b. 13/10/1876 Woking, Surrey. d. 09/02/1966 Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
Richard Raymond Willis (1876-1966) was born on 13th October 1876 in Woking, Surrey, the son of R. A. Willis and was educated at Harrow and the Royal Military College Sandhurst. Gazetted into the Lancashire Fusiliers on 20th February 1897, he joined the 2nd Battalion in Quetta, India and accompanied it to Egypt in January 1898, where it formed part of Kitchener’s Army for the reconquest of Sudan.
Promoted to Lieutenant on 20th July, he was engaged in a number of patrols, on one occasion being accompanied by the famous Slatin Pasha, who had been a prisoner in the hands of the dervishes. Willis took part in the campaign’s climatic battle at Omdurman, after which he transferred to the 1st Battalion, serving with them in Crete, Malta, Gibraltar and Egypt. In 1907, Willis, by now a captain, married Maude Temple, the daughter of Colonel J A Temple.
At the time of the Gallipoli landings, Willis held the distinction of having commanded C Company for fifteen consecutive years. On 25th April 1915, he led ‘C’ Company of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers ashore under the most intense fire from Turkish defenders at Cape Helles. On the 2nd May, when the Turks launched a major assault on the beachhead, he featured prominently in the defence. During a night of bitter fighting, four men were killed next to him, and a bullet passed through his cap, and another smashed his periscope without harming him. Willis appeared to lead a charmed life. Twice over the next fortnight he escaped unhurt when men were killed within feet of him. His luck deserted him on 4th June when, after a spell of sick leave, he returned to command D Company for the attack in front of Krithia. The 1st Battalion would suffer over 500 casualties that day, including Willis, who was hit by a bullet beneath the heart, and was evacuated to Egypt and then England.
When his VC was announced, he urged journalists to “keep me out of it”. However, he did assist in an Illustrated London News artist with a drawing of the W Beach landing. Willis appeared in the image shouting encouragement to his men waving his walking stick in the air. It was this image which gave rise to the nickname “Walking Stick Willis”. After recuperating, he didn’t return to 1st Battalion. He was promoted to Major on 1st September 1915, and received his VC at Buckingham Palace on 21st September from King George V. He was then posted to France with a draft for the 2nd Battalion.
He saw action on the Somme and Ypres Salient with the 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 8th West Ridings and the 6th York and Lancasters. Willis received congratulations from his commander in chief for his leadership at Transloy and Beaumont Hamel. He returned to his regiment at the end of the war and was appointed second in command of the 2nd Battalion. He temporarily commanded the unit in India before his retirement from the Army on 26th November 1920.
He then became a teacher, serving with the RAF Education Branch for six years and then working in a succession of private schools, notably as a tutor at Carlisle and Gregsons. He and his wife had two sons and a daughter, and both boys pursued careers in the Army, one of them earning the Military Cross. At the outbreak of World War Two, he immediately volunteered as a training officer for the Army and served at Aldershot. During the London Blitz, he was injured and spent time in hospital recovering before returning to teaching as a prep school master.
The last 20 years of his life was marked by a steady decline in his health and financial circumstances. He received a number of grants from the regiment’s Compassionate Fund and Officers’ Association and then, in 1957, he appealed in the Press for a loan of £100, claiming himself to be in “desperate need”. His letter provoked a public outcry with Questions raised in the House of Commons. The following year, Willis moved into the Lillian Faithfull Home in Cheltenham. His wife was with him until her death in 1960. At some point during his later years, he became parted from his medals. When his daughter found out, she helped him obtain a replica set which were donated to Harrow School. Since then, the original set had been sold on a number of times until they were bought by a private collector who loaned them to the Regimental Museum in Bury. They were later obtained by the Ashcroft Collection. In addition to his VC, he was awarded the Queen's Sudan Medal (1896), 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, Delhi Durbar Medal 1911, King George VI Coronation Medal 1937, Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953 and the Khedive's Sudan Medal 1896-1908 with clasp for Khartoum.
“Walking Stick Willis” died on 9th February 1966 at the Lillian Faithfull Home. He was cremated at Cheltenham Crematorium where a memorial plaque was unveiled in 2002. He was described by Lieutenant Colonel Grimshaw VC at the time of his death as a “great man who we will always remember”.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: CHELTENHAM CREMATORIUM, GLOUCESTERSHIRE. ASHES SCATTERED.
Richard Willis' medals in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
His medals when loaned to Lancashire Fusiliers Museum, Bury for "Six Before Breakfast" exhibition in April 2015.
War Illustrated, 18th September 1915
War Illustrated, 20th November 1915
Willis' ashes were scattered next to Joyce Smith (pictured bottom left) but no marker except for plaque in chapel (August 2016)
Freemasons Memorial (Brian Drummond)