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Sir William Daniel Campbell Williams (1856–1919)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published:

Sir William Daniel Campbell Williams (1856-1919), surgeon and soldier, was born on 30 July 1856 in Sydney, eldest child of William James Williams, medical practitioner, and his wife Ellen Ann, née Titterton, both English born. Educated at the New School, Sydney, and Sydney Grammar School, Williams went to London to study medicine at University College (M.R.C.S., 1879; L.R.C.P., 1880). After a year's internship at its hospital, he returned to Sydney and practised at Darlinghurst. Williams was appointed honorary surgeon at St Vincent's Hospital in 1885. He had married Florence Severn on 21 June 1881 at the parish church, Lee, Kent; they were to have two sons and a daughter.

In 1883 Williams became staff surgeon of the New South Wales Artillery with the rank of captain. He enjoyed soldiering and was dedicated to developing army medical services. The embarkation of the New South Wales contingent to join the British force in the Sudan in 1885 enabled him, as its principal medical officer, to test his ideas and observe the medical arrangements of an army in the field. That year Williams was promoted major, mentioned in a special dispatch and awarded the Khedive's Star. He also trained at Aldershot, England, and qualified as an instructor in army medical services.

Back in Australia he was made P.M.O. of the army in New South Wales. Based on his advice, the reorganized medical service in 1888-91 included a well-trained Permanent Medical Staff Corps. They were equipped with light ambulance wagons, built to Williams's innovative design, which had attracted attention in the Sudan and which were more advanced than those in the British Army. He also proposed mounted stretcher-bearers for mounted units, lighter stretchers and intensive training for those using them, and he insisted that medical units in the field must be 'under one command … possess adequate and trained reserves and an ample reserve of equipment'. Major General (Sir) Edward Hutton, commandant in New South Wales in 1893-96, extolled the excellent organization, high standard of efficiency and enthusiasm of all ranks in the New South Wales army medical service.

On the outbreak of war in South Africa in 1899 Williams mobilized two medical contingents of the New South Wales Army Medical Corps, trained, equipped and ready for active service. When they went into the field they created a sensation due to their mobility and to the excellence of their ambulances and transport. In fast-moving mounted operations Williams's mounted stretcher-bearers kept up with the units they were supporting; unlike the British medical commanders, he kept his field hospitals and bearer companies working together. He thus anticipated the field ambulance system which was introduced into the British and Australian armies in 1906. Made temporary colonel in South Africa, in January 1900 Williams was appointed P.M.O. of the Australian and New Zealand forces serving there. He was present at the relief of Kimberley and Sunnyside, and was variously P.M.O. to Hutton's Mounted Division and to major forces under Colonel (General Sir) Ian Hamilton and Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Hunter. A British war correspondent described Williams as 'the first man I have met who seems to be a master of Army medical work in the field'. For his service in South Africa, Williams was promoted surgeon general in January 1901, mentioned in dispatches and appointed C.B. He was also appointed a Knight of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

Coming home in January 1901, he resumed his practice and his work at St Vincent's Hospital. In January 1902 Hutton arrived as general officer commanding in Australia with a brief to organize an Australian Army. He appointed Williams director general of medical services from 1 April 1902, with the task of creating the Australian Army Medical Corps from the disparate and small colonial services. Although he was appointed consultant surgeon to St Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne when he moved to that city to begin work at Army Headquarters, Williams virtually ceased private practice. His organization of the A.A.M.C. was achieved within the narrow limits imposed by defence policy and funding. As surgeon general, Williams was the only regular officer of the A.A.M.C. He established the units which would operate with a field force, but was unable to set up clearing hospitals and base hospitals. He did establish the Australian Army Nursing Service and a reserve of officers, but his proposal of 1906 for a dental service was rejected. Despite inadequate resources, from the beginning he aimed at a high standard of training. The advent of 'universal' military service in 1911 increased the number of units in the A.A.M.C., yet it did not remedy the shortages of ambulances and equipment.

In August 1914 Williams asked for the post of director of medical services with the Australian Imperial Force. 'Without egotism', he wrote, 'I can safely say that my services would be of great value'. Major General (Sir) William Bridges agreed and 'Mo' Williams made ready for his third war. He was 58, overweight and in poor health. The degree to which 'his outlook had become self-contained and restricted by immersion in the past' is arguable, but there is no doubt that 'he made a bad impression on Bridges' during the voyage to Egypt. Charles Bean, who was with A.I.F. Headquarters, thought that Williams treated the voyage 'rather as he might a month at his club'. Bridges increasingly turned to the dynamic Lieutenant-Colonel (Sir) Neville Howse who was Williams's staff officer.

By going on to London in November 1914, Williams weakened his position. While he did valuable work there—buying motor ambulances, medical equipment and drugs for the A.I.F.—the fact that Bridges allowed him to go was significant. Williams returned to Egypt in February 1915 and encountered an embarrassing situation. No one wanted him. The British D.M.S. in Egypt, Major General Sir Richard Ford, expected to have direct control of all A.A.M.C. units. Bridges neither supported Williams against Ford, nor ensured that a medical section was established in the Australian Intermediate Base under Colonel Victor Sellheim. With one staff sergeant and one clerk, Williams was isolated, without status or responsibility. Bridges had him attached to the office of the D.M.S., Egypt, for Anzac affairs and Williams suffered the humiliation of being graded by the War Office as a deputy director of medical services. He was even excluded from discussions on the provision of hospital ships for the A.I.F.

On 25 April he again embarked for London. There he made arrangements for A.I.F. convalescents and introduced a system for invaliding to Australia. On his return voyage he received a cable in Malta stating 'that his services were not required in Egypt'. Frustrated and embittered, Williams was ordered back to London where he was attached to the Australian High Commission and had little to do. In September his former staff officer Howse was appointed deputy director of medical services, Anzac Corps, and became D.M.S. of the A.I.F. in November. Williams was totally eclipsed. After Howse arrived in London in April 1916, Williams was soon able to return to Australia. His appointment as K.C.M.G. in June and a mention in dispatches may have mitigated a little the harshness of his fate. In declining health he decided to return to his wife in London in December and was placed on the army retired list on 1 January 1917.

Williams was a great pioneer. He was also the victim of extraordinary circumstances. The nebulous status of the A.I.F. and the attitude of British senior officers to 'colonial' forces were aggravated by the failure of his own commander to support him. Bridges was so obsessed with the training of his 1st Division that he deliberately tried to avoid the administrative problems of the A.I.F. With Williams set adrift, 'the medical problems of the A.I.F. were not the recognized business of anyone in particular' until late in 1915.

After returning alone to Melbourne, Williams died of cardiac disease on 10 May 1919 in Caulfield Military Hospital. Survived by his wife and children, he was buried in Brighton cemetery with full military honours. His estate was sworn for probate at only £540.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vols 1, 2 (Syd, 1921, 1924)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1916 (Syd, 1929)
  • A. G. Butler (ed), Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918 (Melb, 1938)
  • C. E. W. Bean, Two Men I Knew (Syd, 1957)
  • J. Gurner, The Origins of the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps (Melb, 1970)
  • R. L. Wallace, The Australians at the Boer War (Canb, 1976)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 31 May 1919, 17 Apr 1948
  • Australian Army Journal, Oct 1958.

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Williams, Sir William Daniel Campbell (1856–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


30 July, 1856
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


10 May, 1919 (aged 62)
Caulfield, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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