Michael Williams (Bill to his submariner crewmates) was born at Dunkeld near Hamilton, Victoria, on 1 September 1894, one of a large Catholic family of nine children. The patriotic Williams family contributed four sons to World War I. All died on active service: Private John Williams at Lone Pine, Gallipoli; Stoker Michael in obscure circumstances as a POW in Turkey; Private Thomas in action in France, 1917; and Private Frank in action in France, 1918.
Bill Williams joined the RAN on 7 October 1912 at the age of 18, signing up for seven years. Captured after the AE2 sinking on 30 April 1915, he was sent first to Afion Kara Hissar. Later he was separated from the majority of the crew because of his Catholic religion and sent to the 1st Division camp at Belemedik.
Corporal George Kerr complained of Williams in his diary: ‘[Bill] is an out and out loafer’. He also took umbrage at Bill’s mates: ‘[They] took to reclining in carefree attitude on the ground or on their barrows quite regardless of the fact that they could be seen from the windows of Mr Imhoff [a German supervisor].’ Williams’ attitude was, ‘the bastards made us work, but we’ll take care they don’t get too much out of us’.
Williams began to drink heavily after hearing of his brother’s death, which led him into fist fights. His mates from AE2—Ben Talbot, Jim Cullen and Charlie Varcoe—tried to pacify him during these binges but were not successful. Williams finally lost his privileged position in the mess and was sent to a punishment labour camp near Pozanti (probably Bahçeli). From here, in March 1916, he and AE2’s signalman Bunts Thomson tried to escape. The attempt was unsuccessful and they were forced to return, with Thomson complaining of Williams’ ‘lack of courage’.
These accounts denote a young man showing signs of severe depression. In May 1916 Williams was involved in a serious accident at the tunnel camp. Kerr reported: ‘A rock slide had smashed into the men’s sleeping quarters. Len New [an Australian soldier] was killed and Williams [in the bunk below New] was seriously injured.’ While he was still suffering from these injuries, Williams was further reprimanded for ‘refusing to work’ and shunted to another punishment camp, possibly Bahçe. This was a camp of ill repute and Williams may have become a target for ill-treatment by warders there, known for their callousness towards ailing prisoners. More importantly perhaps, it meant Williams had been moved beyond the protection of his mates.
His last days are a mystery. He may simply have succumbed to injuries, illness or disease in his last months, or he may have been killed. Allegedly he died of either dysentery or malaria on 29 September 1916, at only 21 years of age. Strangely his body could not be found; apparently he was buried in an unknown grave. AE2 crewmate John Wheat wrote in his diary that it was common knowledge the Turks ‘were doing away with’ the sickest prisoners. Another fellow prisoner, CPO Sims, later told the navy that he ‘had no knowledge of [Williams’] death’. Even the German commandant at Belemedik was unable to get further information. When Petty Officer Bray of AE2 made enquiries he was told only that Williams was dead. There were no remains and no grave that could be traced.
The Imperial War Graves Commission later erected an engraved memorial to Stoker Michael Williams at the official North Gate Cemetery in Baghdad. Due to naval bureaucratic bungling, Williams’ impoverished mother was denied any entitlements and pay owed to her son until more than three years later. In desperation she appealed to her local Member of Parliament, Bill Slater, and to the then prime minister, Billy Hughes. Her letter of 1 September 1919 to Billy Hughes is reproduced below.
Mr Hughes Prime Minister
Sir, I want to put my case before you. I have lost my four sons at the front. Pte John, killed in Action at Lone Pine, 1915. Pte Frank, killed in action at Somme, 1916. Stoker Michael, late of AE2 submarine, died prisoner of war at Pozanti, 1916, and Pte Thomas, died of wounds received in France.
Sir, it’s Stoker Michael I want to put to you about. I got paid up to June 1916, the Turks never reported his death. I can’t get his pay from June as I have cards he wrote me in September 1916.
I received his cards regular until the 10th of September was the date he wrote the last one to me. I have one son married left, and I have four girls, the eldest as turned 15 years down to 7 years.
I want to write to you about the boys at the front. Mr W. Slater MLA has been very kind indeed to us. My husband receives an invalid pension and also 10s of pension for our son Stoker Michael he received Mr Slater got for him. At first it was refused to me and Mr Slater took it up and got for him. I bought into a home on my son’s deferred pay, I owe one hundred pounds.
We left Dunkeld as I could not live in the bush under the terrible loss of my dear boys and we were twenty miles from the doctor and my husband wants medical attention also one of my little girls is not strong.
Sir, I think you will find my case a hard one, as brothers and nephews all done their duty.
Sir, I just heard my son who died a prisoner of war met with foul play, they blame the warders in the hospital and my son was burried as a Turk, which is hard on free Britishers.
I will close hoping you will look into my case. I remain Dear Sir Yours Truly,
Mrs M. Williams.
Mrs Williams did eventually receive some assistance (a 2/6 a week pension) following Bill Slater’s representation, but her nephew, Frank Kranz of Geelong, cannot recall the family ever receiving a reply from Prime Minister Hughes.