Inside the First World War – Part Six

  • 2 February, 2014
  • Bravery
  • Medals

Published in the Sunday Telegraph on 02 February 2014.

John Elisha Grimshaw, Alfred Joseph Richards, Richard Raymond Willis – The ‘Six Before Breakfast’

On the morning of April 25, 1915, one of the most courageous actions ever performed by the British armed forces took place at a beach close to Cape Helles on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. The gallantry displayed that day led to the famous “Six Before Breakfast” awards in which half a dozen Victoria Crosses (VCs) were eventually handed out in recognition of the bravery shown by the 1st Battalion, the Lancashire Fusiliers. The successful capture of “W Beach”, however, came at a terrible price, with up to 700 members of the regiment being killed or wounded.

By early 1915, the war on the Western Front was not going well for the Allies: the fighting had bogged down, casualties were high and all the signs were that it would not be the short conflict that many had predicted. The Russians, too, were struggling against the Turks in the Caucasus. To help their ally and to try to knock the Turks out of the war, Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, and Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, began a campaign to force the Royal Navy through the Dardanelles. But this faltered and it was decided to land troops at Gallipoli to clear the way forward.

Unlike the Australians who landed at dawn beyond Gaba Tepe on the beach soon to be known as Anzac Cove, the British in the south were to land in full daylight on five beaches around Cape Helles. To make up for this loss of surprise, a heavy naval bombardment was to cover the British landing. This meant the Turks had a good idea of what was coming as the biggest amphibious landing of the war began. As part of the wider British attack, the Lancashire Fusiliers were chosen to land on and take control of a small, sandy cove – code-named “W Beach” – just 350 yards long and between 15 and 40 yards wide between Cape Helles and Tekke Burnu. It was so well defended that the Turks may have regarded it as impregnable to an attack from open boats. Nevertheless, the attack began at 6am on April 25.

Captain Richard Willis, who led C Company during the attack, was one of several survivors to record the events of the day: “Not a sign of life was to be seen on the peninsula in front of us. It might have been a deserted land we were nearing in our little boats. Then crack!… The signal for the massacre had been given; rapid fire, machine-guns and deadly accurate sniping opened from the cliffs above, and soon the casualties included the rest of the crew and many men.

“The timing of the ambush was perfect; we were completely exposed and helpless in our slow-moving boats, just target practice for the concealed Turks, and within a few minutes only half of the 30 men in my boat were left alive. We were now 100 yards from the shore, and I gave the order ‘overboard’. We scrambled out into some four feet of water and some of the boats with their cargo of dead and wounded floated away on the currents still under fire from the snipers. With this unpromising start the advance began. Many were hit in the sea, and no response was possible, for the enemy was in trenches well above our heads.

“We toiled through the water towards the sandy beach, but here another trap was awaiting us, for the Turks had cunningly concealed a trip wire just below the surface of the water and on the beach itself were a number of land mines, and a deep belt of rusty wire extended across the landing place. Machine-guns, hidden in caves at the end of the amphitheatre of cliffs, enfiladed this.

“Our wretched men were ordered to wait behind this wire for the wire-cutters to cut a pathway through. They were shot in helpless batches while they waited, and could not even use their rifles in retaliation since the sand and the sea had clogged their action. One Turkish sniper in particular took a heavy toll at very close range until I forced open the bolt of a rifle with the heel of my boot and closed his career with the first shot, but the heap of empty cartridges round him testified to the damage he had done. Safety lay in movement, and isolated parties scrambled through the wire to cover. Among them was Sergeant Richards with a leg horribly twisted, but he managed somehow to get through.”

Captain Harold Clayton, who was killed in action six weeks later, also described desperate scenes: “There was tremendously strong barbed wire where my boat was landed. Men were being hit in the boats as they splashed ashore. I got up to my waist in water, tripped over a rock and went under, got up and made for the shore and lay down by the barbed wire. There was a man there before me shouting for wirecutters. I got mine out, but could not make the slightest impression. The front of the wire was by now a thick mass of men, the majority of whom never moved again. The noise was ghastly and the
sights horrible.”

In describing what happened at “W Beach”, The London Gazette, the official government paper of record, explained that the Fusiliers “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 wire entanglements, notwithstanding the terrific fire from the enemy, and after overcoming supreme difficulties, the cliffs were gained and the position maintained.”

The Lancashire Fusiliers had started the day with 27 officers and 1,002 other men. Twenty-four hours later, a head count revealed just 16 officers and 304 men. Initially, in May 1915, six men from the regiment, who had been nominated by their peers, were proposed for the VC, Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. But this number was turned down and only three Fusiliers were gazetted for the VC in August 1915. However, after much lobbying, nearly two years later, in March 1917, the remaining three who had originally been selected were also finally awarded the VC for their bravery at “W Beach”. Together they became known as the “Six Before Breakfast” VCs.

Over the past 15 years, I have obtained half of these “Six Before Breakfast” awards and I have researched the backgrounds of all three men.

John Grimshaw was born in Abram, Lancashire, on January 20, 1893. He was 19 when he joined the Lancashire Fusiliers, two years before the outbreak of the First World War. When war was declared, Grimshaw was in India with the rest of the 1st Battalion, but shortly thereafter he returned with them to Britain before going on to Gallipoli.

Alfred Richards was born in Plymouth on June 21, 1879. He gave his trade as “musician” when, aged 14, he enlisted in the Lancashire Fusiliers (his father’s old regiment) as a bandboy. He was appointed a full drummer when serving in Ireland near the end of the century and was promoted to lance corporal in Crete in 1899. Over the next seven years, he served in Malta, Gibraltar and Egypt before returning to England. After just two months as a civilian, he reenlisted, rejoining his old battalion in India, where they stayed before beginning their journey to the Dardanelles.

Richard Willis (the captain quoted earlier) was born in Woking, Surrey, on October 13, 1876. He was educated at Totnes Grammar School in south Devon, Harrow and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He was commissioned in 1897, joined the 2nd Battalion, the Lancashire Fusiliers in India, and was posted with them to the Sudan for the Mahdist War. A talented linguist and a wonderful sportsman, he was 38 years old when he landed at “W Beach”.

All three men survived the war. As already stated, Willis and Richards were both decorated in the first set of awards, but Grimshaw’s VC, along with two others, was not gazetted until almost two years after the landing. He received his VC only because of renewed pressure on the War Office by those who felt he and the others had been hard done by.

Initially, Grimshaw had been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and he was more than content with that, unaware that his fellow Fusiliers were campaigning for the decoration to be “upgraded”. Indeed, when a journalist from the Daily Dispatch told him of his VC, he replied: “Whose leg are you pulling?” He needed a great deal of convincing that it was true.

The people of Abram, Lancashire, were so proud of his achievement that they presented him with a gold watch and chain to go along with the medal. By that time, he was living and working in Hull as a musketry instructor, having been invalided out of the Fusiliers with severe frostbite. He died in Isleworth, London, on July 20, 1980, aged 87.

Richards, who had been shot during the beach landings, was evacuated to Egypt, where surgeons amputated his right leg just above the knee. He then returned to England and was discharged on July 31, 1915. His discharge papers read: “no longer fit for war service (but fit for civil employment)”.

When he was given his decoration, he was known as the “Lonely VC” because he had no family and was living alone at the Princess Christian Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home in Woking. However, in September 1916 he married Dora Coombes, who had nursed him during the previous year. His disability did not prevent him joining the Home Guard during the Second World War, when he served as a provost sergeant in London. He died in Southfields, London, on May 21, 1953, aged 69.

Willis had survived the landing at “W Beach” unscathed but was later wounded in action. He was evacuated to Egypt and, eventually, back to the UK, where he earned a reputation as a silent and serious man. After recovering from his injuries, he was promoted to major and served on the Western Front at the Somme, Messines and Passchendaele. He retired from the Army, as a lieutenant colonel, in 1920, aged 44, and joined the RAF as an education officer in Palestine. He became a teacher but fell on hard times. Willis died in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on February 9, 1966, aged 89.

“W Beach” was renamed “Lancashire Landing” in honour of the Lancashire Fusiliers. The gallantry medals of Grimshaw, Richards and Willis are among a collection of more than 180 VCs I have amassed. They are on display, along with VCs and George Crosses (GCs), in the care of Imperial War Museums, at the Extraordinary Heroes exhibition.

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