VISIT | Remembering the Bravery of Allan Lewis VC at Whitney-on-Wye | Herefordshire
Herefordshire's only Victoria Cross
Discover a young man called Allan Leonard Lewis who did something brave, twice
Find out how Whitney-on-Wye remembers a young man one hundred years on...
Pay tribute to the memory of a Victoria Cross holder here in rural Herefordshire
"...the village proud of its connection with Great War bravery..."
“For most conspicuous bravery at Rossnoy on the 18th September, 1918, when in command of a section on the right of an attacking line held up by intense machine-gun fire. L./Cpl. Lewis, observing that two enemy machine guns were enfilading the line, crawled forward single-handed, and successfully bombed the guns, and by rifle fire later caused the whole team to surrender, thereby enabling the line to advance. On 21st September, 1918, he again displayed great powers of command, and, having rushed his company through the enemy barrage, was killed whilst getting his men under cover from heavy machine-gun fire. Throughout he showed a splendid disregard of danger, and his leadership at a critical period was beyond all praise.”
Supplement to the London Gazette 31 January 1919
On the 10th April 1919, nearly six months after the war ceased Mr and Mrs Allan made their way to Buckingham Palace from rural Herefordshire. It should have been a moment of pride and triumph; and perhaps it was but maybe it was also tinged with sadness and grief. For their son was dead. His body lost in the mire of war. No grave to mourn. No words to write in his epitaph. No son to return. Just this. At Buckingham Palace, a Victoria Cross was given by King George VI posthumously to their son Lance Corporal Allan Lewis of the Northamptonshire Regiment. Imagine what words the King might have used, used a thousand times…
How heavy that medal must have felt? A piece of metal that represented the bravery, the skill, the character of their boy Allan. When they left on the train home did they clutch it in their hands?
But now fast forward, over one hundred years later and despite time passing, they are some who still remember the man. Whitney-on-Wye is a sleepy village which sits aside the river Wye up past Hereford city. The church is a delight. And there if you take a moment to learn and consider are the remembrances by this village of the man who once was here.
However, I would be clear here that both Whitney and Brilley claim some ownership of this special man. Brilley village lies a little to the north. But in truth, Allan Leonard Lewis was born on the 28th February 1895 in Whitney-on-Wye, Herefordshire. He was one of nine children, and by 1901, the family settled in nearby Brilley. His parents were George Lewis, who was born in Brilley in c. 1868 and his wife, Annie, who was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset in 1869. Allan was the second oldest child of the family, with only his brother Frank, older than him. He attended local schools, but by the age of 13, he had left to work on the land as a farm labourer like so many of the young in this area.
By 1911, Allan had left home as a 16-year-old and was working as a cow man on a farm owned by Arthur and Mary Ann Price on the Welsh border near to Hay-on-Wye. He left there eventually to became a gardener at Truscoed House near Llandeilo in West Wales.
After war broke out in 1914. Allan enlisted in Neath with the Royal Army Service Corps in March 1915. He had been working for the Great Western Railway. He had moved to Neath, and, after a period as a conductor, he drove a GWR bus on the Pontardawe route. There appears to have bee some questions as to why he was not commemorated by GWR on their memorials or indeed as a Victoria Cross holder, on a train. But rough explanations appear to point towards the fact that he left to join up with the army without letting his employers know and certainly without their permission. Maybe this was enough for his local employers to take offence.
But on the Western Front, he moved from the A.S.C. to the 6th Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment. The 6th were a new service battalion – formed in 1914 at Northampton and had finally hit France in July 1915. Their war service ticked off all the major offensives of the First World War – on the Somme, on the Ypres Salient and knee-deep in the battles with the Spring Offensive and beyond. And somewhere along the way, Private Lewis became Lance-Corporal Lewis.
In September 1918, a mere two months before the cessation of war, Allan Lewis, in two separate incidents, singled himself out for behaviour that merited award. On the first occasion, he attacked enemy machine gun positions whilst his company was under heavy fire without thought for himself; and the second was in defence of his company, getting his men to cover. The first incident was enough to merit a Victoria Cross – the highest award for bravery – the second incident was enough to kill him. He lost his life in the defence of his men – it would be a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Allan was a young man. He was just 23 years of age. They say war brings out the true character of a person. A man who would crawl through mud to single-handedly take out an enemy. A man who would be their last line of defence to ensure the protection of his men. A man who would die in the process.
Contemporary accounts suggest that he was killed by a shrapnel wound to the head; that an Australian soldier found his body some days later confirmed by a paybook with his name on it. But his body was lost.
The truth would have made it home. Killed in action. And then to hear in January 1919 that their son had been awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. Can you fathom their emotions?
Allen Lewis VC is commemorated at the Vis-en-Artois Memorial in France. His name remains there in perpetuity. But it is just a name. Back home, real home, they remembered him. His name written on the war memorials at Brilley and Whitney; the beautiful cavalry on the outside of the church; and eventually on the family headstone. But in September 1919, when the people of Herefordshire came together to pay tribute to the service of their people; thousands turned up in the city of Hereford. Ex-servicemen, their families, their kids. Four bands. People lined the streets to cheer and sing. The wounded processed the streets in cars. This was a celebration of return, of survival; a tribute to service. But they did not forget their only Herefordshire-born VC; Mr and Mrs Lewis were specially invited. Records show that they were given a standing ovation, the only thing this local crowd to do, to give their gratitude to their dead son.
Lance Corporal Allan Leonard Lewis is now very popular, it seems that everyone wants to claim ownership of the bravery of this young man. Best not to ask whether he was a Whitney man or a Brilley man. And whether Neath can claim bragging rites over this particular VC is arguable. But it matters not, here at Whitney they remember this remarkable individual. A young man born of this shire, of this land – whose character for heroic selflessness led to a VC and his death – it is good enough for anyone to remember here. For they asked us to remember.
So come to Whitney, pause a while – take in the church, gaze at the lovely wooden cavalry outside, at the thoughtful modern tributes, at the plaque on the tree, at the copy of the letters inside. And then if time allows, take a wander on the walk which wanders from Whitney to Brilley and beyond – it celebrates the best of this man, a man of this place and there, but places that are proud of the soldier, of the man that exemplified all that was good of their home.
We will remember them.
Directions and Map |
Find the church set back off the main road A438 which runs through Whitney-on-Wye in north-west Herefordshire to or from Hay-on-Wye to Hereford