When Willie Angus crossed No Man’s Land in daylight to rescue an injured friend, dodging bullets and bombs, his football skills came in handy. He pulled off the rescue with 40 injuries, and he survived to receive the highest military honour, the Victoria Cross.
Willie Angus grew up in the mining village of Armadale in central Scotland. He worked as a miner until landing a spot on the Celtic Football Club team. When World War I began, he was 26 years old and team captain at Wishaw Thistle Football Club.
As a member of the local territorial battalion of the Highland Light Infantry, he was mobilised immediately. His was the first territorial battalion to go to the Western Front. In 1915 they joined the 8th Royal Scots, which had lost many men and were in dire need of fresh recruits.
In June 1915, Willie and the rest of D Company were occupying a front-line trench near Givenchy La Bassé in northern France. The British had managed to push back the German front line, except for a point opposite D Company where they were well entrenched on some higher ground. This gave the Germans a view across No Man’s Land, and they were proving difficult to shift.
In an attempt to displace the Germans and take their trench, some men of D Company, led by Lieutenant James Martin, launched a night-time bombing party. They made their way across No Man’s Land under cover of darkness, but the Germans were prepared for them. As they reached the enemy line a mine exploded beneath them, blowing a hole 15′ (4.5 m) across in the slope in front of the trench and forcing a retreat.
Back in their own trench, the soldiers of D Company found that James Martin had not returned with the rest. One man, writing about the incident a week later, described their anguish at the loss of ‘the bright eyed clean cheery lad we had all learned in the last eight months at the front to love for his constant bonhomie.’ They spent the rest of the night crawling over the parapet and searching No Man’s Land for him, but without success.
As the sun rose, they spotted James lying just below the German parapet, so close to it that enemy machine guns could not fire on him. Then they saw his arms moving as he tried to brush off the loose soil that covered him. June the 12th was a hot day, and at one point he pleaded with the Germans for some water; in response, they threw an unlit bomb over the parapet.
Agitated, the men began discussing how to rescue him. No Man’s Land stretched for about 64 metres (210 feet) of mostly open ground – two and a half times as wide as at Digging In – although weeds and corn offered some cover in the part nearest the British trench. Even so, a daylight rescue attempt seemed suicidal. The men began planning to launch a rescue at dusk.
Then, in the early afternoon, Lance Corporal Willie Angus volunteered to attempt a rescue. Senior officers refused him permission, but he insisted on the grounds that he and James Martin came from the same town in Scotland and he felt he would not be able to return home if he left the man to die. Finally, a visiting brigadier general approved his request with the advice, ‘Now, my boy, you are going to certain death.’ Willie reportedly replied: ‘It does not matter much, Sir, whether sooner or later.’
At 2 o’clock, Willie went over the parapet with a rope tied around him so that he could be dragged back if necessary. Using the available cover, he managed to reach James Martin without being spotted, untied the rope and tied it around the injured man. According to his comrade’s account,
‘He touched the Lieutenant’s arm, whispered in his ear, raised him up a little and placed a flask of brandy between his teeth. Together they sat up and waited for a matter of two or three seconds to gather strength for the ordeal before them. At this very moment the Germans lobbed a bomb just over the parapet with a grim explosion, raising a storm of dust. Now or never it must be. Hand in hand the wounded officer and his man rise to their feet, the strong man guiding the weak as best he can. And then the Germans made their mistake. So sure they had been of their prey, their cunning over-reached itself. The swiftest runner in the world would have one chance in a thousand of crossing that open space if only their snipers shot steadily. Instead, they throw more bombs and up rises a pillar of smoke – 20, 30, 40 feet height, hiding the whole of what was happening both from themselves and from us. Out into our view there stagger two poor wounded figures, stumbling, running, falling, crawling. Down they go, then up again, and on.’
Shielding James with his own body, Willie was hit several times by bullets and shrapnel. As they approached D Company’s trench, he gave the signal to pull Martin in while he took off in another direction to divert enemy fire. When he finally collapsed in a British trench he had sustained 40 injuries, including gunshot wounds to his legs, bomb wounds to his head, shoulders and feet and grenade wounds to his eye socket. He was rushed to a medical station and evacuated.
From his hospital bed, he wrote to his sister:
‘I am still in France and they might keep me here for some time yet. They are doing their best to save the sight of my left eye. The best of eye specialists in the world are in this hospital. They have given me great hopes of getting my sight all right, so I will just have to hope for the best. My other wounds are getting on all right, but it will be a long time before I am able to get up and walk about. However, I will get on all right, never fear, and some day your battered old brother will come back to Carluke as cheery as ever.’
He lost both his eye and his right foot. In August, Willie was presented with the Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace, where the King spoke privately to him and his father for some time.
James Martin spoke at the ceremony:
‘I know you will bear with me if I do not make a long speech. My heart is too full for words. When I lay on the German parapet that Saturday in June my plight seemed hopeless, but Angus at the risk of his life came out and saved me. Carluke may well be proud of her hero. For it was an act of bravery second to none in the annals of the British Army. Corporal Angus, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I hope you will soon be restored to your wanted health and strength and that you may be long spared to wear this watch and chain which please accept as a small memento of that day.’
Back in Carluke after the war ended, the men became firm friends and each year on the anniversary of the incident James sent him a telegram: ‘Congratulations on the 12th.’
As for Willie, he rarely spoke of his actions except when pressed, and even then he played down his heroism. He served as a justice of the peace, president of Carluke Rovers Football Club and Master of Works for the Racecourse Betting Control Board. He is commemorated on the town’s war memorial and in the name of a street in Carluke. He died in 1956, three years after James did. His VC is on display alongside James’s medals in the National War Museum in Edinburgh Castle.
Words by Emily Allison & Olivia Lelong