1915-2015: Abergele & District Commemorations: William Stewart Turner

Lieutenant William Stewart Turner, ‘D’ Company, 1/10th (Liverpool Scottish) Battalion, King’s (Liverpool Regiment), 9th Brigade, 3rd Division. Killed in action, 16 June 1915, aged 32, First Battle of Bellewaarde. No known grave. Commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial. Not commemorated in the Abergele district. Commemorated on Garston Civic Memorial, Liverpool Cricket & Rugby Club War Memorial, SS Matthew & James’ Church War Memorial, Mossley Hill and Sefton Park Presbyterian Church War Memorial.

Brother of Second Lieutenant Frederick Harding Turner. Born 19 March 1883, the son of William Neil and Jessie Turner. William was a principal partner in the Liverpool printing firm of Turner & Dunnett of Fenwick Street. He owned a second home, Bronwendon, in Llanddulas for a number of years until shortly before the war (today this is the building to the right of the entrance to Bron-y-Wendon holiday park on Wern Road). Consequently his two sons, Frederick and William, spent some time in Llanddulas when not away at school and they became quite well known in the area.

Turner W S 3

William went to Greenbank school and, like his brother Frederick, he was a keen sportsman. After leaving Sedburgh school in 1901 he went straight into his father’s printing business rather than attend university. He was a good all-round cricketer and Rugby three-quarter back; he played both games regularly for Liverpool, and was Captain of the Liverpool Rugby team in the season 1909-10. He was a member also of the Lancashire County Cricket Club, the Birkenhead Park Football Club, the Old Sedberghians, and the Northern Nomads.

He enlisted into his brother’s territorial battalion in Liverpool, initially as Private 3475, aged 32, on 31 August 1914, and he received a commission as Second Lieutenant 17 November. His brother, Fred, wrote to him asking when he would be coming out to join him. Sadly, as William later wrote, “alas, it will not be on earth“. He was still in England when news of his brother’s death came through. He was present at his brother’s memorial service at Sefton Park Church and the following day, 20 January 1915, he set off from Blackpool with the first reinforcement draft for the 1/10th battalion. A mere thirteen days after the death of his younger brother, William Stewart Turner set foot in France, and made his way to the battalion.

The arrival of the reinforcements must have been a huge relief to the beleaguered 1/10th Battalion.

Owing to its reduced strength it was necessary to send practically the whole Battalion into the line to hold the front allotted to it by Brigade. Inter-company reliefs were carried out to avoid leaving the same men too long in the worst places but the strain on all was severe and it was with very genuine feelings of thankfulness that the first draft of four officers (2nd Lieuts. G. K. Cowan, L. G. Wall, W. Turner and C. Dunlop) and 302 other ranks was welcomed on 30 January. The draft was distributed amongst the companies, the men being allotted as far as possible to the companies of which they had been members at Tunbridge Wells, and they very quickly settled down to the routine of trench-warfare.” [A. M. McGilchrist, ‘The Liverpool Scottish, 1900-1919’]

As things transpired he was to literally fill his brother’s place. Frederick had been such a popular officer that when the men of his platoon heard that William was on the way they handed in a petition that he should command them. He was promoted to full Lieutenant in May 1915.

As a result of the Second Battle of Ypres, which had closed down on 25 May 1915, the German trenches between the Menin Road and the Ypres-Roulers railway formed a salient. Behind the salient lay the Bellewaarde Ridge. The ridge gave the Germans excellent observation over the new British lines.

Early in June it was decided to attack the salient, and, if possible, gain possession of the ridge; the attack was to be carried out by the 9th Brigade of the 3rd Division….There were three phases in the attack on Bellewaarde….in the third phase was the south-western corner of Bellewaarde Lake…As soon as the first objective had been gained the guns were to bombard the second objective…about the centre of this line lay Bellewaarde Farm. The 1st Lincolns and Liverpool Scottish (1/10th King’s Regiment), who during the first phase, were to move up to the front line vacated by the troops of the first phase,  were to capture the third objective.” [E. Wyrall, ‘History of the King’s Regiment (Liverpool) 1914-1919’]

In essence therefore, the 1/10th battalion, in conjunction with the 1st Lincolns, were to follow up the initial attacks and then pass through captured and held objectives to seize the objective line, behind an artillery barrage that would lift and move forward to target enemy positions and assist the attacking troops. Preparations were swiftly under way.

From the 10th to the 15th June the Batt’n was busily engaged in training for an operation to take place on the 16th, particular attention being given to bombing. On the evening of the 14th June Major A.S. Anderson proceeded to Railway Wood from which point the 9th Brigade were to attack on the morning of the 16th. He took with him 2 men per Company to act as markers and also 2 Cyclists. At 4 pm on the afternoon of the 15th the Battalion left the camping ground near Busseboom and proceeded via Ypres to Railway Wood.” [1/10th (Scottish) Battalion War Diary]

The 1/10th arrived at their attack positions during darkness and waited for the battle to begin. The Germans had however figured out that something was brewing and shortly after midnight began shelling British positions. There was little that William and the rest of his battalion could do other than sit it out and hope. A number of 1/10th became casualties. At 2.10 a.m. the British guns joined in. The King’s (Liverpool) Regiment’s historian graphically recorded the effects.

The opposing trenches were from 150 to 300 yards apart, and as the Divisional Artillery poured shell on to the German front line, clods of earth, heads and bodies of men shot up into the air, the guns were making excellent shooting. For two hours the bombardment went on, and then, precisely at 4.15 a.m., two companies of each of the attacking battalions left their trenches and moved as quickly as possible across No Mans Land.” [E. Wyrall, ‘History of the King’s Regiment (Liverpool) 1914-1919’]

During the darkness, despite the shelling, small British patrols had moved into No Man’s Land to clear ‘friendly’ barbed wire entanglements so that the attack would not be impeded. The British artillery fire also caused enough damage to the German wire that, as a result, the attack moved forward swiftly and the first German trench line was captured relatively easily.

There, amidst the debris, they found many dead and wounded Germans. Others, who had escaped wounds, held up their hands and surrendered, too demoralised and dazed to offer any resistance. Consolidation of the trenches was begun immediately.” [E. Wyrall, ‘History of the King’s Regiment (Liverpool) 1914-1919’]

It was now the turn of the 1/10th Liverpool and 1st Lincolns to move forward and beyond the captured German trenches towards the second line. All seemed to be going perfectly to plan, as the Liverpool Scottish and the Lincolns swiftly took possession of the second German trench line and immediately began moving towards the Germans third line. However, it was now that the clockwork precision began to falter.

Communications in the Great War, especially in these relatively early stages, were a major problem. Without radio communications, coordinating an attack with artillery support was monumentally difficult. Once a fire plan had been set it was very hard to alter it, and certainly not swiftly. However, in case it was needed on this occasion, the 1/10th had a set of red and yellow flags to plant in the ground to indicate progress. As good an idea as this was, it relied on artillery observers being able to see and interpret them and then pass accurate messages to the big guns. For whatever reason, the coloured flags proved inadequate and, as a result the British guns stuck to the prearranged fire plan. It was thus that the 1/10th began attacking into territory being bombarded by their own guns which were not getting the message to lift and move on. In addition, of course, German guns were pounding the area.

The whole area was also under very heavy shell-fire from the enemy’s artillery, bombing attacks and counter-attacks were everywhere going on and there was a great deal of hand-to-hand fighting in which both sides lost heavily.” [E. Wyrall, ‘History of the King’s Regiment (Liverpool) 1914-1919’]

The 1/10th had no option but to withdraw and fall back to the previously captured second line of German trenches at about 9.30 a.m. which they subsequently held until nightfall. Lieutenant Leslie Wall provided his own version of the day’s events.

Our artillery bombardment started at 2.10am and carried out the work of demolition so successfully that little difficulty was experienced in taking the first and second line trenches. Unfortunately however in continuing the advance we suffered many casualties as, owing to the difficulty experienced in observing signals, it was impossible to keep our shells ahead of the advancing infantry. Although the 3rd Line German Trenches were reached it was impossible to hold on to them and so the whole Brigade consolidated the 1st and part of the 2nd Line German trenches, manning them until 11.30 pm on the night of the 16th at which hour they were relieved by the 8th Brigade. The casualties amongst our Officers were particularly heavy and of the 24 Officers who went up only Lieutenant Wall, 2nd Lieutenant T.G. Roddick and Lieutenant Chavasse came back unscathed. The work of all ranks throughout the day calls forth the highest praise, our bombing parties doing particularly good work. The stretcher bearers throughout a most trying day did excellent work and showed great courage in attending to so many wounded under very heavy shell fire.” [1/10th (Scottish) Battalion War Diary]

Overall, in terms of its objectives, the attack had been successful. Two lines of German trenches had been gained, the salient reduced, and 1,000 yards gained. In other ways it had not been a success. A chance to take a third line had been lost due to communication problems (which would dog the armies of all sides for some time yet), and casualties had been high. The 1/10th alone had lost 21 Officers and 379 men killed, wounded or missing.

It is unclear in which phase of the attack William was killed. However, we know that he was in or around one of the captured German trenches in the vicinity of Bellewaarde Farm, and most likely the third German line, when a shell exploded very near to him and Sergeant John Blake Jones. Both were killed instantly. Neither of their bodies have a known grave, and William’s name is inscribed on the imposing Menin Gate memorial in Ypres, Belgium. Sergeant Jones had been a witness to Lieut. Fred Turner’s death six months earlier, and was the Sergeant he was talking with before being sniped.

At William’s memorial service at Sefton Park Church, the Rev. Alexander Connell said:

Lieut. Turner, with his quiet and modest ways, his unassuming but steadfast character, his filial devotion, his brotherly fidelity, his patient faithfulness to duty, and his unaffected sincerities, alike in time of peace and in the sterner tasks of war, might elude the casual eye at first through his very lack of pretension and the self-forgetfulness of his bearing and disposition. Yet this man played a hero’s part. He stepped without fuss, and at once, into his fallen brother’s place. He won the affection and confidence of his men. Some of them, who have also fallen, had sworn, as we know, that for his sake, as for his brother’s, if any hour of peril called them they should be found by his side, living or dead. I know of no greater tribute, I know of no more enduring monument to his name than this enthusiasm of loyalty and trust which he earned from men who knew him through some of the severest tests that can befall the fibre and the temper of a human soul.”  [I am very grateful to Joe Devereux for providing this quote, and for further information about W S Turner.]

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