William Mariner VC
On Friday 22 May 2015 a ceremony was held at the War Memorial on the Parkhurst site during which a plaque was unveiled, Major General Martin White, Lord Lieutenant of the Isle of Wight, to honour William Mariner VC.
On 22 May 1915 the 2nd Bn., Kings Royal Rifle Corps were in action near Cambrin, France and that night one of their Riflemen was to show great courage, which led to him being awarded the Victoria Cross. That man was William Mariner.
When Major General Seely, Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire, unveiled the prisoner’s war memorial in 1921 he paid tribute to the distinguished service of the prisoners who had enlisted from HMP Parkhurst, making reference to the fact that one had been awarded the highest honour, the Victoria Cross, whilst others had gained commissions and promotion for gallantry.
The research of Brian Manser, a prison officer at HMP Parkhurst before his retirement and author of Behind The Small Wooden Door, a history of HMP Parkhurst, leads us to believe that the person referred to in 1921 was William Mariner, the only ‘serving prisoner’ to receive the Victoria Cross.
John William Mariner was born in Chorley, Lancashire on 29 May 1882. He initially worked as a collier before enlisting in the Army where, with the 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps, he served in India. He was the regimental lightweight wrestling champion. After seven years’ service he transferred to the Reserve. When war broke out he was at HMP Parkhurst serving a sentence for housebreaking. As he was on the Reserve he was given permission to enlist with his former battalion.
On 22 May 1915, the 2nd KRRC was holding the front line in the Cuinchy/Cambrin sector, south of the La Bassee Canal, an area much fought over in the preceding months. A violent thunderstorm was in progress during the night when Pte Mariner of B Coy volunteered to try to silence an enemy machine-gun which had been responsible for many casualties to working parties.
Jack Laister, who was eighteen at the time crawled out with William Mariner and cut a gap in the German wire for him. Mariner had taken two bandoliers of Mills bombs with him and, after removing his tunic and shirt so as not to get snagged on the wire, commenced throwing bombs from the German parapet into the trench. Laister, who had by then managed to crawl halfway back to the British trench, recalled in the 1990s,
‘… I could see him hurling bomb after bomb into the German trench……. That’s the last I’ll see of him because the Germans had opened up with every gun.’
‘after a while we heard people speaking German…..Then, pushed over the parapet, came two Germans who dropped on to the fire-step and Mariner jumped in after them, carrying part of a German machine-gun.’
For this daring feat William Mariner won the VC, which was published in the London Gazette of 23 June 1915. He was invested with his medal at Buckingham Palace by the King on 12 August 1915.
The Citation in the London Gazette reads ..
“His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned for most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty:- No. 2052 Private William Mariner, 2nd Battalion, The King's Royal Rifle Corps. During a violent thunderstorm, on the night of 22nd May 1915, he left his trench near Cambrin, France, and crept out through the German wire entanglements till he reached the emplacement of a German machine-gun which had been damaging our parapets and hindering our working parties. After climbing on the top of the German parapet he threw a bomb in under the roof of the gun emplacement and heard some groaning and the enemy running away. After about a quarter of an hour he heard some of them coming back again, and climbed up on the other side of the emplacement and threw another bomb among them left-handed. He then lay still while the Germans opened a heavy fire on the wire entanglement behind him, and it was only after about an hour that he was able to crawl back to his own trench. Before starting out he had requested a serjeant to open fire on the enemy's trenches as soon as he had thrown his bombs. Rifleman Mariner was out alone for one and a half hours carrying out this gallant work.”
On 30 June 1916 the 2nd KRRC were in the front line of an attack on the Railway Triangle, South of Loos. At 21:15 hours the battalion moved forward. The German line was reached but Mariner was killed in a communication trench when he was hit by a shell. He was listed as missing and his name is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.
In addition to the Lord Lieutenant, those attending the ceremony included Ron Holland, High Sheriff of the Isle of Wight, Lt. Col. David Langford, Deputy Lieutenant, Colonel David Innes of The Rifles, Richard Frost, Secretary of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps Association and Andy Lattimore, Governor who welcomed those present. A contingent of Veterans in Custody Support (VICS) was also in attendance. The plaque was dedicated by Revd Eric Maple, Chaplain.
The plaque was made by a current prisoner in the Concrete Products workshop.
Revd Eric Maple
HMP Isle of Wight
Peter Batchelor and Christopher Watson, VCs of the First World War – The Western Front 1915, The History Press, 2011
Brian Manser, Behind the Small Wooden Door, The Inside Story of Parkhurst Prison, Coach House Publications Ltd, 2002