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Illingworth House: 30 - Hail the Conquering Hero

Joe Gibson is awarded the Victoria Cross, the ultimate award for military gallantry. The mayor and a brass band are waiting to greet him when he returns home to Keighworth, but Joe is a changed man.

To read earlier chapters of John Waddington-Feather's epic tale please click on Illingworth House in the menu on this page.

Joe was badly wounded. Not only was his shoulder injured, but also the bullet that had penetrated his helmet had chipped his skull. They found him lying among the dead Germans in the machine gun nest and took him to the field hospital. When the colonel leading the attack realised what he had done, he recommended Joe for the Victoria Cross.

It was presented to Joe in Belgium by the king himself before Joe was shipped to a hospital in Scotland. He spent several months there recovering well and when he was fit enough to travel, he was discharged from the army and went home to Mary.

But he was a very different Joe from the one she had said goodbye to on his last leave only months before. The photograph of the dead German's family, a man he had killed, never left him. The dead man's wife, her children, especially the little girl, stuck fast in his mind.

He became embittered by the war and all to do with it. His time in Scotland only reinforced his contempt for his leaders, the king, the generals and politicians who were running the war, well away from the fighting. The press who were hiding the truth about it and trumpeting its glories.

He brooded over the carnage he had left as his train south chugged through the bleak Scottish and Cumberland moorland. The grey skies hung low over wintry fields as they descended to the Yorkshire Dales. Greyer sheep huddled together in the biting wind. There was a desolateness about everything - the stone walls gripping the sodden fields, the flocks of dull sheep, the dark fells and great outcrops of rock, the isolated, miserable farmsteads clinging to their bits of shelter. All matched Joe's mood and his bitterness. Perhaps Sam Greenwood had been right after all?

As the train chugged down the Aire Valley, the white snow of the uplands turned a dirty grey and in Keighworth itself it was mucky slush, soot-stained from the chimneys and foundries. For a few hours the town had been transformed under a mantle of virgin snow, but as it melted the town reverted to its old grimy self.

Keighworth had done its best to look bright. Strings of fairy lights were hung up around the centre of the town and a Christmas tree vaunted the season in the Town Hall Square. A Salvation Army band and choir were also thumping out some merry carols and the town was doing its yearly best to be happy.

News had gone ahead of Joe's return and the mayor and corporation had laid on a reception for him. Keighworth Silver Prize Band stood on the packed railway platform awaiting his train, stomping their feet to keep warm and huffing and puffing silently into their instruments. As his train drew in, they struck up with, "Hail! The conquering hero comes!" The engine squealed to a halt and a very bemused Joe got out.

He looked lost, but when Mary saw him, she flung herself into his arms sobbing, "Joe! Joe! Tha's come back! Ah nivver thowt tha would!" And they held each other close till the mayor came forward to shake his hand.

"Joe Gibson," he said, beaming over his double chin, "Keighworth's right proud of you. You'll go down in our town's history as the first man here to win the Victoria Cross. Well done, lad!"

There was a chorus of "Hear! Hear!" and clapping from the rest of the town council and all the others who crammed onto the platform to welcome him home. So tight was the crush that Joe and Mary found it difficult to move through them to the exit.

Joe nodded at those he recognised and tried to shake as many hands as possible, which were thrust out at him as he passed. People slapped him on the back from all sides, but he desperately wanted to get home and be with his wife. Abe Illingworth had turned up with the other magistrates to welcome him, but when their eyes met Joe stared bleakly at him, ignored his outstretched hand and walked on.

Outside a cab was waiting to take him home. The band was still playing and the crowd was still cheering, but Joe leaned back with his arm around Mary and told the cabbie to drive off as quickly as possible. Later, he refused to attend a recruitment dinner they had invited him to in the Town Hall, and afterwards he never wore his medals on Remembrance parades, but took himself off to Trinity Church instead.

His boyhood pals who had died in the war were on the wall there as well as on the cenotaph in town. It was in church he remembered best.

When he got in and was alone with his wife, he broke down and wept uncontrollably, for the first time since he'd been wounded. Mary put her arms round him and cuddled him like a child, rocking him against her breast. "Tha'rt home now, Joe. Tha'll nivver have to go back. Tha'rt safe at home," she whispered till he'd wept his fill. Then he washed his face and sat to table, saying little and letting Mary do most of the talking.

She glanced at him constantly. He had changed so. He had lost a deal of weight and looked pinched and drawn. His head was shaved and still bandaged, which made him appear stranger still. Most of all, he had lost the open look of innocence he had once had and that didn't return for years. In its place was dire bitterness and hate.

He asked where Helen was and was told she was sleeping at the Greenwoods that night. It was her who brought Joe back on keel when she came the next day. She chattered non-stop to him and sat on his knee while he read her a story. Children always responded to Joe and it was through them he recovered his old self in the years ahead.


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