Stokey Lewis, Victoria Cross winner

Tuesday 17 December 2013, 16:40

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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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 Then they were withdrawn from the lines and sent off to fight on the arid plains and mountains of Macedonia, the Salonika Campaign.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.

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    Comment number 1.

    What an incredibly brave man, Phil. And in his early twenties – at an age when my generation was enjoying being carefree students. We owe such brave men, from both World Wars, because without them we couldn’t have been carefree students in the 1960s. Having stood in the remnants of some WW1 trenches in Belgium, not Greece, surrounded by battle scarred trees, I truly believe it is beyond our imagining what it was like to be in such a place in wartime, let alone how such men as Stokey Lewis were motivated.
    Something that does surprise me, Phil, is that he was the only one from Pembrokeshire awarded the VC. But then, many Pembrokeshire men volunteered but were rejected – because at that time such was the military presence in Pembrokeshire that many of their occupations were considered more important to the war effort than being at the front. My grandfather was one of 9 brothers, all volunteered but only three were accepted. The others were shipwrights in the Royal Dockyard or like my Grandfather worked at the Ordnance at Hobbs Point, and it was considered that they were more use to the country using their skills working for the military, than learning new ones such as firing a Lee Enfield rifle, in the military.

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    Comment number 2.

    Your comment about the dockyard men interested me. I was doing some research a few years ago and came across several newspaper articles that called Pembroke Dockyard a "funk hole" - in other words a place where men who didn't want to fight could sit and wait out the war. It was so unfair, I thought. The men in the dockyard - like other RN yards across Britain, like the coal mines for that matter - were as keen to do their bit as anyone else. But so many, as you say, were turned down because their job was considered of national importance. So to be labelled "cowards" must have been doubly hard to take.

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    Comment number 3.

    Hi Phill,
    Stokey certainly was a brave man, His wife and my mother were sisters. I have a small collection of various things about Stokey only the other week a lady came into the small shop I run and gave me a cigarette packet signed on the side by the man himself for my collection, when she was leaving she asked me to take a look inside which I did once she had left. Inside were a cutting of the ribbons off his 4 war medals including the V.C.

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    Comment number 4.

    What a brilliant story - and with the personal connections. Don't ever let it out of your possession (unless it's a loan to a museum). That's what history is all about.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    History is one thing. To have a personal connection with the past, as tronce has outlined, that's something different. Something very special.

 

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