Sunday, 5 September 2010

William Boynton Butler

William Boynton Butler was my grandfather's oldest brother, fondly known as Uncle Willie by my branch of the family, and as Uncle Billie by his wife Clara's family. Sadly I never got the chance to meet him as he died before I was born.

He was awarded the Victoria Cross for an extremely brave action during the First World War, shielding a passing troop of infantry from a mis-fired mortar round with his own body until they were safely past, risking being blown to pieces.

I gather from family chatter that he was an unassuming man, somewhat embarrassed at the subsequent fuss, perhaps because his actions were an instinctive reaction to the situation, or perhaps because all the men who fought in that war risked their lives daily in the trenches, and many didn't survive.

I've published a number of newspaper clippings and photographs collated by my aunt, along with his citation, army records, and a brief biography to our Family Tree.

William Boynton Butler - Biography


William was born in Armley, Leeds and was educated at St. Oswalds School, Hunslet Carr. He worked in the area's coal mines from the age of 13. On his Attestation recruitment form his trade was listed as Miner, and being in a reserved occupation he need not have volunteered to serve.

Initially he was rejected for the Army because of his height, being only 5 foot 2 1/2 inches tall and weighing just 7st 10lbs.  After the formation of a "Bantam" battalion (short stature being an advantage in trench warfare) William joined the 17th Battalion of the West Yorkshire (Prince of Wales's Own) Regiment on 14th January 1915, at the age of 20. He received his training at Ilkley and was attached to the 106th Trench Mortar Battery, arriving in France on the 1st Feburary 1916.

He was awarded the V.C. for action on August 6, 1917, at Lempire, France, between St. Quentin and Cambrai.

From his citation: "For most conspicuous bravery when in charge of a Stokes gun [trench mortar] in trenches which were being heavily shelled. Suddenly one of the fly-off levers of a Stokes shell came off and fired the shell in the emplacement. Private Butler picked up the shell and jumped to the entrance of the emplacement, which at that moment a party of infantry was passing. He shouted to them to hurry past, as the shell was going off, and, turning round, placed himself between the party of men and the live shell, and so held it till they were out of danger. He then threw the shell on to the parados [the back parapet of a trench], and took cover in the bottom of the trench. The shell exploded almost on leaving his hand, greatly damaging the trench. By extreme good luck Private Butler was contused [bruised] only. Undoubtedly his great presence of mind and disregard of his own life saved the lives of the officer and men in the emplacement and the party which was passing at the time."

He was invested by H. M. King George V at Buckingham Palace, 5th December 1917.

He visited his home on the 4th December but his parents had already gone to London for the investiture, and the V.C. hero found himself locked out and had to sit on the step until recognised. He was given a civic reception in Leeds on 6th December 1917. He was also awarded the Croix de Guerre.

After the war William worked for the North East Gas Board in Leeds, serving in the Home Guard during World War II. He died in hospital in Leeds on 25th March 1972 after a long illness. He was given a full military funeral on the 29th, the bearer party being drawn from senior NCOs and members of the Royal British Legion, and was buried in Hunslet Cemetery, Leeds.

He was laid to rest in the Boynton family grave which had no marker. In 1996 a headstone was erected after being donated by Newton's Monumental Masons.

William's medals, including the French Croix de Guerre, are held in the Lord Ashcroft Medal Collection. In the book "Victoria Cross Heroes Volume II" Michael Ashcroft recounts William's own recollection of the event.

On 7th August 2017, a paving stone at the Hunslet War Memorial was unveiled marking the 100th anniversary of William's bravery. The event was attended by family members, standard bearers, and members of the Yorkshire Regiment in full dress uniform. Father Chris Buckley led the ceremony, with the Lord Mayor of Leeds addressing the gathering, Captain S Mallinson read the citation and the Last Post was sounded by LCpl Farthing.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Harry,

    That was really interesting. I am currently researching William as part of a project for the Regimental Museum in York. They are doing a big project for the centenary of the First World War. I wondered if you had any more information or knew of any relatives that would be happy to talk to me about him. I know that the Museum are very keen to get in touch with relatives in relation to this event.

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