Captain Harry Ranken will be the first Glasgow-born VC winner from the Great War to have a commemorative paving stone erected to his memory in the Scottish city this September (2014). It was an award that he thoroughly deserved but sadly led to his death at the early age of thirty-one.
After the Battle of Mons had ended on 25 August and the subsequent Allied retreat, the tide turned for the Allies when they made a stand at the River Marne and, in doing so, saved Paris from capture. This action was followed by the Allies re-crossing the river and the start of the Battle of the Marne (6-10 September). All hopes of a swift German victory had by then vanished and, after the British Expeditionary Force crossed the River Marne, they pursued the German Army northwards towards the Aisne.
It was during the Battle of the Aisne (14-28 September) that Captain Ranken died of wounds received when attending the wounded under very heavy fire. Ranken was a few miles south-east of Villers Cotterets at Hautvesnes, when serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps attached from the 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps. He is said to have gained his posthumous award for his courage over 19-20 September and had already been awarded the French decoration of the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour for his work during the retreat from Mons during the end of August.
The 2nd Division History fleshes out the story from 10 September:
The 1st Royal Berkshires ( 6th Brig 2nd Div) were ordered to make good the northern exits of Hautvesnes, whilst the 50th Battery came into action immediately south-west of the village. The time was about 9.30 am. A second column of German infantry was then discovered moving northwards along the Vinly road, evidently acting as rearguard. The guns immediately opened fire at 1,500yards, and the 1st KRRC at the head of the main guard deployed to attack. The enemy lined the side of the road, which at this point ran through a cutting forming a natural trench. C Company was ordered to attack, starting with their left on the right of the 50th Battery, and advanced over an open stubble field to a position about 400 yards in front, on the slope of a hill. B Company was deployed on the left of C Company, and D Company kept in a reserve sunken lane until another battalion was deployed on our right. As soon as our guns opened fire, the enemy brought four guns into action from high ground just north of Brumetz.
Casualties in the KRRC were 4 officers wounded, 10 other ranks killed and 60 other ranks wounded, who Ranken tended.
The KRRC War Diary (WO 95/1358,TNA) for 12 September shows the battalion had got as far as the village of Braine, close to the River Aisne, where they halted for an hour in order to obtain supplies and bury the dead the Germans had left behind after earlier fighting.
On 14 September the battalion left their billets at 3.30 hours and marched via Pont D'Arcy, crossing the Aisne by pontoon bridge near Verneuil. The battalion was then split up with C and B Companies being sent to the right to get in touch with 5 Brigade. A and D Companies were sent to the left of La Bouvette Wood in order to make contact with the 4th Guards Brigade; thus becoming a flanking battalion. La Bouvette Wood was to the east of a farm called la Cour de Soupir which was north of the village of Soupir. A and D Companies of 1st KRRC suffered casualties from German snipers and subsequently re-formed half way down La Bouvette Wood. They were on the right, and their former colleagues the 1st Irish Guards were to their left. They advanced through the wood driving the enemy out on the far side. However, they became so far ahead that they were shelled by the British Artillery. A little later the Irish Guards retired halfway down the wood and the Rifles followed them, leaving behind them frontal posts.
The KRRC spent the next four days very exposed at the edge of La Bouvette Wood, receiving support from the 1st Royal Berks. and 2nd Ox and Bucks LI (of the 2nd Division). Early in the afternoon of 19 September the enemy began to shell the whole line more vigorously and began a regular attack bringing up infantry and machine guns. Lt Alston was wounded and while tending him Capt Ranken had his leg shattered by a shell from the British Artillery. Another officer was also hit by a 'friendly shell' but he escaped with only a bruise. The enemy attack later petered out at nightlfall and in the small hours of 20 September A and D Companies of the Rifles were relieved and went down to Soupir and Verneuil.Their casualties in the previous week had been 27 killed,141 wounded and 18 missing.
Capt Ranken, by all accounts, had done marvellous work in tending the wounded in exposed positions. In newspaper accounts he was said to have had to cross a ravine in order to reach the wounded and in time was mortally wounded by a shell from a Jack Johnson, which shattered his leg. As he was tending the wounded he bound up his own wounds and arrested the bleeding but refused to leave the trenches; he went on with his work until he was too weak to continue. He was later taken away by stretcher-bearers to a dressing station at Braine where he died of his wounds on 25 September at No 5 Clearance Hospital.
There is an anonymous account of a medical operation carried out on Capt Ranken, the details of which which were quoted in the Press in 1914:
Only last night I amputated poor Ranken's leg above the knee-joint, a terrible wound it was but he will probably get a VC for his behaviour. Although the leg was hanging on by a very litte, he continued to dress the wounded in the firing line.
A little-known diary kept in The National Archives (WO95/1407) throws further light on Ranken's final hours. It was written by Lt H Robinson RAMC, serving at the time with No 8 Field Ambulance. The date was around 23 September.
It was one of those days at Braine that I came across Captain Ranken RAMC. When I saw him he was lying on stretcher at Braine Station platform, he was smoking a cigarette and talking with animation. He had recently had his leg amputated somewhere above the knee and said he was in no pain and was quite comfortable and well. We were horribly shocked to hear a day or two later that he had died suddenly of an embolism but he had already received the award of the VC for his work at the time when he received his injuries.
Ranken was buried in the Braine Roman Catholic Cemetery in grave A 43. He is in a group of four officers and he was one of many doctors who were to give their lives in the Aisne fighting. His VC was gazetted posthumously on 16 November and was presented to his father by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 29 November 1914.
Although his official citation gives the date of his VC as 19/20 September it was really probably 9/10 September, as the battalion war diary quoted above confirms. If he won his VC at the later date, then he was more likely to have been serving in positions close to Soupir and not Hautvesnes.
Harry Sherwood Ranken was born born in Glasgow on 3 September 1883. He was the eldest son of the Rev Henry Ranken, who was the minister of the Parish Church at Irvine, Ayrshire, and Helen, daughter of Mathew Morton, who lived at the Manse. Harry Ranken went to school at the Irvine Royal Academy and later attended Glasgow University where he graduated as Bachelor of Medicine (MB ChB) 'with commendation' in 1905.He was appointed House Physician and House Surgeon to the Western Infirmary,Glasgow.
Later on he became the assistant medical officer to the Brooke Fever Hospital in south-east London. He entered the RAMC on 30 January 1909, gaining top place in the entrance examination. He was particularly interested in tropical medicine and won the Tulloch Prize in Military Medicine. His real inclination was towards research. He became a member of the Royal College of Physicians and passed his examination for Captaincy in 1911 and took that rank on 30 July 1912. He had joined the regular army when commissioned in 1909 and served with the Egyptian Army in Sudan, carrying out research into sleeping sickness. He made a study of his patients while researching at the same time. He also wrote several scientific papers based on his researches. He was a great favourite of all who knew him; he was a big-game hunter, a scratch golfer and a member of the Automobile Club.
Ranken returned home in July 1914 and immediately volunteered for active service with the British Army in August 1914. He then went to the front in France with the 1st KRRC as part of the BEF.
Within a month this very highly qualified doctor was dead and was mourned, not only as a hero but also as a very good friend and scientist. After his death he became the very first war casualty to be reported in the Kilmarnock Standard on 3 October 1914 and was to be remembered in many ways.
Ranken House is part of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, formerly a military establishment but now for civilians, which is close to the former Brook Fever Hospital in south-east London where Ranken once worked. In his home town of Irvine he is commemorated: on the local war memorial; on the family headstone in Irvine Cemetery; in the Irvine RC Church; in Irvine Golf Club; as well as having Ranken Drive in Irvine where there is also a Ranken Crescent. Ross Tollerton VC also has a road named after him in the town. It was a considerable coincidence that two men from the same town should win the VC within two weeks of each other.
Ranken is also remembered on a memorial in Elder Memorial Chapel in Glasgow Western Infirmary; he also has a tree planted in his memory in the Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, and a prize named after him at the University of Glasgow. His decorations which, apart from the VC and Legion of Honour 5th Class (France), include the 1914 Star-clasp "5th Aug-22nd Nov 1914"; British War Medal and Victory Medal. They are held by the Army Medical Service Museum, Aldershot. In his will Ranken left £1,400.
Article contributed by Gerald Gliddon.
Image courtesy Wikipedia; migrated from the Victoria Cross reference site with permission.
This article is based on the published account in VCs of the First World War: 1914 published by The History Press in 2011.