First World War: With four teeth broken, furious William feared his fiancée might not find him attractive. The enemy felt his wrath...
- Credit: Archant
Steve Russell hears the story of one of Suffolk’s bravest soldiers, and learns about a family that had five sons away fighting.
William Henry Hewitt was a soldier you’d want by your side.
He was almost killed while capturing a German pillbox – badly injured by a stick-bomb that smashed his teeth – and won the Victoria Cross for his bravery.
William is one of only six holders of the VC born in Suffolk, and next year is due to be honoured when a commemorative paving stone is laid in Copdock, the village where he was born just outside Ipswich.
The son of a butcher/farmer and his second wife, William was born at West Hill, Elm Lane, Copdock, in June, 1884. He went to Framlingham College between 1894 and 1900, and then in the spring of 1905 emigrated to South Africa on the New Zealand Shipping Company’s steamer Ruapehu.
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William joined the South African Constabulary, later transferring to the Natal Police. He was awarded the Natal Rebellion Medal, and in 1909 left the police to become a farmer. On Christmas Eve, 1915, he enlisted in the 2nd South Africa Light Infantry and the following July arrived in France.
From the summer of 1916 through to September he fought on the Somme, being wounded in the Battle of Delville Wood. In the October he was invalided to England. He was in Tooting Hospital and met Lily Olett.
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The following September saw him involved in the Third Battle of Ypres-Passchendaele – including the Battle of Menin Road. It was that month that the lance-corporal captured a pillbox, single-handedly. He lobbed a grenade into a doorway, but the Germans threw a stick-bomb that blew off his gas-mask and knocked out four of his teeth.
Furious because he was engaged to be married, and feared his fiancée might no longer find him attractive, William got to the back of the pillbox.
He tried to lob a bomb through an opening but missed and had to dive for cover. With only one grenade remaining, the soldier crept right up to the loophole and pushed the bomb through, getting shot in the hand.
William’s Victoria Cross citation said ? with some understatement! ? that his actions “caused the occupants to dislodge, and they were successfully and speedily dealt with by the remainder of the section”.
The VC was introduced in January, 1856, by Queen Victoria and is the highest military decoration, awarded for valour “in the face of the enemy”.
He received his award early in 1918 – from King George V at Buckingham Palace – and, not long after, returned to South Africa with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant, “to a hero’s welcome”.
Suffolk historian Jennifer Jones – who has been researching William’s life, with the help of folk from East Anglia to Cape Town – understands he farmed in Natal until 1925, married Lily and had three daughters. In 1925 he ran “Aintree” coffee farm in Kenya, so named because an ancestor’s horse won the Grand National. His grandson still has one of its hooves!
During the Second World War he re-enlisted, with the rank of major, and was the Assistant Provost Marshal of Mombasa. In 1950 he retired to Cape Town, and then in 1961 came to live in Cheltenham with daughter Pam for treatment for Parkinson’s and the long-term effect of his wartime injuries.
William died less than three weeks before Christmas, 1966, and was cremated in Gloucestershire. His ashes were scattered off Hermanus Bay, Cape Town. In 1967 his widow gave the Victoria Cross to Framlingham College. A decade ago, it was presented on permanent loan to the Imperial War Museum.
After stumbling across Norfolk author Stephen Snelling’s book VCs of the First World War – Passchendaele 1917, Jennifer learned more about William’s life between the wars and a few weeks ago met the soldier’s grandson, who lives in the New Forest. She’s keen to trace any children of William’s siblings and half siblings, “so I would be grateful if any could be found as a result of an article in the EADT”.