Nobody would be surprised that the memories of Trooper George Hewitt remain very special in the mind of his daughter Jean. However we all should be disappointed that the story of his generation, and the many men of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles has largely disappeared into the depths of old military archives, to lay there forgotten and unread.
Thanks to Jean Shannon’s family who have taken the extra step to obtain a fathers military records we can build a framework of what these men experienced, and what a troopers life was like during this turbulent period of our nations history.
Personal memories of George will remain the private thoughts of those who knew him until his death in 1961. However, Army records can give us more than a snapshot of his life – within the space of a few pages filled in with official printed boxes on government forms, (dotted with numerous rubber stamps and officials scrawled initials,) we can learn a lot about a New Zealander who appears to be a good reflection of our immigrant-settler past.
George Henry Hewitt was born in Ireland on the 28th October 1889. His mother is listed on his records as next of kin, but her address is given as County Mayo, Ireland. It would be logical to believe therefore that George left his extended family in Ireland and immigrated to New Zealand as a young man while in his early twenties. The year was 1912.
He arrived in the South Island to work as a Farm-hand, and found that work was readily available to him in the Christchurch – Addington region. His last employment address before he enlisted in November 1916 shows that he worked on the Wilson Farm in Highbank.
George was 26 years old when he enlisted in Ashburton, and then began training with the 24th NZMR in Featherston in the North Island. A few months later on the 26th February of the following year after basic training, he was transferred to the 23rd NZMR and shortly thereafter to the Canterbury Mounted Rifles and on to Egypt with the 23rd Reinforcements.
Military records show he was strong barrel chested man that reflected the needs of his vocation as a farm-labourer. Standing just 5 feet 5 inches, he was truly stocky, with a three and a half inch chest expansion to 38.5inches, with ruddy complexion and blue eyes.
George saw action with the CYC (Canterbury Yeomanry Cavalry) after arriving in Egypt and was sent to the front in Palestine during 1917-18. Detailed service records and hospital records show that he was wounded in action on the 5th November 1917, receiving a serious shrapnel wound in his back.
Photographs right: Troopers D.Warren (left) and George Henry Hewitt Reg No. 36036 taken before departure in 1917
Before and after images show restoration work, above and below.
For George to have been in action on the 5th we know by circumstance that he would have seen action at the attack on Beersheba just a few days before on the 31st October. The CMR were involved with the attack at Tel el Saba with the NZMR Brigade and the Australian Light Horse.
After the Turkish defeat at Beersheba the NZMR gave chase of the fleeing enemy remnants, and caught up with the them in their next prepared defensive position at Khuwilfeh. The men were tired after many days searching out the enemy and also both men and horses were desperately short of water. But they knew that the Turk was under immense pressure too and the time was right to strike immediately when they found him.
By cross-referencing with Lieutenant Colonel James McCarroll’s personal diary of the 5th November 1917 we know that George’s injuries were the result of either Turkish shelling or the bomb fragments from German air attacks. The diary entry for the day reads:
Daylight brought on a terrific bombardment from the Turks and our Infantry attacked Khuwilfeh. With regards, this is a fair sized hill and commanding position, and we had a good view of the Infantry attacking. Both sides working their artillery very hard. Then as the shelling ceased a tremendous cheer went up and our Infantry rushed the position. The Turks fled. The Turks made a determined counter attack without result – The Canterbury Mounteds and the Wellington Mounteds got the hottest part. Fritz gave us some bombs and some shells dropped among the horses.
The Turks wanted this hill so they made another attempt, the Wellington Mounteds and our own 11th Squadron NAMR were put in to assist and the attack was beaten off.
Our horses had had no water for thirty hours, rations have not reached us and small parties took water bottles about five miles and filled them. Quartermaster’s branch had much difficulty getting rations to us in the darkness.
No sign of relieving force and at 10 pm the Brigadier conferred with commanding officers and we sent the horses back for a drink. They had to go about 12 miles. All but the machine gun packhorses went – we felt quite lonely without them."
George's particular hell would have been his evacuation from the battlefield to medical support many miles to the rear. If he was lucky, he may well have been supported by fellow troopers and then been able to ride back on his own mount the 12 miles to the Casualty Clearing Station. However he may have been among the many more seriously wounded that had to endure being stretched out by Camel Cacolets. This particular form of transportation of the wounded across the desert was a ride of swaying pain. Stretchers were slung each side of a camel, and a slow two miles an hour trek across burning sands to medical support was a feat of endurance that many did not survive. Then the CCS would have been just the start for George and the other seriously wounded. Perhaps days of intense pain as Cacolets, or sledge or sandcarts carried these men to the rail head at El Arish. Once there a further tedious journey by train across the Sinai Desert to Egypt, a bumpy lurching trip to Cairo. The trip from battlefield to hospital could take a week.
Cacolet Camels carrying wounded from the battlefield.
Active Service Casualty forms show that George required extensive hospitalisation for his shrapnel wound and although he was re-posted a number of times back to service, the wound dogged him for the rest of his service in the NZMR, indeed caused him much pain for the rest of his life.
George served one year, one hundred and seventy three days on overseas service. In total two years and thirty six days for his country.
What can be said about George is not what is written within official records but in the final lines of the letter George’s daughter wrote when she sent in his photographs and records:
“…My Dad leased a farm and worked very hard on it until his back injury caused his retirement. I have much to thank him for, as he taught me godly principles and loyalty.
Thank you again. Jean Shannon.”