On 12 June 1915, near Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée (northern France), William Angus and the men of D Company were ordered to attack. Led by Lieutenant James Martin, the troops launched a night time offensive designed to capture the enemy trench in the early hours of the morning. As the bombing party approached enemy lines, they horrifyingly found the earth littered with landmines. An explosion quickly followed, causing a 4.5 metre hole to form across the slope in front of the German position. Lieutenant James Martin was missing. As the smoke cleared and the sun rose, Martin could be seen lying yards from the German trench. It is said that the Germans aimed a periscope at him, stalking him as if he were carrion being watched by a ravenous vulture. Only the Lieutenant’s position being too close to the parapet to be shot, meant that British troops, by now retreated to their own trench, were spared the sight of his execution.
A rescue plan was denied on the basis that crossing the 64-metre stretch, sandwiched between the opposing trenches, in the daylight, was analogous to a suicide mission. There was no hope… until Martin made an astonishing attempt to crawl back to his trench. The Germans opened fire and a response was instantly issued in kind.
Owing to the bullet scattered sky, William Angus insisted that he utilise the opportunity to go and retrieve Lieutenant James Martin. His stand-in officer initially refused the notion, but bravery and stubbornness were concomitant with Angus’ character. Angus forced senior leaders to rethink the order, stealthily leapt the parapet and crawled along the chilling bog referred to as ‘no man’s land’. The Royal Scots’ commanding officer wrote about the scene in a letter to the soldier’s father: It seemed so hopeless. With a rope 50 yards long, your son crept out. Owing to the clever way he crept, he got to Martin without being seen. Martin staggered to his feet and, directed by Angus, made a dash for our line.
The pair were eventually spotted by enemy forces. Angus shielded Martin and paid the price by having multiple grenades thrown at him. Against a backdrop of smoke, bombs and bullets, the men ran for their lives. When they finally reached safety, Angus lowered his colleague and sprinted to another point of the trench so as to divert enemy fire. Lieutenant Martin was in remarkably good shape for a man who had been thrown across the soil by an explosive device. William Angus was less fortunate. He had 40 gunshot wounds, shrapnel injuries to his legs, arms, head and shoulders, whilst he had also lost his sight in one eye thanks to a grenade blast. His wounds were patched up in a military hospital in Boulogne-sur-Mer and he extraordinarily survived. It was from that hospital bed that Angus wrote a short letter 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 in my left eye. The best 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.
William Angus was born in Carluke, three months before Celtic played their first ever match. After leaving school he found work as a miner but was soon able to ply his trade on a part time basis at Carluke Football Club. He moved on to Celtic in 1911 but failed to break in to the first team. He was released by the Hoops in 1914 and joined Wishaw Thistle, where he was made club captain until war was declared in July. As a member of the local Territorial Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry, he was sent to Dunoon to undergo training. Upon hearing of the loss of many men in France, Angus volunteered to transfer to the 8th Battalion Royal Scots and was mobilised immediately.
Two months after his heroic deed in France, Carluke’s streets were packed at Angus’ homecoming ceremony. Flanked by Lieutenant James Martin and the Lord Newlands, he received a hero’s welcome. His colleague, Lieutenant Colonel Gemmill, described his act as “The bravest in the history of the British Army.” Willie Maley, who was then Secretary of Celtic, also remarked: “No club ever had a more willing or conscientious player, and one who always showed that fine spirit.” Yet perhaps it is most telling to quote William Angus himself, when asked why he risked his life to save Lieutenant Martin: “I had to go back to Carluke. I could not return if I left someone from Carluke to die there.”
The ceremony, noted above, came weeks after Angus had been presented with the Victoria Cross award by King George V at Buckingham Palace, on 30 August 1915. When the King commented on his 40 injuries, Angus was said to have answered “Aye sir, but only 13 were serious.” At that same ceremony, Lieutenant Martin also spoke a few words in front of the King: “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 I ask you to please accept as a small memento of that day.”
Once settled back into normal life, William Angus was invited to Celtic Park and Ibrox, where he received standing ovations. Following the war, he began a new career as a goods carrier and became President of Carluke Rovers FC, a position he held until his death in 1959. Throughout each year of his life, from 1916 onwards, he received a telegram of thanks from Lieutenant Martin’s family, which often opened with an unfamiliar line in Celtic circles: ‘Congratulations on the 12th’. Meanwhile, Angus was also bought an annual gift on the anniversary of the incident, by those within the Racecourse Betting Control Board, on which he served as a Master of Works.
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— The Celtic Star Editor (@CelticStarMag) June 10, 2022