Woking to honour First World War Victoria Cross hero
21 April 2015
Major Richard R Willis VC was one of six soldiers to receive a VC, the highest military decoration awarded for valour in the face of the enemy, during the first morning of the Allied Force’s Gallipoli campaign. The commemorative stone will be unveiled 100 years to the day that Major Willis, serving in the Lancashire Fusiliers, led his men in fierce battle to capture a beach head at Cape Helles on the Gallipoli peninsula, southern Turkey.
Before the commemorative stone is unveiled, a Service of Commemoration will be held at 11am, ChristChurch, Jubilee Square. Members of Major Willis’ surviving family will be joined by the Mayor of Woking, Cllr Tony Branagan, senior members of the Armed Forces and Civic guests. Members of the public are welcome to attend the Service and stone unveiling.
The Mayor of Woking, Cllr Tony Branagan, said: “As a former member of the Armed Forces, it is an honour to join Major Willis’ daughter for the unveiling of this commemorative stone 100 years to the day that he led his forces into battle. It is truly humbling to hear his acts of bravery and the sacrifices he and his men made during the first day of the Gallipoli campaign.
"Our Borough is proud to commemorate Major Willis’s heroic actions and remember all those who served during the First World War, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom in the face of tyranny.”
The commemorations are part of a national government campaign to honour First World War VC recipients. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is providing 469 commemorative stones to local authorities, 145 to the National Arboretum and 35 to the Republic of Ireland to mark the bravery of people awarded the VC during the First World War.
Major Willis’ story
Major Richard Willis was born in Woking in 1876 and lived in the Hermitage area of Woking with his family, before moving to Devon as a young boy.
He attended the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He was commissioned in 1897, joining the Lancashire Fusiliers and posted to India. In 1898 he was posted with the regiment to the Sudan to the Mahdist War where he fought under Lord Kitchener and later alongside Winston Churchill. It wasn’t until early 1915 that Major Willis’ regiment, the Lancashire Fusiliers, were commissioned to join the war in southern Turkey.
On 25 April 1915, his regiment was ordered to advance on “W” beach on the Gallipoli peninsular. The objective was to secure the beach head and clear any Turkish forces on and around the beach and surrounding cliff top. By early morning, the then Captain Willis led his men forward out of open boats to be met almost immediately by fierce Turkish opposition. Hundreds of men were killed before they even got to the beach and, those that did reach the beach, were met with barbed wire entanglements preventing immediate advance causing further casualties with men exposed to fire from all fronts.
With Captain Willis at the helm, and against all the odds, the Lancashire’s broke through the barbed wire and managed to reach the cliffs on either side of the beach. However, the battalion suffered 533 casualties, over half its strength. By mid morning reinforcements were landing and the lines of trenches were captured and the beach secured.
In June 1915 Major Willis was wounded and returned to England via Egypt to recover from his injuries.
In September 1915, while still in England, he received his VC personally from King George V at Buckingham Palace. He was later promoted from Captain to Major and was sent to the Western Front and served in the battles of the Somme, Messines and Passchendaele.
Major Willis retired from the army in 1920, aged 44, and took on an education role within the RAF before embarking upon a career in teaching.
His original Victoria Cross and campaign medals are displayed at the Imperial War Museum, London.