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 his father found work as a carrier and furniture removal man. After William’s untimely death in 1909, the family moved to 12 Whatcote Cottages in Platt where Lewis and his siblings transferred from Borough Green to Platt School. Before the war, the family moved again, this time to Railway Cottages in Wrotham Heath, and young Lewis eventually became a member the Platt Guild, which was a boys group run by Mr King-Smith in a hut at Platt Farm.

He enlisted in the Army aged 16 on 10 September 1914 and joined the 2/4th Battalion, The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment) which had been formed the same month as second line unit and in November attached to the 2nd Kent Brigade in the 2nd Home Counties Division. After a period of training at Ascot, and then Cambridge, Lewis would have found himself based in Bedford when the battalion received orders to proceed overseas in July 1915. Along with the instructions came tropical clothing, so it would have been clear to the West Kents that they would not be embarking for France. Now part of the 160th Brigade in the 53rd (Welsh) Division, they had been selected to reinforce the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in a new offensive to secure the Dardanelles by landing at Suvla Bay on the Gallipoli peninsula and simultaneously taking the attention away from the Anzac position.

Lewis left Devonport on 18 July and sailed with his unit on board the SS Northland for Alexandria. The voyage lasted 13 days, and on arrival, they immediately proceeded to Mudros and voyaged onwards to Gallipoli. The battalion eventually landed at Suvla’s West Beach during the evening of 10 August, which was four days after the start of what turned out to be a failed offensive. Three days later they had worked their way up to the firing line, 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 and left no opportunity to take a shot at any careless West Kents.

A regimental history written after the war recounted that the battalion’s time at Suvla was ‘one of monotonous hardships’. There was occasional shelling; however, rifle fire was persistent and was indistinguishable from attack or defence. Even periods away from the front line were far from safe, and 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 while 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.

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

Lewis began 1917 based in the Sinai desert 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 so that they might distract Turkish attentions. At dawn on the day of the battle, a thick sea fog held up the advance until 10:00 am at which point the battalion pushed forward over the sand hills. The 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 an area southwest of the town known as Samson’s Ridge. During the action, 38 men lost their lives (including Thomas Bance from Whatcote Cottages), and nine officers and 145 men were wounded, with Lewis numbering among the latter. The British had managed to achieve their first objectives, however elsewhere the gains were much less successful, and the operation seen as a failure.

Lewis’s movements during the remainder of 1917 are currently unknown; however, it seems likely he had rejoined his unit 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 the city. 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 reasonably 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 was able to move back into billets by the end of the year.

On 18 January the West Kents were 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, they took their objective with little opposition and sustaining very few casualties. However, during the early stages of consolidating the position, the Turks retaliated with heavy artillery and sniper fire which inflicted a substantial number of battalion killed and wounded. Lewis was one of those who lost his life and his body taken back to Jerusalem, where it was buried in the City War Cemetery.