This Day In History

1918 Battle of the Selle. In a carefully-planned attack, rehearsed over 5 days, 5th East Lancashires mount a remarkably successful night assault near Briastre. They move off at 2 a.m., in a heavy downpour which lasted throughout the engagement, to the sound of the Regimental March being played by the battalion band. Met by heavy machine-gun fire and an artillery barrage which causes 50 casualties, they charge through with a yell and are on their final objective well before the 7 a.m. deadline set, taking 300 prisoners in the process. Casualties are 2 officers and 13 men dead, and 6 officers and 109 men wounded. Some 22 German dead were counted on the battalion front. Study of the ground the next day shows that the battalion had gone through no fewer than 6 defensive belts, including a very strongly-held railway embankment, before reaching its final objective. The 300 prisoners were ‘of far better physique and appearance’ than any of the enemy previously encountered, and turn out to be picked troops. They said that they were members of Kaiser Wilhelm’ bodyguard; that they had never before known defeat; and that they had been sent to hold the line at all costs.
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Private William Ratcliffe VC MM – “The Dockers’ VC”

William Ratcliffe VC MM

William “Billy” Ratcliffe was born in Toxteth, Liverpool in January 1884. He first joined the South Lancashire Regiment at age 17 and completed eight years with the colours, serving in South Africa in the Boer War, and India. After his discharge he worked as a docker at Liverpool Docks.

When World War I broke out in August 1914 he was one of the first to volunteer, joining the 2nd Battalion South Lancashire Regiment. Out in France he quickly gained a reputation for dauntless bravery. He was in every big battle from Mons to Messines and at Messines Ridge in early June 1917 crowned many feats of daring by counter-sniping and despatching seven German snipers who had been taking a heavy toll of his unit.  For this and his general gallantry he was decorated  in the field a few days later with the Military Medal.

On 14 June 1917 his battalion was ordered to attack a line of German trenches on Messines Ridge. William Ratcliffe was a stretcher-bearer, following up behind the advancing troops to bring in the casualties. What happened next  was described shortly afterwards by an officer of the battalion:

“We had a hot time of it. We fought our way through a torrent of shell fire, and found ourselves raked flank and rear by machine-guns posted in commanding positions. One of the deadliest of these troublesome guns was posted in the rear and was playing havoc with our troops.

“Ratcliffe asked permission to have a try at capturing it. I am not sure that the permission was given. In fact, I think it was refused, but that did not matter to Ratcliffe.  He dashed straight at the position, and tackled the crew of the gun on his own.

“After a fierce struggle he killed or drove them off, and then picked up the gun and started back with it.

“He was fired on at once by the enemy, and it was a miracle how he got through, for all the time the bullets were raining around him and we never expected him to get through it.

“Once he tripped and fell. We thought he was done for. He wasn’t. He rose again, and with a rush covered the last stretch of ground between him and safety.

“When he got to our position he set up in business as wholesale strafer of the enemy with his gun. Every time they tried to rush him they were met with a galling fire and he fairly knocked them out. They hadn’t forgotten him for capturing the gun and they concentrated all their efforts on knocking him out.

“Snipers there were by the dozen after him, and another machine-gun sent bullets spitting all over the place where he was. Ratcliffe never wavered. He stuck gamely to his post, and his action made things much easier for us all round.”

After which, still not done, he then went back and got his stretcher and spent the rest of the night bringing in the wounded through a heavy barrage.

His actions brought the award of the Victoria Cross, with which he was invested personally by King George V at Buckingham Palace on the 26th September 1917.

William Ratcliffe receives the VC from King George V

Already, and for the rest of his life, known as “the Dockers’ VC”, Bill Ratcliffe returned to work on Liverpool Docks, but eventually had to retire after an industrial accident.

In 1956, celebrations were held in London to mark the centenary of the Victoria Cross. All living holders were invited to be reviewed by the Queen in Hyde Park. Bill was reluctant to attend. It emerged that he could not afford to buy a suit for the occasion. The South Lancashire Regimental Association intervened;  a local gentlemen’s outfitters very readily made him a complimentary new suit, and Bill travelled to London.

William Ratcliffe never married. He died in March 1963, aged 79, and is buried in Allerton Cemetery, Liverpool.

His medals, including his Victoria Cross and Military Medal, are on loan to the Imperial War Museum, London.

The Ratcliffe Machine Gun on display in the Museum

The German Maxim machine-gun which he captured  that day in 1917 is on display in our Museum, and is one of our most treasured possessions.

In 2014, as part of the nation’s commemoration of the centenary of World War I, the British Government announced a programme to lay a memorial paving stone for every World War winner of the Victoria Cross in their home town. On 14 June 2017, the 100th anniversary of Billy Ratcliffe’s action, the Lord Mayor of Liverpool unveiled his memorial stone in the Churchyard of Liverpool Parish Church.

Watched by Billy’s great niece Nora, the Lord Mayor of Liverpool unveils the Ratcliffe Memorial Stone at Liverpool Parish Church

The Ratcliffe Memorial Stone

The Machine Gun on display at the ceremony. Zara Weadock, Billy’s great great great niece, reads his biography.