Williams who was a pioneer of military medical tactics was born on 30 July
1856 at Lyon’s Terrace, Sydney, the eldest child of William Williams,
medical practitioner and Ellen née Titterton. After his education at
the New School and Sydney Grammar School, he studied medicine at University
College, London (M.R.C.S., 1879; L.R.C.P., 1880) before
returning to open a private practice at Darlinghurst; in 1885 he was
honorary surgeon at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Williams’ career in the armed
forces, spanning over 35 years began in 1883 when he joined the New South
Wales Artillery as a staff surgeon with the rank of captain. Two years
later, he served with the unit in the Sudan campaign (1885) as Principal
Medical Officer - a period that enabled Williams to experience first-hand
the problems of the existing medical arrangements; he concluded that the
lack of mobility and inadequate response times hampered the success of
medical efficiency on the battlefield, and thus began a period of
reorganisation leading up to the Boer War. Upon returning from Sudan,
Williams was appointed Principal Medical Officer to the New South Wales army
and began his influence on the service so by the time of the Boer War, the
colony was able to mobilise three medical contingents. Arriving in South
Africa in November 1899 with the first contingent, in the proceeding
operations with the advance of Lord Roberts’ force in the Orange Free State,
it was said that no other unit in the British Army made a greater impression
that the New South Wales Army Medical Corps under Williams’ command; he was
mentioned in despatches, appointed C.B, and awarded the Queen’s Medal with
five clasps. Returning in January 1901, Williams was promoted
Surgeon-General and the following year appointed Director-General of Medical
Services when the Australian Army Medical corps was formed; he moved to
Melbourne, ceased private practice and was appointed consulting surgeon to
St. Vincent’s Hospital. By the commencement of the Great War, Williams was
the most eminent and respected medical officer in Australia. In spite of
bad health, overweight and in advancing years, he was appointed to the same
post in the A.I.F by General Sir William Bridges (Royal Military
College, Duntroon), however as the war progressed, he was increasingly
ignored in favour of the ambitious Lieutenant-Colonel (Sir) Neville Howse
V.C (1863-1930), a staff officer under Williams. Nor did it help that
Williams left a bad impression on Bridges during the voyage to Egypt;
Bridges’ obsession with the training of the 1st Division prior to the
Gallipoli campaign at the expense of the administrative problems only
compounded Williams’ isolation. He saw no active service and was given
positions more with status than any meaningful responsibility and returned
to Australia in 1916 with a “bitter and not unnatural chagrin at the turn of
events”. With a knighthood awaiting his return, it was little
compensation and he died just three years later from cardiac disease on 10
May 1919. Regardless of the injustice inflicted upon Williams, his
pioneering military medical tactics that saw the formation of a separate
specialised unit keeping apace with the front line were adopted by the
entire British Army and stand as a monument to his work.
(above) Sir William
Williams (centre) and staff at Horseferry Road, London (c1918)
(Image courtesy of the
Australian War Memorial,
(above) Monumental Headstone (enlarge
ADB Volume 12 1891-1939 (Smy-Z).
The Argus 12 & 13 May 1919.
The Age 12 May 1919.
The Herald 10 & 12 May 1919.
The Sydney Morning Herald 12 May 1919.
AWM “Biographical Cards for the Official
History 1914-18”, AWM140.
Murray, P., “Records of Australian
Contingents to the War in South Africa 1899-1902” (1911).
Butler, A., “Official History of the
Australian Army Medical Services in the War 1914-18” (1943).
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