LCpl Angus VC - The Royal Highland Fusiliers

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LCpl Angus VC - The Royal Highland Fusiliers

WILLIAM ANGUS VC

THE PERSON

William Angus VC is the most famous son of Carluke, a small town in Lanarkshire, Scotland. On

leaving school he was employed as a miner, He was also the Captain of his local Junior side

Wishaw Thistle FC, his sporting days were interrupted by the outbreak of war.

As men were being called to arms on the Western Front of France, a recruiting drive was held

near Carluke. Sergeant Major George Caven of the famous Highland Light Infantry addressed

many of the town's young men, telling them of the need for more troops to join those fighting for

King and Country. Two of the volunteers he signed up that day were William Angus and James

Martin, both townsmen of Carluke, whose careers and lives were to be later inexorably bound up

in an amazing example of humanity and great courage.

Both men were sent to Dunoon for training with the Territorial Battalion of the Highland Light

Infantry. On completion of training, they learned that their battalion was not to be immediately

sent into action. To overcome this, both men volunteered for an attachment to the 8th Royal

Scots, who were heading for the Western Front a few days later.

Thrown into the turmoil of trench warfare, the two men were quickly separated when Angus was

wounded by gunfire. After recovering from his wounds, Angus returned to the trenches. A few

weeks later his path was again to cross that of James Martin, in an event that was to inspire

people around the world, but none more so that those in their small town of Carluke, who

understood exactly what drove one of her sons to risk certain death for another.


THE RESCUE

On 12th June 1915, 'D' Company 8th Royal Scots were in a front line trench on the outskirts of

Givenchy La Bassé, in northern France. Just 70 yards lay between them and the German

trenches. For many weeks the German front line had held a strategic point on top of a small

embankment. In trench map notation, it was known as Point I4. The British had pushed back the

German front line on both sides of this point, but the embankment afforded the enemy an

elevated view over 'No Man's Land', and had proved insurmountable.

During the night of 11 June, it was decided to launch a covert bombing raid on the embankment,

in the hope of displacing the enemy and allowing the storming of their trench. A party of bombers

led by Lt James Martin was chosen to carry out this task. The Germans had long anticipated such

a move, and as soon as the bombers began their work, the enemy detonated a large mine

secreted in the earth. This blew a vast hole in the embankment, creating a gap 15 feet wide, and

reducing the embankment to ground level at it's northern edge. It forced the bombing party to

retreat to the British trenches.

As they regrouped, they found that Lt Martin was among those missing. Always a popular officer

with the troops, his loss was a major blow to them. As 12th June dawned, they could see Lt

Martin lying on the embankment, close to the parapet that housed the enemy machine guns. As

they watched, they saw him stir, barely conscious, but obviously alive. So close was he to the

German parapet that the enemy could not bring their guns to bear on him.

As the hot day wore on, Martin recovered sufficiently to plead with the Germans for a drink of

water. They responded by throwing a bomb over the parapet. The British troops were outraged

and talk soon spread along the trench about the officer's predicament. L/Cpl Angus, on hearing of

the situation, immediately volunteered to attempt a rescue. This was vetoed by senior officers, but

Angus was adamant that he be allowed to make the attempt. Explaining that he and Martin

belonged to the same small town in Scotland, he felt that he could not return there having left him

to die. His pleas were rejected until the arrival of Brigadier General Lawford, who eventually

agreed to allow Angus to make the attempt. Counseled that he was facing certain death, Angus

replied that it did not matter much whether death came now or later.

A rope was tied around the L/Cpl, so that he could be dragged back if killed or seriously injured,

and he set off on his mission. He used ground cover so effectively that he managed to reach

Martin without being detected. His first unselfish act was to remove his rope lifeline and tie it

instead around Lt Martin. He raised him up and fed him some brandy, preparing for the

dangerous return. At some point the enemy became aware of his presence and began to throw

bombs over the parapet. Angus raised Martin to his feet and began to carry him back across No

Mans Land towards the safety of the trench 70 yards away. A hail of bombs and bullets followed,

and on several occasions he fell to the ground wounded, only to rise again and continue carrying

the officer towards safety.

The throwing of bombs caused a great deal of dust, which spoiled the aim of the snipers.

Shrapnel from the bombs was considerable, and Angus suffered several serious injuries as he

sheltered Lt Martin with his body. Eventually, Martin recovered sufficiently for Angus to signal the

troops to pull the officer in unaided. At that point Angus set off at right angles to the trench,

drawing the enemy fire with him, and allowing others to haul Lt Martin into the trench. Mown down

on several occasions, the injuries were to cost William Angus his left eye and part of his right foot.

He eventually reached the safety of a British trench, where he collapsed and was rushed to a

medical station and evacuated.


Word of his action passed quickly around the front, and back home to Britain. Lt.Colonel Gemmill,

Officer Commanding at Givenchy, wrote that, 'No braver deed was ever done in the history of the

British Army'. L/Cpl Angus was recommended for the Victoria Cross, and no-one who had

witnessed the incident was in any doubt that he would receive it.

After unsuccessful attempts to save his eye, Lance Corporal Angus returned to Britain, and on 30

August 1915 he was presented with the Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace. The King was

particularly impressed by the incident and on hearing that Willie's father was in the adjoining

room, insisted that he be brought to join his son for the occasion. The King spoke with both men

for a time far in excess of that allocated, and repeatedly expressed his admiration and

appreciation of such bravery.

L/Cpl Angus's story lives on in the annals of the British Army. One of the great heroes of the war,

he remained a very unassuming man, never speaking of his actions unless pressed hard to do

so, with his account always falling short of the facts. Both he and James Martin returned to

Carluke, where they became firm friends. Every year Martin sent him a telegram on the

anniversary of the incident. 'Congratulations on the 12th', it always read. On Martin's death in

1956, his brother continued the tradition.

William Angus remained a well loved and respected member of the Carluke community. He was

employed as Master of Works for the Racecourse Betting Control Board. A Justice of the Peace

and President of Carluke Rovers football club, he is remembered with great affection in the town,

where a street is named in his honour. He died on 14 June 1959, and is buried in Wilton

Cemetery, Carluke, where his headstone displays a replica of the world's most distinguished

bravery award.

His Victoria Cross is displayed in the new Scottish War Museum in Edinburgh Castle, where the

display tells the story of two men who grew up together, who joined the army together, went to

war together, and thanks to this incredible display of courage and humanity, returned home

together. Continuing this theme, the medals of Lt Martin are displayed there alongside William

Angus's VC.

In these days where the term 'hero' is recklessly applied to sportsmen and politicians, William

Angus VC illustrates the real meaning of the word. We shall seldom see his like again.

THE VC CITATION

THE REPORTS

"No 7709 Lance-Corporal William Angus, 8th (Lanark) Battalion, The Highland Light Infantry (Territorial

Force) - For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty at Givenchy on 12 June 1915, in voluntarily

leaving his trench under very heavy bomb and rifle fire and rescuing a wounded officer who was lying

within a few yards of the enemy's position. Lance-Corporal Angus had no chance whatsoever in escaping

the enemy's fire when undertaking this very gallant action, and in effecting the rescue he sustained about 40

wounds from bombs, some of them being very serious"

LETTER FROM LT COL GEMMILL TO MR ANGUS SENIOR

"A most heroic action was performed by your son Lance Corporal William Angus. On a certain night I had

to send a small party out to attack a German barricade. The Germans exploded a mine, and when the party

got back Lieutenant Martin (whom I expect you will know as he comes from Carluke) was missing. In the


morning, Mr Martin was seen lying on the parapet of the German trench, and shortly afterwards he was

seen to to move his arms. Your boy at once volunteered to go out and bring him in. It seemed so hopeless

that I could hardly bring myself to consent, thinking it would be better to wait until dark and then try and

rush the trench. However, we made arrangements for covering fire with rifles and machine guns and, with a

rope 50 yards long, which was the distance Mr Martin was away, your son crept out. Owing to the clever

way he crept and the height of the parapet, he got to where Mr Martin was lying without being seen. He

took Mr Martin by the shoulders and raised him up a bit. The Germans must have seen or heard him - they

weren't six feet from him - but luckily the parapet was high and our fire made them keep down their heads.

They then threw bombs and hand grenades which burst all around your son and Mr Martin. Mr Martin was

seen to stagger to his feet, and assisted by your son, made a dash for our line. He got about thirty feet and

fell, but managed to crawl in. Your son took a slightly different road and had at least a dozen bombs thrown

at him. We saw he was wounded and he fell, but thank God he managed to get back to our line also. No

words can describe one's feelings over a deed like this. Your boy went gladly to what was almost certain

death, determined to try and rescue his officer. That he ever returned was a miracle. The General has sent

forward his name for the Victoria Cross, and that he will get it there is little doubt, as no braver deed has

ever been done in all the history of the British Army. Your son has no fewer than forty wounds, many of

them serious, some very slight, but I am glad to say that the doctors say there is no fear of him, and he will

recover from them all. Mr Martin, you will be glad to hear, will also recover. Just in closing may I say how

proud we all are to have such a man as your son in our battalion, and to have seen such a deed as this has

been the privilege of few"

DESCRIPTION BY A SOLDIER WHO WITNESSED THE DEED

"When the men came in after the explosion, a fear arose which with each arrival deepened into a certainty.

Their leader had not returned. Lt Martin, the bright eyed clean cheery lad we had all learned in the last

eight months at the front to love for his constant bonhomie, and to honour for many a plucky act, is not

accounted for. 'Are the rest in?' "Yes Sir" 'Anyone seen Mr Martin?' No answer. Perhaps you folks at

home don't know what news like that means to officers and men of a Territorial battalion who have shared

hardships together through a long campaign, whose home ties are now linked into chains of iron, forged in

fire and blood. But you will believe that all the black night long faithful men risked their lives over the

parapet and searched and crawled and searched again - in vain. And when the morning came, with heavy

hearts they gave up their task - all hope seemed gone.

Now the last thing that Mr Martin could remember was the explosion of the mine, lifting him upwards with

its awful force. The next moment, as it seemed, he found himself lying, his body more than half buried in

the soft earth, already reddened with his blood 'somewhere in France.' An hour passed, and weakly and

wearily, he brushed the earth away a handful at a time. It was this feeble movement that first caught a

sentry's eye, and in a few moments we all knew what had happened. There he lay right at the foot of the

German parapet only some ten feet of earth between him and the most pitiless enemy that ever waged an

unworthy war. His very closeness to them hid him from their view, but already they must have heard his

moans, and knew he was there for the ugly neck of a periscope with its ghoulish eye reached over their

trench and leered at the poor wounded soldier below. Slowly and horribly it turned and swayed and leered

at us too, and then back to him. Hell itself can produce nothing to match the dreadfulness of that horrid

periscope. And though, for fear that we might only bring on the end, we hardly dare fire all day at that

place yet I tell you that the periscope was smashed by a well aimed British bullet and every one that took its

place shared its fate.

In agony, poor Mr Martin appealed to the enemy for a drink of water. And what do you think those

unspeakable cowards did? They threw at him an unlighted bomb. Can brutal inhumanity go further? Surely

not. And we, too, understood their game: we have been fighting them too long to expect to see them sling


over a rope and draw him in. We did not even expect them to be merciful and kill him. No, they left him

there in the cruel glare of a cloudless June sky - a bait to lure yet another Scottish soldier to his death.

And we - well, we watched him. And slowly there rose beside him a Hunnish loophole, a steel plate fenced

in by many sandbags to shield the fiends who would shoot if rescue were tried. A rescue by day now

seemed hopeless but to a man 'D' Coy volunteered to rush the German trench at dusk, cost what it might.

That however, was rendered unnecessary by one of the most brilliant deeds of courage that the world has

ever yet seen.

Let me describe the position more fully. The Germans were on a bare dry knoll some 70 yards from us.

Their trench had a high irregular parapet on which Mr Martin now lay perfectly still. It was obvious that for

more than half the distance between the trenches every square inch of the ground was commanded by their

rifles; there was no shelter whatever either from their fire or their view. In front of our lines for 30 yards or

so there grew the self sewn corn of last year's harvest, rank with weeds and affording good cover. Our

trench had been sited along the hollow and by this time it was manned by only our best riflemen. On a

ridge behind, and perhaps 6 feet higher, a machine gun had been mounted while at various points of

vantage the officers had gathered to watch the deadly loophole over their friend.

It was now mid-day, and the strain became too much to endure. Out of many brave and willing men, one

was chosen - a man born and bred in the same Scottish village which was Mr Martin's home. He knew well

what lay before him and was well warned but not afraid. An officer of the Canadian contingent who was

visiting us in the trench, for whose help and advice we can never be too grateful, spoke to him kindly.

'Now, my boy' he said, 'You are going to certain death.' "It does not matter much, Sir, whether sooner or

later" was the reply.

At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, Angus leapt out over our parapet on his forlorn hope. Clinging to the ground,

and using every precaution that training and skill have given to the soldier, he crawled forward on his task.

It all seemed hopeless to escape notice in full view of both sides, and yet he made steady progress and

nothing happened. Minutes passed: they seemed like hours: the space diminished more and more quickly -

at last he reached the German parapet and still the enemy waited, hoping perhaps for yet another victim.

Quickly but coolly Angus did his work. He touched the Lieutenant's arm, whispered in his ear, raised him

up a little and placed a flask of brandy between his teeth. Together they sat up and waited for a matter of

two or three seconds to gather strength for the ordeal before them. At this very moment the Germans

lobbed a bomb just over the parapet with a grim explosion, raising a storm of dust. Now or never it must

be. Hand in hand the wounded officer and his man rise to their feet, the strong man guiding the weak as

best he can. And then the Germans made their mistake. So sure they had been of their prey, their cunning

over-reached itself. The swiftest runner in the world would have one chance in a thousand of crossing that

open space if only their snipers shot steadily. Instead, they throw more bombs and up rises a pillar of smoke

- 20, 30, 40 feet height, hiding the whole of what was happening both from themselves and from us. Out

into our view there stagger two poor wounded figures, stumbling, running, falling, crawling. Down they go,

then up again, and on. The German rifles shoot wildly: still on they go, and out line of fire is clear. Our

rifles now, one blast from the machine gun and its all over; they are safely in our lines and once again a

stout heart and a cool head have enabled a brave good man to achieve what seemed impossible. Mr Martin

has three wounds. Angus has forty, but the doctor says that both will live and fight again if need be.

That is the story, plainly set down by one who witnessed it all barely a week ago in one small corner of the

great battlefront in France. Brave deeds cannot be too widely known or too lightly honoured. We may see

such deeds again, for British hearts are true but we shall never see any that are braver than the one that we

have seen."

LETTER FROM ANGUS VC IN FRANCE TO HIS SISTER IN CARLUKE

"I am still in France and they might keep me here for some time yet. They are doing their best to save the

sight of my left eye. The best of eye specialists in the world are in this hospital. They have given me great

hopes of getting my sight all right, so I will just have to hope for the best. My other wounds are getting on

all right, but it will be a long time before I am able to get up and walk about. However, I will get on all

right, never fear, and some day your battered old brother will come back to Carluke as cheery as ever."


STATEMENT BY THE KING TO MR ANGUS SENIOR

"You must be proud indeed to have so gallant a son and I heartily congratulate both of you. It is almost a

miracle that he is spared to you after so dangerous a venture. He has won his decoration nobly and I

sincerely hope he may fully recover and live long enough to enjoy it. May you too be long spared to feel

pride in him and his achievements."

THANKS BY LT MARTIN AT THE VC HOMECOMING CEREMONY

"I know you will bear with me if I do not make a long speech. My heart is too full for words. When I lay on

the German parapet that Saturday in June my plight seemed hopeless, but Angus at the risk of his life came

out and saved me. Carluke may well be proud of her hero. For it was an act of bravery second to none in

the annals of the British Army. Corporal Angus, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I hope you will

soon be restored to your wanted health and strength and that you may be long spared to wear this watch and

chain which please accept as a small memento of that day."

The location of William Angus's bravery is one that can be identified with unusual precision.

Trench maps give locations in terms of proximity to Givenchy village and to local roads etc., but

the elevated feature of the elusive salient, coupled with a remarkable absence of development,

make it possible to visit that exact spot and see the task that faced the Royal Scots on 12 June

1915.

The German front line around Givenchy took advantage of a relatively small area of raised

ground, an embankment along which they ran their front line. Although the British gained ground

on either side, they could not shift the enemy from the embankment, with its elevated view over

No Mans Land. The embankment was allocated the reference point I4, so regularly did it feature

in dispatches concerning its strategic importance.

The trenches and craters of the area have long since been filled in, and the fields cultivated by

local farmers. There is little to remind a visitor of the violence and carnage that took place there,

other than the legacy of shrapnel that can be collected by the handful in every field, and the

regular appearance of shell casings in the wake of ploughing.

The exception is the small embankment that proved so difficult to conquer. It lies at the foot of the

garden of the last house in Givenchy, occupying the area between there and the fields that held

the trenches. Between the embankment and these fields runs a road, little more than a track,

which serves to join the village to the main road running to the nearby village of St Roch. The cost

of leveling the embankment would not justify the area of land that could be cultivated, and would

leave the road running through such an extended field.

The embankment therefore remains as it was in 1915, a solitary mass of earth in an area of level

fields. At it's southern edge, a large gap has been blown in its side, reducing its height to ground


level over a large area. This was the result of the mine exploded by the enemy in order to repulse

the attack of the Royal Scots. It was this explosion that cast Lt Martin onto the outer face of the

embankment, and it was from there that he was rescued by Lance Corporal Angus.

A walk into the field that held the British trenches provides the exact view that faced William

Angus as he set out on his perilous mission. To look at the very banking from where he plucked

Lt Martin, to stand where his colleagues willed him on, to imagine the hail of fire that followed

them across the 75 yards is a powerful experience, and an opportunity rarely available with such

precision.

THE VC CITATION

"No 7709 Lance-Corporal William Angus, 8th (Lanark) Battalion, The Highland

Light Infantry (Territorial Force) - For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to

duty at Givenchy on 12 June 1915, in voluntarily leaving his trench under very

heavy bomb and rifle fire and rescuing a wounded officer who was lying within a

few yards of the enemy's position. Lance-Corporal Angus had no chance

whatsoever in escaping the enemy's fire when undertaking this very gallant

action, and in effecting the rescue he sustained about 40 wounds from bombs,

some of them being very serious"

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