First World War Letters of Philip and Ruth Hewetson

Philip and Ruth Hewetson were the children of the Rev William Hewetson, rector of Salhouse, Norfolk, and his wife Kathleen.  Both were involved in the First World War: their letters home provide a very full account of the experiences of a young man and woman in wartime.  Those from Philip number almost 250, covering August 1914 to May 1918.  There are about sixty letters from Ruth, who was away for a much shorter period, covering April to October 1918.

Philip Hewetson

Philip was born in 1893, and educated at Repton public school and Oriel College, Oxford.  He signed up for the Army on 25 August 1914, the day after his 21st birthday.  He joined the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment as a second lieutenant: because of his education and his time in the Officer Training Corps at Repton, he was able to go in as a junior officer.  He trained with the regiment at Felixstowe.  His letters home describe training procedures, social activities including sports matches against teams from other regiments, and also more serious activities such as news of the war and speculation about when the men would go abroad.

Philip was sent to France for the first time in June 1915: the letters describe his experiences in the reserve trenches and in the front line, including coming under fire for the first time.  They describe the daily routine, the countryside around, and the welcome arrival of food parcels from home.

Extract from one of Philip’s letters

Philip’s first major action was at the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915.  For Philip, the action was short: he was wounded early in the day and lay out in No Man’s land for nine hours.  His letters then stop for several weeks: wounded in the arm, he was probably unable to write.  He was bought back to England, reaching a convalescent home at Hursley Park near Winchester, from where he wrote in October and November describing his gradual recovery from his wounds.  When he was well enough, he returned to Salhouse to recuperate.

He then undertook a second stint at Felixstowe, writing his first letter home on 25 April 1916: his descriptions of his experiences include references to zeppelin raids.  For six months he acted as assistant adjutant for the 3rd battalion, returning to action in France on 16 March 1917.  He was at the Battle of Messines on 7 June and took over ‘C’ Company a week later. However, he had not fully recovered and returned to England in October: on undergoing a medical, he was found unfit for active service.  He spent the winter of 1917-8 in Felixstowe yet again.

In April 1918, he finally persuaded the authorities that he was fit enough for active service and went to France for a third, and final, time.  His last letter home was written on 19 May 1918.  The family received a telegram saying that he was missing on 16 June, but it was several months before they knew what had happened.  Wounded during a German attack, Philip had been captured and taken to a war hospital where his leg was amputated.  He died in captivity on 3 July, just two months before his 25th birthday.

Ruth Hewetson, born in 1897. was sixteen when the war broke out, and was attending Norwich High School for Girls.  There was no compulsion for women to take part in war work, but many young women like Ruth wanted to be involved: comments in Philip’s letters show her considering various possibilities such as canteen work, joining the women’s arms of the army or navy, or going in for nursing.  She continued at school until early 1918.  Eventually she joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment as a General Service Member.  She was sent to the military hospital at Fargo in Larkhill, Wiltshire, for an initial six-month period; she undertook general duties like cleaning and kitchen work.  It was the first time she had been away from home.  Her first letter home was written on 16 March 1918 (‘I’m in a hut divided into dear little cubicles by curtains’).  The letters describe her first impressions of the hospital, her day-to-day duties and her relationship with her work colleagues.  As a parson’s daughter she was shocked by the crude language of some of them: this social dilution was a recognised problem among women as the number and social range of volunteers grew.  However, she also made some very good friends.  She considers her own future too, several time mentioning that she may train to become a nurse.

Ruth Hewetson

The letters show her gaining in confidence as an individual, and also relate events at the hospital, such as the presence of American nurses – and of German prisoners of war.  She describes an outbreak of influenza in June 1918: ‘Just at present we’re fearfully busy because there’s a very bad outbreak of the ‘flu’ on the Plain – it has been in London & is supposed to come from Spain.  The Hospital is crammed – 2 or 3 new wards opened & today men lying out on the grass waiting for beds!’

Poster asking women to join Voluntary Aid Detachments

Ruth had only been at Fargo for just over three months when her brother was declared missing: her letters home describe the family’s anxiety, and speculation as to his possible fate as a prisoner.  After her initial period was up, Ruth returned to Salhouse to be with her parents: her last ‘letter’ home is a postcard postmarked 12 October 1918.

Part of Ruth’s letter describing her living quarters at Fargo

Ruth lived in Bedford in later life.  The family letters were clearly very important to her: during her final illness in 1983, she passed them on to her local vicar for preservation.  Eventually, they were deposited with the Norfolk Record Office.  They are of great importance for the detailed and vivid description they provide of Norfolk men and women playing their part in the First World War.

Postcard of Amesbury marked by Ruth to show a friend’s house and the route to Fargo

The First World War Letters of Philip and Ruth Hewetson is edited by Frank Meeres, and was published by the society in 2014.

This blog post was written by Frank Meeres