I have been busy preparing for my forthcoming talk which will take place this Friday (10 October) at 1pm in The Green Room at The Archive Centre. The talk, ‘A Norfolk Man’s War: The Hewetson Letters’ is free of charge.
The talk will focus on Philip and Ruth Hewetson, the two children of the Revd William Hewetson, the vicar of Wroxham with Salhouse and his wife Katherine. When the First World War broke out in 1914, they were suddenly caught up in life-changing events – and their weekly letters to their parents provide a uniquely-detailed insight into what it was like for ordinary Norfolk people caught up in extraordinary events.
Philip was at Cambridge University: he joined the Army as soon as the First World War broke out. After training at Felixstowe for six months, he went to France in 1915, serving on the Western Front: he was at the Battle of Loos in September1915, where he was wounded. After a spell in military hospital and a return to Felixstowe, he returned to the front line, and was at the Battle of Messines in 1917 and at the second Battle of the Aisne in May 1918. His letters home describe training in England, the experiences of trench life and of battle, and day-to-day routine of life both in England and on the Western Front. They give lively accounts of a wartime battlefront, and what it was like to be there, in a way which no formal history book about the war can possibly capture.
Ruth, who was younger, was at school in Norwich until early 1918. Keen to ‘do her bit’ as well, she joined a Voluntary Aid Detachment, serving in a war hospital on Salisbury Plain, the first time she had left home. Her letters describe details of daily hospital routine, where she worked as a cleaner and in the kitchens, and her experiences of a wholly new environment: reading them, one senses a young woman developing her adult personality under dramatic circumstances.
In May 1918, Philip’s letters stop suddenly. His family went through a period of great anxiety, shared by so many families at that time, and reflected in Ruth’s anxious letters. For many weeks, they only know that Philip is missing, but eventually they hear that he is a Prisoner of War. The story has a tragic end: Philip had been badly wounded before he was taken prisoner, and died in captivity in July 1918. Many Norfolk families went through similar experiences in the war, but very few have left such a detailed record of it.
When Ruth, then living in Bedfordshire, was rushed to hospital in her old age, her first thought was that the family letters should be preserved. These letters, which are now among of the treasures of the Norfolk Record Office, are to be published in a book for the first time in October 2014.
This is what the First World War was really like. Come along and find out more about this fascinating – and very moving – story.
Ruth Hewetson. NRO, MC 643/7 Philip Hewetson. NRO, MC 643/60