Michael Williams was born on 1 September 1895 in Dunkeld, Victoria, to John and Margaret Williams. He was the fourth of nine children born to the couple. He grew up in Dunkeld, and on 7 October 1912, soon after his (claimed) 18th birthday, he joined the Royal Australian Navy.
In February 1914 Williams was a member of the two crews sent to England to commission the RAN’s first two submarines, AE1 and AE2. When the First World War began that August the two vessels were sent to escort the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force to New Britain. At some point on 14 September the AE1 was lost with all hands. AE2, after returning safely to Australia in mid-November, became part of the second troop convoy to depart from Albany on 31 December.
After arriving in Egypt, AE2 was ordered to take part in allied operations attempting to break through the Dardanelles and into the Sea of Marmara. In the early hours of 25 April 1915, while the first Australians were setting foot on Gallipoli, AE2 was beginning the perilous journey up the Dardanelles. At 6 am it reached Chanak and torpedoed a Turkish gunboat. Forced to take immediate evasive action, the submarine had several close calls, including briefly running aground, before diving to the sea bed, where the crew spent a nervous 16 hours listening to Turkish ships searching for them above.
That night AE2 became the first allied vessel to broach the Dardanelles, and sailed into the Sea of Marmara. Over the next four days it “ran amok” on Turkish shipping, but on 30 April, while trying to avoid a Turkish gunboat, it suffered mechanical problems and was forced to surface. The Turkish boat fired on and damaged AE2; the order was given to abandon ship, and the submarine was scuttled. The crew, including Williams, was taken prisoner soon after.
Williams was initially sent to Afyonkarahisar, but owing to his Catholic religion he was separated from the majority of his crew and sent to Belemedik camp instead. He was a reluctant prisoner and became even more uncooperative after hearing that one of his brothers had been killed at Lone Pine. He was sent to a punishment and labour camp near Pozanti, which had a reputation for mistreating prisoners.
In March 1916 he and another member of the AE2’s crew attempted to escape, but were forced to return to camp when Williams could not continue. He was transferred to the tunnel camp in May, where he was seriously injured after a rock slide smashed into his sleeping quarters.
Impaired by his injuries, Williams refused to work and was transferred to another punishment camp. Suffering from malaria and dysentery, he died at some point on 29 September, though the exact circumstances of his death and burial are unknown. After the war his name was added to the memorial at Baghdad (North Gate) War Cemetery in modern-day Iraq. He was 21 years old.
The Williams family was hit hard by the war. Four of their five sons had enlisted and none of them returned home. Owing to a bureaucratic error Williams’s mother did not receive any pay or entitlements owed to her son for more than three years after his death. It was only after she wrote to her local member of parliament, who acted on her behalf, that she was granted a pension.
(Script from Australian War Memorial commemoration 30 April 2015 – note: listed on AWM as Michael Wright Williams)