143337 Gunner Walter Hewitt,
76th Siege Battery & 230th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery
Walter Hewitt was born in Barwick in Elmet on 11th August 1892. His parents were George Hewitt and Lucy Mawson, and they had married in All Saints' Church in July the previous year and they set up home on Chapel Lane. George Hewitt, known to all by his nickname Dawber to differentiate between him and his father, who was also George, was, at that time a Mason’s Labourer.
Prior to getting married to Dawber, Lucy Mawson, originally from Kilnhurst, near Consiborough, had been in domestic service. The 1891 Census, taken on 5th April that year, shows Lucy Mawson working for George and Ann Settle in Horton in Bradford, but by the time of her marriage, she had returned to Wortley, and following the tradition of marrying in the bride’s home parish, they married there.
Between the birth of Walter Hewitt in 1892, and the birth of Lucy Mawson Hewitt, in 1909, six children had been born into the family, but as was common at the time, two of the children had died in infancy. Bertin Hewitt was a month old when he died in 1895, and Herbert was just six days old when he died in 1896. Frances was next youngest after Herbert. She was born in 1898, followed by George in 1904.
Dawber Hewitt was a staunch Methodist and taught in the Sunday School of the village chapel. Walter Hewitt was raised as a Methodist and became a member of the Independent Order of Rechabites, a fraternal organisation dating from 1835 which promoted abstinence from alcohol in all its forms. Walter Hewitt is said to have never taken alcohol, nor sworn.
Like many young men of the period who followed in their father’s footsteps, after leaving school, Walter Hewitt went to work for his father in the family’s butcher’s shop, which had originally belonged to Dawber’s eldest sister, Mary, and her husband, John Cockrem. John Cockrem had died in 1895, and Dawber went to help his sister keep the shop in business sometime after that. As well as working for his father, Walter Hewitt is known to have been employed as postman as well, perhaps at the same time, although by 1912, he had made a note on a photograph of him in Post Office uniform that he was an ex-postman. Within a few years, Walter Hewitt would train as a mechanic.
When war broke out in August 1914, Walter Hewitt was twenty-two years old, and like many of the other young men from Barwick and Scholes, he did not rush to join the colours in the wake of the declaration of war.
Almost exactly a year after the war began, Walter Hewitt married Cecilia Benson in Barwick on 11th August 1915. She was the daughter of Janet Balderson, and stepdaughter of Joseph Balderson, who lived on Chapel Lane. Their first child, Marjorie was born on 11th June 1916.
At the time the couple got married, the war in Europe had largely stagnated, owing to the fact that neither of the vast armies could deliver the decisive blow to knock the other out of the war and claim victory. A factor in this inability to end the war quickly, at least from the British perspective, was the inability to produce artillery shells in the quantities, and of the quality required for the British artillery to dominate the battlefield.
Until the Great War, the production of artillery shells for use by the army had been almost exclusively the preserve of the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, which occupied a vast site on the south bank of the River Thames in east London. In peace time and in previous wars, the operations at Woolwich could supply enough ammunition of all kinds to maintain adequate supplies for the Army’s use, but the scale of the Great War, and the reliance of the army on the artillery capability that it had when the war of movement ended and the opposing armies settled down into lines facing each other across a no man’s land meant that demand for ammunition soon outstripped the production capabilities of the Royal Arsenal. A crisis of supply began to severely restrict how the British could operate. Artillery units saw their ammunition allocations rationed to the point of impotence. Often a battery might only be given enough ammunition to allow them to register their guns. A daily allocation might be in signal figures.
The causes for the shell crisis were many, but the inability of a single main site to produce the necessary volume of ammunition was clearly one of the major factors. Parliament passed the Munitions of War Act on 2nd July 1915 to address the problems, and to support David Lloyd George who had been installed as the first Minister of Munitions two months earlier. One solution to the supply problem was to create National Filling Factories across the country, which would take in manufactured shell casings and fill them with explosives and fit the fuses. A site at Barnbow was chosen for the erection of a filling factory on land rented from local landowner, Colonel Gascoigne of Parlington and Lotherton, with construction beginning in August 1915.
It isn’t known when Walter Hewitt began work at the Barnbow factory, officially No. 1 National Filling Factory, but when he attested for the army on 6th December 1915, his Army Form b2065A, the notice that was issued to men offering to join the army, was issued, and endorsed by the ‘National Shell Factory, Leeds’. He stated that he was employed as a ‘Shell Machine Operator’.
Walter Hewitt joined the army under the terms of the Group System, better known as ‘The Derby Scheme’, devised by the Director General of Recruiting, the Earl of Derby. The scheme was necessary to ensure that adequate numbers of recruits flowed into the army to maintain both its fighting capability, and to allow it to expand to a size whereby the British Expeditionary Force was of comparable strength of its European allies and enemies. Those armies on the continent had relied on conscription to ensure that their peacetime armies were kept up to strength, and to provide a pool of trained reservists who could be mobilised in a national emergency. The UK had traditionally relied on voluntary enlistment and a Volunteer movement which became standardised soon after the Crimean War and had developed over the second half of the nineteenth century, before undergoing, with the rest of the army, wholesale reform under the direction of Lord Haldane in 1908, which created the Territorial Force, which alongside the different classes of Army Reserve, formed the trained reserve that Britain could call upon in if war came. General conscription was not a tool that the British had tried in the past, and when it was introduced in 1916, it was as a last resort. The Derby Scheme was a steppingstone measure between wholly voluntary enlistment, which was riddled with problems, and General Conscription, which was seen as being ‘un-British’, and filled senior figures in government and the army with dread.
Voluntary enlistment could not guarantee a regular number of recruits coming forward, and as the news of the war appeared in newspapers, there was a direct relationship between setbacks for the British Expeditionary Force, and the number of men who volunteered for service. Good news brought the recruits to the recruiting offices, while bad news caused the offices to fall quiet. Recruiting staff were paid a bounty for each volunteer accepted for service, and this gave rise to accusations of impropriety, such as accepting men who were unfit for service, those who did not meet the physical standards required, or those who were too old, or too young to serve, but were accepted because of the bounties paid for their enlistment. There was also very little regulation with regard to the enlistment of volunteers who were employed in work of national importance, and this caused problems in many sectors of industry when large numbers of engineers, coal miners, railway employees, farm employees, and many others, quit their jobs en masse to respond to the call for volunteers. Some men were ‘combed out’ and sent home to take up their civil employment again, and many of them were forbidden from quitting their job again, without official permission.
The burden on the army caused by the enlistment of underage, overage, or unfit recruits was huge, and caused a disproportionate administrative workload to process their discharges, or transfers to other units which could accept such men.
The Derby Scheme relied upon the successful implementation of the National Registration Act of 1915, the provisions of which made it compulsory for everyone in the country, with certain exceptions, to register their details with their local authority, and this exercise resulted in a pool of more than two million men who eligible for army service, but who were not yet enlisted being identified. The Derby Scheme offered those men a chance to enlist voluntarily and retain some element of choice in which regiment or corps they would go on to serve with. Men enlisting under the Group System were divided into two classes of recruit; those who chose to begin their service immediately, and those who chose to defer their service until they were called up, or mobilised, by the army when they were needed. Those men who chose to defer their service were divided into groups (from which the Group System took its name) organised by the date of birth of the man and his marital status. Those groups would be mobilised periodically and the men in them would report for training and then embark for service overseas.
The Group System virtually cut out the enlistment of underage, or overage men, it kept men in valuable employment where they were until it became necessary to call them up, and it allowed the army training establishments to plan more accurately for the numbers of men it could expect to receive and build training programmes accordingly.
The men who were born in 1892, and were married, were placed in Group 29, and those men were called up in April 1916, however because of his job at Barnbow, Walter Hewitt was not called up until almost a year later, when he was ordered to report to No 4 Depot, Royal Garrison Artillery, at Ripon, on 12th March 1917.
In the eleven days he was at the depot in Ripon, he would receive the most basic of military training before being sent for gunnery training at No 1 Reinforcing Depot at Bexhill, where he stayed for six weeks, after which, he was sent to France. It was common for men of the Royal Garrison Artillery to be posted to France before knowing which battery they would end up being sent to, and those men would, on arrival, go to the RGA Base Depot at Harfleur, a district of Le Havre on the French coast to await a posting. In Walter Hewitt’s case, he was at the Base Depot for eight days, before being sent to First Army Pool from which personnel were sent out to the batteries under that Army’s command. After a further eleven days, Walter Hewitt was sent to join 76th Siege Battery at Thélus, midway between Arras and Lens.
The battery had been taken out of the line when Walter Hewitt joined it and was preparing to move to another sector of the line. Siege batteries operated large calibre guns which took a lot of planning and resource to move. Often the guns would stay in position and be signed over to the next battery that took over from the previous one, but on this occasion, the battery was taking its guns with it, possibly because it was moving a long distance, up to the Ypres Salient. Over a period of four days, the battery moved, with its guns to Potten Farm, just north of Vlamertinghe, between Ypres and Poperinghe. Two days after the battery arrived in the new position, it reported that it was ready to shoot, and commenced anti-battery work supported by balloon and aeroplane observation to report the fall of shot. With the aid of the aerial observers, and the skill of the gun crews, much accurate shooting was reported by the battery during its stay at Potten Farm.
A further move occurred at the end of June 1917, when the battery’s war diary records a move to Ypres, although it is likely to have been to Gibraltar Farm at Potijze, which being only one mile behind the front line brought the battery well within the range of German artillery. As a result, the battery experienced heavy shelling regularly during the time it spent there, including being subjected to gas barrages. After a gas barrage on the battery position on 27th July 1917, Gunner Hewitt was sent to hospital suffering the effects of gas poisoning, presumably only a mild case, as he was returned to his unit two days later.
Walter Hewitt was admitted to hospital again, in October 1917, after reporting sick, and it seems that this period of sickness was more serious than his gassing, as he stayed in hospital for a month until 4th November, when he was sent to the Base Depot to await a posting to another battery. It was common for men to be posted to another unit after they had been away from their own due to wounds or sickness. As soon as it was known that a man going into hospital would not be returning within a few days, a replacement would be requested to keep the guns fully crewed.
After two days at the Base Depot, Gunner Hewitt was sent off to 230th Siege Battery, which was in action on the Bailleul Road, which ran northeast out of Saint Laurent Blangy, near Arras. He arrived at the battery with 18 other men on 9th November 1917, but just two days later the battery moved to the Sugar Factory and The Willows, between Bailleul-sir-Berthoult and Willerval, and it would stay in this position for ten weeks, firing on enemy positions in Oppy, and Gavrelle. On 1st February 1918, the battery moved to Fampoux to the south, directly east of Arras, but after nearly three weeks, the battery was pulled out of the line and placed into General Headquarters Reserve, which meant that it would be brought well to the rear of the gun lines. The battery went into billets at Ocoche and Tachincourt, near Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise and the personnel of the battery were put into various training programmes and classes over four days before it moved to Dusians, near Arras, where it would stay for a month, still on the Reserve, but a little closer to the front in readiness for an anticipated German offensive.
When the offensive came, it broke first on the Somme front, beginning on 21st March 1918, and wreaked havoc among British formations in the line there. The Germans made great advances across battlefields in hours and days that two years before they had doggedly defended forcing the British to conduct a prolonged and costly campaign in the summer and autumn of 1916 which only closed when the winter weather made it impossible to continue. A week later, 230th Siege Battery became involved as the Germans launched their offensive against a section of the line manned by battalions of the 56th Division, which 83rd Heavy Artillery Group, to which 230th Battery belonged, was tasked to cover. That the attack was coming had been known for some time, and the German preparations for it in this area had been observed. What wasn’t known was the precise timing and the strength of the attacking force, despite the British sending out several patrols aimed at capturing prisoners to interrogate, which had proved unsuccessful in achieving that aim, but had allowed the patrols to confirm that the enemy trenches were more thickly defended than normal.
The attack was launched at 3:00 am on 28th March 1918 against the line defended by 56th Division, between Gavrelle to Arluex, some 5000 yards by formations so tightly packed that in some areas the Germans advanced shoulder to shoulder, which gave the machine gunners easy targets on which to concentrate their indirect barrage fire. The German losses were enormous. While the infantrymen of both sides faced each other and fought desperately, so too did the artillerymen of both sides. Firing from positions at Fond de Vase, east of Roclincourt, in a roughly east-north-easterly direction 230th Siege Battery was targeted by more than 200 heavy shells on that day. The general assessment of the situation was that a recent move of the battery gun positions, and a reliance on working out the aiming of the guns using mathematics rather than firing ranging shots before the attack had been launched, fooled the Germans into thinking that the guns were still in their previous positions, and thus, diverted much of the enemy’s artillery shooting into empty positions.
The men of 230th Siege Battery were specially commended for their gallantry in firing throughout the day, despite the heavy shells that fell on their position. It drew special praise because the battery had been ordered to move their guns out of their pits and into the open to allow them to be swung round ready to fire north if required. During the fighting that day, the battery fired 1658 in 24 hours, which means that the crews were firing their guns almost at the very limit of their capabilities for a full day.
On 7th June 1918, Gunner Hewitt was sent to 19th Ordnance Mobile Workshop for trade testing. The Ordnance Mobile Workshops were small units of specialist tradesmen, skilled in the repair of damaged artillery guns. It isn’t known if Walter Hewitt was selected for testing, or if he volunteered for it, with a view to transferring to the Army Ordnance Corps, but it is likely that his background as a mechanic and shell machine operator was the reason why he was sent. The mobile workshops were equipped with a lathe, upright drilling machinery, and other engineering machinery, all mounted on the back of a flat-bed lorry which would be accompanied by a stores lorry which carried metal stock and a limited selection of spares. They would tackle jobs on guns which were either too complex, or too time consuming for the artificers of the batteries to tackle, but which did not amount to a major overhaul of the gun.
It is possible that the period of testing was gauge his suitability for promotion. Not only would his battery officers have assessed his reliability and leadership qualities ‘in-house’, but his ability to maintain his gun and carry out the daily checks that would be required would need to be assessed as well, and it may be that this was done by the qualified tradesmen of the Ordnance Mobile Workshops. Whatever the reason for his short period of detachment, he began to act as a Lance Bombardier; the Royal Artillery’s equivalent to a Lance Corporal in much of the rest of the army, on 2nd July 1918, and was properly appointed as a paid Acting Lance Bombardier three days later.
Whatever leadership qualities had been recognised to put Walter Hewitt on to the first rung of the promotion ladder would never be fully realised, as on 11th July, he was admitted to the 11th Canadian Field Ambulance at Maroeuil suffering from Pyrexia of Unknown Origin (PUO), commonly referred to as ‘Trench Fever’. PUO was caused by the body’s reaction to bacteria found in soil that was introduced into the body through broken skin. It was originally thought that PUO was carried by lice and spread by their bites, but it was later discovered that the bacteria were usually introduced when the soldiers scratched the irritating bites with dirty fingernails. The reaction of the body manifested as symptoms like those of ‘flu or rheumatic pain, causing swelling and pain in joints and limbs, a high temperature and hyper-sensitivity of the skin. Many men were able to remain at duty and work through until the symptoms subsided. Those who could not work through the infection would be given medical treatment and a spell of rest in a clean hospital environment, and for most men, that was all that was required. Those men who had very severe reactions to the infection could suffer damage to the membranes in the joints, breathing difficulties and organ damage, and would require more than a mere period of rest and warmth. Walter Hewitt was transferred to a hospital in the picturesque French coastal town of Le Treport where, no doubt, it was hoped that the better facilities and fresh air would aid his recovery. Army administration being what it was, A/L/Bdr Hewitt had his acting promotion cancelled on his admission to hospital.
Walter Hewitt did not respond to treatment well enough to go back to his unit, and on 29th July 1918, he was transferred from Le Treport to the Hospital Ship Panama, which operated between Le Havre and the pier at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley on Southampton Water, and was evacuated back to England. On 2nd August 1918, he was admitted to Springburn Woodside Red Cross Hospital, north of Glasgow city centre, where he stayed until 19th November 1918. After a brief period of leave, he reported to the Royal Artillery and Tank Corps Dispersal Unit in Catterick, where he stayed for almost two months, until he was transferred to Class Z of the Army Reserve, in effect, his discharge from the army. Class Z of the Army Reserve had been created to allow the army to release men back into civil life, where they could, it was hoped, return to their pre-war occupations, and get the economy of the country working again. When the fighting ended in November 1918, it was only a ceasefire, which at times looked like it might fail with a resumption of hostilities being the result. The army (and other services) needed a mechanism in place that would allow men who had been released to be recalled swiftly in the event of an emergency, and if they had been fully discharged, that could not be accomplished without another act of parliament authorising their recall. Class Z of the Army Reserve allowed for men to be recalled in the event of a national emergency.
Despite having been so ill because of trench fever, when Walter Hewitt was transferred to the reserve, he was in medical category ‘A’, meaning he was fully fit. No record exists of him making a claim for a pension.
Sometime after the Great War, Walter Hewitt became a bricklayer, but he kept up with his interest in engineering, maintaining a well-equipped workshop in his back yard, and by being an avid reader of engineering textbooks and periodical magazines on engineering subjects. He also acted as a local agent for Raleigh Bicycles and would regularly repair the cycles belonging to people in the village who began the transaction by leaving their machines by his door.
He and Cecilia added Nellie Joyce, and Hubert Robert, born in 1922 and 1925 respectively, to their family. They lived on Chapel Lane, next door to Cecilia’s parents, and in time, when Hubert Hewitt married Freda Hannam in 1954, they would move into the Bolderson’s house.
Both of Walter Hewitt’s sisters married soldiers who had been discharged from the Army and had received a Silver War Badge. Frances Hewitt married William Bell Hunter, formerly of 1/5th Battalion, The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment), in Barwick in 1925, and Lucy Mawson Hewitt married, much later, in 1951, Herbert Bramall, who was originally from Wath upon Dearne, but had served during the war with 1/7th (Leeds Rifles) Bn, West Yorkshire Regiment, before being transferred to the Army Pay Corps.
Walter Hewitt served as a volunteer with the Barwick Home Guard. He held the rank of Corporal, but as he was employed once more on munitions manufacture at Thorp Arch, working 12-hour shifts, he was rarely on parade with the unit. His son, Hubert, but using his middle name Robert, shortened to Bob, served alongside him in the same section.
Walter Hewitt died in Barwick in January 1971. His widow, Cecilia, died in Harrogate in June 1974.