The forgotten stories of the men behind the medals have been revealed as the Museum of the Manchester Regiment completes a major research project on its medal collection
When 18-year-old Albert Ashton of Wigan joined the Manchester Regiment in early May 1916, he was assigned to the second fifth battalion as their drummer and bugler. By February of 1917 he was in the trenches of the Western Front.
© Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council
Serving on the Somme and the Ypres sector, he worked as a stretcher bearer recovering wounded personnel from the battlefield.
A brave soldier who often risked his life to recover the injured from the mud of no-mans-land, on one occasion he and another stretcher bearer found a wounded German soldier who told them about another stricken German "further down the line". Albert and his comrade found the badly injured soldier and brought him in for treatment.
After the war in 1919, back in the UK on an Army base, Albert was in the canteen where a number of German prisoners of war were working. Feeling a tap on his shoulder, he turned to find the badly injured soldier he had recovered. The man shook Albert's hand and thanked him for saving his life.
© Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council
The end of the war came for Albert when he was 'lying in a ploughed field in the frost and fog'. It was Armistice Day, November 11 1918.
Told to report to an officer, he was ordered to synchronise his watch, return to his position and “not say anything at all to anybody”. When his watch showed 11am he was to blow ‘Cease Fire’. Albert told his daughter that “he never blew his bugle as hard as he did that morning”.
His story is just one of hundreds revealed in a major £56,000 research project funded by the Esme Faibarin Foundation to tell the stories of men who served with the Manchester Regiment and whose medals now reside in the Museum's collection.
Albert's medals were donated to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in 1996 and are part of a collection that acts as an important reminder of the achievements of the Regiment and its forebears during its proud 200 years of service. But like many similar medal collections in regimental museums, many of the stories were hidden or forgotten.
Now the Men Behind the Medals project comprehensively reveals the experiences of 786 men across two centuries of conflict including the Napoleonic Wars; Crimea, the Boer War, the First World War and the long and brutal campaigns in Italy and Burma during World War II.
The task of researching these lives and service experiences was started by the late Major Ron Young, whose passion for the medal collection and commitment to revealing the stories behind the medals began in the late nineties. A much-loved figure, Ron died suddenly in 2006, but the project he started has now been dedicated to his memory.
As well as information available to visitors in the Museum's Medals Gallery, the online version includes a detailed biography of each man, in some cases offering details of lives before and after Army service, together with photographs and images of the medals.
Captain Robert Bonner, the Museum’s Advisory Committee Chairman, says the museum “provides a permanent and secure home for the medals of its soldiers"
"It is here that their families and friends are able to view the medals of their loved ones, knowing that they will be safe and secure for the benefit of generations still to come."
Like so many veterans, Albert Ashton, who went on to serve as a Special Constable during World War II, did not discuss many of his experiences during the First World War, preferring to take them with him to the grave. He died at home aged 80 in 1977.
The Men Behind the Medals can be explored at themenbehindthemedals.org.uk
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