Buccaneering VC hero who defied 19 wounds

AS THE waters off Cape Helles turned dark crimson from the blood of the fallen, George Samson was unflinching in his duty.

All around him was chaos. As men spilled out down gangways from the hull of the SS River Clyde, they were mown down by Turkish troops dug into the surrounding slopes of the Gallipoli peninsula.

Yet Petty Officer Samson did all he could, braving fire to bring the wounded back under cover. Bullets, which only a moment before had been whizzing above his head, now pierced his left side. But he continued to bring the injured men back, in between times battling with enemy troops.

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Though the bloody battle of Gallipoli still resounds in the 21st century, the actions of Mr Samson on 25 April, 1915, are little remembered.

Next month, however, his heroic deeds will again be recognised when the seaman's Victoria Cross will be auctioned in London, where it is expected to fetch around 180,000.

Aged 26, the Scot was hit a total of 19 times as he helped wounded soldiers to safety during the ill-fated landings at the Dardanelles.

Surprisingly, Mr Samson recovered from his wounds and now his VC is among five of his medals due to be sold by Dix Noonan & Webb, a specialist medals auctioneer, on 13 December.

David Erskine-Hill, the specialist who catalogued the collection, said yesterday: "George Samson worked to help others tirelessly until he collapsed - he was a true Scottish hero. His VC was one of the finest won that day and the first-ever gazetted to the Royal Naval Reserve."

Born in Carnoustie, Mr Samson was one of nine children of a shoemaker but had an independent streak and a taste for adventure which began at his local school.

A reputation for truancy saw him sent away to work for his uncle, a farmer in Arbroath. Bored, he tried to run away to sea but was rejected because of his youth.

While still 17, he was engaged by a cattle dealer to take 30 prize bulls to Argentina. When the job was done he travelled inland and became a cowboy on a cattle ranch before returning home a year later to Scotland.

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The young man then joined the King's Own Scottish Borderers, but after basic training he bought himself out of the regiment and went back to sea on a whaler bound for Greenland. Later adventures took him on a ship to Turkey, where he eventually became a train driver on the Turkish railways.

At the time, he was the youngest train driver in the service, but with war looming, he enrolled in the Royal Naval Reserve and made for Port Said, where he caught a passing British warship.

By chance, he found himself en route to the Dardanelles, and his fluency in Turkish and Greek meant he was frequently called on to act as interpreter for Rear- Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss. This linguistic fluency was instrumental in him being on the Clyde steamship, a 4,000-ton converted collier used to bring troops to the invasion beaches at Gallipoli.

The soldiers disembarked into lifeboats and lighters for the short journey to the beach, but as they jumped out into the water they were virtually wiped out by heavy and intense Turkish machine-gun fire. Mr Samson began to bring back the wounded through water stained red with blood and whipped up by the relentless enemy fire.

He said later: "Bullets were whizzing about our heads every few minutes and we were soon aware that machine-guns were in operation.

"Men were falling down like ninepins quite near us and perhaps it was only the thought that we must give them a helping hand that made us forget our danger."

The beachhead was virtually secured by the next day, but Mr Samson was then hit by a burst of machine-gun fire, taking multiple hits on his left side.

The impact threw him down, and although he got up, he was caught by another burst, and it was touch and go whether he survived.

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Dr P Burrows-Kelly, the surgeon on the Clyde who treated Mr Samson, said afterwards: "He effected many daring rescues of the wounded, stowing them carefully and treating them himself until medical assistance was forthcoming.

"In the intervals he devoted himself to attending to snipers. He was prominent in the close fighting on V Beach on the night of 25 April. He was eventually covered by Maxim fire and wounded in 19 places."

News of Mr Samson's VC - one of several won that day by men on the Clyde - appeared in the London Gazette in August 1915. He recovered sufficiently to travel home by train, sharing a compartment with a clergyman.

He was in civilian clothes and the parson looked at him and said in a loud voice to the other passengers: "Look at that fine looking young fellow, he ought to be serving his country instead of being a slacker."

Mr Samson's reply is not known, but he went on to receive a rousing reception in Carnoustie, with crowds cheering him as he made his way through the streets to a reception.

It was not the only time he was accused of not doing his part in going to the front. Two months later, after he had collected his award at Buckingham Palace, a stranger handed him a white feather in the street - the classic accusation of cowardice at the time.

A year's sick leave followed, much of the time spent in assorted hospitals. Mr Samson was on the sick list at Invergordon when he was presented with the French Mdaille militaire in 1918.

Nevertheless, he tried to join a naval expedition to Russia in 1919, only for the recruiting officer in Dundee to turn him down, despite his VC, service awards and French medal.

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Mr Samson then rejoined the Merchant Navy, sailing from Dundee down to the Gulf of Mexico.

But during the trip he fell ill and was transferred to another vessel bound for Bermuda. He died from double pneumonia. His body was ignominiously put ashore by the captain, who left immediately to continue his voyage, and Mr Samson faced being buried in an unmarked grave.

However an official at the local seamen's home went through his clothes and found his papers, which showed he had won the ultimate award for bravery. It led to a burial with full military honours in the island's cemetery in February 1923.

At the time it was the biggest funeral the tiny community had seen. His medals were returned to the family and were later sold. They have now come to auction from a distinguished collection in the United States.

• THE Victoria Cross - inscribed simply "For Valour" - was first invested some 150 years ago when Queen Victoria presented the medal to 62 soldiers and sailors in Hyde Park. Only 1,356 have been awarded since it was introduced during the Crimean War to recognise outstanding acts of bravery.

One of the first Scots to be given a VC was Paisley-born Sergeant James McKechnie of the Scots (Fusilier) Guards who, in September 1854, rallied his men round the regimental colours when his battalion came under heavy Russian fire during the Battle of Alma.

Another Scots recipient at the battle was Private William Reynolds from Edinburgh, a member of No 4 Company who was ordered to defend the Regimental Colours and Queen's Colours as they attacked a hillside.

Despite coming under heavy fire, which saw the Queen's Colours shot completely in half after being hit by 24 bullets, Pte Reynolds continued to rally the troops and pressed on up the hill.

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He later worked as a banker's messenger in London and died in 1869, aged 42. He was buried in a common grave in London's Brookwood Cemetery, marked only with a small metal disc. The grave was found after extensive research by the Scots Guards Association and the military history group, the One O'Clock Gun Association.

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