Exceptional Naval and Polar Awards from the Collection of RC Witte
Date of Auction: 13th December 2007
Sold for £210,000
Estimate: £150,000 - £180,000
Victoria Cross, the reverse of the suspension bar inscribed ‘Seaman R.N.R. C. McK. Samson ON. 2408A’, the reverse centre inscribed ‘25-26 April 1915’; 1914-15 Star (A. 2408 G. M. Samson, Smn., R.N.R.); British War and Victory Medals (2408A G. McK. Samson, P.O., R.N.R.); French Medaille Militaire, silver, gilt and enamel, enamel work largely lacking on the last, contact marks, generally very fine (5) £150,000-180,000
V.C. London Gazette 16 August 1915. The recommendation - contained in Vice-Admiral de Robeck’s despatch - states:
‘Seaman George MacKenzie Samson, R.N.R., worked on a lighter all day under fire, attending wounded and getting out lines; he was eventually dangerously wounded by Maxim fire.’
To which should be added the comments of the River Clyde’s surgeon, Dr. P. Burrowes-Kelly, D.S.O.:
‘He was most prominent through 25-26 April. He effected many daring rescues of the wounded, stowed them carefully away in the hopper, and treated them himself until medical assistance was forthcoming. In the intervals he devoted his time to attending to snipers. He was prominent in the close fighting on ‘V’ beach on the night of 25 April. He was eventually covered by a Maxim and wounded in 19 places.’
French Medaille Militaire London Gazette 28 August 1918.
FootnoteGeorge MacKenzie Samson was born at Carnoustie, Fife in January 1889, the second son - and one of nine children - of David Samson, a shoemaker, and his wife Helen. Having gained a reputation for truancy at his local school, young George went to work for his uncle, a farmer in Arbroath, but, growing bored, ran away to embark on a life at sea. Initially rejected on the grounds of his young age, his zest for travel and adventure took a turn for the better when, aged 17 years, he was engaged by a Forfarshire cattle dealer to take 30 prize bulls to Argentina - that task completed, he travelled inland and found employment as a cowboy on a cattle ranch. A year later, he returned home and enlisted in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, but bought himself out after basic training in favour of returning to sea, this time on a whaling trip to Greenland. Many adventures followed as a merchant seaman, including a voyage from Leith to Smyrna, Turkey, where he worked at the gas works prior to becoming a fireman on the railway line between Smyrna and Adana - ‘This life suited me excellently and even better so when, after becoming acquainted with the line, I was promoted to the position of driver. I was the youngest driver in the service, and I think it was my nerve and confidence which got me on.’
Meanwhile, in common with many merchant seamen, Samson had enrolled in the Royal Naval Reserve, and on the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, packed his bags and made for Port Said to catch a passing warship. In the event, he was actually taken of the strength of the R.N.R. at Malta, when he joined H.M.S. Hussar, and it was in the same ship that he found his way to the Dardanelles in 1915. Here, as a result of his fluency in Greek and Turkish, he was frequently called upon to act as an interpreter for Rear-Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, at Lemnos and Mudros, linguistic skills that enabled him to join Commander Unwin’s steam hopper the Argyle in time for the forthcoming landings on ‘V’ Beach, the latter exclaiming, “Who’s to talk to the Greeks in the hopper if you don’t come? None of us can speak Greek!”. The rest, as they say, is history, Samson’s V.C. popularly being considered the finest won that day - and the first such award ever gazetted to the Royal Naval Reserve.
Aboard the steam hopper, in addition to Sampson, Unwin took Midshipman George Drewry and six Greek seamen, the whole clambering aboard at 5 a.m. on 25 April, about two miles off-shore. Drewry takes up the story:
‘Shells began to fall round us thick but did not hit us. We were half a mile from the beach and we were told not yet, so we took a turn round two ships. At last, we had a signal at 6 a.m. and in we dashed, Unwin on the bridge and I at the helm of the hopper ... At 6.10 a.m. the ship struck, very easily she brought up, and I shot ahead and grounded on her port bow. Then the fun began, picket boats towed lifeboats full of soldiers inshore and slipped them as the water shoaled and they rowed the rest of the way, the soldiers jumped out as the boats beached and they died, almost all of them wiped out with the boats’ crews ... ’
And it was under such desperate circumstances that Samson commenced his gallant work, bringing back wounded from the beach, and repairing the pontoon of boats and lighters started by Unwin and Leading Seaman Williams, the water now red with blood and whipped by devastating enemy fire - even so, he left the steam hopper on 30 occasions:
‘As long as I live I shall treasure memories of the bravery of these men [his fellow Naval V.Cs] ... As for myself I cannot say that I felt quite as cool as I may have looked. I am not a very excitable sort when there is serious trouble about. It takes a good deal to disturb me, but I can say without hesitation that this was the “goods” for excitement. During these first hours ... I had amazing narrow escapes just the same, of course, as my companions ... Bullets were whizzing about our heads every few minutes, and we were soon aware of the fact that machine-guns were in operation ... Men were falling down like ninepins quite near us, and perhaps it was only the thought that we must give them a helping hand that made us forget our own danger.’
And if it was dangerous in the water, then the Argyle was little better, the Turks undoubtedly marking her out for special attention. Samson continues:
‘This time I began to think that any moment would be my last. Indeed, it became so hot that I finally decided to make a bold bid for safety. I began to roll over towards the side of the little vessel. There was no rail, and the fact was very much in my favour, for I was able to keep low down all the time. Bullets were flying all about the deck; once again I seemed to bear a charmed life ... When I reached the side of the hopper I gave myself a big lurch, and fell into the sea. The sea was extremely choppy but ... I was a good swimmer, and I did not find the slightest difficulty in getting back to the ship.’
At around 1.30 p.m. on the following day, with the beach-head more or less secure, Samson, already wounded, fell victim to a burst of enemy machine-gun fire, taking multiple hits on his left side. Decked by the impact, he dragged himself back to his feet, but was promptly hit again, and by the time he had been brought before the River Clyde’s surgeon, Dr. P. Burrowes Kelly, it was touch and go whether he would pull through - but “whether he lived or died I knew he had won the V.C.”
And so it was, his award being gazetted on 16 August 1915, while he was back in Scotland recovering from his wounds, and staying at his father’s convalescent home in Aboyne - surgeons had only been able to extract four of the probable 19 bullets in his body. The following day, he returned in triumph to his hometown, Carnoustie, where he was afforded an impromtu but rousing reception, the crowds cheering him as he made his way through the streets, a rather different reaction to the one given him by a clergyman who had shared the same railway compartment as him earlier that day - with Samson yet to receive his new uniform, the former felt bound to announce in a loud voice, “Look at that fine-looking young fellow. He ought to be serving his country instead of being a slacker.” Nor was this to be Samson’s only such experience, for, having collected his V.C. at a Buckingham Palace investiture on 5 October, he returned north at the end of the month for a more formal reception at Carnoustie, this time being presented with a a smoker’s cabinet and a silver rose bowl - together with, just hours earlier, a white feather from a complete stranger.
Advanced to Petty Officer, Samson was granted one year’s sick leave in June 1916. Sadly, however, much of his time was passed in assorted hospitals, even to the extent that he was on the sick list at Invergordon when he was presented with his French Medaille Militare as late as 1918. Notwithstanding his painful injuries, and the fact he had been honourably discharged from the Royal Naval Reserve in 1917, such was Samson’s determination to return to active service that he made an unsuccessful application to join North Russia Expeditionary Force in 1919, presenting himself at the Dundee recruiting office in his C.P.O’s uniform, complete with V.C. and French Medaille Militaire ribands.
Post-war, he found employment back in the Merchant Navy, sailing out of Dundee as Quarter-Master of the tanker Dosina, and it was in this capacity that he fell ill during a voyage to the Gulf of Mexico in early 1923. Transferred to the S.S. Strombus, bound for Bermuda, he died from double pneumonia on 23 February, and was buried with full honours in the military section of the island’s Methodist Cemetery in St. George’s.
Yet for such a gallant and prominent Great War hero, the circumstances surrounding the arrival of his remains on Bermuda almost defy belief, and, in fact, but for the good work of Mr. L. N. Tucker, founder of the island’s Sailors’ Home, it is feasible Sampson would have ended up in an unmarked grave:
‘I remember one year a ship came to Bermuda with a dead sailor. The captain of the ship dropped the body ashore and, without waiting, went back to his ship. I later called the captain on the radio and asked him for the man’s papers. He replied that they were on the body, so I went through his clothes and found out that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War. I rang Admiralty House and got hold of the Flag Lieutenant. He told me that he would check the records and sure enough the man had been awarded the Victoria Cross. I received a call later from the Lieutenant telling me that he would send down three Petty Officers and a Commanding Officer for the funeral, and would also arrange a gun-carriage. Next day the whole army turned out. It was one of the biggest funerals that ever took place. But you see, I don’t think any more of myself for doing that. Something told me that it was the right thing to do, and the wrong thing would have been to ignore the whole thing.’