Meet: VC John Christie

John Alexander (Jock) Christie (14 May 1895 – 10 September 1967) was a lance-corporal in the Finsbury Rifles during the First World War. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for bravery that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces during the Rifles’ campaign in Fejja, Palestine.

We investigated Jock’s experiences during the First World War.

Life before the First World War 

Jock was born in Edmonton, North London on the 14th May 1895.  When Jock was still young his family moved to 35 Fairbridge Road, Upper Holloway. This long street of terraced houses backed onto the Tottenham and Hampstead Railway (Gospel Oak –Barking line) run by the Midland Railway. Jock would have seen commuter trains and goods trains passing through, .

Jock was quite small, 5 ft tall. He loved sports and played for the football team at his local church, St John’s Church, Upper Holloway.

In 1910 you left school at 13 so, aged 14, Jock started work as a junior accounts clerk for the London and North Western Railway. He was based in the parcels department at Euston Station.

Lots of parcels were sent by train  As a clerk it was Jock’s job to label parcels of all sizes, work out their best route and determine the sending costs. There was a lot of paperwork, so Jock had to be calm and accurate under pressure. Jock would also have had to study on the job with evening classes at the nearby Working Men’s College (which is now Camden College).

Euston Station 1920s

Euston Station 1920s

Off to War

4th August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany.

The Railway Clerks’ Association immediately appealed for recruits to join the army . Like many other young men from Islington, Jock joined up on the 1st September. He joined the Finsbury Rifles, based near Euston Station at 17, Penton Street, Pentonville.

Finsbury Rifles (Darren's images) 09

Jock then went with the Rifles on training in Sussex, Norfolk and near St. Albans. Following training, some of the Finsbury Rifles were sent to the Western Front but Jock’s battalion was destined to travel even further, to Gallipoli.

Jock travelled to Liverpool at the end of  July 1915 to embark on HMS Aquitania. On the 11 August 1915 he landed with his battalion at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli.

The journey on board this ship would have been quite an experience for Jock. The Rifles’ war diary notes the stormy voyage across the Bay of Biscay, “sea rough, ship not fitted with hammocks, considerable difficulty … keeping decks and berths tidy.”

Aquitania

Transport and Machine Gun limbers on bows of SS Aquitania

Gallipoli

The Gallipoli Campaign was disastrous from the start. The Rifles’ suffered heavy casualties both in battle and during months of horrendous trench warfare. Many of Jock’s companions died far from home.

Jock’s own Gallipoli Campaign was short and unpleasant. After landing at Suvla Bay,  Jock would have spent the next few days sheltering with the rest of the Rifles in trenches,  whilst being shelled and shot at by the Ottoman forces. When not fighting, he’d have been helping with the endless task of digging and fixing trenches, a particular challenge in the sandy terrain.

On the 15th August the Finsbury Rifles, along with other regiments, attacked the Ottoman forces. It was difficult terrain for an attack, the soldiers were under constant shrapnel, shell, machine gun, rifle and sniper fire.  Any advances made were quickly lost as the Allied forces had to retreat. They just didn’t have the resources to hold on to any land they had taken. Many soldiers were killed in the retreat.

The Rifles spent the night at a site called Lone Tree Gully. Their trenches continued to be attacked the next day, 16th August.

The attack was a disaster, hundreds of Allied forces were killed or injured during the two days. The Finsbury Rifles’ war diary states that in their battalion alone, ‘Casualties during 15th & 16th 9 officers and about 350 rank and file.’

Jock was one of those casualties. He was wounded at some point with gunshot wounds to his head and left knee. His injuries were serious enough for him to be evacuated first to Alexandria, Egypt and then back home to London.

He was treated at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. He didn’t regain full fitness for almost a year.

You can find out more about the Finsbury Rifles’ disastrous Campaign in Gallipoli, including their war diary and our commemorative video about their experiences here.

 

Return to duty: Egypt

Once recovered, Jock sailed from Devonport to Alexandria in July 1916. By this point the Finsbury Rifles had left Gallipoli and were based in Egypt, helping to guard the strategically important Suez Canal, from Ottoman attack.

Re-joining his fellow soldiers at Manchester Post, Jock returned to duties, taking part in training courses and working on the canal defences.

 

IWM Suez Canal Defences repairing a trench

IWM Suez Canal Defences repairing a trench

In February 1917, Jock, alongside the rest of his battalion took part in  the gruelling march across the Sinai desert to engage the Ottoman soldiers at on Gaza.

You can find out more about the Finsbury Rifles experiences in Egypt and their march across the desert with our animation here.

Gaza

Jock fought in the first two battles of Gaza in March and April 1917. These were brutal battles. The Finsbury Rifles were at the front of the attack, trying to advance on the enemy trenches, under well directed artillery fire and intense machine gun fire.

In the Second Battle of Gaza, 19th April, the Finsbury Rifles lost over a third of their officers and men, Jock’s friends and comrades. This must have affected Jock deeply.

During the Allied retreat from Gaza, the battalion had to be totally reorganised.  The Rifles withdrew to the Sheikh Abbas Ridge and hurriedly dug new trenches and communication lines. They ended up sheltering there all summer 1917, facing different physical and psychological trials.

Q12297 Battle of Jaffa Auja River and Mullebis near where JC won VC

During this time, like many other soldiers, Jock suffered an attack of severe sunstroke. The combination of harsh sunlight, fierce summer heat, strenuous physical exertion and dehydration was a deadly combination. The soldiers struggled to get enough water. Jock recovered, many of his fellow soldiers didn’t.

By August 1917, Jock was in hospital again with severe conjunctivitis. This irritating eye infection spread easily in the trenches and was hard to treat effectively.

In November 1917, Jock and the Finsbury Rifles took part in the Third Battle of Gaza. This attack was successful, the soldiers broke through the enemy defences to find that the Ottoman Forces had evacuated Gaza.

Jock was promoted to lance- corporal.

A courageous action

After Gaza, the Finsbury Rifles moved c.40 miles north to the port of Jaffa, where Allied forces were attacking Ottoman and German defensive trenches.

Just before the Battle of Jaffa, on the night of 20th December, the Finsbury Rifles were ordered to cross the Ayun River to attack the enemy positions. Their task was to seize a nearby hill from which they could fire at the Ottoman and German trenches on Bald Hill. The Rifles, including Jock, seized the hill and held on to it against three determined counter-attacks by the German and Ottoman forces.

Jock’s Victoria Cross citation takes up the story…

‘…the enemy immediately made counter-attacks up the communication trenches. Lance-Corporal Christie, seeing what was happening, took a supply of bombs and went alone about 50 yards in the open along the communication trench and bombed the enemy. He continued to do this in spite of heavy opposition until a block had been established. On his way back he bombed more of the enemy who were moving up the trench. His prompt action cleared a difficult position at a most difficult time and saved many lives… he showed the greatest coolness and a total disregard for his own safety…’

 

The Rifles, and Jock’s, brave action contributed to the Allies winning the Battle of Jaffa.

Following the battle the Finsbury Rifles’ Commanding Officer must have recommended Jock for a Victoria Cross, sending his report through the army hierarchy to be approved at all levels.

However, the Finsbury Rifles would only have heard about Jock’s Victoria Cross roughly two month later when it had been approved.

Meanwhile, the war continued. The Rifles continued fighting northwards.

In mid-March 1918 Jock was wounded in the wrist and knee during ‘slight opposition’ taking Mejdel Jaba.

Roughly three months after his brave actions at Jaffa Jock was probably presented with his Victoria Cross ribbon by the Duke of Connaught, while recovering once again in hospital.

Homecoming

Still recovering in hospital, Jock missed the final defeat of the Ottoman Forces. His fellow Finsbury Rifles narrowly missed being sent to the Western Front, instead staying behind in Egypt until the Armistice of Mudros in October 1918.

The Finsbury Rifles were finally demobilised and shipped home to Islington in 1919.

Jock though got home a bit earlier, returning to England in November 1918. Islington, proud of its VC winner, welcomed him home with a cheque and a testimonial. Not to be outdone, his employers the London and North Western Railway, presented him with another cheque and a bureau, as well as naming a crack express locomotive after him!

Jock received his actual Victoria Cross from King George V at an investiture at Buckingham Palace in November 1918.

Jock Christie VC via Stockport Crematorium

 Life after the war

Demobilised from the army, Jock decided not to go back to his former job on the railways. Instead he became a salesperson, selling food products around the country. He was later the Northern Area Sales manager for Colman’s, Norwich.

Jock kept hist Victoria Cross hidden in a tiny drawer in his writing cabinet. His son Kenneth knew nothing about his father’s medal or brave actions until someone mentioned it to him at school.

Kenneth Christie said

“My father was always extremely reticent to speak about the war and the VC. It was a closed book as far he was concerned. It was his duty, he had been recognised for his part and he wanted to move on. He had lost a lot of friends in the war.”

In 2014, a memorial plaque to Jock Christie was unveiled at Euston Station by Kenneth Christie.