The Victoria Cross is Britain's highest award for gallantry, a medal that is rarely given but always hard-earned. Many VCs were won during the First World War but only one went to a man from Pembrokeshire. That man was Hubert William Lewis, always known as ‘Stokey’, and he came from the fishing port and town of Milford.
Stokey had enlisted early on, after a recruiting march and meeting at Milford in September 1914. The parade supposedly consisted of upwards of 3,000 men and was addressed by Mr GHD Birt, JP.
The usual platitudes were given, including what had already become something of a cliché, not to mention a veiled threat: “Remember. The hero is the man who joins before he is compelled.”
Stokey Lewis was one of the first men to come forward when the call then went out for volunteers. He was just 20 years old and became a private in the 11th battalion of the Welsh Regiment, the unit that was known as The Cardiff Pals.
After training at Eastborne and Seaford, the ‘Pals’ went off to France where they served on the Western Front for a number of months. Then they were withdrawn from the lines and sent off to fight on the arid plains and mountains of Macedonia, the Salonika Campaign.
Salonika was a particularly pointless campaign, designed as much to keep Greece out of German hands as anything else. It began in 1915 and did not peter out until the Bulgarians were eventually compelled to sign an armistice on 30 September 1918.
Salonika was always something of a sideshow, neither side moving far and neither side managing to gain the upper hand. It was a brutal and exhausting campaign. In the words of K Cooper and JE Davies in their book The Cardiff Pals:
“A sideshow, yes, that was it! But what a place to stage it, where winter brought 20 degrees of frost and summer tipped the thermometer well over 100 degrees. Where a man could die from frostbite – or malaria.”
During a trench raid on the night of 22 October 1916, Hubert Stokey Lewis found himself one of the men charging into the German and Bulgarian trenches. Despite being wounded twice, Stokey managed to leap into the trench and then proceeded to search the enemy dugouts to see if any Germans or Bulgarians were hiding there.
Stokey refused first aid for his wounds and continued to hunt for hidden Germans – during the course of his searching he was wounded yet again. Then, as the order was given to head back down the hill towards their own lines was finally given, he heard a cry for help. It came from the recently raided German trench. By now the Germans were laying down a heavy barrage, determined that none of the raiding party would make it back to their own lines.
Despite the heavy artillery fire, Stokey Lewis, with little or no regard to his personal safety, turned back to the German lines. He leapt into the trench and there he found the wounded man, Lieutenant Turner, lying on the fire step inside the trench.
Stokey was a small man but one with a large heart. Without a moment's hesitation, as Cooper and Davies have written: “Little Lewis slung the Lieutenant over his shoulder and staggered out of danger. Later he helped other wounded men with complete disregard for his own safety. And by 4.30am the raiders, their prisoners and their wounded had reached their own wire.”
The trench raid had been highly successful and decorations were liberally handed out. A DSO and three Military Crosses were awarded, along with a number of DCMs. But Stokey Lewis, the cheerful little man from Milford Haven, found that his reward was the much-coveted Victoria Cross for “outstanding valour in the face of the enemy.” He was also awarded the Medaille Militaire by France.
Stokey survived the campaign in Salonika and came back home to Milford. During the Second World War he served with the Home Guard in his native county but lost his son during that later conflict when the young man was killed in a bomber over Germany.
Stokey Lewis lived a long life, a modest and incredibly brave man. He eventually died on 22 February 1977, Pembrokeshire's only Victoria Cross winner during the long and bitter First World War.