WILLIAM ANGUS VC
On 12th June 1915, 'D' Company 8th Royal Scots were in a front line trench on the outskirts of Givenchy La Bassť, 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'. (See The Reports page). 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. (See The Reports page)
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.