‘The Dockers VC’ World War One hero honoured

A commemorative paving stone is to be unveiled in memory of a Liverpool docker, a century to the day since he was awarded the Victoria Cross during World War 1.

The stone will be laid in honour of William Ratcliffe (1884-1963) who was presented with the Victoria Cross in 1917 whilst serving with the South Lancashire Regiment (now amalgamated into the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment), on Wednesday 14th June at Liverpool Parish Church.

William – known as Bill – was born at 38 Newhall Street in the Dingle, and was a pupil at St Vincent’s School in nearby Norfolk Street. When he left school, William worked on the Liverpool docks before joining the British Army at the age of 17 and served in South Africa during the Second Boer War. After serving, he returned to the docks until the outbreak of WWI when he re-joined his old regiment.

In April 1917, during the Battle of Messines, William Ratcliffe was awarded a Military Medal for gallantry and on 14th June, only a matter of weeks later, earned his Victoria Cross. He was 33 years old and a Private in the 2nd Battalion, the South Lancashire Regiment, when 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, and spent most of the night bringing in the wounded through a heavy barrage. He also located an enemy machine-gun which was firing on his comrades from the rear, picked up a rifle from a dead comrade and single-handedly rushed the machine-gun position and bayoneted the crew. He then brought the gun back into action on the frontline. 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.

When the war was over, Bill again returned to his job on Liverpool docks where he was affectionately known as “The Dockers VC”. In 1956, celebrations were held in London to mark the centenary of the Victoria Cross and all living holders were invited to be reviewed by the Queen in Hyde Park. Bill was reluctant to attend as he couldn’t afford to buy a suit for the occasion. When this became apparent, The South Lancashire Regimental Association intervened and a local gentleman’s outfitters readily made him a new suit free of charge, and Bill travelled to London.

He never married and later lived with relatives at St Oswald’s Gardens in Old Swan. He died on 26th March 1963, aged 79, and is buried at Allerton Cemetery. His medals, including his Victoria Cross and Military Medal, are on loan to the Imperial War Museum London. The German Maxim machine-gun which he captured that day in 1917 is on display at the Lancashire Infantry Museum.

His citation in the London Gazette reads:

“For most conspicuous bravery. After an enemy’s trench had been captured, Pte. Ratcliffe located an enemy machine gun which was firing on his comrades from the rear, whereupon, single-handed and on his own initiative, he immediately rushed the machine gun position and bayonetted the crew. He then brought the gun back into action in the front line. This very gallant soldier has displayed great resource on previous occasions, and has set an exceptionally fine example of devotion to duty.”

The commemorative stone is part of a national scheme run by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) which will see every World War One Victoria Cross recipient remembered in this way.

The event will be attended by Liverpool’s Lord Mayor, Councillor Malcolm Kennedy, veterans and serving military representatives and also relatives of William Ratcliffe.

The Lord Mayor said: “William Ratcliffe was a gallant and fearless soldier whose selfless actions saved many lives. He was completely devoted to his duty.

“Liverpool is incredibly proud of him and this is why we are honouring him with this fitting ceremony on the centenary of his VC award. I am personally privileged to be able to attend and unveil this stone in his honour.

“The stone will be a permanent reminder of the incredible contribution that he made to the war effort and his role in making sure that more soldiers weren’t lost.”

William Ratcliffe is one of nine men from Liverpool who were awarded the Victoria Cross during World War 1, and a further four will be honoured in this way between now and December 2017.

Liverpool Waterfront