On 25 September 2014 Glasgow University’s Great War Project officially launched after a special commemoration service for the first war death of the university community: Capt Harry Sherwood Ranken, RAMC. Ranken graduated from the University of Glasgow MB ChB (with commendation) in 1905. He died of wounds on 25 September 1914 and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the first Glasgow-born recipient of the award in the First World War.
Pre-war life and career
Ranken was born 3 September 1883 in Glasgow. He was the eldest son of Rev. Henry Ranken, BD, the minister of Irvine Old Parish Church, and Helen Morton Ranken. He attended Irvine Royal Academy and entered the University of Glasgow in 1900, taking classes with renowned surgeon Professor Sir William Macewen. After graduation Ranken was a resident house surgeon and house physician at the Western Infirmary and then assistant medical officer at the Metropolitan Asylums Board’s Brook Fever Hospital. In 1909 he enlisted with the RAMC with a first-place entrance exam, and also earned the Tulloch Medal in military medicine. He served with Eastern Command pursuing research into sleeping sickness at the Royal Army Medical College and the Brown Institute in London until 1911, after which he ran Yei Camp in Sudan as part of the Sudan Government’s Sleeping Sickness Commission. He was promoted to Captain in 1912. He volunteered with the British Expeditionary Force when war was declared and was attached to 1st Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps and was immediately posted to France in August. Within the first month he received the French Croix de Chevalier of the Legion of Honour for actions during the retreat from Mons.
Ranken’s leg was badly damaged by a British shell whilst tending to wounded in exposed positions. Rather than retire to seek medical attention, Ranken reportedly dressed his wound in the field and continued to treat others until he was physically unable to continue his work. He was eventually taken to Braine where he died of wounds at a dressing station. The citation from the Edinburgh Gazette on 20 November 1914 records the award:
For tending wounded in the trenches under rifle and shrapnel fire at Hautvesnes on 19th September, and on 20th September continuing to attend to wounded after his thigh and leg had been shattered. (He has since died of his wounds.)
Commemoration and memorialisation
Ranken is buried at Braine Communal Cemetery. His name appears on the University of Glasgow Roll of Honour in the memorial chapel, the Irvine war memorial, and there is a monument to him in the Irvine Old Parish churchyard. Ranken Drive and Ranken Crescent in Irvine are named for him. At the time of his death, he also appeared in popular media like Wills cigarette cards.
His VC was awarded posthumously on 16 November and on 29 November it was officially presented to his father. Today the medal is part of the RAMC collections and is on display at the Army Medical Services Museum.
In 1924 Ranken’s parents founded a memorial prize at the University of Glasgow. The University Court gratefully acknowledged this memorial to ‘an alumnus who so highly distinguished himself and whose memory is cherished by the University’. The Ranken prize is still awarded annually to the candidate who demonstrates the highest level of excellence in the undergraduate course/module of Pathology/Mechanisms of Disease (including intercalated BSc /Med Sci Clinical Medicine).
25 September 2014
One hundred years after his death, Ranken’s life was remembered at the University of Glasgow at a commemoration event that included a service in the Memorial Chapel, the placing of a poppy cross in the university’s Garden of Remembrance, and a talk by Dr Tony Pollard, director of The Great War Project. In attendance were staff, students and alumni of the University of Glasgow, along with Glasgow’s Lord Provost and other City officials, schools, community groups and members of the public. Descendants of Ranken (via his brother Alan Rain Ranken, also a University of Glasgow graduate), including his niece and grandnephew. They were tracked down just a week prior to the event by archivists from the Mitchell Library after a lengthy process of research that ultimately involved knocking on doors.
As part of the commemoration, the University of Glasgow accepted Ranken’s VC paving stone from the Lord Provost, Sadie Docherty. As part of the First World War centenary, the UK government is producing a unique stone for every VC recipient. Ranken’s stone will be mounted in the University Memorial Chapel.
University of Glasgow Roll of Honour biography
Glasgow City Roll of Honour biography
Gliddon, G. 1994. VCs of the First World War: 1914. Stroud: Budding Books.
Obituary in The Lancet, 184.4756, 24 October 1914.
Obituary in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 8.1, Nov 1914.
The inaugural Harry Ranken Memorial Lecture delivered by Professor Hew Strachan on October 10th, 2017.