Distinguished Conduct Medal in Surrey sale

A Distinguished Conduct Medal awarded to a heroic sapper who fought against time to stop the Germans exploding another mine is expected to make up to £8,000 at John Nicholson’s in Surrey.

In the hell of the trenches of the Western Front in the First World War, arguably those most in peril were the tunnellers – the sappers who literally undermined the enemy with explosives deep underground.

A Distinguished Conduct Medal

Now John Nicholson’s will offer the Distinguished Conduct Medal awarded to one of the bravest sappers – only 14 were issued – at their Militaria auction on July 9.

The DCM ranks second only to the Victoria Cross among gallantry awards.

Sapper George Ernest Willis was part of the 171st Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers on the Ypres Salient in early December 1915 as part of the strategic mining plan that would lead up to the Battle of Messines 18 months later.

As the London Gazette of January 22, 1916, recorded, on December 2 and 3, 2015: “The Germans exploded a mine and wrecked the head of one of our galleries, burying Sapper Willis and another man. After two hours he was extricated, badly shaken and bruised, but after having his bruises dressed, he insisted on returning at once to work at the face of the gallery where he had just been buried. The position was critical and it was necessary to push forward the wrecked gallery in order to prevent the enemy exploding a second mine. It was largely due to the splendid example of Sapper Willis that this was effected in time.”

The action that earned Willis his DCM came just ten months after the British, utterly unprepared to counter-attack using similar methods, finally decided to respond to the Germans’ mining operation on the Front by creating their own specialist force.

The 171st was formed almost immediately, enlisting miners and troops selected from the Monmouthshire Siege Company of Royal Engineers. As well as mining operations, the company would have been given the task of constructing deep dugouts, subways, cable trenches and underground chambers for signals and medical services.

The estimate is £6,000-8,000.