Photograph of William in Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre. Reference: MR4/17/152-170
(L to R) Victoria Cross; 1914-15 Star; British War Medal; Allied Victory Medal with 'Mentioned in Despatches' oak leaves; India General Service Medal with clasps 'Mahsud 1919-20', 'Waziristan 1919-21' and 'Mentioned in Despatches' oak leaf; 1939-45 Defence Medal; 1937 Coronation Medal
William was born on the 20th April 1890 in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. His father was called Thomas and his mother was Elizabeth. William was their eldest child; he had a younger brother named Frank.
Thomas worked as a pattern maker and foreman at the shipbuilding firm Vickers, based in the town. William grew up at 105 Scott Street and attended Holker Street Boys School and Barrow Municipal Secondary School. He then went to Westminster College in London for two years.
William trained as a schoolteacher, and began his career in January 1912 at Dallas Road Council School and Sulyard Street Council School in Lancaster. The next year he moved to Manchester to work at North Manchester School in Higher Broughton.
Later in 1913 William joined the Ashton-under-Lyne Operatic Society. He performed in their production of The Duchess of Dantzic, by Ivan Caryll and Henry Hamilton, at the town's Hippodrome theatre during February 1914.
In March William was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 9th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. This was a unit of the Territorial Force based in Ashton. Some of William's friends in the Operatic Society were also members of the battalion. He will have kept his civilian job and trained as a soldier during evenings and weekends.
The First World War broke out in August 1914 and the 9th Battalion was called into service. William sailed with them to Egypt on the 10th September, arriving on the 25th. They guarded the Suez Canal and trained to go to war. William was employed as Quartermaster during this time; he had 'a very busy time trying to get supplies over the canal by means of a hand worked ferry boat, which averaged an hour and a half per trip'. On Christmas Day he won the 220 yards race at the battalion sports day.
On the 9th May 1915 the 9th Battalion landed in Gallipoli to take part in the fighting there. The British had made very little progress against Turkish opposition and William spent much of his time in trenches and dugouts. As he wrote: 'a dugout is not the most comfortable of residences...but it is quite essential to dig oneself in some manner. It is the only protection against shrapnel...A most peculiar thing...is the feeling of absolute security that obtains if one has a roof of any description - even if only an oil sheet'.
William spent some time working as an assistant to the Quartermaster, as he had in Egypt. He had endured Turkish shelling, but it was not until early August that he first saw combat.
The Battle of Krithia Vineyard was intended to be a small scale attack to divert Turkish attention from larger attacks elsewhere. The 9th Battalion advanced and captured Turkish positions on the 7th August, but were then counterattacked many times. William was with A Company and led them for 41 hours in a fierce defence of their position.
The men had access to around 800 hand grenades (known as bombs). The Army had not made much use of this weapon before the First World War, so they were in short supply and quite primitive. Many of the bombs William and his men used were effectively homemade, by men putting shrapnel and explosive into an empty jam tin, with a fuse that had to be set alight. For this reason William smoked constantly during the fighting.
William was a major reason why the British were able to hold on. He encouraged his men, directed their efforts and threw bombs continuously. At one point Turkish soldiers got into the British trench. William recorded that 'it was a strange feeling to suddenly see three huge Turks facing you. There is nothing like a revolver in such circumstances. I shot my first man as he was attempting to bayonet a corporal, the second as he was running for our ammunition and a third as he was attempting to bayonet me. All was over in a few seconds.'
Several of the men who had fought with William were decorated. Thomas Pickford was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal that is now in the Museum of the Manchester Regiment collection. William himself was recommended for the Victoria Cross. The award was approved and published in the London Gazette on the 9th September. This is William's citation:
For most conspicuous bravery and determination in the Gallipoli Peninsula from 7th to 9th August 1915.
When holding the northwest corner of the 'Vineyard' he was attacked and heavily bombed by Turks, who advanced time after time by three trenches which converged at this point, but he held his own, not only directing his men and encouraging them by exposing himself with the utmost disregard to danger, but personally throwing bombs continuously for 41 hours. When his detachment was relieved after 24 hours he volunteered to continue the direction of operations.
Three times during the night of 8th-9th August he was again heavily attacked, and once the Turks got over the barricade, but, after shooting three with his revolver, he led his men forward and recaptured it.
When he rejoined his battalion he was choked and sickened by bomb fumes, badly bruised from a fragment of shrapnel, and could barely lift his arm from continuous bomb throwing.
It was due to his personal example, magnificent courage and endurance that this very important corner was held.
William's ordeal soon caught up with him. He was taken ill and evacuated back to the UK. By the 12th October he had returned to his parents' home in Ulverston, Cumbria on sick leave. As news of his VC spread he became a well known figure and he gave several newspaper interviews. On the 16th October he paid a quiet visit to Ashton, but it had to be cut short when he was ordered to go to London.
William took Thomas and Frank to Buckingham Palace on the 18th October, where he was invested with his VC by King George V.
Towards the end of that month William visited Barrow and Ashton. In Barrow on the 27th October he was greeted by tens of thousands of people as he paraded through the town. He was then presented with a specially engraved sword by the town council. William also visited his old school, where he presented sports prizes and was able to convince the governors to give the pupils an extra day's holiday. William visited Ashton on the 30th. Again thousands of people filled the streets to greet him. He was granted the Freedom of the Borough by the Mayor of Ashton at a special Council Meeting.
On the 2nd November William was promoted to Captain, and we believe was well enough to return to duty by this time. He spent much of 1916 and 1917 touring the country in attempts to raise civilian morale.
William married Sadie Mollie Lee-Heppel on the 5th February 1916 in Barnet Registry Office, today in north London. She was a nurse at a military hospital in Caterham, Surrey, where William had occasionally been treated. William lived on Nether Street in North Finchley, London at this time. We don't know where the couple made their home.
In October 1917 William left the UK for India. He was attached to the 76th Punjabis on the 17th. This unit had 2 battalions; we don't know which William served with at first. By October 1918 he was assigned to the 1st Battalion, although he had returned to the rank of Lieutenant.
William commanded a company in the 1st Battalion, and served with them until May 1919 when he became Staff Captain to the Poona Brigade, later holding this job in the 67th Brigade. He took part in the defeat of tribal rebellions in Waziristan, part of modern Pakistan, between 1919 and 1921. He was Mentioned in Despatches for this service. It qualified him to receive the 'Mahsud 1919-20' and 'Waziristan 1919-21' clasps.
During 1921 William went on a course at the British Army School of Education at Wellington in the Nilgiri Mountains of southern India. Whilst he was there his experience meant he was attached to the 1st Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment as they fought the Malabar Rebellion. We believe he received the 'Malabar 1921-22' clasp for this service.
William spent the rest of 1921 as the General Staff Officer Grade 3 responsible for Education at Southern Command. After this post was abolished he spent some time attached to the 1st Indian Infantry Group before retiring from the Army on the 3rd November 1922.
William attempted to return to teaching. He struggled to find work in the UK and eventually worked for 2 years in Egypt for the Royal Air Force Education Service. Returning to the UK he and Sadie moved to Ipswich, where William went to work at Ipswich Central School. He later tried, unsuccessfully, to establish his own school. The failure bankrupted him in 1929.
We believe William later worked for Gaumont British filmmakers, in their industrial film department. He believed that film could be an excellent aid to education and training. We don't know how long he held this job, or what others he had.
On the 9th November 1929 William was presented with a 'duplicate Victoria Cross' by Hancock's jewellers, the manufacturer. We don't know what had happened to his original medal. On the same day he attended the VC Dinner in the House of Lords, along with eight other Manchester Regiment holders of the medal. Four of these men's medals are now in the Museum of the Manchester Regiment collection; William, James Pitts, Robert Scott and George Stringer.
The Second World War broke out in September 1939. William was too old to rejoin the Army, so instead he served in the 11th City of London (Dagenham) Home Guard as a Major. He commanded units based at the Murex Ironworks and anti aircraft guns in Barking Park.
William and Sadie lived on Woodlands Road near Hornchurch in Essex during the early part of the war. During 1943 they moved to Foxearth Cottage in Holyport near Maidenhead, Berkshire. They had not been there long when William collapsed and died of a heart attack on the 26th May. He was 53 years old.
Sadie died in early 1952 aged 72. They had no children, and William's grave had no headstone, so for many years its location was unknown. In 1994 after strenuous research Robert Bonner, like William a former Captain in the Manchester Regiment, was able to determine that he was buried in Touchen End churchyard, near Bray in Berkshire.
William's Victoria Cross was put up for auction in 1964. After a tight contest it was bought by his old unit, the 9th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment.