Inspired by a modest hero, Jim McTaggart makes a pilgrimage to the first World War battlefields of France to find where his father-in-law was awarded the military cross.

As 36 British soldiers charged towards a German machine gun post on a pitch black night in northern France, they all knew they could be cut down by a burst of bullets at any moment.

But although 25 shots were fired at them, all the soldiers reached their target, overpowered the enemy gunner and carried him, along with his weapon, back to their own trenches.

The operation, led by 20-year-old Guy Atkinson from Danby, North Yorkshire, lasted just ten minutes on May 23, 1918, at the village of Ayette near Arras. But it proved vital in identifying a German unit as well as putting the gun out of action.

Guy Atkinson, a second lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards, was awarded the Military Cross. Then, three months later, on August 27, he was badly wounded saving the life of one of his men in a bloody battle eight miles away at the village of Croisilles, and was mentioned in despatches.

Why my interest now after all this time? Because, many years later, I became Guy's son-in-law. In the few years I knew him before he died, he never spoke about his war exploits, and then more years passed before I had time to delve into his personal part in the horrific conflict.

I've just been to France to look over the scenes of those two battles. It was a deeply moving experience due to Guy's involvement and the spectacle of a multitude of graves - those of young British men, many just teenagers, who sacrificed their lives in what are now peaceful farm fields.

Ayette is a tiny place, well off the tourist trail, with hardly a soul to be seen in the middle of a summer's day. It has an impressive memorial, featuring a soldier in a curious blue tunic, to its own troops who fell in action during the First World War.

Tucked away up a farm track is a neat cemetery with the graves of 50 British men killed in the locality. In which of the surrounding fields, most now grazed by horses and cattle, did Guy lead the attack on the machine gun? It was impossible to guess, but also impossible not to think of him and his 35 comrades.

The citation for his MC, which I traced in the Record Office at Kew in London, states that it was awarded for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.

After giving details of the operation it adds: "He quickly grasped the situation and made his plans with the greatest skill ... he set a fine example of courage and greatly inspired all ranks with him."

Five of the men with him were awarded the Military Medal. It seems grossly unfair on the other 30 who got nothing, as surely they were equally heroic - but that's what happens in war.

Then I moved to the larger village of Croisilles, where a wide, immaculate cemetery, reached by a winding road and next to a football field, told its own story of the savagery that went on in the area.

The village, at a crucial point in the Somme valley, was captured from the Germans in April 1917 then lost a few months later. It was retaken again on August 27, 1918 but at a grotesque cost.

That day the 2nd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards had three officers and 111 other men killed, plus 194 wounded. At the height of the battle, Guy Atkinson crawled out to reach a wounded man and was carrying him to safety when he was shot in the back. He was still in hospital when the war ended in November.

But he was lucky. The cemetery holds the graves of 1,165 British men, plus a few Canadians, South Africans and Germans, killed in the fields around the village.

It was a spine-tingling experience to walk around it, reading the names and ages. They were all so young. A register gives all the names, plus the home addresses of some. Among them I noticed Driver Charles Beckitt, son of Charles and Jessie Beckitt of Warren Street, Middlesbrough.

Again thoughts turned to Guy. He must have known many of the scores of men from his unit whose gravestones now stand in perfect rows - Sgt Major JAJ Fox, Private Maurice Beasley, Private Herbert Fletcher, Lance Sgt G Burnham... the list goes on and on.

Questions came to mind. Were any of the men in the machine gun snatch party among those killed that day? How many of them survived the war? Did Guy meet up with any of them later?

The answers will probably never be known.

If only I'd known something about it and asked questions when I had the chance. Probably a lot of other families have the same feelings, as so many old soldiers were too modest, or perhaps too horrified, to talk about what they had seen or done.

Around the village are fields of sugar beet, maize, cabbages and potatoes. In the village bar I asked which had been battlefields. One old man shrugged and said in broken English: "They were all battlefields. This whole place was one big battlefield."

An old friend from Barnard Castle, Jack Jones, found me a Coldstream Guards history book which gives full details of the Croisilles battle. It has a message from General Fielding, who was in charge, saying: "The 1st Guards Brigade has never fought more gallantly, and I wish to thank all ranks for the endurance and devotion they displayed."

I can now understand the feelings of people who want to visit battlefields in which their fathers, grandfathers or other relatives fought or died. Being there on the spot for a while helps to complete the picture.

Guy Atkinson was undoubtedly a hero but in later life never gave any hint of it. He is buried alongside his wife Nobby beside the parish church at Danby, where his grandfather, Canon John Atkinson, was vicar for 40 years.