On our March 2014 World War One Battlefield tour, Treading in Tommy’s Footsteps, we had the honour of taking the grandson of William Beesley, VC, to Bucquoy on the Somme to see where his grandfather had won his VC. Like so many young men, William Beasley enlisted in the army in 1914 aged just 18. He told his grandson that he had been told by the recruiting sergeant that he was too young so he went back to the end of the queue and claimed to be 19. Arriving in France with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps during 1915, still aged 18, he experienced fierce fighting on the infamous Menin Road near Hellfire Corner. A few weeks later, he saw action again at Hooge where terrified British soldiers, totally unaware and unprepared, faced a totally new weapon. German troops launched an attack on the British line 0315 on 30 July with portable Flammenwerfer. The effect of this horrific attack proved terrifying to the British defenders, although their line, initially pushed back, was stabilised later the same night. In two days of severe fighting the 7th and 8th Battalions of the KRRC lost 31 officers and 751 other ranks. Later in the day, William Beesley and the 9th Battalion KRRC moved forward to hold the line and the 18 year old suffered shrapnel wounds. Despite his wounds, he rescued a blinded comrade taking him back to safety. The 9th Battalion lost 17 officers and 333 other ranks. Lieutenant Gilbert Walter Lyttelton Talbot of the Rifle Brigade also died on this day at Hooge and is buried at Sanctuary Wood Cemetery; Talbot House in Poperinge was named in his memory.
After his recovery, William rejoined his Battalion and in November they returned to front line positions. On 25 November, he was wounded for the second time while taking Mills bombs up the St Julien Road, a little to the north of Hooge. Facing machine-gun fire, he was injured in both legs and returned to England for treatment. He was transferred to the 13th Battalion Rifle Brigade and trained as a Lewis Gunner for the machine-gun section of the regiment and returned to France early in 1916 and found himself on the Somme through much of 1916. In 1917, he fought in the Battle of Arras and was wounded for the third time on 3 May 1917. Evacuated to a dressing station, he returned to his regiment a few weeks later.
By 1918, he was a seasoned soldier and clearly had a strong sense of duty. On 8 May, the 13th Rifle Brigade were at Bucquoy and two companies were assigned to attack a German position in a daring day time raid. During this attack, the Battalion lost over 100 men. Rifleman William Beesley, now 22, was in the leading wave of D Company. Close to the German front lines and facing machine-gun fire, William Beesley’s platoon found itself without any officers or NCOs and so this young soldier took command and led the assault. As a machine-gunner, he had no rifle and so, armed just with a revolver, he rushed forward and captured an enemy post shooting two enemy machine-gunners and an officer who emerged from a dugout and attempted to man the gun. Three more officers came out of the dugout and he called on them to surrender. One attempted to destroy a map and so this gallant rifleman shot him and secured the map. He took the other two officers prisoner then took a further six prisoners sending them back to the British lines. His Lewis gun carrier had by now arrived with the gun which Beesley immediately brought into action against the enemy. Beesley and his comrade, the sole survivors of their section, held their position for four hours. At 19.00 hours they withstood a counter attack from the enemy and Beesley’s comrade was wounded. Nonetheless, Rifleman Beesley manned the gun alone for a further three hours; the posts on both his flanks had been practically wiped out and the survivors had fallen back. These men survived because of Beesley’s heroism; his covering fire aided their withdrawal and prevented the enemy from rushing their position.
At 22.00 hours, under the cover of darkness, Beesley took his wounded comrade back to the British lines along with the Lewis gun and the map. Despite his obvious exhaustion, he did not look to his own safety. He mounted the Lewis gun in the trench and remained in action until later that night when it was quieter and he believed the German attempts to reach British lines had stopped. For these actions he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
A Company attacked on the right of D company. Sergeant William Gregg was also awarded the Victoria Cross for outstanding gallantry. The two men became lifelong friends. They received their awards from King George V in the same ceremony on 9 August 1918. The King, in a message to Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, later wrote, ‘During my visit I have conferred a number of Victoria Crosses for deeds of valour and self-sacrifice, the records of which fill my heart with pride and veneration.’
William Beesley himself remained a modest man and told his grandson that anyone would have done the same in those circumstances. His grandson remembers him with pride.