The two World Wars have left indelible marks on my family and it is their legacies that drive me to try to be the best battlefields tour guide I can be. My paternal Grandfather, Henry Hawtin, was a career soldier who entered the Army as a Boy Soldier on 1st July 1905 and retired a decorated officer of The Royal Engineers on 9th April 1947.
His brother Joseph (my Great Uncle) served in the infantry and disappeared during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and, his eldest son Harry (my Uncle), served as a Wireless Operator / Air Gunner with the Mediterranean Air Force in WW2, until his aircraft vanished during a bombing raid on the German ‘Gothic Line’ in Italy, 1944.
As boys, Joseph and Henry lost their soldier father (my Great Grandfather) to Tuberculosis and, as a result, were both enrolled into The Duke of York’s Royal Military School. Joseph entered The Gordon Highlanders on leaving school, serving in India with 2nd Battalion before becoming a tram driver in Sheffield prior to The Great War. He was recalled to the Colours when war broke out and served with 1st Gordons in Ypres from November 1914 until his Battalion moved to The Somme in mid 1916. Part of his legacy is in the form of a letter, published in The Sheffield Telegraph in 1915, which sharply describes an attack he was in at Maedelstede Farm on The Messines Ridge in December 1914. The battalion were cut to pieces by accurate German fire, but a partial entry to German lines by the neighbouring battalion led General Sir Horrace Smith-Dorrien to conclude that future attacks could succeed by use of heavy artillery bombardments followed rapidly by infantry assault. He spent the Christmas of 1914 in the trenches at Vierstraat, a location within sight of Maedelstede Farm and visible today from Bavaria Wood (Bayernwald) where Anglia Tours annually conducts a Christmas Truce recreation. Having survived numerous actions at Hooge, The Bluff and elsewhere around Ypres, Serjeant Joseph Hawtin was killed in an attack on the village of Longueval on the Somme on 18 July 1916. He has no known grave. Today his name can be seen on The Thiepval Memorial to The Missing of The Battles of The Somme. This memorial, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission memorial in the World lists just over 72,000 names of the fallen for whom the fortunes of war have denied a known grave. It is always included in Anglia Tours Somme trips and invariably leaves a lasting impression on visitors.
Henry began The Great War in South Africa and reached The Western Front some 10 days apart from his brother. Having spent time blowing bridges near Nieuport on the coast, he was by Christmas 1914, working in the Plugstreet Wood / Armentieres sector constructing trenches and other field works as the war bogged down into stalemate. Whilst we will never know if he took part in The Christmas Truce/s that occurred in his sector it is fairly certain that he would have known about it. It is therefore with extreme pride that I help keep the memory of this unique event alive by portraying Corporal Henry Hawtin during the Anglia Tours Christmas Truce tours.
1915 saw Henry’s company converted into No 171 Tunnelling Company RE (171 T Coy RE) – one of the first specialist mining units formed to combat German underground warfare – and by September he was the acting Company Sergeant Major, a role he fulfilled until the end of the war, being twice Mentioned in Despatches in the process. Their work began at the infamous Hill 60 then progressed to Messines in 1916. Through detailed research, and on occasion lucky coincidence, I have been able to trace his wartime work. His most obvious legacy is the mine crater at Spanbroekmolen on The Messines Ridge, today known as ‘The Pool of Peace’. Coincidently the crater is only a few hundred meters from Maedelstede Farm, the buildings of which can be seen from the crater lip. The vast crater is maintained by The Talbot House Society having been purchased by Lord Wakefield in the 1920s. Ironically, CSM Hawtin also knew ‘Tubby’ Clayton, the Army Chaplain who set up Talbot House in Poperinge in 1915, and my Grandmother used to tell stories of how he and his Engineers helped with the construction of the chapel in the building’s attic! 171 Tunnelling Company were responsible for 6 charges out of the 19 mines that were fired on 7th June 1917, but it is the one at Spanbroekmolen which was perhaps their most significant and today probably one of the most visited.
After Messines the work of the tunnellers changed from offensive mining to the construction of deep, shell proof dugouts in areas of ground captured from the Germans during what became known as The Third Battle of Ypres. Many of these dugouts, passageways, and in some cases vast underground barracks to shelter thousands of men, still exist beneath the villages and fields passed on every battlefield tour of Ypres.
Henry Hawtin continued his army career after The Great War, marrying a lady who was one of the very first members of The Women’s Royal Air Force. He rose through the ranks to become a Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) before being Commissioned in 1934. During WW2 he served in Ireland, Palestine, The Sudan and Great Britain. During his time in Palestine he was decorated for his actions during and after an Italian bombing raid on his RE Stores Dump at Haifa. He died peacefully in his adopted home town of Sheffield in 1977 with his wife and my father by his side. He never spoke about his wartime service, but I do remember him vividly, especially his stories about teaching the ‘young officers’ bridging whilst serving as a Regimental Sergeant Major at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst!
In 2008, I was privileged to be invited to view a 171 T Coy RE dugout being studied at Vampir Farm (Zonnebeke, Ypres) by the historian Peter Barton and Professor Tony Pollard of the Glasgow University Archaeological Research Department. This was an incredibly moving experience, especially when Peter Barton pointed out that whilst it was quite common to be able to say, ‘my relative served in this sector, or somewhere in this village’, it was very rare to be able say ‘he was right here’. As CSM, it is also likely that Henry Hawtin gave the men the orders to withdraw from Vampir Dugout in light of German attacks in 1918 as the company officers were already surveying new lines for construction near Ypres. I was somewhat surprised to learn that my visit, and a photograph of my Grandfather taken in 1918 would feature in two TV documentaries later that year!
In June and July 2017, I was once again privileged and humbled to take part in two Great War Centenary events connected with Henry Hawtin and his company. The first was attendance at The UK and Ireland Ceremony commemorating the Battle of Messines on 07 June 2017 (which I preceded with a dawn visit to Spanbroekmolen Mine Crater), and the second was being present at the private unveiling of a plaque by HRH The Prince of Wales and The King of The Belgians, commemorating the opening of the 171 T Coy RE Zonnebeke Church Dugout on 31 July 2017. This second event coincided with a huge Great War event at The Memorial Museum Passendaele 1917 in Zonnebeke, another location often visited by Anglia Tours and used as a backdrop during Christmas Truce Tours. The dugout unveiling proved to be an incredible experience. To follow once more in the Great War footsteps of my Grandfather was one thing, but to do so in concert with senior Royalty is a memory I will hold for the rest of my life. The funny thing is, were the old soldier to have witnessed these events, he would have probably referred to them as ‘a whole load of fuss and Tommy Rot!’