, south of Baghdad. King George V presented the VC to his father at a public investiture in Hyde Park on June 2, 1917.

James is commemorated among the names of 40,000 British, Indian and West African dead on the Basra Memorial in Iraq. He is also remembered on a tablet at Library Bodmin Library, on his father's headstone in Bodmin Cemetery, in a book of remembrance in Truro Cathedral... and on the lips of Finn VC Estate's, residents and visitors.

Although regarded as "one of ours" by the people of Bodmin, James was in fact born in Truro. Discussions are continuing to decide where his Government-funded paving stone will be sited.

Private James Henry Finn's Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces, is held in a vault by Bodmin Town Council, after it was given to the authority by his mother in 1954.

Bodmin Town Museum is planning to mount a special exhibition next year dedicated to James Finn and the many other combatants from the town who served and lost their lives during the Great War.

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