Medals reveal insight into Somme hero

Keith Smurthwaite with a framed photograph opf his Granddad John "Jack" Vasey.
Keith Smurthwaite with a framed photograph opf his Granddad John "Jack" Vasey.

IT was 12 years ago when Hartlepool man Keith Smurthwaite was handed three medals by his mother Janet Vasey.

She had no idea what they meant, other than they were awarded to her dad John “Jack” Vasey who was Keith’s granddad.

John "Jack" Vasey (left) in a family photograph

John "Jack" Vasey (left) in a family photograph

Eighteen months of painstaking research followed for Keith before he got to the bottom of the story – and what a tale it was.

When he completed it, he handed the lot back to his mum as a Christmas present and it moved her to tears.

Here is that emotional story...

John Vasey, born in 1877, was 38 when the First World War broke out. He was already a married man with four children but he still signed up because he believed in the right to freedom.

John "Jack" Vasey (left) in a family photograph

John "Jack" Vasey (left) in a family photograph

To make matters worse, his wife was three months pregnant with another child (Keith’s mum Janet).

And to add to the heartache of being split from his family, John’s wife had lost three children in infancy.

But still he did his bit. He enlisted with the 7th Battalion of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps on August 3, 1915. It was quite a change from his peacetime job as a labourer at a lime pit on the Central Estate in Hartlepool.

But war came and he swapped his home in Warren Terrace for the front line. Soon after, he was making a difference to the war effort. Keith, now 72, said: “You have to try and get your head round why he went to war. He had strong feelings but after the war, he never spoke about it much.

Keith Smurthwaite with a items about his Granddad John "Jack" Vasey.

Keith Smurthwaite with a items about his Granddad John "Jack" Vasey.

“When he joined the regiment, he was known to be the regimental sharpshooter.”

Keith, a father of two, grandfather of seven and great-grandfather of one, talked to family members to find out more. A cousin gave him a piece of shrapnel which added to the story. Why was it important? It would all become clear soon enough.

Then, he approached the armed forces, trawled the internet and amassed everything he knew.

He found out that his granddad had faced his fateful day on August 3, 1915. He was shot and a piece of shrapnel lodged inside him as he fought for life at the Somme.

John "Jack" Vasey

John "Jack" Vasey

But John was a hero who would not give in. Despatches from the Front said the following: “The Military Medal awarded to Cpl Vasey for bravery in the field and helping a wounded colleague back to safety.

“Although wounded himself, he showed exceptional strength and fortitude during the Somme offensive at Delville Wood.”

John also won the British War medal and Victory Medal. He was eventually discharged from the Army because of his wounds and came home a hero who had rescued an injured colleague.

Keith, who served his apprenticeship as an electrician, said: “I got the medals, I got the shrapnel that had been in granddad, I did the research and I gave them all at Christmas one year to my mum who had no idea about all this background.

“She was gobsmacked and emotional.”

His injuries meant that Jack could never again work in a strenuous job but he did return to employment.

John "Jack" Vasey on the Medal list

John "Jack" Vasey on the Medal list

He became a lamplighter in the days of the gas street lights.

Lights were lit each evening by a wick on a long pole. At dawn, the lamplighter would put all the street lights out again. It was a peaceful existence for a man who had known so much about war.

Jack lived until 1955 when he died of natural causes aged 78.

His daughter, Keith’s mum Janet Vasey, passed away ten years ago, also from natural causes.

But she lived long enough to hear the story of her hero father –thanks to Keith.

Medals awarded to John "Jack" Vasey

Medals awarded to John "Jack" Vasey

John "Jack" Vasey (right) with friends

John "Jack" Vasey (right) with friends