In Remembrance week 2021, we honour the achievements of one of Hull’s own, Private Jack Cunningham VC, whose story of bravery in the face of the enemy has been brought back to life after the restoration of a 104-year-old piece of cinematic history.
John Cunningham, who was usually known as Jack, came from a traveller family and was the eldest son of Charles Cunningham, a licensed pot hawker and his wife Mary Ann. He had six brothers and just like his father, was a hawker.
He enlisted with the 3rd Hull Battalion when he was seventeen. He carried out his initial army training near Beverley and later served with the East York’s, guarding the Suez Canal in Egypt, from December 1915 to March 1916. The battalion then moved to France and the Western Front.
On 13 November 1916, 19-year-old, Jack was a Private in the 12th (Service) Battalion, (the Hull Sportsmen’s Pals Battalion), The East Yorkshire Regiment. During the infamous Battle of the Somme, the following deed took place for which he was awarded the prestigious Victoria Cross.
‘On 13 November 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Ancre (the final offensive of the Battle of the Somme), attacking from opposite Hebuterne the 31st Division was to seize the German trenches and form a defensive flank north of Serre. After the enemy’s front line had been captured, Private
Cunningham went with a bombing section up a communication trench where much opposition was met and all the rest of the section were either killed or wounded. Collecting all the bombs from the casualties, Private Cunningham went on alone and when he had used up all the bombs he had, he returned for a fresh supply and again went up the communication trench where he met a party of 10 Germans. He killed all 10 and cleared the trench up to the new line. His conduct throughout the day was magnificent.‘
Cunningham’s Victoria Cross is held in the York Army Museum, and regimental curator Wg Cdr Alan Bartlett RAF (retd), said: “As a regiment, we are privileged to hold the Cunningham VC in our collection and we’ve remained in contact with his nephew, Mr John Moore who lives in York.
But even I was surprised when John turned up out of the blue and offered to donate original footage of the VC investiture with King George V. After some discussion we decided to take the reel of film on loan and see if it could be restored and copied. The result is a piece of social history.
On the 2nd June 1917, Jack was one of 350 men and women to be decorated at a special public ceremony of investiture at Hyde Park. It was a beautiful summer’s day and aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps patrolled the skies overhead in case of a surprise German air attack. A Guards Brigade provided music for the occasion. Cunningham was one of the first to be decorated by the King and the other recipients included several other Somme VC winners. He returned to Hull to a hero’s welcome and continued to work as a hawker.
John Moore, proud nephew of Cunningham VC explained: “What many may not know, is that as a VC winner, Uncle John was introduced to all three British Kings! First, King George V when he was presented with his medal, then in the early 1930s at a function for VC winners hosted by King Edward VIII, and again when King George VI visited Hull in August 1941 to witness the damage caused by the Blitz”.
After being badly wounded in the latter part of the war, Jack was demobilized in 1919. In the same year, he married Eva Harrison. They had two children, a daughter Annie who died in infancy and a son John who was born in Hull in 1920. Jack Cunningham died at 5 Beaufort Terrace, Campbell Street, Hull on the 21st February 1941. He was only 43 years old and had been ill for some time, a result of wounds sustained during the war.
In the weeks leading up to Remembrance 2021, it is proposed to hold a media event in the York Army Museum on Tower Street, York where the members of the family can be interviewed with the original Victoria Cross.
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