Gisborne man remembered for his role in WWI

How a Muriwai sheep farmer applied a little Kiwi ingenuity in the Western Desert.

How a Muriwai sheep farmer applied a little Kiwi ingenuity in the Western Desert.

LIGHTWEIGHT: Captain Claud Williams in his Model T Ford in Egypt. The cars were stripped to their bare essentials to make them light for travel in the desert.
Claud Williams of Gisborne was awarded the Military Cross in WW1. Picture supplied
London-based historian and Arabist Russell McGuirk visited the Gisborne Herald while travelling around New Zealand to see where Captain Claud Williams was from. McGuirk has written an e-book about the important role Capt Williams played in WWI, called "Light Car Patrols 1916-19". He shared the book with The Gisborne Herald. Picture by Sophie Rishworth

THIS is more than a war story. It is a story of desert exploration, overcoming the odds and Kiwi ingenuity in the middle of Egypt’s unforgiving Western Desert.

When WW1 broke out in 1914, Claud Williams was living in Gisborne and 38 years old — far too old to be considered as a soldier, plus his eyesight was not up to scratch. But the Muriwai sheep farmer was determined to be a part of the international effort.

He packed a bag and took himself to Wellington where he sailed to San Francisco, travelled across the US by train to New York and then caught another boat, Curnard’s SS Transylvania, to Britain where he signed up.

He spent a few miserable months in Norfolk where his regiment was billeted. His war time adventures were detailed in letters home to his younger sister Violet, to whom he mostly wrote.

He often started the letters with the endearing “My dear little girl” or “dear sweet soul”.

One letter, after he had first arrived in Norfolk showed his weariness. He wrote “I am wondering what manivolent (sic) fate let me into this cussed regiment. I believe the SouthWest Brigade is about the only 1st line regiment left in England. The thing is getting a positive nightmare, and the worst is that one cannot exchange. I shall surely die of old age in Norfolk and be buried in one of their damp, untidy churchyards. Verily I am fed up.”

Little did he know then, that he would return to Gisborne and his beloved sheep farm at 44 years old with a Military Cross; or that his superior mapping skills of Egypt's Western Desert, helped along by his Kiwi no. 8 wire invention, would be documents by the British Government and deemed classified, so much so, that in his later years Capt Williams approached the British Government for a copy (as his had become tattered) and was told no, it was classified.

From Norfolk he was sent to Egypt.

The Sanusi — a large Islamic movement — were based in eastern Libya and they were a threat to Eastern Egypt, which was occupied by the British.

Light Car Patrols were formed to contain the Sanusi, who had managed to make it deep inside Egypt’s Western Desert, and were a threat to the populated Nile Valley.

Capt Williams was given command of No. 5 Patrol. The Light Car Patrols used stripped back Model T Fords to make them lightweight enough to cross the sandy terrain — easier than Rolls Royces, which had been tried but ultimately got stuck in the sand.

It was the first use of Model T cars to cross the Libyan Desert for exploration. It was called the Sanusi Campaign and involved a small group of soldiers including Capt Williams.

“I know this old desert now like the road to Gisborne,” Williams wrote to his sister in 1916. He was doing patrols, 48 hours on, 48 hours off.

The British finally defeated the Sanusi at Siwa. Capt Williams’ patrol was part of the British column at Siwa, and he was awarded the Military Cross.

Threat gone they turn to mapping

With the threat now gone, the Light Car Patrols turned to mapping the Western Desert and this is where Capt Williams’ Kiwi ingenuity really came into its own.

Compass readings were distorted by the metal of the cars, and Williams got tired of having to stop the vehicle and move ten yards away from it every time he needed to take a reading.

His ingenious invention? A nail in a board.

Williams realised that a small vertical rod on a horizontal plate fixed to the dash-board would cast a shadow, which could be used to set a relatively straight course, like a sundial.

The life and contribution Williams made towards WW1 has been made into an e-book by London-based historian and Arabist Russell McGuirk.

Mr McGuirk visited Gisborne this year to see the home of Capt Williams and dropped in to The Gisborne Herald to share his work.

The following is an excerpt from Mr McGuirk’s e-book, Light Car Patrols, 1916-19, which is available to buy online:

• The evidence for Williams’ impressive contribution to desert exploration with motor cars is a single sentence written by Dr John Ball: “The employment of a sun-dial attached to the motor car as an aid in traversing, first introduced by Lieut. Williams, has met with great success in the Western Desert.”

Capt Williams produced most of the data for a series of accurate maps of the Western Desert. These showed camel trails, wells, hills, sand dunes, rocky plateaux, etc.

The British Army asked him to put all his knowledge into book form, and he produced “Report on the Military Geography of the North-Western Desert of Egypt”, which was considered highly confidential.

Between the two world wars, a famous explorer Major Ralph Bagnold developed this knowledge of desert navigation even further. Starting from Cairo, he took his cars thousands of miles into the deserts of Libya, Sudan — indeed as far away as northern Chad.

Capt Williams had worked with a geographer, Dr John Ball. Major Bagnold met Dr Ball and had heard of Capt Williams’ sun-compass. Working with the British Army, Bagnold refined it, producing his own model, commonly called the Bagnold Sun Compass.

In 1920 Capt Williams married Dorothy Lesley Egerton, who, at 22, was half his age. They had a son and two daughters.

Born in 1876, Claud Herbert Williams died in Gisborne on August 5, 1970 at the age of 94, spending his last days on his beloved Muriwai farm.

Apart from actual farming, he was for many years actively engaged in local farming and civic organisations. In addition to serving as the national president of the New Zealand Sheep-owners Federation for several years, he was on the County Council, the District Highways’ Council, the Harbour Board, the Power Board and the Catchment Board. Williams never returned to Egypt, but the country had left its mark on him. He knew that his work there had been important, and that he had a good story to tell. He typed up a new draft of “Light Car Patrols in the Libyan Desert” and tried to get it published in New Zealand. The publishing company returned it with the comment that the reading public was sick of hearing about the war.

THIS is more than a war story. It is a story of desert exploration, overcoming the odds and Kiwi ingenuity in the middle of Egypt’s unforgiving Western Desert.

When WW1 broke out in 1914, Claud Williams was living in Gisborne and 38 years old — far too old to be considered as a soldier, plus his eyesight was not up to scratch. But the Muriwai sheep farmer was determined to be a part of the international effort.

He packed a bag and took himself to Wellington where he sailed to San Francisco, travelled across the US by train to New York and then caught another boat, Curnard’s SS Transylvania, to Britain where he signed up.

He spent a few miserable months in Norfolk where his regiment was billeted. His war time adventures were detailed in letters home to his younger sister Violet, to whom he mostly wrote.

He often started the letters with the endearing “My dear little girl” or “dear sweet soul”.

One letter, after he had first arrived in Norfolk showed his weariness. He wrote “I am wondering what manivolent (sic) fate let me into this cussed regiment. I believe the SouthWest Brigade is about the only 1st line regiment left in England. The thing is getting a positive nightmare, and the worst is that one cannot exchange. I shall surely die of old age in Norfolk and be buried in one of their damp, untidy churchyards. Verily I am fed up.”

Little did he know then, that he would return to Gisborne and his beloved sheep farm at 44 years old with a Military Cross; or that his superior mapping skills of Egypt's Western Desert, helped along by his Kiwi no. 8 wire invention, would be documents by the British Government and deemed classified, so much so, that in his later years Capt Williams approached the British Government for a copy (as his had become tattered) and was told no, it was classified.

From Norfolk he was sent to Egypt.

The Sanusi — a large Islamic movement — were based in eastern Libya and they were a threat to Eastern Egypt, which was occupied by the British.

Light Car Patrols were formed to contain the Sanusi, who had managed to make it deep inside Egypt’s Western Desert, and were a threat to the populated Nile Valley.

Capt Williams was given command of No. 5 Patrol. The Light Car Patrols used stripped back Model T Fords to make them lightweight enough to cross the sandy terrain — easier than Rolls Royces, which had been tried but ultimately got stuck in the sand.

It was the first use of Model T cars to cross the Libyan Desert for exploration. It was called the Sanusi Campaign and involved a small group of soldiers including Capt Williams.

“I know this old desert now like the road to Gisborne,” Williams wrote to his sister in 1916. He was doing patrols, 48 hours on, 48 hours off.

The British finally defeated the Sanusi at Siwa. Capt Williams’ patrol was part of the British column at Siwa, and he was awarded the Military Cross.

Threat gone they turn to mapping

With the threat now gone, the Light Car Patrols turned to mapping the Western Desert and this is where Capt Williams’ Kiwi ingenuity really came into its own.

Compass readings were distorted by the metal of the cars, and Williams got tired of having to stop the vehicle and move ten yards away from it every time he needed to take a reading.

His ingenious invention? A nail in a board.

Williams realised that a small vertical rod on a horizontal plate fixed to the dash-board would cast a shadow, which could be used to set a relatively straight course, like a sundial.

The life and contribution Williams made towards WW1 has been made into an e-book by London-based historian and Arabist Russell McGuirk.

Mr McGuirk visited Gisborne this year to see the home of Capt Williams and dropped in to The Gisborne Herald to share his work.

The following is an excerpt from Mr McGuirk’s e-book, Light Car Patrols, 1916-19, which is available to buy online:

• The evidence for Williams’ impressive contribution to desert exploration with motor cars is a single sentence written by Dr John Ball: “The employment of a sun-dial attached to the motor car as an aid in traversing, first introduced by Lieut. Williams, has met with great success in the Western Desert.”

Capt Williams produced most of the data for a series of accurate maps of the Western Desert. These showed camel trails, wells, hills, sand dunes, rocky plateaux, etc.

The British Army asked him to put all his knowledge into book form, and he produced “Report on the Military Geography of the North-Western Desert of Egypt”, which was considered highly confidential.

Between the two world wars, a famous explorer Major Ralph Bagnold developed this knowledge of desert navigation even further. Starting from Cairo, he took his cars thousands of miles into the deserts of Libya, Sudan — indeed as far away as northern Chad.

Capt Williams had worked with a geographer, Dr John Ball. Major Bagnold met Dr Ball and had heard of Capt Williams’ sun-compass. Working with the British Army, Bagnold refined it, producing his own model, commonly called the Bagnold Sun Compass.

In 1920 Capt Williams married Dorothy Lesley Egerton, who, at 22, was half his age. They had a son and two daughters.

Born in 1876, Claud Herbert Williams died in Gisborne on August 5, 1970 at the age of 94, spending his last days on his beloved Muriwai farm.

Apart from actual farming, he was for many years actively engaged in local farming and civic organisations. In addition to serving as the national president of the New Zealand Sheep-owners Federation for several years, he was on the County Council, the District Highways’ Council, the Harbour Board, the Power Board and the Catchment Board. Williams never returned to Egypt, but the country had left its mark on him. He knew that his work there had been important, and that he had a good story to tell. He typed up a new draft of “Light Car Patrols in the Libyan Desert” and tried to get it published in New Zealand. The publishing company returned it with the comment that the reading public was sick of hearing about the war.

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Derek Williams - 3 years ago
Thank you for this story about my much loved grandfather, Claud Williams. I inherited the old Imperial typewriter he used to update his manuscript, and was delighted to be able to attend the formal launch of the book with military historian Russell McGuirk at the Royal Geographical Society in London, October 2013.
I hope the book will be embraced by New Zealand both in academia and in general readership.

Jan Schreurs - 3 years ago
I worked in Egypt as a geologist and travelled the same desert, but in modern 4WDs. 'Captain Williams' is mentioned by the locals still. It took me a long time to get to the roots of his story. It is an impressive one. The book about his light car patrols is fascinating. I have also read his own story about his time in Egypt. Bagnold and Williams are still my favourite desert explorers.

Keith Williams - 2 years ago
I would like to thank The Gisborne Herald for publishing this story. I was born and lived my early years on the sheep farm where my grandfather, Claud Williams, lived and worked most of his life. I spent many months scanning the photographs, maps and journal pages for the composition of the book. An interesting point to note is that Claud also developed a header tank - "Water Economiser" - for the radiator in the Ford to prevent water loss from overheating in the desert - the further development of this system is now used in every car manufactured today (see Report on the Military Geography of the North-Western Desert of Egypt C.H. Williams 09/19)

Wael Abed - 2 years ago
I am an Egyptian who travelled the Western Desert for years. No one travels to the regions where Captain Williams operated. It's a restricted military area, near the Libyan frontiers in the northwestern corner of the Western Desert. We often used maps from the 1940s, which were modified from older maps done by British surveyors in the 1920s. On those maps one can read names of British men: Williams Pass, Osten Dump, Clayton Craters and so on....