Written by Andrew Hughes (grandson)
William was a married man aged 36 years when war was declared in 1914 and it was some time before he enlisted. He lived in Cobham but worked in Weybridge as an Estate agent. When the government found that its supply of young men was drying up as they were slaughtered in the trenches, Lord Derby introduced a scheme whereby men were encouraged to “attest” to their willingness to serve. They were then called up in a sensible manner – the single men first, and the older and married men later. William was not called up until 1916.
He joined the infantry as a “footslogger” in the Norfolk Regiment, at the nearby Leatherhead recruiting office. His number was 266113 and he served his entire time as a Private Soldier. His unit was the 12th battalion, formed from the remains of a defunct cavalry unit, the Norfolk Yeomanry. It was based in the Middle East, to where he was sent after training.
Early in 1917 the battalion, consisting of 38 officers and 972 other ranks left its headquarters in Egypt, crossed the Suez Canal and entrained to the large British Army Camp at Kantara. It was to become involved in the campaign to conquer Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, one of Germany’s allies. The 12th was a constituent of the 230th Brigade of the 74th Division of the British Middle East Army and as such it saw action in April fighting to take Gaza, and later in the area around Tel el Fara. It then spent some time training in desert warfare from camps on the Mediterranean coast. These camps had exotic names like “Regents Park”. Here all the men were inoculated against cholera and TB, and some semblance of peacetime came with a Brigade instruction to commence band practice!
At the end of October the advance on Jerusalem began and the 12th Norfolks fought their way up to positions in the north of the city, commanded by Lt. Col. J. F. Barclay. In what are recorded as particularly bad winter weather conditions, wet and cold, the advance was made via various wadis (river beds) to a place known in the bible as Emmaus, but then called El Kubeibeh. Without greatcoats (in one of those unfortunately typical army accidents they were delivered to the wrong place) and with only iron rations, under fire from Turkish positions, the soldiers fought this primitive battle in the first few days of December. On the 7th December Beit Iksa was attacked by a joint 12th Norfolk, 10th Buffs, 16th Sussex and 15th Suffolk force. Enemy fire from nearby Neby Samwil inflicted heavy casualties. Sometime during the next day Private Hughes, together with a Sergeant and several other men (totalling 9) were reported killed. The Brigade’s war diary records, under the dateline February 8th, 15:30 hours
“Front line still held up by some enfilade fire from Beit Iksa ridge. The Coy from Support Bn. and left of 12th Norfolks had considerable casualties from MGs on Neby Samwil and during the whole action none of our infantry could be seen on Neby Samwil”.
The Division went on to win the engagement and Jerusalem was taken the next day, but this can have been little consolation to Flora and the children back home in Cobham who received the dreaded telegram as a very unwelcome Christmas present.
The 12th Norfolks were down to 23 officers and 783 men on November 31st. At the end of the battle for Jerusalem there were only 688 men. The Great War was a great killer of men.
William was buried in one of the British War Cemeteries, at the Mount of Olives just 5 kilometres north of Jerusalem. He was posthumously awarded two medals – The British War Medal and the Victory Medal. His name appears on the Norfolk Regiment War Memorial in Norwich Cathedral, and also on the Cobham memorial in the Cobham Parish Church of St Andrews.