He received Britain’s highest award for bravery for his actions in one of the most brutal campaigns of military history, but died alone in a back room flat.
Herbert James saved a falling comrade and had to construct a temporary defence out of sandbags and dead soldiers to ward off the enemy, but when he died more than four decades later his own body lay undiscovered for six days.
This week a Victoria Cross won by the Birmingham-born hero for two breath-taking acts of valour at Gallipoli during the First World War will be auctioned in London.
The medal, put up for sale by Lieutenant James’ family, is expected to fetch between £160,000 and £180,000.
The medal is set to go under the hammer on Thursday. Born in Ladywood in 1887, James went to school in Smethwick and was a teacher. His first job was at Bearwood Road School followed by a post at the Brasshouse Lane School in Birmingham.
But in 1909 he decided to join the Army and enrolled with the 21st Lancers, having no idea fate was about to take him to some of the bloodiest battlefields in history.
At the outbreak of the First World War, James was promoted to lieutenant and commissioned to the 4th Worcestershire Regiment.
He set sail for Gallipoli in 1915 as part of an ill-fated offensive to push through the Dardanelles straits and capture the Turkish capital of Constantinople to provide Allied forces with a route through to the Russian front against Austria-Hungary. The nine-month battle cost the lives of 21,000 British and Irish soldiers, 9,000 French, 11,000 Australians and 86,000 Turkish troops before it was aborted.
Finding himself in the heart of the conflict, James proved a soldier of uncommon bravery.
During one battle he personally led a counter attack with next to no cover after a major assault failed, costing one Allied battalion the lives of 446 soldiers and 25 of its 26 officers in less than five minutes.
A few days later, he distinguished himself again with an act of valour even more impressive. The fearless lieutenant found himself alone in the trenches surrounded by comrades after a fierce attack by the enemy.
In the midst of the chaos, shells exploding all around him as the Turks prepared to advance, he found a wounded colleague lying amongst a heap of dead soldiers.
His own life in mortal danger, James pulled the soldier from the pile and set about securing the trench with a macabre makeshift defence of sandbags and dead bodies. He then single-handedly fought off the enemy, exchanging rifle fire and bombs with Turkish troops until he was finally relieved by reinforcements. For those acts, James was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Christopher Hill, of specialist medal and coin auctioneers Dix Noonan & Webb, which is holding the auction in London, said: “What makes his VC particularly special is it got two commendations.
“They were two distinct and significant actions, not one brave thing under fire. It was for leadership and rallying the troops for one and the other was a real in-your-face experience in the trenches holding off the enemy until reinforcements arrived.”
Described as a quiet and modest man, James ducked out of a large reception organised by Birmingham’s civic leaders to mark his bravery by catching an earlier train to the city.
On his return to service he found himself on the battlefields of The Somme in France where he was wounded and had to have a silver plate inserted into his head.
A year later, he added to his accolades, winning a Military Cross at Amiens. James stayed in the army until failing health caused him to retire in 1930.
On return to civilian life, the soldier struggled to adjust. By the mid 1950s, he was living as a recluse, separated from his second wife and renting a small flat in London, dealing in art. A few years later he was found dead at the age of 71 – six days after suffering a heart attack. None of his neighbours knew about his heroics.
He received no visitors or phone calls.