If you’re sharing a foxhole (or a trench) on the battlefield, who do you want in there beside you? Turns out, your child’s primary school teacher or the bloke cleaning the windows at your office might increase your odds of survival.
Teachers, window cleaners, and cotton workers have been identified as the UK’s bravest professions—or they were during the Great War at least.
These findings, from Ancestry, were revealed after researchers analysed 2.8 million British Army WWI Service Records, 1914-1920. Each service record provides a detailed account of a soldier’s time in the field, including their unit, where they served, promotions or awards, and the date and place of any illness or injuries.
These records highlight how ordinary men with everyday backgrounds and hardly any military training risked their lives on the front lines during the First World War.
To identify the bravest professions, researchers recorded the pre-war jobs of hundreds of Distinguished Conduct Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, and Victoria and Military Cross winners and then cross-referenced this information with the total number of males employed in the same professions in the 1911 Census.
Whilst the majority of medal winners were miners or agricultural labourers, by comparing occupations of medal recipients with 1911 Census data, researchers were able to establish which professions had the highest proportions of medal winners. When they looked at how many heroes per hundred professionals appeared in the medal data, teachers, window cleaners, and cotton [mill] workers came out top.[i]
Fishermen and doctors came next, at numbers four and five, whilst servants ranked number six. Barbers and merchants also made the list, followed closely by policemen and finally bankers.
Some examples of heroic WWI soldiers previously employed in these industries include
Frederick Youens, VC—Student Teacher. High Wycombe-born Youens received his Victoria Cross whilst trying to protect a Lewis gun team from enemy bomb attack. Unfortunately, he was fatally injured in the process and received his medal posthumously. Before the war, Youens had been a student teacher in his native Buckinghamshire.
Alfred Robert Wilkinson, VC—Cotton Operative. Wilkinson, born in Leigh in Lancashire, received his Victoria Cross after delivering a message to a supporting company, even though his journey involved exposure to heavy machine gun and shell fire. Before the war, Wilkinson was a piecer, repairing broken threads in spinning machines.
Joseph Watt, VC—Fisherman. Watt, who was born in Scotland, received his Victoria Cross following a naval engagement with three Austrian Rapidkreuzers. After being shot at by the enemy, Watt came to the aid of his drowning comrades whose ships had been sunk and rescued a number of men. Before the war, Watt worked as a fisherman in Aberdeenshire.
As well as those employed in the top 10 brave professions, researchers also identified some equally heroic servicemen whose pre-war jobs were slightly more unusual:
William Angus, VC—Professional Footballer. Scottish born Angus received his Victoria Cross after leaving his trench under heavy enemy fire to rescue an injured officer. Despite receiving 40 serious wounds, he survived and was awarded his medal in August 1915. Pre-war, Angus was a professional footballer with Celtic FC.
Edward Warner, VC—Straw-Hat Finisher. Warner received his Victoria Cross posthumously after singlehandedly holding a gassed trench to stop the enemy entering and saving the lives of numerous comrades in the process. Born in St Albans, Warner was previously employed as a straw-hat finisher.
Jack White, VC—Waterproofer. Born in Leeds, White worked in his family’s Waterproofing business before enlisting in 1914. He received his Victoria Cross medal after towing a boat of injured and dying men to safety after being caught in enemy fire.
Even after signing up, some soldiers still managed to find a good use for their pre-war occupations. A diary entry from Captain Bruce Bairnsfather details the Christmas truce of 1914 and reveals how he witnessed a former civilian hairdresser “cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”[ii]
Ancestry Senior Content Manager Miriam Silverman comments: “While teachers, doctors or policemen may have had skills or leadership qualities that could have prepared them better for the front lines, what this data really tells us is that it was the ordinary men with everyday professions that made some of the most extraordinary heroes.”
Ancestry holds over 20 million military records, including British Army WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920; Citations of the Distinguished Conduct Medal, 1914-1920; and Military Campaign Medal and Award Rolls, 1793-1949.
Great Britain’s Top 10 Bravest Pre-War Professions
2. Window cleaner
3. Cotton worker
Find your family heroes.
[i]Source: NB: Distinguished Conduct Medal, Meritorious Service Medal and Victoria and Military Cross winners either already employed in the military or previously at school were omitted from these results.
[ii] Source: Bullets & Billets by Bruce Bairnsfather.