The First World War affected every community across Europe and beyond. Newham - or more accurately, the parts of East London that were to become Newham in the 1960’s – was no exception. Over fifteen million lost their lives worldwide, and the lives of millions more were changed forever. One of them was Harold Mugford, who was born on August 31 1894.
The second son of Richard Sandford (a Solicitor’s clerk) and Rose Mugford, Harold was born in Bermondsey and moved to East Ham at an early age, and went to Shrewsbury Road School. As a young man, he held an administrative role at a shipping company until the unit he joined as a volunteer, ‘The Essex Yeomanry’, were mobilised in August 1914. Harold was sent to the continent to fight, where he was involved in the second battle of Ypres and at the Loos offensive, surviving a number of close escapes. Aged twenty-three, as a Lance-Corporal, he was fighting in a village called Monchy le Preux, less than ten kilometres away from Arras – the site of a major British offensive during the war.
Under heavy fire, he moved his machine gun to an exposed position where, according to the original Gazette, he ‘dealt very effectively with the enemy’. He was however, wounded, and the man operating the machine gun alongside him was killed. He was ordered to return to have his injuries treated but refused to do so, continuing to damage the enemy more with the machine gun. A shell broke both his legs, but he continued to fire. For this he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the UK’s highest military decoration, and is awarded for valour “in the face of the enemy”. It has been awarded 1357 times and only fourteen times since the Second World War, at the time of writing.
When he was finally treated (sustaining a further arm injury), both of his legs were amputated at the knee. He also had shrapnel stuck in his hip, tongue and jaw. Harold was expected to die from his injuries and needed six operations in England. He was presented with the VC in the grounds of Buckingham Palace in 1918. After the war, he married and moved to Chelmsford and was involved in amateur dramatics.
His home was burgled in 1949, where his VC medal was stolen - but was later recovered. The burglar, Leslie Freeman, was convicted. Harold died in 1958 and was buried in Southend. His VC medal is on display at the Imperial War Museum.