Richard Annesley West was born at 1 Oxford Street, Cheltenham on 26th September 1878. He was married to comedy actress Maude Aston (real name Cushing, aunt of the actor Peter Cushing) who he met in South Africa after joining the Army to serve in the Boer war. During WW1 West earned a number of medals for gallantry including a DSO and Military Cross. He became an acting major in the Tank Corps on January 18, 1918 and was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his outstanding gallantry on August 21 and again on September 2, when he died on the battlefield. © IWM (detail of VC 1291)
Richard Annesley West was the sixth child of Augustus and Sarah West, who came from County Fermanagh. He was educated at Monkton Combe School at Bath, then at Uckfield Agricultural College in Sussex. He joined the army to serve in the Boer War in 1899, starting as a trooper in the Imperial Yeomanry, then becoming a lieutenant in Kitchener’s Fighting Scouts.
At the end of the Boer War, he remained in South Africa, initially farming, then training racehorses for the Duke of Westminster. He met his wife, the musical comedy actress Maude Aston (real name Cushing, aunt of the actor Peter Cushing) when she was on tour in South Africa. He fell in love with her across the footlights in Durban, and soon afterwards asked her to marry him. She turned him down, but told him that she would be ending her tour in Cape Town, whereupon he rode across the Cape to meet her; this time she accepted his proposal. Richard and Maude married on 16th July 1909 in Pretoria.
The couple returned to England to Maude’s native Sussex shortly before the outbreak of World War I and settled in Brighton. He signed up with the North Irish Horse, initially as part of the British Expeditionary Force’s Cavalry Special Reserve, and left for France as a lieutenant in August 1914, bringing several polo ponies with him. He served with distinction in the early months of the war, surviving the retreat from Mons. He was mentioned in Sir John French’s first dispatch, and was promoted to captain on 18 November 1915.
Although West saw plenty of action, it was not until the final year of the conflict that he received the first of four gallantry medals for his actions in 1917. On New Year’s Day 1918, The London Gazette announced he had been awarded the DSO. The citation read: “On April 11, 1917, at Monchy-le-Preux, his squadron was sent forward to reinforce the right flank of the brigade under very heavy shell and machine-gun fire. By his excellent example, rapid grasp of the situation and skilful disposition of his squadron he did much to avert an impending German counter-attack. He had shown great ability in command of a squadron since July 1915.”
West became an acting major in the Tank Corps on January 18, 1918, and acting lieutenant colonel on August 22 of the same year, in command of the 6th Light Tank Battalion. His award of the MC was announced in The London Gazette on November 7, 1918, when the citation stated: “During the advance on Aug 8 at Guillencourt, in command of a company of light tanks, he displayed magnificent leadership and personal bravery. He was able to point out many targets to his tanks that they would not otherwise have seen. During the day he had two horses shot from under him, while he and his orderly between them killed five of the enemy and took seven prisoners. On the 10th he rendered great services to the cavalry by personally reconnoitring the ground in front of Le Quesnoy, and later in the day, under very heavy machine-gun fire, rallied and organised the crew of tanks that had been ditched, withdrawing them after dark.”
Less than two weeks after the action at Guillencourt, West earned a bar for his DSO by displaying “conspicuous gallantry near Courcelles on Aug 21, 1918. The action being fought in a thick mist, this officer decided to accompany the attack to assist in maintaining direction and cohesion. This he did mounted, until his horse was shot under him, then on foot until the final objective was reached. During the advance, in addition to directing his tanks, he rallied and led forward small bodies of infantry lost in the mist, showing throughout fine leadership and total disregard of personal safety, and materially contributed to the success of the operations. Major West was in command of the battalion most of the time, his commanding officer having been killed early in the action. The consistent gallantry displayed by this officer throughout the operations since Aug 8 has been remarkable.”
By the time that both the Bar to his DSO and his MC has been announced, West had eclipsed both by earning a posthumous VC through his outstanding gallantry on August 21 and again on September 2, when he died on the battlefield. On October 3, 1918, the citation for his posthumous VC read: “On a subsequent occasion, it was intended that a battalion of Light Tanks, under the command of this officer, should exploit the initial Infantry and Heavy Tank attack. He therefore went forward in order to keep in touch with the progress of the battle, and arrived at the front line when the enemy were delivering a local counter-attack.
‘‘The Infantry Battalion had suffered heavy officer casualties, and its flanks were exposed. Realising that there was a danger of this battalion giving way, he at once rode out in front of them under extremely heavy machine-gun and rifle fire and rallied the men. Although the enemy were close upon him, he took charge of the situation and detailed NCOs to replace officer casualties. He then rode up and down in front of them in face of certain death, encouraging the men and calling to them: ‘Stick it, men; show them fight; and for God’s sake put up a good fight.’
‘‘He fell riddled by machine-gun bullets. The magnificent bravery of this very gallant officer at the critical moment inspired the infantry to redoubled efforts, and the hostile attack was defeated.”
At the time of his death, Richard West’s wife Maude was pregnant with their first child, Anne, who was born on 16th November 1918. She subsequently had two children, Simon and Kitty. The family continue to pay frequent visits to Richard West’s grave at Mory, near Bapaume, very close to the spot where he died.
-From Kitty Morris, Granddaughter
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