Herbert HEWITT
Rank: Corporal
Number: 106297
Unit: 189th Special Company ROYAL ENGINEERS
Date of Death: 13 October 1915
Age: 22
Cemetery: Loos Memorial, Pas de Calais, France

Herbert was a local lad made good and he had a promising career ahead of him. His father, William, had a modest job as a tripe dresser but was keen for his son to better himself. When the 1901 Census was taken, William and his wife Emma were living at 87 Great Portwood Street, Stockport, with their three children (Hannah, Herbert and Alice). Herbert attended the nearby Portwood Wesleyan Day School and, at the age of 12, won a scholarship to Stockport Grammar School. He furthered his education by attending the Stockport Sunday School where he later also taught. Herbert secured a place at Manchester University and, in July 1914, he obtained a BSc with Honours.

A month later, War was declared and he enlisted into one of the Public School Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers (service number 2977). Whilst still in training, his scientific background was recognised as being of use to the Royal Engineers and he was transferred to one of the recently formed "Special Companies", in the summer of 1915. These units would be armed with a new and devastating weapon - poison gas. A week later, Herbert was in France.

Poison gas had first been used by the Germans in the April and the British had rushed to develop a product of their own and the means to deliver it. Its first use would come in the forthcoming attack at Loos, planned to be launched on 25 September. The previous day, some 400 chlorine gas cylinders were placed along the British lines. The means of delivering it to the enemy was rudimentary. The tap would be turned and the hoped for light breeze would waft it across No Man's Land. Of course, if the wind changed it would be the British who were gassed and, in fact, this is what happened on part so the battlefield.

The attack was only partially successful and fighting would continue for several more days. On 13 October, a major renewal of the attack was scheduled and, again, gas would play a significant role. Small trenches (saps) had been dug out into No Man's Land from the British front line and the gas cylinders were placed here. In total, over 3000 had been brought forward of which 1000 would be used. The plan was that, at each emplacement, four cylinders would be released hour hoping to catch the Germans before they had put on their masks), another four would be released later when it was estimated the mask respirators had run out of "life" and the remaining two in between. All the gas was intended to have been discharged ten minutes before zero hour for the infantry attack. The discharge was again fairly successful although there was some "blow back".

As with any attack, the first German response would be with its artillery, attempting to shell the British trench line before the men could get clear. One of Herbert's mates, Harry Slack, later wrote to his mother "As an old schoolmate of Herbert's and also a member of the section to which Herbert was attached temporarily for yesterday's attack, I , along with the rest of my section, offer you our sincere sympathy. He was hit by a shell in the fire trench and died about three o'clock this morning. I gave Sergeant Osborne your address. He told me he regarded Herbert as the most reliable man in his section. He was very popular and for his tenacity in the previous attack he was recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The accident occurred near Hulluch. Your son died a hero and kept up his spirits to the end. No man can do more and, in fact, many do not do so much. We sincerely regret his death and offer, Mr Hewitt and the two girls our real sympathy."

Lieutenant B Holman added in a letter "I was within a few yards of your son when he was hit and take this opportunity of expressing my admiration of his extreme fortitude. He showed extreme patience and bravery whilst waiting for the end. I was unable to get him removed from the trench but detailed to men to remain with him, one to wait until the doctor arrived."

Lieutenant W Speight, Herbert's section officer, had also written breaking the news of his death. "His section greatly feel the loss of a true hero and wish me to convey to you their sincerest sympathy in your great sorrow. They say "He was a fine fellow, true comrade and brave man".....I wish you my deepest sympathy for one, so dear to you, who has given his life as a true hero for King and Country."

After the War, Mr and Mrs Hewitt were living at 55 Lowfield Road, Stockport. William Hewitt is believed to have died in 1920.

(Information about the gas attacks at Loos taken from "Most Unfavourable Ground" by Niall Cherry)

   
           
   
     
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