In writing a history of the 56th Battalion, we feel blessed that at least one its members published his story, providing us with much valuable information and insights not found in the official papers. Lieutenant Harold Williams is our saviour in this respect, as he produced two books in fact; The Gallant Company (1933) and Comrades of the Great Adventure (1935). Both are well-written works being very informative and descriptive (particularly of people and landscapes), and not at all dull to read. Early reviews of the books seemed very good. 5th Division commander, Lt. Gen. Sir John Joseph Talbot Hobbs in writing the foreword called it ‘the best soldier’s story I have yet read in Australia.’
From the two books we have learned quite a bit about Williams himself, but not enough. We would very much like to find any of his descendants to learn more. We know basically what he looked like, yet have no photo of him. We know some of his thoughts through his books, but nothing more; nothing about his life after the war for example. We know he kept letters and a diary, so what became of them? Surely they must have survived. At the beginning of The Gallant Company, Williams noted:
‘On active service I kept a diary. On my return to Australia many letters which I had written during the war came again into my possession. From these resources I have compiled this story of war-time life in the Australian Imperial Force.’
From his books and various service records, the following is what we currently know about him:
Harold Roy Williams was born in 1889 in Cooma, NSW to parents Frederick and Mary. By 1914 he was living in Croydon, Sydney and was working as a warehouseman. He joined the AIF on 4 August 1915 as a 26 year old, originally part of the 5th reinforcement for 20th Battalion. However in February 1916, before joining the 20th, he and many other reinforcements for that battalion were transferred to the newly raised 56th, then forming in Egypt. Known to his mates as ‘Dick’, Williams was a Roman Catholic, stood 5′ 6″ tall, weighed 152 lbs (70 kgs), and had a dark complexion, with brown eyes and black hair. He had enlisted with several mates, namely Jimmy Sowter, Harry Lucas and Fred Fyall, all of whom went with him to the 56th.
He rose from private though the NCO ranks during 1916-17 and by December 1917 had gained his commission as a lieutenant. He was away from the front for long periods in 1917 on leave, and later attending various courses including officer training back in England. He returned to the field in January 1918, undertook further specialist training and was appointed gas officer. Ironically, not long after, he was put out of action for several weeks; being gassed in early April 1918. He was again wounded in action at Peronne on 2 September 1918 and his recovery from this wound (to the buttock) saw out the remainder of the war.
He departed England in January 1919, arriving home in February. In 1935 The Gallant Company was published and two years later the follow-up/supplementary volume, Comrades of the Great Adventure.
Williams died on 13 May 1955.