Pte. Lewis William Hayes (1897 – 1918)

Lewis (or Louis) was born in Platt on 24 September 1897, the son of William Lewis and Charlotte Hayes (née Hares.) He had seven brothers and sisters and in 1901 the family lived in Sunnyside, Wrotham, but by 1903 had moved to Borough Green, where William found work as a carrier and furniture removal man. Lewis’ father died in 1909 and the family moved to 12 Whatcote Cottages in Platt where Lewis and his siblings transferred from Borough Green to Platt School. At some point prior to the war the family moved again, this time to Railway Cottages in Wrotham Heath, and Lewis had joined the Platt Guild, which was a boys group run by Mr. King-Smith in a hut at Platt Farm.

Lewis enlisted in the Army on 10 September 1914 when he would have been only 16 years old. He joined the 2nd/4th Battalion, The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment) as 200992 Pte. Lewis Hayes.

In early July 1915, after a two months intensive training in Bedford, the battalion received orders to proceed overseas. With them came tropical clothing, so it would have been clear to Lewis and his comrades that they would not be embarking for France. The West Kents had been selected to reinforce the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in a new effort to secure the Dardanelles by landing at Suvla Bay on the Gallipoli peninsula, and simultaneously taking the offensive from the Anzac position.

Leaving Devonport on 18 July, Lewis sailed with his unit for Alexandria on board the SS Northland. The voyage lasted 13 days and on arrival they immediately proceeded to Mudros and sailed onwards for Gallipoli. Lewis landed at Suvla’s West Beach during the evening of 10 August – a full four days after the start of what turned out to be a failed offensive. The battalion had worked their way up to the firing line three days later, and in an area that afforded minimal cover for the new arrivals, they quickly set to work to improve their defences. Digging continued throughout the remainder of the month under the watchful eye of enemy snipers, who concealed themselves in bushes in front of the British line.

A regimental history recounted that the West Kent’s time at Suvla was ‘one of monotonous hardships’. There had been occasional shelling, however rifle fire was persistent, and did not distinguish itself from attack or defence. Even periods away from the front line were far from safe. There were no baths or opportunities to wash clothes, rations were hard to cook with limited fuel and appliances, and recreation or leave was non-existent.

Unfortunately, Lewis’s service papers have not survived so we can only speculate about his time in Gallipoli. It is likely he would have fallen ill whilst on the peninsula, especially as the battalion had been reduced through sickness to 12 officers and 200 other ranks by the start of December.

The West Kents eventually left Gallipoli on board the HMT Alcahara during the evening of 13 December and sailed for Mudros where they changed ships and continued their journey towards Alexandria on board the HMT Haverford.

In Egypt the West Kents proceeded by train to Wardan, near Cairo and enjoyed their first real rest since arriving in the region. During much of 1916 the battalion was tasked with keeping order in the Nile Delta, and by August were camped at Kantara.

Lewis began 1917 based in Sinai and eventually advanced with the battalion into Palestine where he would have been involved in the first attempt to take Gaza on 26 March. In the attack the West Kents, along with the Gloucestershire Hussars and a section of artillery, were ordered to advance along the coast on the extreme left of the main assault in order that they might distract Turkish attentions.

At dawn on the day of the battle a thick sea fog held up the advance until 10 a.m. at which point the battalion pushed forward over the sand hills. Opposition was light and casualties minimal allowing the British to achieve their objectives, however just as victory seemed within their grasp, the unexpected arrival of Turkish reinforcements put pressure on the Allies and they were forced to withdraw.

On 19 April the battalion made a second attack on Gaza at a position southwest of the town known as Samson’s Ridge. In the action 38 men were killed and 9 officers and 145 men were wounded, with Lewis counting among the latter. The British had managed to achieve their first objectives, however elsewhere the gains were much less, and the operation was generally viewed as a failure.

Lewis’s movements during the remainder of 1917 are currently unknown, however it seems likely he had rejoined his unit later by the time the battalion began its advance through Hebron towards Jerusalem. On 8 December the West Kents found themselves on the ridge just south of Bethlehem and marched unopposed into Jerusalem two days later. The Turks had concentrated their fire on the main thrust of the Allied advance, which was approaching from the west, and had almost completely ignored the British flank on the east.

Five days later Lewis was based on the Mount of Olives, preparing to move on the El Aziziye ridge, which was just East of Jerusalem. At dawn on the 17th the battalion, along with the 4th Royal Sussex, successfully attacked the Turkish position and took over 100 prisoners. Jerusalem was firmly in British hands, and having repulsed a counter-attack on the 27th, they were able to establish a fairly secure line north and east of the city. By then, the weather had taken a turn for the worse, and it would have been with some relief that the battalion were able to move back into billets by the end of the year.

On 18 January the battalion was ordered to push forward the divisional front and capture a prominent hill near the Bireh road known as Sheikh Abdallah (otherwise called ‘Hill 2984’.) In the assault the objective was taken with little opposition and very few casualties were sustained, however during the early stages of consolidating their position, the Turks retaliated with heavy artillery fire and snipers inflicted a substantial number of British casualties. It seems probable Lewis was among those killed in this period, and his body taken back to Jerusalem, where it was buried in the City War Cemetery.

Lewis was posthumously awarded the 1915 Star, British War and Victory Medals.

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