“I WANT to tell you of a deed of heroism performed by lads of the 13th DLI,” wrote an extremely excitable Corporal James Robinson from the trenches in northern France to his folks back home in West Stanley in November 1915.

Cpl Robinson, of the Durham Light Infantry, was a journalist, which may explain his excitability.

“One of our lieutenants was caught by an enemy machine gun and fatally wounded. His observer, Pte Thomas Kenny, of Wingate, carried the officer as far as he was able, and two North-West Durham lads, Pte M Brough of Causey Row and Pte T Kerr of Stanley – went over the parapet and completed the task of carrying the officer (Lt PA Brown) in, at great risk to themselves.”

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Cpl Robinson’s story was published in The Northern Echo in December 1915 when word came through that the rescuer, Pte Kenny, had been awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest honour for bravery. Kenny’s deeds, said the Echo’s headline writer, showed “pluck beyond praise”.

That story of the attempted rescue of Lieutenant Philip Brown is now the subject of an hour-long film documentary, entitled Beyond Praise, which received its premiere this week at the Gala Theatre in Durham. The film will also be shown today at the Wheatley Hill history roadshow, which is being held from 10am in the village which Kenny came to call home in later life.

“We were keen to tell how Brown and Kenny were two men from very different social backgrounds thrown together on the battlefield, which was typical of Kitchener’s army,” says director Mark Thorburn of Lonely Tower Film & Media. “But it appears that Brown was more than an officer, he was a friend. The southern-born university lecturer and the private from the mines worked closely together, and so Kenny wasn’t just saving an officer, he was saving his friend.”

Brown came from a privileged background, born in Beckenham in Kent, attended private school and Oxford University before, out of a sense of duty, he came to the Durham coalfield to lecture at the university and to be one of the first Workers’ Educational Association tutors, working with the miners.

By contrast, Kenny’s grandfather had fled the potato famine of Ireland to find work in the coalfield. Kenny himself was born in south Wingate, attended a Catholic school and worked as a quarrymen and miner, supporting his wife, Isabel, and their six children who crammed into a terraced house in Walker’s Buildings.

Perhaps to escape this grind, Kenny joined the DLI at the outbreak of war. Brown signed up, too. He could have had the pick of regiments, but opted to stay with his miners in the 13th DLI.

The two were thrown into battle near Armentieres for the first time at the end of September 1915, and they quickly became close.

“About 12.30am, a man came and said he could hear moaning over the parapet,” wrote Brown in his diary in late October. “I was afraid that this meant that some of my men, who had just started on a listening patrol, had been hit.

“I went down with my observer, a very nice Irishman from County Durham who goes with me everywhere, and crept along a very shallow trench.

“We soon came on one man down in the bottom of the ditch. It was difficult to move him, but finally my observer got him on his back. Poor fellow had a bad wound in the side.”

By early November, conditions on the battlefield had become waterlogged. The film contains Brown’s last letter home.

“Dear Mother,” he writes. “We have gone back to the trenches. Such trenches! I don’t think any words can adequately describe them. It has been raining. There’s not a patch of dry ground anywhere. Boards soaked in mud, sandbags bursting with mud, ponds and even wells of mud. Yellow mud, greasy pond, dirty cloths and heaps of mangled sandbags.”

In such conditions at La Houssoie, at 9.15pm on November 4, Brown, the officer of the watch, and Kenny went out into no man’s land to visit a working party repairing the barbed wire.

The rain had stopped, but instead the mud was covered by thick fog.

So thick was it that they missed the working party and wandered onto unfamiliar ground.

They sat and listened, hoping for a telltale sound that might lead them back to safety.

There was nothing.

At about 9.45pm, they decided to move. As they rose, a single shot rang out and Brown fell – the bullet has passed through both his thighs.

Kenny immediately went to his aid, hoisting him onto his back, but now every German gunner in the district was training his fire on them. Kenny collapsed into the mud and began to crawl, still with his badly injured officer on his back.

When the gunfire became stronger, Kenny lay still, heart thumping. When it slackened, he resumed his slither, the debris of war in the mud cutting into his hands and his knees. On more than one occasion, Brown beseeched him to put him down and go it alone, but Kenny refused.

After nearly an hour, the miner stumbled into a trench that he recognised. He was cold, muddy, exhausted and bleeding, and his uniform was in tatters. He made Brown as comfortable as he could and then went for help.

A little after 11pm, he reached Captain G White at the battalion listening post. Capt White called for volunteers to form a stretcher party and, as our excitable journalist reported, Privates Thomas Kerr and Michael Brough stepped forward.

Led by Kenny, they made their way back to Brown. The enemy, only 30 yards away, opened fire, but they picked up the officer, who was by now weak from the loss of blood and drifting in and out of consciousness.

Momentarily, he rallied. He opened his eyes and said faintly: “Well, Kenny, you’re a hero.”

Then he closed them, and he died before he reached the dressing station.

Kenny said later: “He was a gentleman to me. I only wish he had lived. It nearly broke my heart when they told me he was dead.” Brown was, according to his colonel, “the most popular officer” in the regiment.

A month later came the news that Kenny had been awarded the VC for, according to his citation, “pluck, endurance and devotion to duty which were beyond praise”.

He went to Buckingham Palace on March 4, 1916, to receive his medal from King George V at Buckingham Palace. The film tells how Brown’s mother, Jane, heard he was in town and persuaded a policeman on the palace gates to let her in. She located Kenny on the stairs, and introduced herself. She then took him on a tour of London and back to Beckenham to meet the family.

The war took Kenny to the Somme, where he was injured, and then to Ypres where he fought through Passchendaele. His younger brother, Hugh, was killed in April 1917 and Kenny himself was with the 13DLI as the men finished their active service after the armistice collecting the fallen from the battlefields and creating the first cemeteries.

In peacetime, Kenny was feted locally – whenever he went to a picturehall or a bar, everyone stood up to applaud him – but he resumed his ordinary occupation underground.

His connection with the Brown family remained strong: he received a small gift from them each month, and in 1920 when he was invited to a Buckingham Palace garden party for VC winners, he took Philip’s mother, Jane, rather than his own wife.

In 1927, he moved a couple of miles north to Darlington Street, Wheatley Hill, where he had a job in the colliery as a stoneman drifter, and in 1944, aged 62, a shoulder injury forced up into the daylight to work on the surface.

He died on November 29, 1948, aged 66, and was buried in Wheatley Hill Cemetery, but the story of his remarkable bravery lives on: the excellent film, made in conjunction with the Wheatley Hill History Society and the Heritage Lottery Fund, can be viewed for free on YouTube.

MILITARY ROADSHOW

Wheatley Hill History Club’s military roadshow is today (Saturday, November 11, 2017) from 10am to 2pm at Wheatley House, Woodlands Avenue, Wheatley Hill, DH6 3LX.

There will be displays and memorabilia relating to both world wars, and a team of military experts has been assembled who will identify any military artefacts – medals, photographs, equipment – that you may have lying around or who will be able to help you with researching your family tree through military records and war graves. One of the experts specialises in Durham Light Infantry queries.

DVDs of the new film, Beyond Praise, will be available for £5, and the Wheatley Hill Heritage Centre, with Pte Thomas Kenny’s grave close by, will be open from 10am to 4pm