Wednesday 14th June 2017 marked one hundred years to the day since William Ratcliffe carried out an act of bravery for which he received the Victoria Cross. To mark the centenary a commemorative stone was unveiled at the Church of Our Lady & St Nicholas in Liverpool.
William was born in Newhall Street in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle in 1884 and educated at the nearby St Vincent de Paul school. He worked briefly as a docker but joined the army at the age of seventeen and immediately saw action, serving in the Second Boer War in South Africa.
After twelve years in the army William went back to the docks but enlisted at the outbreak of World War One in 1914. He joined the South Lancashire Regiment, initially fighting in northern France where developed a reputation of somebody who was fearless.
In April 1917 William was awarded the Military Medal after taking out seven snipers who were firing on his company during the Battle of Messines in Belgium. Two months later in the same battle he carried out the action for which he received the Victoria Cross. After an enemy trench had been captured, William located an enemy machine-gun which was firing on his comrades from the rear, and single-handed, on his own initiative, immediately rushed the machine-gun position and bayoneted the crew. He then brought the gun back into action in the front line.
One of Williams’s comrades, who died shortly afterwards from his wounds, told the Catholic Herald: “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. 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 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.”
In October 1917 William was presented with the Victoria Cross by King George V and then attended a dinner in Liverpool given in his honour by the National Union of Dock Labourers. When he returned to civilian life William went back to the docks to work but had an industrial accident and had to retire.
William never married and lived with his sister and her husband in Dingle and then at St Oswald’s Gardens, Old Swan. In 1956, to celebrate its centennial, all living Victoria Cross recipients were invited to attend a review with Queen Elizabeth II in London’s Hyde Park. William initially declined his invitation as he couldn’t afford a suit, but when a local gents outfitters stepped in to provide one he agreed to go. He told reporters that he felt a right toff given he had a top hat as well.
William Ratcliffe died in 1963, falling ill whilst on his way to a public house in Old Swan. He was 79 years old. A requiem mass was held at St Oswald’s Church and he was buried in Allerton cemetery alongside his niece.
William’s VC medal is on display at the Imperial War Museum in London. His name is commemorated on a Roll of Honour in Liverpool Town Hall that contains the names of all fourteen recipients of the Victoria Cross born in the city. A tablet and portrait of him that used to be on display in the TGWU building in St James Place was lost when it was demolished. He is now remembered again though thanks to the memorial that has been unveiled at the Church of Our Lady and St Nicholas.