Spencer John Bent – Market Boy War Hero
“Private McNulty went out of the trench, and on returning was hit in the pit of the stomach. He fell, and the Germans were trying to hit him again; you could see the earth flying up all around him. I said, “Why doesn’t someone go and help him?” and got the reply, “Why not go yourself?” I went, and to make it difficult for the Germans to hit me I zig-zagged to him. They did not snipe at me while I was advancing, but as soon as I got hold of McNulty’s shoulder something seemed to take my feet from under me, and I slipped under McNulty. This took place close to the walls of a ruined convent, and several bullets struck the wall. Knowing it was impossible to stand up, I hooked my feet under McNulty’s arms, and using my elbows I managed to drag myself and him back to the trenches about twenty-five yards away. I got a bullet through the flesh of my right leg, and had to be taken to hospital.”
Spencer John Bent.
Spencer John Bent was born at Stowmarket on the 18th March, 1891, the son of William Bent and Gertrude (nee Baker). His father served with the Royal Horse Artillery, and was later to be killed in the Boer War. His early childhood was spent in Spikes Lane just outside the town where his mother’s parents, John and Caroline had a market garden, John had also been landlord of The Pickerel Inn. The young Bent later lived with an aunt and uncle in Witnesham near Ipswich.
In 1905 at the age of fourteen, Bent enlisted as a drummer with the 1st Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment. After spending four years in Ireland he was based in Woking (1902-12) and Colchester (1912-14). Soon after joining the Army, Bent took up boxing and later acquired his adopted name “Joe” by which he was always known.
On the outbreak of the First World War, Bent went as a member of the British Expeditionary Force to France, and arrived in time to take part in the battles at the Marne and the Aisne Valley. In September his regiment was moved to Ypres in Belgium.
On 21st October, 1914 the Germans captured the village of Le Gheer. Bent was a member of the 11th Brigade sent to recapture the village. Heavy fighting took place over the next few days. Eventually the British soldiers gained the village but on the 27th October the Germans launched a counter-attack.
On the night of 1st / 2nd November 1914, when his officer, the platoon sergeant and a number of men had been struck down, Bent took command of the platoon and with great presence of mind and coolness succeeded in holding the position. He had previously distinguished himself on two occasions, on 22nd and 24th October by bringing up ammunition under heavy shell and rifle fire. One of the British soldiers, Private McNulty, was shot after leaving the trench. As he was being fired at by the Germans, Bent volunteered to go and help bring him back. McNulty was over 25 yards away and Bent came under heavy fire as he dragged the man to safety.
Bent was awarded the Victoria Cross for his act of bravery on 13th January 1915, the first to be won by the East Lancashire Regiment in The Great War. He was also presented with a gold inscribed watch by the musicians company; and he received an award of £50 offered by Mr T. Curtis, an Ipswich resident.
Bent took several months to recover from a gunshot in the leg; he also received shrapnel injuries to both arms and hands, and was slightly wounded in the head. Promoted to the rank of Sergeant, Bent returned to The Western Front in the summer of 1916. The privations of the trench warfare again took their toll and he was badly injured at The Battle Of The Somme and again returned to England for a period of convalescence.
After recovering his health he returned to The Western Front this time with the 7th Battalion of his regiment and took part in the battles of Messines Ridge and Passchendaele, re-joining the 1st Battalion. In the fighting around the village of Sepmeries, east of Cambrai, Company Sergeant Major Bent won the Military Medal, particularly for leading two patrols which were sent out to gain touch with the enemy on the afternoon on the 29th October.
The 1st Battalion was withdrawn from active operations on 2nd November and Bent finally returned to England in May, 1919 and took part in the funeral of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey in November, 1920. He remained in the Army until 1926 and during this time he served in the West Indies and Malta. He left the Army with the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major. After the Army he worked as a school caretaker and a commissionaire. He was also a father of three.
Regimental Sergeant Major Spencer “Joe” Bent died in his sleep on 3rd May, 1977 in Hackney, London at the age of 86.