“The bravest sailor I ever met”
Beneath the war memorial in Stanton Lacy churchyard [SO 495 788 off the B4365 northwest of Ludlow] is a very special plaque to one of Shropshire’s First World War VCs.
“In honoured memory, Able Seaman William Charles Williams VC Royal Navy, who gained his country’s highest award for valour on 25th April 1915 at Gallipoli. Born in Stanton Lacy 15th September 1880.”
Williams does not appear with the other men of Stanton Lacy who gave their lives in the Great War, as his parents moved to Chepstow when he was seven or eight.
He joined the Royal Navy as a boy. Even before the heroics at Gallipoli, he had been commended for bravery. His service included China and South Africa, before in September 1910, on completion of his service, he left the Navy. He joined the police and worked in a steel works.
The tides of history and a beach in Gallipoli
In August 1914 he was recalled from the Royal Fleet Reserve to active service. He was posted to HMS Hussar, formerly a torpedo gunboat, now a minesweeper, under Captain Edward Unwin. When Unwin was assigned to SS River Clyde (1905), a 4,000 ton former collier, requisitioned by the Admiralty and destined for a key role in the landings on V Beach, Cape Helles, Gallipoli. Williams went with his captain.
The River Clyde was being prepared for its role as a landing vessel. It would transpire that 2,000 men of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and the Hampshire Regiment would make a fast exit from “sally ports” to be cut in the port and starboard sides of the ship. Once they emerged, the men would rush down sloping gangways suspended by wire hawsers to reach a bridge of lighters or barges to the shore.
These preparations poignantly betray the haste to meet a deadline. On the starboard bow was a yellow patch – all the painters had time to apply of the unfinished camouflage scheme.
Even the best plans have to degenerate into action
In the early hours of the 25th April, they left Rabbit Island 8 miles south-west of the entrance to the Dardanelles. The River Clyde beached at 06:22 as planned. V Beach was an amphitheatre about 300 yards in diameter. There were two lines of trenches in front of each, a belt of barbed wire about 15ft thick. 400 to 500 Turks were equipped with 2 pom-poms and 4 Maxim machine guns. If the plan was to work, fire from HMS Albion would need to keep the Turks in their dugouts. As so often happened on the Western Front, the time between the bombardment and the attack was too protracted, the Turkish defenders were back in their positions.
Within five minutes of beaching, the troops were underway. Men were cut down as soon as they emerged from the sally ports. The elevated gangways provided ideal targets. The Argyll, a flat-bottomed steam hopper, was to provide a floating bridge but the Argyll swung to port and ended broadside to the beach. Two lighters drifted apart in the strong current and made the ‘bridge’ impassable. Scores were shot helpless on the uncompleted bridge. With three days rations, 250 rounds of ammunition and a full pack, men were drowning before they reached the beach. Unwin, led men outside to manhandle three lighters on the starboard side forward instead. Able Seaman Williams had been ordered to stay by his captain’s side. Under fire throughout from the Turkish defenders, he and Unwin dove overboard and manhandled two lighters into position, lashing them together to form the bridge.
“Commander Unwin RN, the Beachmaster and Able Seaman Williams made a line fast to one of the drifting barges and, dropping over the side, waded through the water towing the barge towards a spit of rock that gave direct access to the shore. Midshipman Drewry, was already in the water wading ashore to secure the towing rope. In the meantime, Commander Unwin and Williams had nearly reached the rock with the barge in tow when they found the rope they had was not long enough. Drewry at once went back to the ship to get another length, and while the other two were waiting, Williams was shot as he stood breast-deep in the water.
Unwin carried him back to the barge but Williams was already dead. When Drewry returned with the rope it did not take long to make the barge fast, and then the troops began at once to cross the bridge which remained under heavy fire.” (The London Gazette, 16th August 1915)
William Williams was 34 and single. He is remembered in Stanton Lacy Shropshire where he was born and in Chepstow where the museum has a display dedicated to him and a gun from a German submarine presented by King George V.
In all, three efforts were made to disembark the troops, the last at 11.00hrs: each ended with appalling losses. No troops were disembarked until dark when they were undetected by the Turks.
Once a beach-head was established at Cape Helles, the River Clyde remained beached as a quay and breakwater. The condensers were employed to provide fresh water. Her holds served as a field dressing station for the wounded.
The Australian historian, Les Carlyon, has said “Gallipoli is the campaign that goes past the brain and wriggles into the heart.” Preparing this article, for the first time in decades I have read the pencilled words of my Great Uncle George Parish to his sister, my grandmother, on the back of a head and shoulders studio portrait “you must excuse I could not have it taken full because I had no clothes at the time, only a lot of rags as I came off the Peninsula (Gallipoli).”
With hindsight we know that nothing strategic was achieved. If there is a single lesson from the “sideshows” of the First World War it is to avoid the trap of “Having lost sight of the objective, we re-doubled our efforts.”