Victor William Hyatt
In 1886, the actor-manager Sir Frank Benson established an annual Shakespeare Festival at the Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Following his appearance at the celebrations in the school quadrangle for Empire Day on May 24 1910, he began a happy association with King Edward VI School. In 1913, he invited the school to present a special production of Henry V as part of the Shakespeare Festival in the Memorial Theatre between April 21 and May 14. It was reviewed enthusiastically in both the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald and The Morning Post, the boys ‘scored a triumph, far exceeding previous rumour and expectation’ and threw themselves heartily into the production, that was ‘a blaze of colour, with variegated pennons and flashing swords and shields.’ The Captain of the School, Raymond Meadows, gave ‘a remarkable performance…admirable beyond his years.’
They were indeed a noble ‘band of brothers,’ for seventeen of the main cast of twenty five boys were to enlist in the armed forces following the outbreak of war in 1914.’Playing ‘the blunt soldier Williams’, VICTOR WILLIAM HYATT became one of the lads who would ‘die in their glory and never grow old.’ He had flourished at King Edward VI School as a boarder between 1905 and 1913. Joining the 1st XI in 1911, he was appointed a Monitor in 1912, and became Captain of Cricket in 1913, in addition to winning the Fives and Gymnasium Challenge Cups.
Following the declaration of war on August 4, Benson’s company gave a special performance of Henry V – ‘now all the youth of England are on fire’– and within a matter of weeks the war dominated every activity in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Picture House in Greenhill Street screened the latest war news with an appeal to ‘The Common Cause.’ Already food shortages were apparent, popularly blamed on unscrupulous hoarding, and there was fear that a prolonged war would result in starvation. Stratford was contributing more men to the war effort than any other town in the county three times its size. A euphoric meeting was held on Wednesday September 16 at the American Fountain in Rother Street with demands for even more recruits. Desperate for men, the recruiting office in Sheep Street announced that the minimum height had been reduced to five feet. The Town Hall became a hospital with forty beds filled by wounded Belgian soldiers, and there was a roll of honour of local recruits. A ‘Belgian House’ was opened in Guild Street for refugees, and a badge day held for it in October that collected £63. The vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Canon Melville, lent the parish parlour to a new company of Territorial Rifles as its temporary headquarters. The first commander was the 26- year- old Captain Bruce Bairnsfather of Bishopton, who would later devise an iconic image of the war with his cartoon character ‘Old Bill.’
Victor Hyatt was the eighteen year old son of a Wood Street saddler and harness maker. He enlisted in 1915 with two of his friends from school, Ronald Newland (a boarder between 1907-1913) who became a Lieutenant in the Public Schools Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) – wounded in the arm whilst leading a patrol Ronald was repatriated to hospital in Oxford – and John Picket (1908-1914), who was wounded in August 1916 and survived the war as a prisoner of war.
Victor became a Private in D Company, 18 Battalion Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), and in June 1915 moved to Clipstone Camp in Nottinghamshire. Taken over by the War Office the following month, the battalion moved to Wiltshire for intensive training in preparation for action on the Western Front. In August he moved to Tidworth, and on November 8, Victor was with the battalion inspected by Queen Mary before it embarked from Folkstone a week later. German mines at the entrance to the harbour delayed their arrival at Boulogne. Moving to the area around Bethune, the men were billeted in a tobacco factory and the Ecole Michelet in the town. Victor entered the trenches for the first time at Vermelles, before moving in severe weather and hard frost to Le Plantin, north-west of Givenchy. His reported ‘bright and energetic disposition’ won him many friends. When not frozen, the trenches were desperately wet and badly drained, the parapets old and broken, and most of the shelters were inadequate and quite unsafe. With no communication trenches between the support and the firing lines, movement during the day was totally impossible and any relief could only take place at night. Men lost their rifles, their equipment and even their boots in the thick mud, whilst the Germans shelled them remorselessly. Victor needed every ounce of reserve to maintain his humour.
He had been in France for just under a month when on December 5, during a period of intense shelling and as a result of the rain and severe wetness, Victor’s dug-out had become dangerously unsafe – the term at the time was ‘cranky’, causing the wooden posts and sandbags to fall and crush him. He lies buried at Brown’s Road Military Cemetery at Festubert, five miles north-east of Bethune.
In a letter to Victor’s mother, his school friend Ronald Newland wrote that ‘It is the greatest sorrow I have ever had, for after all he was the greatest friend I ever had. The only possible consolation I can hold out to you is that he suffered no pain and death was practically instantaneous.’ Victor is commemorated on the Memorial and Reredos in Holy Trinity Church, on the War Memorial in the Garden of Remembrance, and in the Memorial Library at his old school.
18 Battalion had a comparatively light introduction to warfare, for it was disbanded on April 24 1916 and most of these well educated young men were commissioned and dispersed to other battalions and regiments.