Major Richard Willis - Woking remembers a hero
On the 25 April 2015, Woking honoured and remembered one of the outstanding heroes of the First World War, Major RR Willis VC, in a special service and ceremony exactly 100 years to the day since his heroic action.
His daughter Charmian Rose and the Mayor of Woking, Cllr Tony Branagan unveiled the VC Stone in Jubilee Square on the Town Gate Wall in honour of her son. The Service in ChristChurch was attended by Major Richard's Family and members of the Council, armed forces and uniformed groups.
Major Richard Willis was born in Woking in 1876. He lived in the Hermitage area of Woking with his mother and brothers and sisters while his father worked in India. While still a young boy, his family moved to Devon where he attended Totnes Grammar School before, at the age of 14, moving to Harrow Public School.
After Harrow he chose a military career, attending 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 Sudan’s Mahdist War where he fought under Lord Kitchener and later alongside Winston Churchill. He subsequently returned to India where he remained until 1915.
Now a seasoned professional soldier, it wasn’t until early 1915 that Major Willis’ regiment, the Lancashire Fusiliers, were sent as part of the expeditionary force to attack the Ottoman Empire.
On 25 April 1915, his regiment was ordered to advance on a beach named “W” 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 it, were met with heavily barbed wire preventing immediate advance and causing further casualties with men exposed to fire from all fronts.
“They dropped us in the water but not to any extent on the sand. As ordered, the men ran up to the wire and lay down waiting for the wire cutters to get to work.”
Surrounded by this carnage and, against all the odds, Captain Willis continued forward into enemy fire, leading his men by example and eventually scaling the cliffs to take the Turkish positions.
“On 25 April 1915, three companies and the headquarters of the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, in effecting a landing on Gallipoli Peninsula to the west of Cape Helles, were met by a very deadly fire from hidden machine guns, which caused a great number of casualties. The survivors, however, rushed up to and cut the entanglements, notwithstanding a terrific fire from the enemy, and, after overcoming supreme difficulties, the cliffs were gained and the position maintained. Amongst many gallant officers and men engaged in the most hazardous enterprise, Captain Willis, Sergeant Richards and Private Keneally have been selected by their comrades as having performed the most signal acts of bravery and devotion to duty.”
Extract from London Gazette dated 24/8/15
With Captain Willis at the helm, the Lancashires eventually 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.
His VC was one of six awarded that morning and would be later famously called “The Six VC’s Before Breakfast”. The others being Cuthbert Bromley, John Elisha Grimshaw, William Keneally, Alfred Joseph Richards and Frank Edward Stubbs.
“Captain Willis’s haversack which was worn in the battle was emptied in front of me and every paper, book, and article inside it had holes in it and bullets came falling out of the holes. His cap was pierced more than once by bullets and his water bottle and field glasses that hung off his sam brown webbing were shot to pieces. His water proof is riddled with shot holes and smeared all down the shoulder with the blood of his comrade Major Adams who was shot dead through the head by his side and died leaning against him”.
Major Willis retired from the army in 1920, aged 44, and took on an education role within the RAF before working as a teacher. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Imperial War Museum, London.