The deed of heroism for which Lance-Corporal Angus was awarded the coveted Cross has been described by a soldier who witnessed it as "one of the most brilliant deeds that the world has seen." This is, indeed, high praise, and few who read the story of Angus's heroism at Givenchy will deny that his V.C. exploit ranks very high. Up to the time of writing it was, without a doubt, the finest and bravest rescue of the war.
Lance-Corporal William Angus is a member of the 8th (Lanark) Battalion the Highland Light Infantry (Territorial Force). He was the first Scottish Territorial, as well as the first professional footballer, to win the V.C. Angus was born at Armidale, in the south of Scotland, and the greater part of his life was spent at Carluke, where he received his education at the Roman Catholic School, and afterward, at the age of fourteen, followed in his father's footsteps and worked as a miner.
At an early age Angus became a football enthusiast, and gained a reputation as a noted player. When not working he gave up his whole time to the game. For a brief term he was a member of the well-known Celtic Club, and later captained Wishaw Thistle, giving every satisfaction both as a leader and a player.
Although his father was an enthusiastic Volunteer, and acted as drummer in the pipe band of D Company the Highland Light Infantry, Angus did not take up soldiering until the outbreak of war. The story of how he enlisted is best told in his own words. Our account is taken from the Weekly Mail and Record, which well-known Scottish journal organized a fund for the 'Carluke V.C.,' to which the Scottish football public generously contributed.
"On the Sunday following the retreat from Mons—'Black Sunday' we call it here yet—a big recruiting meeting had been called at Carluke. I was one of the large crowd of young fellows who attended. After the stirring speeches made at that gathering no fewer than twenty-nine of us stepped forward and joined, and within no time we were off to Lanark for training. The recruiting officer who 'got' me was Sergeant-Major Cavan, of the Highland Light Infantry. I may tell you that he also secured Lieutenant Martin, the officer whose life I was instrumental in saving."
After a period of training at Lanark, Angus, who had already gained his lance-corporal's stripe, went to Dunoon, then to the military station at Ardhallow Fort, where he remained until the beginning of February 1915, when he was included in the fourth draft which left Scotland for Flanders.
Angus remarks that he got his 'first smell of powder' in the March fighting which raged in the vicinity of Neuve Chapelle. His battalion was posted on the left of the village, and although it did not take part in any charges, did excellent, if monotonous service in and out of the trenches in that sector. Later on Angus was engaged nearer to La Bassée, and went through the hot fighting at Festubert, where he was first wounded. This necessitated a three weeks' stay at a base hospital. His wound proved to be very slight, and within three days of leaving hospital he had won the Victoria Cross.
Angus rejoined his regiment in the neighbourhood of Givenchy on June l0th, proceeding straight into the firing-line at a spot where the British trenches were only 200 yards distant from the German, and the opposing lines narrowed down to about 50 yards.
The night after Angus's return, Lieutenant Martin, a fellow-townsman, led a small party of bombers to destroy a German barricade. The attack was carried out with excellent results, but, unfortunately, the enemy exploded a mine. The earth trembled and rose, and Lieutenant Martin was blown bodily into the air, to fall, bleeding and unconscious, at the foot of the enemy's parapet.
For a time the young officer remained oblivious to everything; when he recovered consciousness he found his left arm held fast in a hole. He determined to make an effort to save himself, and having scraped away with his right hand until he was successful in releasing his arm, he started to wriggle toward the British lines. However, he was soon seen and was shot in the right arm and side. He lay for some time as if dead, and then crawled back to the cover of the enemy's parapet, believing he would be safer there from the German rifles.
The events of the next few minutes were very dramatic. Martin called out to the Germans to give him water. By way of response they threw him an unlighted bomb. They dared not look over the parapet for fear of the rifle-fire from the opposite trench, but they were very anxious to kill the suffering man and they put up a periscope to find his exact position. This our soldiers shot away. Then, anticipating an attempt to rescue the wounded lieutenant, the Germans raised a steel shield loophole, fenced in by sandbags.
Lance-Corporal Angus had not seen what was going on in Lieutenant Martin's sector of the line since this was about a quarter of a mile from where he was stationed. News travels incredibly quick in the trenches, however, and Angus, although unaware of the bombing operations that had been undertaken, soon heard of the terrible predicament of Lieutenant Martin. Thinking that he might perhaps be of service he made his way, accompanied by two others of his section, to the part of the trench opposite to the spot where Lieutenant Martin was lying. As the 'burrow' was eight feet in depth there was ample cover all the way.
Arrived at the spot Angus found much excitement and anxiety. He could see Lieutenant Martin quite plainly. Schemes were being discussed whereby the wounded officer might be rescued. The most feasible plan seemed to be that of a covering-party to keep the enemy incessantly engaged and prevent them rising in their trenches, while a volunteer went out into the intervening 'No Man's Land' to crawl up to the lieutenant with a rope and attach it to his body. It was hoped by this means that he might be hauled into the safety of the British lines. The success of the plan depended upon preventing the Germans from showing their heads. The question was, who would volunteer for the dangerous mission?
Although the ground to be crossed was only fifty yards deep, it was pitted with shell and bomb holes, and rendered more dangerous by treacherous barbed-wire.
Lance-Corporal Angus did not hesitate; he boldly stepped forward and attached the rope to his body. It was arranged that he should unwind this as he crawled along. When all was ready he slipped over the top of the parapet and started on his perilous journey.
An interesting account of what followed has been given in the Weekly Mail and Record, from which some of the following particulars are taken:
Angus found it necessary to crawl very slowly and warily, and to clear a pathway bit by bit. He proceeded thus in order that "if it could ever be begun the return journey might be continued and finished through a comparatively clear lane, free from barb and other impediments which might delay and harrass us."
Angus toiled painfully and slowly over the broken ground, and gradually crept nearer the wounded officer. He was rather surprised that the Germans did not fire. Although the journey was of short duration, it seemed age-long to the brave Scottish soldier. He crawled closer and closer to his goal, all the while clearing away the wreckage in his path, and finally reached the wounded man. Until that moment he had not come within view from the German loophole, already referred to. He had made the journey in safety, but now he was seen by the enemy and became a target for their bombs.
The Germans had dug to within two feet of where Lieutenant Martin was lying, and Angus could hear them speaking among themselves. The officer was in a terrible plight, but although dazed with the pain of his wounds and the horrors of his long watch, he was able to recognize his rescuer. Angus prepared to revive him for the ordeal through which both had to pass. He raised him gently, intending to administer brandy from his flask, when there was a sudden crash and the flask was smashed in his hand. The Germans knew that of the two men one was seriously wounded, and the other had come to save him at the risk of his life, but such is their inhumanity that they threw bombs over their parapet upon them.
Angus decided upon immediate action. To tarry would be to invite death. He told the officer how dangerous it was to remain, and the lieutenant, dazed and sick, nodded that he understood. There was no time to fix the rope. The two men started off, crawling and worming their way, the lieutenant in front, Angus guiding him along the lane he had prepared on the outward journey.
As they left the shelter of the outside of the German parapet the two men came into full view of the enemy. The latter were not slow to profit by this, and two more bombs were thrown at them. Fortunately, neither was hit. The explosions raised columns of dust which hid their movements. Angus was quick to take advantage of this screen, and hurried the lieutenant as rapidly as the latter's weak state permitted. Bullets and bombs came in swift succession, but the two crawled on, anxious to make the most of every moment. One bomb struck Lieutenant Martin in the back. Angus held his breath, thinking his townsman was killed, but, wonderful to relate, he was scarcely hurt.
On they crawled until they reached a depression in the ground. The bombs suddenly ceased. Evidently the Germans had come to the conclusion that the two men were dead as they were unable to see them moving. The distance between the two trenches was so short that they must have argued that no human being could live in the hail of missiles they had sent forth.
As the two men left the hollow and neared the British trench both began to fail. The lieutenant, especially, was almost exhausted, but Angus guided him and encouraged him, until they were only a few yards from safety. Then Angus got separated from the officer, who in a semi-conscious condition reached the edge of the trench where strong and willing hands grasped him, gently lifting him over the parapet. Angus, meanwhile, crawled along alone, taking advantage of every little hole which had been ripped in the earth by shells and bombs to pause for breath.
Then the Germans recommenced to throw bombs at him. They had seen the officer being lifted into safety and knew that his companion was still in the open. The bombs burst all around Angus, literally by the dozen. "It was a terrible journey," says our hero, "and I don't know yet how we came through the shower of bombs. You may guess how 'near' it was many a time when I tell you that the doctors afterwards discovered forty wounds on me." Most of the hits did no serious damage. "The only fair hit they made," says Angus, "was on my right foot."
The last few minutes of the journey were the most painful for Angus. He was wounded, his strength was ebbing fast, and the bombs continued to drop about him. He exerted himself for the final spurt. His comrades were watching his heroic progress, and greatly helped by sending a hail of bullets at the German lines during the last few yards of his journey. Under this cover Angus dashed for the trench and was safe.
The next few minutes will live long in his memory. The men in the trench danced around him, and struggled for souvenirs. Bits of his dress were snatched away. His waistbelt was secured by a chum, an officer claimed his cap, a French General his badge. No other V.C. hero has received quite so demonstrative an ovation from his comrades.
Angus achieved what was apparently impossible, and he was as self-possessed throughout the trying ordeal as if he had been in the safety of billets. Whenever Givenchy is referred to the name of William Angus will be remembered.
Immediately after his terrible experience Lance-Corporal Angus was taken to hospital at Boulogne, where his left eye was extracted, this operation being found necessary owing to a piece of shrapnel having lodged in it. Then he was removed to the military hospital at Chatham. While an inmate there he received a visit from Lieutenant Martin, who was by that time recovered from his wounds. This was the first occasion on which they had met since their terrible journey together on the slopes near Givenchy. Later Angus went to Buckingham Palace to receive the Victoria Cross from the King. Learning that the hero's father had accompanied him to the gates of the Palace, His Majesty sent for Mr. Angus, and warmly congratulated him upon having so brave a son.
On reaching Carluke Lance-Corporal Angus was greeted royally. A striking feature of the welcome celebrations was the presence of the officer whose life Angus had saved. Lieutenant Martin presented the V.C. hero with a gold watch and chain, after a manly little speech. "When I lay on the German parapet that Saturday in June," he said, "my plight seemed hopeless, but Angus, at the risk of his life, came out and saved me. Carluke may well be proud of him. It was an act of bravery which will rank second to none in the annals of the British Army." At the same demonstration Angus was presented with vouchers for £1000 War Loan Stock. This sum was raised by the inhabitants of Carluke, members of Scottish football clubs, and other admirers.