William Buckingham VC

b. 29/03/1886 Bedford, Bedfordshire.  d. 05/09/1916 Thiepval, France.

William Buckingham (1886-1916) was born at 51 St John Street, Bedford on 29th March 1886. He was born as William Henry Billington. His father was William John Billington, a market gardener and greengrocer. His mother was Annie Susan nee Bennett. His parents had married at St Cuthbert’s Church in Bedford on 1st February 1886 (a month before William’s birth). His father died of tuberculosis on 5th March 1888, when William was nearly 2, his mother struggled to bring up the family. They had to receive poor relief from the local Board of Guardians. William entered the Bedford Union Workhouse on 17th May 1889. His younger brother, Frederick went to live with his grandparents in Bedford.

William Buckingham VC

Annie went to Leicester seeking work as a shoe fitter, where she met Thomas Henry Buckingham, a shoe riveter, and they married in Leicester on 3rd August 1891. They had a son, Joseph, who was born on 19th November 1891. Life was still very hard, as Joseph spent time in the Leicester Union Workhouse. In June 1892, both Annie and Joseph were in the workhouse due to Thomas’ neglect. He would not be heard of again for a number of years. Annie was reunited with William and Frederick in the Leicester Workhouse and they were all admitted with the surname Buckingham. Sadly, Joseph died aged just 9 months in September 1892. Annie left the workhouse the following month, and her whereabouts were not discovered until William’s death in 1916 when she was found in Bedford working as a shoe binder.

William and Frederick were brought up at Countesthorpe Cottage Homes (as was Robert Gee VC) from 15th July 1892. From 1896, William’s upbringing was supervised by Mr and Mrs William Harrison, the Superintendent and Matron of the Homes. William was educated in the Cottage Homes until he was 11, when they attended the Bassett Street School in South Wigston. He trained as a tailor, but instead enlisted with the Leicestershire Regiment Depot at Glen Parva Barracks on 29th November 1901, aged 15.

He transferred to the 2nd Battalion on 12th May and joined it in Alexandria, Egypt in 1902. He served with the Battalion in Guernsey and then Colchester until 1906. In 1906, he transferred into the 1st Battalion at Belgaum, India and also served at Madras, Bellary and Bareilly. The Battalion departed India on SS Elephanta on 21st September 1914 and arrived at Marseilles, France on 12th October.

The 2nd Battalion went into the front line on 29th October 1914. William was noted for great gallantry at Givenchy on 18th December by the Indian Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Sir James Willocks. After a period of leave in Leicestershire in February 1915, William made a prophetic remark to William Harrison at Cottage Homes which was “Well, goodbye sir. I’ll win the VC or get killed!”

On the 10th and 12th March 1915 at Neuve Chapelle, France, William was repeatedly involved in rescuing and rendering first aid to the wounded under heavy enemy fire. Despite the risks he showed impressive devotion to duty, until he was wounded.

His wounds saw him evacuated to England where he was treated at South Manchester Hospital. The bullet had lodged in his arm was removed without anaesthetic at his own request. While recovering he was transferred to the strength of the Depot on 15th March and 3rd (Reserve) Battalion on 1st April. He returned to Countesthorpe to convalesce more and William Harrison saw the notification of William’s VC in the morning paper on 29th April 1915. It was the first William knew about his award. William was presented with his VC by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 4th June 1915. He was then presented with a gold mounted walking stick by the staff of the Cottage Homes and at an annual sports day in Leicester, he was presented with a War Loan Bond of £100 and a purse of 10 guineas in cash. At an event for wounded soldiers near Ashby-de-la-Zouch, he met Corporal Tarry, one of the men he rescued at Neuve Chapelle.

On recovering from his wounds, William helped with recruitment, based at Glen Parva. On 8th April 1916 he was promoted to Lance Corporal and returned to France four days later. He transferred into the 8th Entrenching Battalion and was promoted to Acting Corporal. He actually reverted to Private at his own request to re-join the 1st Battalion.

William was killed in action by a burst of machine gun fire near Ginchy, Somme on 15th September 1916. Characteristically, he was going to the aid of a wounded soldier when hit and killed. He was one of 424 casualties suffered by the Battalion in 2 days. William’s body was not recovered and he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. In addition to his VC, he was awarded the 1914 Star with Mons clasp, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19. His medals were held by the Countesthorpe Cottage Homes until 1958 when they closed and passed to the Children’s Committee of the Child Welfare Department, Leicester where they remained until 1966. They are now on loan to the Royal Leicestershire Regiment Museum, Leicester.