b. 15/09/1880 Stanton Lacy, Shropshire. d. 25/04/1915 Cape Helles, Gallipoli, Turkey.
William Charles Williams (1880-1915) was the first member of the Royal Navy to be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Described by Captain Edward Unwin VC as the bravest sailor he ever knew, Williams was born on 15th September 1880, in the Parish of Stanton Lacy at Ludlow, Shropshire, to William Williams and his wife Elizabeth.
When Williams was still a boy, the family moved to Chepstow, where his father worked as a gardener at Pillinger’s Nurseries. One of a large family living at 11 Nelson Street, he had six sisters and, when his father later remarried, he gained a number of step brothers and step sisters.
Educated at Chepstow Grammar School, he enlisted for Boy’s Service in the Royal Navy at Portsmouth on 17th December 1895. On his 18th birthday, after three years’ service, he signed on for 12 years. Little is known about his life prior to the First World War other than his naval record. Williams underwent a baptism of fire as a member of Percy Scott’s celebrated Naval Brigade during the Boer War operations culminating in the relief of Ladysmith. In April 1900, during the Boxer Rising, he was part of the naval detachment landed in China with the mission to relieve the besieged embassies. Williams was commended for his gallantry during both campaigns.
He found advancement, however, and he was still an able seaman when his regular service ended a day short of his 30th birthday. Williams joined HMS Vernon, as part of the Royal Fleet Special Reserve, on 19th September 1910. Returning to Wales, he lived with one of his married sisters at 12 Victoria Crescent, Newport, and found work in the Monmouthshire Constabulary, being stationed at St Mellions and Tredegar. The lure of the sea, however, proved too strong. Williams joined the Merchant Navy and when war broke out in August 1914 he was at sea, serving aboard a steamer. His family had not seen him for nearly a year, and they were never to see him alive again.
As a member of the Fleet Reserve, Williams was recalled to active service on 28th August, and within a month he was serving on HMS Hussar. His family had no inkling of his final mission on the shores of the Gallipoli Peninsula until the announcement of his Victoria Cross in August 1915. Sadly, Williams’ award was a posthumous one.
On 25th April 1915 during the landing on V Beach, Cape Helles, Gallipoli, Turkey, Williams, with three other men (George Leslie Drewry, Wilfred St. Aubyn Malleson and George McKenzie Samson) was assisting the commander (Edward Unwin) of their ship, HMS River Clyde (previously the SS River Clyde) at the work of securing the lighters. He held on to a rope for over an hour, standing chest deep in the sea, under continuous enemy fire. He was eventually dangerously wounded and later killed by a shell whilst his rescue was being effected by the commander who described him as the bravest sailor he had ever met.
Williams’ VC was presented to his father by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 16th November 1916. Six years later, the people of Chepstow paid their own tribute to Williams’ great courage. On 8th January 1922, a gun from a German submarine, given to the town by the King, was unveiled by his sister, Mrs Frances Smith, and dedicated in his honour. Sadly, William has no known grave, and his commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.
In addition to his VC, Williams was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, Queen’s South Africa Medal with two clasps for Ladysmith and Tugela Heights, and the China Medal 1900. The medals are now in the Ashcroft Collection, though the three WWI campaign medals are not in the group.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: NO KNOWN GRAVE – ON PORTSMOUTH MEMORIAL. PANEL 8 COLUMN 1.
Thomas Stewart – Williams VC on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.
Steve Lee www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – Images of the Chepstow War Memorial, and the Williams VC Gun in Chepstow, Wales.