World War 1: Ross Tollerton VC

If you’ve seen The Gazette’s ‘Find your hero’ video, you may be interested in finding out a little more about the heroes that it name-checks. Here, we explore the life of Ross Tollerton.

Ross Tollerton was born on 6 May, 1890, in Hurlford, Ayrshire. His father, James Tollerton, was a police constable who rose to the rank of sergeant before becoming a sheriff officer. The attraction of a uniform compelled the 15-year-old Tollerton to join the 1st Cameron Highlanders in 1905. For 7 years, he served in both South Africa and India.

After leaving the army at the age of 22, he went to work at the Irvine shipyard as an engine keeper. However, as he was on the reserve list of the Cameron Highlanders, his employment ended after just 2 years with the outbreak of war in August 1914 (Gazette issue 28861).

Barely a month later, on the morning 14 September 1914, the Cameron Highlanders were involved in the First Battle of the Aisne. This was an attack on the German lines in the Aisne valley. The Highlanders were subjected to intense machine gun fire and lost around 600 men in one morning. It was during the assault that Tollerton was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Tollerton’s commanding officer, Lieutenant J Matheson, was severely wounded, and lay in full view of the German gunners. Without regard for his own life, and under heavy fire, Tollerton rushed towards him and carried him over his shoulder to a place of greater safety. Despite being wounded in the head and hand, he rejoined his company’s firing line and remained there until the order was given to retreat.

Completely surrounded by the German army, Private Tollerton returned to Matheson and remained with him for 3 days, with only water to sustain them, until they were both rescued.

His citation in The Gazette (issue 29135) reads: “For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty on 14 September 1914 at the battle of the Aisne, he carried a wounded officer under heavy fire, as far as he was able, to a place of safety, then, although himself wounded in the head and hand, he struggled back to the firing line, where he remained till his battalion retired, when he returned to the wounded officer and lay beside him for three days until they were both rescued.”

The medal was presented to Tollerton by King George V at a ceremony attended by 50,000 people at Glasgow Green on 18 May 1915. Now promoted to sergeant, Tollerton returned to the Western Front and survived the war.

After Tollerton left the army, he became a janitor at Bank Street School in Irvine. When the town war memorial was unveiled in April 1921, Tollerton was invited to lay the first wreath. Of the 2,000 men from Irvine who served in the war, 238 of them had been killed.

Unfortunately, Tollerton’s health was badly damaged by his war experiences and he died of stomach cancer on 7 May 1931, just a day after his 41st birthday. Major Matheson (promotion in Gazette issue 32135), the man whose life Tollerton had saved 16 years before, sent a wreath. Matheson had retired in 1924 on account of ill health caused by his wounds(Gazette issue 32981).

Tollerton’s widow, Agnes, died in 1939, and his Victoria Cross was passed to his brother, Alexander. After Alexander died in 1956, it was lent to the Cameron's Own Highland Museum, where it remains to this day. Tollerton’s grave is located in Knadgerhill Cemetery, Irvine.