Bravery at the Battle of Menin Road

The bloody, muddy advances of Passchendaele were often secured by hand-to-hand fighting. With extensive trench systems impossible in the quagmire, gains were measured from shell-hole to shell-hole. Farmer Billy Hewitt’s bravery in this most brutal combat won him the Victoria Cross – but it was courage borne out of a blind fury.

Fifty-two days into the battle, Lance Corporal William Henry Hewitt – horseman, ex-policeman and veteran Lewis-gunner with the 2nd South African Infantry – had an unenviable task. Across two muddy rivers five miles east of Ypres near Frezenberg lay some of the most forbidding defences in the line; pillboxes and fortified farms glaring down from almost impassable higher ground. Two attacks had failed; the next was to be known as the Battle of Menin Road.

William Henry Hewitt
William Henry Hewitt. Credit: ©IWM (Q 79803)

Billy, whose uncle won the Grand National, was the son of a farmer born at Copdock, Suffolk, in June 1884 and went to Framlingham College before emigrating to South Africa aged 21, joining the police service in Natal. Arriving in France in July 1916, he was one of 2,200 South African casualties at the hellish Battle of Delville Wood on the Somme. Recovering at Tooting Hospital, South London, he met Lily Olett, a nurse who was to become his wife.

At Frezenberg on 20 September 1917, Billy’s platoon attacked with the 12th Royal Scots under Captain Harry Reynolds, who also won a VC that day. As they advanced, a pillbox was proving stubborn. Billy wrote 35 years later:

“The commander’s runner says, ‘That pillbox has got us in enfilade. Go and take it.’ I say, ‘Thanks for nothing’, or words to that effect, and duck back to my section – only to find disaster. A blasted shell had scored a direct hit. Well, there’s no time to do anything for them so I make for the pillbox. I heave a grenade down it and shout, ‘Come out you so-and-sos’. They do, two of them, and fire with rifles at me at about 10-yard range, and miss. Then some stinkpot throws a stick bomb which hits me on the chest and explodes. But the mutt who made it forgot to fill it with the odd bolts and nuts, so apart from blowing off my gas mask and half my clothes, knocking out four teeth, breaking my nose, giving me a couple of black eyes, with a lot of little cuts here and there and knocking me backwards into a convenient shell-hole, it didn’t really do any damage – only made me damn mad. I had become engaged to be married and when I felt my teeth and face I thought that's spoilt my beauty. She won't fall for me any more…”

Furious Billy threw two bombs at the pillbox before running in with his bayonet. Around 15 German soldiers were killed. His good looks unaffected, he married Lily, received his VC from George V in January 1918 and ended the war a 2nd Lieutenant. He moved to Kenya to grow coffee beans, naming his farm Aintree after his uncle’s racing triumph.

Billy enlisted again in the Second World War, becoming a major in military liaison in Mombasa. In 1950 he retired to Hermanus on the beautiful coast south of Cape Town. After falling ill in the 1960s he moved to England for treatment, during which surgeons removed shrapnel from his throat. Billy died aged 82 in Cheltenham in 1966. His VC is in the Ashcroft Collection at London’s Imperial War Museum.

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