Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Williams, William Fenwick

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WILLIAMS, Sir WILLIAM FENWICK, (1800–1883), baronet, ‘of Kars,’ general, second son of Commissary-general Thomas Williams, barrack-master at Halifax, Nova Scotia, by his wife Maria, daughter of Captain Thomas Walker, was born at Annapolis, Nova Scotia, on 4 Dec. 1800. He entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich on 23 May 1815, and received a commission as second lieutenant in the royal artillery on 14 July 1825. The long interval between leaving Woolwich and obtaining his commission, due to the reduction of the army on its return from the occupation of France, was passed in travel. His further commissions were dated: lieutenant, 16 Nov. 1827; second captain, 13 Aug. 1840; first captain, 26 Feb. 1846; brevet major, 22 May 1846; brevet lieutenant-colonel, 31 March 1848; regimental lieutenant-colonel, 18 Sept. 1853; brevet colonel, 28 Nov. 1854; major-general, 2 Nov. 1855; colonel-commandant of royal artillery, 10 Dec. 1864; lieutenant-general, 15 Dec. 1864; general, 2 Aug. 1868.

The early part of Williams's career was passed uneventfully at Gibraltar, Ceylon, and some home stations until 1841, when he went to Turkey with Captain (now General Sir) Collingwood Dickson, for employment in the arsenal at Constantinople. He was engaged as British commissioner in the conferences preceding the treaty signed at Erzeroum in 1847, and in 1848 was appointed British commissioner for the settlement of the Turko-Persian boundary. For his services, military and diplomatic, he received two brevets and was made a companion of the order of the Bath, civil division, in 1852.

When the British army was at Varna in 1854 Williams's fourteen years' experience among the Turks, and the valuable service he had rendered, led to his selection for the post of British commissioner with the Turkish army in Anatolia. The duties of such a post are not necessarily very difficult, but had Williams confined himself to observing and reporting, the Turkish army would have melted away and Asia Minor would have been lost. He practically became commander-in-chief, and his task proved a very arduous one. He had to inspire courage and confidence in men who in the previous year had been signally defeated by the Russians at Kuruk-deri, and who were disorganised and demoralised by want of discipline, of pay, and of clothing, while the Russian general, Mouravieff, was collecting a large and well-disciplined army at Gumri.

Williams visited Kars in September 1854, and left his aide-de-camp, Captain (afterwards Sir) Christopher Charles Teesdale [q. v.], there during the winter to establish what discipline he could, and returned himself to Erzeroum, where he vainly endeavoured by strong representations to the British embassy at Constantinople and the foreign office to obtain from the Porte the urgently necessary supplies of money, ammunition, and clothing; at the same time he went energetically to work to organise both men and matériel available. Colonel (afterwards Sir) Henry Atwell Lake [q. v.] and Captain Henry Langhorne Thompson [q. v.] having arrived at Kars in the spring of 1855, Williams was able to devote his attention to the defence of Erzeroum, and as soon as the snow melted he was occupied from morning to evening in fortifying the surrounding heights.

In January 1855 Williams had been made a ferik or lieutenant-general in the Turkish army, and also a pasha, which facilitated his task. On 1 June information reached Erzeroum of the movement of the Russian army on Kars, whither Williams immediately went, arriving on the 7th, when he reviewed the troops and inspected the defences. The Russians, twenty-five thousand strong, attacked early on the morning of the 16th, and were repulsed. They succeeded, however, in establishing a blockade of the fortress a few days later, and on 7 Aug. again made an unsuccessful attack. In September provisions became scarce in Kars, the weather grew cold, and towards the end of the month cholera broke out. In the early morning of the 29th Mouravieff attacked the heights of Kars with the bulk of his army. After desperate fighting the battle of Kars was won by the Turks, the Russian loss being over six thousand men.

Cholera, famine, and cold caused great suffering in the garrison, resulting in many deaths and much desertion, in spite of the awe inspired by summary capital punishment. In his last despatch from Kars before the capitulation, Williams wrote on 19 Nov.: ‘We divide our bread with the starving townspeople. No animal food for seven weeks. I kill horses in my stable secretly and send the meat to the hospital.’ On 22 Nov. information came from the British consul at Erzeroum that there was no hope of the long-expected relief. The troops being too exhausted to make a successful retreat, it was decided to capitulate. The terms obtained were highly honourable, the garrison marching out with the honours of war on 28 Nov. The favourable terms were due as much to the firmness displayed by Williams as to the magnanimity of Mouravieff. Williams declared that if they were not granted every gun should be burst, every standard burnt, every trophy destroyed, and only a famished crowd left for Mouravieff to work his will on. Mouravieff generously replied that he had no wish to wreak unworthy vengeance on a gallant and long-suffering army which had covered itself with glory and only yielded to famine. He added, addressing Williams: ‘You have made yourself a name in history, and posterity will stand amazed at the endurance, the courage, and the discipline which this siege has called forth in the remains of an army.’

Williams was treated with every consideration during his captivity at Riazan in Russia, and in March 1856, after presentation to the czar, proceeded to England, where he met with the reception he deserved. He received the medal and clasp for Kars, and was created baronet ‘of Kars,’ while parliament voted him a pension of 1,000l. a year for life. He was made a knight commander of the order of the Bath, received the freedom of the city of London with a sword of honour, and was made an honorary D.C.L. of Oxford. The emperor of the French bestowed upon him the grand cross of the Legion of Honour, and the sultan the first class of the order of the Medjidie.

Williams was general-commandant of Woolwich garrison from 1856 to 1859, and during this period he represented the borough of Calne in the House of Commons (July 1856–April 1859). In 1859 he went to Canada for six years as commander of the forces. On 20 Oct. 1865 he was given the government of Nova Scotia; on 12 Sept. 1870 he was made governor and commander-in-chief of Gibraltar; on 20 May 1871 he received the grand cross of the order of the Bath; in 1876 he relinquished the government of Gibraltar, and on 9 May 1881 was appointed constable of the Tower of London.

Williams died, unmarried, at Garland's Hotel, Suffolk Street, Pall Mall, London, on 26 July 1883, and was buried at Brompton cemetery on the 30th of the same month. Sir Christopher Teesdale wrote of him: ‘He had marvellous self-reliance and perfect fearlessness of responsibility. He trusted his subordinates, but only consulted with them on points of detail. He would walk for hours alone [at Kars], working out plans and ideas in his mind, and, once settled, they were never departed from. Every one knew that an order once given had to be obeyed without comment. Firm as a rock on duty, he had the kindliest, gentlest heart that ever beat.’

There is a full-length portrait of Williams by G. Tewson in the Guildhall, city of London, and an engraving in the Royal Artillery Institution at Woolwich.

[War Office Records; Despatches; Royal Artillery Records; Memoirs in the Proceedings of the Royal Artillery Institution, vol. xii. 1883, by Sir C. C. Teesdale, in London Times of 28 July 1883, in the Illustrated London News of 4 Aug. 1883, and in the Annual Register, 1883; Lake's Kars and Our Captivity in Russia, 1856, with frontispiece portrait of Williams; Sandwith's Narrative of the Siege of Kars. A portrait is also given in the Illustrated London News of 30 April 1881.]

R. H. V.