Forgotten story of Penarth First World War hero told for the first time

The first full-length biography of Captain Richard Wain VC is published this week. Valour Beyond Measure, written by award-winning author Dr Jonathan Hicks, also covers the history of the early days of the Tank Corps and includes around 180 unseen photos.

Captain Richard Wain was only the second Tank Corps member to be awarded Britain’s highest military award for gallantry – the Victoria Cross. Originally from Penarth, Wain won the Victoria Cross for his heroic actions at the Battle of Cambrai on 20 November 1917, aged just 20.

Dr Jonathan Hicks said:

“Whilst headteacher of a secondary school in Penarth, I organised the sourcing and dedication of a memorial stone to Richard Wain’s memory in 2018. I had been intrigued by his story for some years, and I realised that there had been no in-depth study of his life prior to the First World War, nor any examination of the conflicting stories as to his actions on that day, 20 November 1917. My research spiralled into the draft of the book and now his story can be properly told for the first time.”

Wain served as an infantry officer on the Western Front and was wounded on the infamous first day of the Battle of the Somme, before transferring to the fledgling Tank Corps in 1916. By 1917 he was in command of a section of four tanks.

As well as Captain Wain’s story, the book also contains fresh German accounts of the battle, new biographies of his fellow officers and a previously unpublished account by one of Wain’s tank crew members which Dr Hicks found in America.

The Tank Corps was formed during the Great War from the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps. It attracted men from a variety of backgrounds, with many having an interest in engineering, and this was put to good use during their training in these new machines.

“A way of breaking through the enemy’s front lines was required to avoid the large number of casualties that had been seen in the battles since 1914 – most notably on the Somme. This new ‘wonder weapon’, almost impervious to hitherto deadly machine-gun bullets, could trample through lines of barbed wire, cross trenches and destroy German fortifications. Men flooded to join the fledgling branch of service, perhaps ignorant of the dangers of being inside one of these steel behemoths when it was struck by an enemy artillery shell or trench mortar. The effect of a direct hit on the tank’s petrol tank was unimaginable. Conditions inside the tank were primitive. The heat and noxious fumes from the engine would often render crew members unconscious, and the noise inside was so deafening that men communicated by sight and touch only. There was no suspension so a fall into a shell hole or trench would see the tank crew thrown around like ninepins,” said Dr Hicks

This is the fourth non-fiction book by Dr Jonathan Hicks on Wales’ contribution to the First World War. Having visited Mametz Wood on the Somme, and being moved by what he saw, he wrote the bestselling The Welsh at Mametz Wood in 2016, which gathers together many of the personal accounts left by the Welsh soldiers who fought in that battle. The Welsh at Passchendaele followed the following year, giving an account of the Welsh contribution to the Third Battle of Ypres. His third book told the neglected story of the Welsh pilots of the Great War - Wales and the First Air War 1914-1918.

Dr Hicks said, “I have already written much of my next book, which tells the story of the fighting around Hooge in Belgium in the spring and summer of 1915. Again this is an often-overlooked series of battles and part of my ongoing quest to shed light on the forgotten aspects of the First World War so that readers can hear the voices of the individual soldiers and understand their experiences.”