Near Sannai-y-Yat, Mesopotamia, 22 February 1917
The slow advance towards the town of Kut-el-Amara had reached Sannai-y-Yat by 22 February. On this day, according to the war diary of the 1st Seaforths (19th Infantry Brigade) 7th (Meerut) Division, the battalion stood to arms at 5.30 am and, at daybreak, the 21st Brigade could be seen about a mile away to the right moving towards Suwaikiya Marsh. At 6.30 am British artillery began to bombard the enemy's camp behind their trench lines and simultaneously guns of the 7th Division shelled the enemy front trenches. In addition, machine-guns swept the area. All this activity drew little response, although enemy aircraft did come over and drop a few bombs on the Allied camp.
The war diary entry is pretty matter-of-fact and does not reflect what happened later in the day when, after no fewer than five counter-attacks, the enemy made the decision to retire. During the afternoon Indian troops to the right of the Seaforths moved forward but later had to give ground. Seeing what was happening, Sgt Thomas Steele, the machine-gun sergeant, and Pte Joseph Winder, both of the Seaforths, rushed out to rally the Indians and to help save the situation. Doubling across the open landscape they seized a machine-gun which the Indians had carried back, took it to the right of a gap in the lines and brought it into action just in time to prevent a Turkish advance. During the evening the Seaforths sent patrols out as far as the fourth line, which was found to be empty, although a few stray Turks were rounded up. On the following day the Seaforths' advance continued to beyond the Smada position, where it halted, leaving the rest of the division to move as quickly as possible in order to try to cut off the enemy.
The smashed Turkish trenches were full of heaps of dead and wounded and were in a 'beastly mess'. The Turks never seemed to have had much regard for their dead, preferring to leave unburied bodies to rot down on the battlefield.
For the prompt saving of the situation Sgt Thomas Steele was awarded a VC and Winder, whose role was no different, the DCM and Médaille Militaire. Steele's VC citation was published in the London Gazette of 8 June 1917:
Thomas Steele, Sergt., No. 811, Seaforth Highlanders. For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. At a critical moment, when a strong enemy counter-attack had temporarily regained some of the captured trenches, Sergt. Steele rushed forward and assisted a comrade to carry a machine gun into position. He kept the gun in action till relieved, being mainly instrumental in keeping the remainder of the line intact. Some hours later another strong attack enabled the enemy to reoccupy a portion of the captured trenches. Again Sergt. Steele showed the greatest bravery, and by personal valour and example was able to rally troops who were wavering. He encouraged them to remain in their trenches, and led a number of them forward, this greatly helping to re-establish our line. On this occasion he was severely wounded. These acts of valour were performed under heavy artillery and rifle fire.
The above is reproduced by kind permission of Gerald Gliddon and taken from his forthcoming new book which is a new edition of VCs of the First World War: The Sideshows (to be published in August 2014).
Also, from The Yorkshire Post
Steele was a 26 year old Serjeant in the 1 Seaforth Highlanders when he was awarded his VC.
Born in the then West Riding village of Springhead, near Oldham, Thomas Steele played three matches as a professional for Broughton, one of rugby league's founding clubs, and enjoyed a distinguished career as an amateur with his local club, Healey Street.
On 22 February 1917 near Sanna-y-Yat, Mesopotamia, at a critical moment when a strong enemy counter-attack had temporarily regained some of the captured trenches, Sergeant Steele helped a comrade to carry a machine-gun into position. He kept this gun in action until relieved and was instrumental in keeping the rest of the line intact.
Some hours later another counter-attack enabled the enemy to reoccupy a portion of the captured trenches and Sergeant Steele rallied the troops, encouraging them to remain in their trenches and leading a number of them forward, helped to re-establish our line. On this occasion he was severely wounded.
Steele continued to play rugby league for Healey Street after being demobbed. He died at his home in Springhead in 1978, aged 87.
Source: Yorkshire Post newspaper