William Elliott was born in Bellingham, Northumberland on 16 June 1896, and was the second of five children born to George and Annie Elliot. His father was a colliery horse-keeper (below ground) in 1901, but by 1911 had become a colliery stone-man. After attending the County Secondary School, (now Blyth Tynedale High School), William became a student at Bede College 1914-1915. It is noted in the June 1915 issue of The Bede magazinethat William, with other first year students, had offered himself for military service in the army upon the conclusion of that present term. After taking his first year examination for the Archbishops’ Certificate, he enlisted at Sunderland.
In June 1916 he joined 8th Northern Cyclist Battalion as a Private (no. 326). Two other Bede students from his year, Edward Smith and Robinson Wallace, also joined this unit at the same time. The Northern Cyclist battalion was independent, unaffiliated to any regiment, and their primary role was reconnaissance and communication. They were, however, armed as infantry and so could provide firepower when needed. When 8th Battalion was disbanded Elliot was transferred to 14/16th King’s Liverpool Regiment (no. 57784), along with Edward Smith. In July 1917, the regiment’s battalions were consolidated and re-organised and the 14/16th amalgamated into the 18th King’s Liverpool Regiment. Throughout this time Elliot wrote regularly to The Bede, and indeed his obituary in the December 1917 issue quotes from his last letter, which must have been written around 10 September.
C. H. Smith, R.G.A., (Bede College 1914-1915), wrote to The Bede on 17 September 1917, which reported “that he had run into Elliot in June 1917 and had a real Bede chat with him about the College and the happy time spent there. He added that Elliot had been in some very rough fighting, but had come through all right, and was quite willing to tackle more”. Edward Smith, still serving with William, reported that William had been given the Military Medal for his courageous conduct, as he then described.
Apparently on July 31, whilst advancing, he came to a shell hole in which several men were crouching. They immediately told him to get down, as a machine gun was very active in the region. He got into the shell hole and after receiving some information regarding the Germans in front of them, had a look for himself. He saw some German helmets moving in a trench and tried to drop some grenades in at them from the shell hole. As he found it impossible to get the range, forgetful of all danger, he immediately jumped out of the shell hole into the open, to fire several grenades point blank at them, succeeding in putting them out of action, and undoubtedly saving the lives of many comrades.
The Bede magazine, vol. 14, no. 1 (December 1917), p.8.
In another letter to The Bede, W. P. Crossland (Bede 1914-1916) wrote that Elliot gained his Military Medal in the heavy fighting near Arras, and that he had subsequently declined promotion. The medal was awarded for “conspicuous gallantry in action”, the citation appearing in the Edinburgh Gazette on 1 October 1917, and also in the Morpeth Herald. Crossland wrote further of having had “many a long chat” with Elliott in a Field Ambulance Hospital where Elliott was recovering after being slightly wounded in the shoulder and neck. According to the regimental diaries, at the end of July the battalion had been ordered to withdraw to Château Segard. This was very difficult, not only due to the darkness but the heavy state of the track, and although the men were in good heart they were exhausted. The Commander later recommended that several officers and men be awarded gallantry medals for their actions on the day, and William Elliot was included in this list.
One gets a sense from the letters to the college magazine of a strong community of Bede men, serving in a variety of units, for whom such chance meetings as Crossland describes, or even reading the latest issue of the magazine itself, were heaven-sent opportunities to sit down and forget the war for a short time and recall happier days. The scarred and corpse-ridden landscape of the western front, particularly around Ypres where the college contingent had suffered so badly in April 1915, held a heavy significance for them all. In Elliott’s last letter he refers to the death of his comrade George Crawford (Bede 1911-1913), killed in action apparently near Ypres on the same day Elliott won his M.M.:“[i]t does seem strange that he should have found his last resting place where so many other Bede lads have fallen”. Within two weeks of Elliott’s writing these words in early September 1917 he too had fallen in the same area of operations, re-joining that lost Bede contingent.
The 18th King’s Liverpool’s war diary records on 22 September 1917 the battalion had just relieved the 2nd Battalion Yorkshire regiment at Torreken Farm, Wytschaete, where working parties had been sent to the front for winning and digging, when they came under intermittent shelling. Elliott and five other men were killed, and a further ten men were wounded, two of whom mortally so.
In addition to the Bede College 1914-1918 Cross , Plaque, and Roll of Honour, William is remembered on plaques at Blyth Tynedale High School and Waterloo Road Presbyterian Church. He is buried at Torreken War Cemetery in Belgium.