William Allison White VC
Born at 5 Lavender Walk, Mitcham on 19 Oct 1894, William was the middle child of Samuel and Eliza White. The couple had also had two daughters - Martha and Charlotte. William's mother was Irish. His father, Samuel was born in Lancashire but appears to have moved south to find work and was employed as a Market Gardener's labourer. He may have worked at the Mizen brothers nursery in the Eastfields area of Mitcham, or for the Dutriez family who grew watercress at Willows Farm. By 1901 Samuel had changed his occupation and was working as a printer.
Prior to the war, William was living with his uncle in Ramsden Dock Rd, Barrow in Furness and was working as an Apprentice Ship Plater.
During the First World War, he initially served in the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment (possibly in deference to his father’s ancestry.) He appears to have risen through the ranks, ultimately becoming a sergeant, before being transferred to the Machine Gun Corps in 1918.
The British army adopted the Vickers gun as its principle machine gun in 1912, replacing the older Maxim gun. Water-cooled, the Vickers had a 250 round fabric belt and was capable of firing 600 rounds per minute, over a distance of some 4,500 yards. Unlike the Lewis gun, which fired in short bursts, the Vickers could be fired continuously for long periods and was considered a highly reliable weapon.
A Vickers team consisted of six men, as the gun equipment was two weighty for one man to carry. The gun alone weighed 28.5 lbs, its water cooling jacket added a further 10lbs and the tripod, on which the gun was mounted, weighed 20 lbs. Team duties were split, with two men carrying the equipment, two carrying the hefty ammunition belts, while the remaining pair could act as substitutes in the event of machine malfunction or unit casualties.
Part of the infantry, by far the largest contingent of the Corps, William would initially have served in a Branch unit (either the 114th or 115th company.) These troops were trained to use the Vickers machine gun at the Grantham Training Centre, Lincolnshire, or Clipstone Camp, near Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. In March 1918, the 114 and 115th Machine Gun Companies were assigned to the 38th ( Welsh ) Division, (part of the fourth army, or K4.)
Machine Gun Battalions were formed in June 1918 and numbered according to their Division. William White was henceforth a member of the 38th Battalion, Machine Gun Corps, under the command of Major General C G Blackader. He served as Acting Sergeant, before receiving a commission as Temporary Second Lieutenant. The majority of commissioned officers came from wealthy, high status backgrounds. It was possible for working-class men to rise through the ranks on merit, however they were often granted a “temporary,” rather than a full commission. By the end of the war, William's skill and bravery under fire had resulted in promotion to the rank of Captain.
By the autumn of 1918, William's unit was already battle-hardened. It had fought in a number of key battles on the Western Front, including the Battle of Ancre (5 April 1918), the Battle of Albert (21-23 August 1918), the Second Battle of Bapaume (31 August - 3 September 1918), the Battle of Havrincourt (12 September 1918) and the Battle of Epehy (18 September 1918.)
In mid September, William was to perform an act of valour for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. At the time he was just 23 years old.
The following account was printed in the London Gazette, an official Government publication.
White, William Allison. T/Second Lieutenant, 38th Battalion, Machine Gun Corps.
18th September 1918 at Gouzeaucourt, France
For most conspicuous bravery and initiative in attack. When the advance of the infantry was being delayed by an enemy machine gun, he rushed the gun position single-handed, shot the three gunners, and captured the gun. Later, in similar circumstances, he attacked a gun accompanied by two men, but both of the latter were immediately shot down, He went on alone to the gun position and bayoneted or shot the team of five men and captured the gun. On the third occasion, when the advance was held up by hostile fire from an enemy position, he collected a small party and rushed the position, inflicting heavy losses on the garrison.
Subsequently, in consolidating the position by the skilful use of captured enemy and his own machine guns, he inflicted severe casualties on the enemy. His example of fearless and unhesitating devotion to duty under circumstances of great personal danger greatly inspired the neighbouring troops, and his action had a marked effect on the operations.
London Gazette, 15th November, 1918
William received his medal from King George V on 27 March, 1919. In 1921 he married Violet Price and the couple were together for 35 years until her death. During the Second World War, he was commissioned as a Captain in the Royal Artillery, Territorial Army.
William died on 13 September, 1974 at his family home in Wellington, Shropshire. Cremated at Emstrey Crematorium, Shrewsbury, his ashes were later interred in his wife's grave at St.John’s Churchyard, Hildenborough, Kent.
Image attribution: By White family (Contact us/Photo submission) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons