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William Sanders, VC, DSO

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William Sanders, New Zealand's only naval VC

Gail Romano
Associate Curator, History

In May 1918 Takapuna Borough Council was engaged in a debate over the merits of erecting a memorial to local son Lieutenant-Commander William Edward Sanders VC, DSO, RNR. Sanders’ conduct in 'one of the most brilliant minor engagements of the war' had earned him the Victoria Cross (VC) the year before, followed a mere two months later by the award of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

The late lieutenant commander William Sanders.

The late lieutenant commander William Sanders.

The Auckland Weekly News, 5 July 1917, page 39© Image has no known copyright

But Sanders died in action at sea on 14 August 1917 before he could be presented with either award. 'Should there be a limit to our enthusiasm?' asked the Mayor of Takapuna in a letter to the Auckland Star advocating a national memorial. He declared 'our Takapuna boy … worthy to rank with the greatest British naval heroes of the past' for good measure adding that children would benefit from knowing 'we are the proud possessors of the land of birth and education of the great hero.'

Lt-Commander Sanders was not the first New Zealander or the first Aucklander to be awarded the VC during the First World War. The first recipient on both counts was signaller Corporal Cyril Bassett who was decorated for laying communication cables under fire on Chunuk Bair in 1915, the only New Zealander decorated at Gallipoli. However, Sanders was New Zealand's first (and still only) naval VC winner and the navy was regarded as the backbone of the British empire. These factors together with local pride lay beneath the drive to honour Sanders' death in a tangible way.

It is also possible that feeling was heightened by the publication in early 1918 of official letters received by Sanders' father, and by the mystery surrounding the circumstances. In a proud eulogy later in 1918, the Observer newspaper published an excerpt from the letter that Sanders' father had received from the Admiralty, and could not resist adding its own flourish:

'... it is surmised that a full history of his wonderful service will be an epic that will live as long as writing exists.... He has been honoured by his King, his death deplored, and his deeds extolled by the earth. His fame will endure as long as the Empire exists, his name honoured in the Great Service in Britain, and in every British country, and his deeds will be an inspiration to every boy who is told of his stupendous exploits in defence of the Empire, of New Zealand, and of every Briton who believes heart and soul that the Navy is the Empire's "all in all," and Sanders, V.C., one of its most brilliant officers...'

It is interesting to note that these public responses reveal less about the award recipient himself than about the social and cultural attitudes and expectations of the community at large. In its 1918 eulogy for Sanders, the Observer remarked that his letters home "are only remarkable for one feature—modesty. He made light of his wounds; he did not boast about his distinctions…" Lt-Commander Sanders' fellow Auckland VC winner Corporal Cyril Bassett was also praised as having shown a 'higher type of valour.' But his mother described him as very quiet and modest and his war letters included 'nothing about himself.' Indeed, Bassett himself felt lucky to have received what others had also earned and disappointed for them. 'It was his duty to go out and lay a telephone wire, and he merely went and did it.' New Zealand's most recent VC winner, Lance-Corporal Willie Apiata feels the same way.

Although perhaps not in the manner he had been envisaging, the Mayor of Takapuna may nevertheless have been gratified to see the several ways in which Sanders was eventually memorialised. A scholarship fund was established in his name in 1918, a Takapuna street renamed Sanders Ave in 1919, a sailing cup instituted in 1921, and two years later his old school Takapuna Primary built memorial gates to honour past pupils who served in the war, including William Sanders. Recently, these gates have been restored.

The awards by which both Sanders and Bassett were honoured are held in the Auckland War Memorial Museum collection.

Cite this article

Romano, Gail . William Sanders, VC, DSO. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 11 August 2017. Updated: 9 March 2021.

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