Lieutenant Colonel Richard Davies Garnons Williams

This is an edited version of an article by Rugby Historian Gwyn Prescott. Gwyn’s original article appeared on World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults on the centenary of Lieutenant Garnons Williams’ death in action on 27th September 1915.

There is a longer account of Lieutenant Garnons Williams’s life and rugby career in Call Them to Remembrance: The Welsh rugby internationals who died in the Great War by Gwyn Prescott, published by St. David’s Press (2014).

 

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Davies Garnons Williams was born in Llowes, Radnorshire where his father was vicar at the time. He was the second child of the Reverend Garnons Williams of Abercamlais and his wife Catherine Frances, the daughter of Fenton Hort. Richard was also the oldest rugby international to die in the First World War aged 59 (at least 136 rugby internationals lost their life in the Great War).

Richard was one of the early pioneers of rugby in Wales though he learned the game at his public school in England. In 1875 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge. Richard played rugby for Cambridge and after a year at university, he enrolled at the Royal Military College Sandhurst, which he also represented at rugby.

In 1877, Richard joined the 7th Regiment (later renamed the Royal Fusiliers) and was stationed in Hounslow, which enabled him to continue playing rugby in the London area. He also played for Brecon and Newport during his rugby career. He was selected to represent Wales at forward in their first ever international match against England in February 1881.

Posted to Gibraltar, he later saw active service with the Royal Fusiliers in Egypt.  He retired from the regular Army in 1892 and then qualified as a barrister and acquired a landed estate near Hay-on-Wye. He remained involved with the military, however, serving as a major with the local Volunteers. On reaching 50 in 1906, he resigned his commission and settled into a life of active public service in Breconshire.

After his death, friends testified to his unusually strong sense of duty. They were not surprised, therefore, when, despite his being 58 and a family man, Richard immediately offered his services to the country again as soon as war broke out. His old regiment were forming a new “Service” battalion and, in late September 1914, with the rank of major, he was appointed second in command of this battalion, the 12th Royal Fusiliers.

As part of the 73rd Brigade, 24th Division, the battalion landed in France in early September 1915 and were immediately allocated to the general reserve for the Battle of Loos. Despite having received no training or preparation for trench warfare, they were ordered to the front, where the inexperienced troops arrived after enduring several exhausting night matches under wretched conditions. The battle opened on the 25th September and, late in the day, the weary 73rd Brigade was led off to relieve the 9th Scottish Division. Inexplicably, at this crucial moment, the commanding officer of the 12th Royal Fusiliers was called up to the staff. Therefore just as they were going into action for the first time, Richard was given command of the battalion and ordered to carry out the relief.

For two days, the Fusiliers were constantly shelled but, despite having no sleep, no supplies and little water, they kept the Germans at bay. However, on the 27th September, a strong German offensive drove the British back from their hard won positions. The Fusiliers found themselves under attack from both their flanks and so were forced to retire.

Such was the chaos of the Battle of Loos that many of the men, who were officially recorded as having died on the opening day (the 25th), were actually killed a day or two later. Richard appears to have been one of these. According to official records, he lost his life as he led his battalion up the line on the 25th September and that is the date recorded in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Register. However, eyewitness accounts given to his family confirm that he was shot and killed two days later on the 27th while organising the battalion’s retirement. One of his men wrote, “he was with us all the time in the front trench … we could not have had a better, braver officer … no man could have done better.”

Even for the young and fit, the conditions suffered by the Fusiliers were utterly deplorable. But it is hard to imagine what it was like for someone approaching sixty with the responsibility of command suddenly thrust upon him. His unshakeable sense of duty drove him on and by putting his men first Richard sacrificed his own life. “No man could have done better”.

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Davies Garnons Williams is commemorated with over 20,000 others on the Loos Memorial to the Missing located at Dud Corner Cemetery near the town of Loos-en-Gohelle, France.

Printed with kind permission from Mr Gwyn Prescott.

 

Above: Lieutenant Colonel Richard Davies Garnons Williams

Source: By Elliott and Fry-Sewell, Edward Humphrey Dalrymple (1919). The Rugby Football Internationals Roll of Honour. London, Edinburgh: T. C. & E. C. Jack., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20538809

Below: Call Them to Remembrance: The Welsh rugby internationals who died in the Great War by Gwyn Prescott, published by St. David’s Press (2014). Available here.

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