Teacher who became a hero of the trenches

Theodore Hardy.
Theodore Hardy.

Strolling one day through Carlisle Cathedral, headteacher David Raw was mightily impressed by the sandstone walls and the magnificent ceiling.

Then amidst all this grandeur and almost by chance he spotted a small bronze plaque.

It commemorated the bravery of Rev Theodore Bayley Hardy and David’s first sighting of the modest plaque set off an urge to discover more about the incredible heroism of a modest man who had been headmaster of Bentham Grammar School and then vicar of Hutton Roof in Westmorland. It was also the start of a journey that led to the publication of a highly acclaimed biography It’s Only Me.

In researching for the book, David uncovered an amazing tale of a quiet, unassuming man devoted to his family, his students, his parishioners and ultimately to the soldiers in his care and a man who did everything he could to shun the limelight.

Theodore Bayley Hardy was born on October 20 1863 in Exeter.

Sadly, a week before his seventh birthday he was orphaned by the death of his father.

It was arranged for him and his older brother to become boarders at the Commercial Travellers School at Pinner in Middlesex.

The school’s full and very Victorian name stated it was for Orphans and Necessitous Children.

Theodore later won a scholarship to the City of London School and went on to London University.

After graduation he became a teacher at Nottingham High School for 16 years. One of his pupils was D.H. Lawrence.

He was ordained in 1898 and combined teaching with the duties of a curate in the city.

In 1908 he moved north to become headmaster of Bentham Grammar School.

Bentham proved to be happy place, both for him, for his wife Florence, and their two children William and Elizabeth.

Florence helped to look after the boarders at the school.

A school history reveals “Mr Hardy won the admiration of all pupils, parents and friends by his whole-hearted enthusiasm for his work, his charming manly virtues, his purity and simplicity of character.”

But the happiness they enjoyed at Bentham came to an end in the spring of 1913.

Florence was diagnosed with a terminal illness and they could no longer cope with running the school together.

It was arranged, through the Bishop of Carlisle, that Theodore should be appointed vicar to the vacant living at nearby Hutton Roof in South Westmorland.

Florence was to die in June 1914, just weeks before the start of the Great War.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 changed everything for the new widower. He was determined to play his part and he applied to be a padre.

But he was 51 and was told he was too old.

He replied that though short sighted he was fit. He cycled everywhere and swam regularly – but he was still ignored.

For two years he trained in first aid in Kirkby Lonsdale and continued to badger those in charge and in August 1916 he was eventually accepted for army service as a temporary chaplain to the forces - to make up for those chaplains lost in the Battle of the Somme.

He was attached to two battalions, the 8th Lincolns and the 8th Somerset Light Infantry and over the next two years, the one-time reject was to become the most decorated non-combatant in the Great War.

In a quiet way he spent all his time in the front line, sharing the dangers of the men and offering what practical help he could.

He quickly became a popular figure and was famous for the words ‘Don’t worry boys, it’s only me’, as he moved around the trenches dispensing cigarettes and words of encouragement.

At Christmas 1916, near Loos, he crawled out to a shell hole to rescue a man lying wounded in ‘No Man’s Land’.

The Germans saw him – but failed to fire.

In June of 1917, the Lincolns were in action at the Messines Ridge and again Hardy was at the very forefront as a stretcher bearer giving help and succour to the wounded. He seemed unaware of the danger and his ambulance training back in the days of Kirkby Lonsdale proved especially useful.

Such was his involvement that nobody was surprised when in October of that year was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

When the citation was published, it read: “Rev Theodore Bayley Hardy. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in volunteering to go with a rescue party for some men who had been left stuck in the mud the previous night between the enemy’s outpost line and our own. All the men except one were brought in. He then organised a party for the rescue of this man, and remained with it all night, though under rifle-fire at close range, which killed one of the party. With his left arm in splints, owing to a broken wrist, and under the worst weather conditions, he crawled out with patrols to within 70 yards of the enemy and remained with wounded men under heavy fire.”

In October 1917, near Hill 60, his bravery was recognised again, this time with the Military Cross and with the citation: “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in tending the wounded. The ground on which he worked was constantly shelled and the casualties were heavy. He continually assisted in finding and carrying wounded and in guiding stretcher bearers to the aid post.”

It was that devotion to duty that won the Rev Hardy the love and respect of the troops and during the winter of 1917/18 he was in constant action.

So much so that in April he was to perform an act, so brave that he was recommended for the highest award, the Victoria Cross.

And again a fulsome citation was published in the London Gazette. It included: “For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty on many occasions. Although over fifty years of age, he has, by his fearlessness, devotion to men of his battalion, and quiet, unobtrusive manner, won the respect and admiration of the whole division. His marvellous energy and endurance would be remarkable even in a very much younger man, and his valour and devotion are exemplified in the following incidents:

It typified the padre’s modesty, that when told of his nomination he replied: “I really must protest.”

He was only persuaded to accept when it was pointed out the King would be personally offended if he refused. On the August 8 1918 King George V pinned the award to his chest in a simple ceremony at Frohen-le-Grand.

Watching on was Hardy’s daughter, Elizabeth, a VAD nurse who had received a special invitation to attend the ceremony at the 3rd Army Headquarters.

She later recalled her father “had to stand in front of the King for about 10 minutes listening to a full account of his deeds, looking perfectly miserable...looking just like a schoolboy being scolded.”

The King was so moved by the modest Hardy that he appointed him to be one of his personal chaplains.

The King also hoped that Hardy might be persuaded that he had done enough and wanted to get him back to safety in England.

The Bishop of Carlisle was influenced to offer him the vacant incumbency of Caldbeck.

It must have appealed to the country loving Hardy, but he wrote back saying he had been absent from his little parish of Hutton Roof for so long he felt it was his duty to return to them once the war was over.

His duty now was to stay with the troops in the line – and eventually to return to his parishioners at Hutton Roof after the war.

“They have been kind to me and my family and put up with me as a very indifferent preacher.”

When the Bishop tried again, Hardy again demurred adding “Perhaps I shall be called away soon and there will be no need to make a decision.”

It was to be his last contact with the Bishop and those words turned out to be prophetic for on October 11, the Somersets and Lincolns were back in the thick of the action, fighting along the River Selle.

As ever Hardy was with them.

* See next week for the second part of Hardy’s story.