A Hampshire Regiment officer who won the Victoria Cross in the First World War has been honoured at a ceremony held almost 100 years to the day after he was killed on the Western Front.
Veterans joined relatives and villagers at the unveiling of a special commemorative stone to Second Lieutenant Dennis Hewitt who won the highest award for gallantry on the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres – better known as Passchendaele – one of the war’s bloodiest engagements.
The ceremony, at Hursley War Memorial, near Winchester, Hampshire, took place in heavy rain grimly reminiscent of that which, a century ago, turned the Flanders battlefield into a quagmire.
Second Lieutenant Hewitt’s nephew, the Viscount Lifford, unveiled the stone. He was accompanied by his sisters, Mrs Lydia Kendon, the Honourable Mrs Belinda Warburton and the Honourable Mrs Flora Henderson, who laid a wreath (please see photograph below).
The Rector of Hursley Church, the Reverend William Prescott, dedicated the stone and Lieutenant Colonel Colin Bulleid, representing the Royal Hampshire Regiment, read the citation which gave details of the action for which Second Lieutenant Hewitt received his Victoria Cross.
The ceremony took place as the nation marked the centenary of the start of the Third Battle of Ypres on 31 July 1917. Second Lieutenant Hewitt, who lived in Hursley, died on the opening day of the three-month-long offensive in which more than half a million Allied and German soldiers were killed or wounded. He was just 19 years old.
Dennis George Wyldbore Hewitt was born in Mayfair on 18 December 1897. He was educated at Winchester College before leaving in 1915 for Sandhurst. He obtained a commission a few months later in the Hampshire Regiment and joined the 14th Battalion. Second Lieutenant Hewitt went out to the Western Front in September 1916 and took part in the later stages of the Battle of the Somme.
On 31 July 1917 the 14th Battalion attacked German positions near the village of St Julien, north-east of Ypres. Second Lieutenant Hewitt’s company had successfully captured their first objective when a shell exploded close to him, setting fire to the signal lights in his haversack and to his clothing. Having put out the flames, and despite his burns, Second Lieutenant Hewitt led his men forward in face of heavy German machine-gun fire and played a major part in the capture of the battalion’s final objective. Having reached it, however, he was shot and killed by a sniper.
Second Lieutenant Hewitt, one of three Hampshire Regiment soldiers to win the Victoria Cross between 1914-18, was initially buried close to where he died, but his grave was subsequently destroyed and his body lost. He is now one of the 54,389 British and Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave commemorated on the Menin Gate at Ypres. The original cross which marked his grave was recovered and is now in Hursley Church.
The Royal Hampshire Regiment veterans who attended the ceremony were: Major Ian Taylor TD, Major Peter Hawker MBE, who also carried the Regimental Standard, and Alan Rockbourne.
Second Lieutenant Hewitt was also honoured at a Victoria Cross Commemoration at Victoria Embankment Gardens in London on 26 June. The Lord Mayor, Andrew Parmley, gave the opening address and the Victoria Cross Citation for Second Lieutenant Hewitt was read by Colonel David Mogg of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, the successor to the Royal Hampshire Regiment.
Lance Sergeant Johnson Beharry, who himself won the VC in Iraq, joined family members in unveiling commemorative stones to Second Lieutenant Hewitt and Captain Thomas Colyer-Fergusson of the Northamptonshire Regiment, who also received a posthumous Victoria Cross for gallantry on the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres.
Further details of the Hampshire Regiment’s involvement at the Third Battle of Ypres and of the regiment’s other Victoria Cross winners during the First World War can be found on the Timeline.
We are grateful to Steve Lee of the Memorials to Valour project for some of the photographs. www.memorialstovalour.co.uk