Although William’s birth, in 1895, was registered in West Derby, near Bootle, most of his early years were spent in Hale. Some years before the War, the family had moved to Stockport where Mr Smith was landlord of the Vernon Hotel.
William joined the Marines as a boy soldier in 1912 and, after training, had been posted to the crew of HMS Bulwark. The battleship had been built in 1899 but, by 1910, had been transferred to the naval reserve as her days were coming to an end. She was recommissioned in 1912 and, when War broke out in August 1914, she started to undertake regular patrols of the Channel.
On 26 November, the ship was moored to a buoy in Kethole Reach on the estuary of the River Medway, four miles west of Sheerness. Aboard was her usual complement of 750 men. The ship had been there for some days and many men had just returned from a day’s leave.
At 7.50am, without any warning, a powerful internal explosion ripped the ship apart. It was reported that there was a loud roaring sound and then a huge sheet of flame spread upwards. The ship actually lifted out of the water and then fell back. There was a thick cloud of smoke and further, smaller, explosions were heard. When the smoke cleared, the ship had already sunk. Only 12 men survived. Many bodies were recovered but the injuries had been so great that few could be identified.
Immediately, enemy submarines were thought to have been at work, but this was quickly discounted. A Naval Court of Inquiry concluded that, contrary to regulations, shells had been stored in the passageways connecting the ship’s magazines. The Inquiry concluded that the most likely cause of the actual explosion had been due to overheating of cordite charges which had been stored next to a boiler room. The proximity of the stored shells meant that a chain reaction of explosions was quickly triggered
On 29 November, naval divers found the two bow sections of the ship. The explosion had been so devastating that no other large pieces of metal were ever discovered.