You can learn a lot by reading a description someone gives of the most important event in his or her life. This certainly applies to Major William Henry Hewitt who, almost exactly 100 years ago carried out an action during World War I that earned him the Victoria Cross, the highest honour that can be bestowed by Britain on a soldier.
Soon after the event Hewitt wrote his account of it. It is a typical document of that era, full of slang army terms; for instance what we call an ‘improvised explosive device’ (IED) was known at that time as a ‘jampot’. Literally, it was a jam pot (or tin), taken out of the rubbish dump, filled with nuts and bolts, with an explosive device and then thrown at the enemy if all else had failed.
This is what Hewitt did to win his VC. He was ordered to demolish a German pillbox, manned by 15 enemy soldiers. Within a minute of advancing his entire platoon was killed by an artillery shell. He advanced alone and threw a grenade into the pillbox. A jampot was thrown at him and hit him in the face: ‘apart from blowing off my gasmask 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’.
Hewitt went round the back of the pillbox and pushed his last grenade though a breathing hole. It exploded inside, killing all the occupants. He ran around the front to deal with any survivors, only to hear a Sergeant of a relieving platoon say: ‘There’s fifteen in there Sir, and they’ve all had it.’
The Hermanus History Society and the Cliff Path Management Group jointly organised a memorial gathering for Major Hewitt on Sunday 17 September. He carried out his feats on 20 September 1917. Hewitt lived for more than 10 years in Hermanus towards the end of his life, with his family in Voelklip. He loved the Cliff Path and especially a spot between Sievers Punt and Klein Eiland. This is where the event took place. Short addresses were made by representatives of the organising groups and ex-servicemen’s organisations. Funding was generously provided by Sumaridge Estate Wines.
By Dr. Robin Lee