Unit: 6th Battalion
Date of Death: 24 Oct. 1915 – Died (Gallipoli)
Age: 24 years
Cemetery / Memorial: Helles Memorial
Grave / Panel Ref.: Panel 46
William was born at Culverthorpe, Lincolnshire, in the September quarter 1888, the son of Matthew (Farm labourer) and Mary (née Bunning) Cunnington. He had an older sister, Emma, and in 1891 (Census RG 12/2579) they were living at No. 26 Swarby, Lincolnshire. Ten years later (1901 Census RG 13/3050) the family were living at Blankley Row, Swarby.
In 1911 (Census RG 14/19615) William was lodging with the Hubbert family at Church Street, Rowston, Digby, Lincolnshire and working as a “Garthman On Farm”. [N.B. According to the dictionary of occupations a “Garthman” is a ‘herdsman or yard worker’.]
In the June quarter 1911 William married Elizabeth Warne, the older sister of Pt. Arthur Warne, 7/Lincs. Regt. who died of wounds 11th July 1916. Their son, Trooper 14353712 Roy Cunnington, Royal Armoured Corps (4th Queens Own Hussars, was killed in action in Italy on 3 January 1945).
William enlisted in 6th/Lincolnshire Regiment in Lincoln. His Service Papers have not survived but his Medal Index Card (MIC) states that he was posted to ‘Theatre of War’ “2B Balkans”, i.e. Gallipoli, arriving on 14 September 1915.
The 6th (Service) Battalion was formed at Lincoln in August 1914 as part of K1 (Kitchener’s First New Army) and came under command of 33rd Brigade in 11th (Northern) Division. After initial training close to home, they moved to Belton Park, Grantham. On the 4th of April 1915 the Division assembled at Witley and Frensham for final training.
The Battalion sailed from Liverpool on the Empress of Britain on 1 July 1915 for Gallipoli from Liverpool via Mudros (8 July), arriving in Alexandria, Egypt on the 12th. The following day the Battalion transhipped to Helles, landing at ‘V’ Beach and taking up a front line position at Eski.
The Battalion was relieved to Imbros and 1 August, but a week later landed near Lala Baba at Suvla Bay on the 7th August.
At 2.00 p.m. that day the Battalion was ordered forward to attack Chocolate Hill, advancing in “… absolute parade ground formation. A magnificent spectacle, admired by all that watched. ” The “spectacle” was not without some cost, however.
CWGC Records show that 38 Officers and men were killed in action between landing and relief on the 8th. Lt. Gilbert George Downes, and probably many others, later died of wounds.
With little respite the 6th Lincolnshire Battalion went into action again on 9 August. Early in the morning the men advanced south of Salt Lake for an attack on Ismail Oglu Tepe. At 5.15 a.m. continued to advance from Chocolate Hill towards Scimitar Hill which they had been informed was under the control of British troops. They immediately came under heavy enemy fire and had to deploy.
Scrub in front of them caught fire and the C.O., Lt. Col. M.P. Phelps, ordered a withdrawal at 12.15 p.m. The War Diary records that 8 Officers were killed, 4 others wounded or missing; 391 other ranks killed, wounded or missing. (“… none of the missing were ever seen again“. Many of the wounded burned to death in the blazing scrub fire.) CWGC Records show 175 Officers and men killed in the action. At the start of action Battalion strength stood at 17 Officers and 561 men.
During the Battle Capt. and Adjutant Percy Howard Hansen gathered together volunteers and made several journeys into the fire to bring out the wounded.
For his bravery and leadership he was awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation read:
“For most conspicuous bravery on 9th August, 1915, at Yilghin Burnu, Gallipoli Peninsula. After the second capture of the “Green Knoll” his Battalion was forced to retire, leaving some wounded behind, owing to the intense heat from the scrub which had been set on fire.
When the retirement was effected Captain Hansen, with three or four volunteers, on his own initiative, dashed forward several times some 300 to 400 yards over open ground into the scrub under a terrific fire, and succeeded in rescuing from inevitable death by burning, no less than six wounded men.”
Percy Howard Hansen served with the Regiment until 1949, attaining the rank of Brigadier. He died in 1951, aged 60 years.
No doubt after the Battalion’s severe losses during the above action, reinforcements were needed and it is most likely that William Cunnington was one of them. His Medal Index Card has him arriving in The Balkans on 14 September 1915, probably at Mudros. Without his Service Papers it is not possible to determine if he saw action, although the War Diary for September and October shows the Battalion engaged largely on reconnaissance work.
What is known is that William died on board RMS Aquitania on 24 October 1915.
After originally being used as a troop ship, this White Star Liner cruise ship was converted for use as a Hospital Ship later in 1915.
The circumstances of William’s death are not know, however, as he is designated: “Died” would indicate it was from illness or disease rather than “… of wounds“.
What is unusual is that, in keeping with the majority of other 6th Battalion casualties, he has no known grave and is commemorated, with them, on the Helles Memorial. Maybe he was buried ashore and his grave subsequently lost in ensuing fighting, or he was buried at sea whilst the ship was in transit with other casualties.
In October 2016 William’s War Medals, comprising The 1914 Star, The British War Medal and The Victory Medal, together with his Memorial Plaque and accompanying documentation, were offered for sale by auction. [They were bought by a collector local to the village and have been made available to interested groups, Schools, etc.]
- “British Battalions on the Somme” – Ray Westlake [ISBN-10: 0850523745] p. 31/2
- I am grateful to The War Graves Photographic Project for the photo of William’s name on the Helles Memorial