The Norfolk Record Office holds a fascinating collection of First World War papers by a man named Philip Hewetson. Philip was the son of William Hewetson, the rector of Wroxham with Salhouse. He joined the army in 1914 and wrote a series of letters home to his family, which give a very clear picture of life at the front.
9 July 1915. Last night those horrible Germans thought fit to shell this place. And between 12 & 3.45 they sent from 50-100 (!!!) into it! I slept soundly at first until at 3.15 I was awoken by a huge sort of whistling swi……sh coming straight at me in a crescendo followed immediately by a huge report & bang then falling masonry!! You may think you can imagine my feelings but you can’t. I lay in bed & didn’t know what do to; as a matter of fact this one fell about 100 yds away in a house. You hear them coming with a huge whistle & don’t know where they’re going till they burst. Nobody pretends not to be frightened inside!!
Even at the height of summer, conditions in the trenches were appalling:
21 Aug. I am caked in mud; it has rained & thundered most of the 48 hours we have been in so far, though today has been better. Again it’s a case of us washing or shaving. The trenches are in a worse condition than they were those horrible 5 days before. This time however I’m rejoicing in the possession of my gum boots. They are solidly encased in mud. So are my knees & a few inches above them, solid caked mud. Hands, tunic, hat, mackintosh all mud.
Philip had already experienced the deaths of some of his colleagues:
23 July [A shell] unfortunately hit the barn in wh[ich] half my platoon were, it killed one & wounded 4. Another shell killed my servant. I am so sorry about it, such a nice young chap who left Felixstowe with me 7 weeks ago yesterday. I have written to their people & sent back a few little belongings such as letters found in their pockets. We buried one in the little Churchyard here. My servant died on the way to hospital.
Philip’s story has a tragic ending. Badly wounded in an attack, he was captured by the Germans and died in captivity on 3 July 1918: he was 24 years old.
In the Norfolk Roll of Honour, Henry Rider Haggard estimates that just under 12,000 Norfolk men lost their lives in the First World War, about one in nine of the male population of the county of military age. Each one has a story to tell like that of Philip Hewetson.