Painting of James Crichton VC

Painting of James Crichton VC

Private James Crichton VC, painted by Francis McCracken in 1920–21. 

James Crichton was born in Ulster but grew up in Scotland and served in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders during the South African War. After emigrating to New Zealand in 1914 he worked for the Post and Telegraph Department in Auckland as a cable splicer and linesman.

Crichton enlisted in the NZEF soon after the outbreak of war and left with the Main Body in October 1914. A baker in the Army Service Corps, he was promoted to quartermaster-sergeant. In May 1918 he transferred to the 2nd Battalion, Auckland Regiment as a private.

On 30 September 1918, during the Hundred Days advance, Crichton’s platoon was pinned down between two branches of the Scheldt River near Crevecœur in northern France. Though he had been wounded in the foot in the initial attack, the 39-year-old Crichton made a return trip to company headquarters under fire to report on their predicament, twice swimming the river and running across 100 m of open ground. He then crawled along a ditch under fire to look for more survivors, defused seven explosive charges the Germans had set under a nearby bridge, and once again ran the gauntlet back to company headquarters. Only after Crichton was assigned to stretcher-bearing duties was his wound finally noticed – 12 hours after he had suffered it. He  walked six miles to hospital to have it dressed before being evacuated.

James Crichton received his VC from King George V in London on 27 February 1919 alongside three other NZEF men who had been awarded the same honour. After arriving back in Auckland on 23 June 1919 he was given a civic reception before returning to work as a telegraph linesman.

Crichton subsequently transferred to Dunedin as a cable jointer in 1923 before returning to Auckland on his promotion to foreman cable jointer in 1925. He accompanied the Coronation Contingent to the United Kingdom in 1937 and retired at the age of 60 in 1939.

Though at the time of his discharge from the army he had been assessed as ‘no longer physically fit on account of wounds received in action’, Crichton lived to 82, dying at Takapuna in 1961.

About the artist

Born in Northern Ireland, Francis McCracken (1879–1959) grew up on a cattle station in Australia before moving to New Zealand. After studying at Elam School of Art in Auckland he served with the NZEF during the First World War, losing a leg at Ypres. Invalided out of the military, McCracken renewed his art studies in Edinburgh. He returned to New Zealand briefly in 1920 as part of an exhibition tour with war artists Robert Johnson and John Weeks. James Crichton was one of two New Zealand VC holders whom he was commissioned to paint following the First World War. The other was Reginald Judson.

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