Bill Hebden, an ordinary hero?
William Hebden, was the third of five children.
He was well known for
laughing at Laurel & Hardy films, so much so that no one would sit next to him, because
of his flailing arms!
Bill was born on 2/9/1916 in Whalley, Lancashire, this was half way through WW1.
(The battle of the Somme was in that July.). As a young child, he was lucky to
escape the Influenza virus that swept across England (and the rest of the
world!) after the war ended. It killed more people than died in the trenches at
somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. It has been cited as the most
devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in
a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to
1351. Known as "Spanish Flu" or "La Grippe" the influenza of 1918-1919 was a
The Family. I think my granddad, William Snr. was in the forces during the Great War He served with the Army Service corps, the unsung heroes of the British Army in the Great War - known as "Ally Sloper's Cavalry" (The term “Alley Sloper” was Victorian slang for the type of character who absconded when the landlord came to collect his rent and sloped down an alley out of the creditors sight.) - these were the men who operated the transportation that delivered everything. His life seems to have revolved around transport. A Charabanc driver & until he retired, he was driver for the Ribble Bus Company.
I never knew of grandma Nellie (nee Gooderham) doing any other work than a housewife.
His eldest brother Robert was born 1910 when his father was 22 and his mother was 24.
His sister Florence, my mother, was born in 1911.
Bill had a brother Kenneth who was born in 1926 (Bill Snr. would be 39)
The family had another daughter called Eva who died very young.
What was happening in Bill's life time?
When Bill was 6 (early school) Jack Hobbs the great Cricketer scored his 100th century & Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt.
When Bill was 11 Lindbergh flew the Atlantic & Al Jolson was in The Jazz Singer, the 1st. film with sound. Bill, it appeared was very keen on the cinema. For him, this was the era of Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy & Greta Garbo. The silent film was king. Maybe one of Bill's heroes was Houdini, who died when he was 10.
When Bill was 13 The Wall Street crash happened & St. Valentines day Massacre. Many people left England to go the States. It was the time America said "Send me your huddled masses". It must have been of great interest then. Bill may even have know people who left England to go to the USA. Arthur Lowe, Bill's future brother-in-law & his family had already gone out there to Pawtucket on Rhode Island to continue in the cotton trade. They only returned, as Arthur Snr. felt guilty about being away when WW1 started.
By the time he left school to work on a farm, the depression had started & his future adversaries, Hitler & Mussolini had come to power.
He joined up in Blackburn on 23/02/1935 to serve in the Royal Artillery for three years & nine years in the reserve. (The reserve was probably more important then, as a war was looming.) His service No. 845038. He was quickly posted to Malta for a three year tour of duty. That must have been some cultural shock to an eighteen year old farm labourer, who may have thought Blackburn was a major trip! Did he join the RA because of his love of horses? Or did he think that, at least I can handle one when I have to tow a gun?
He was back in England for only six months before he was shipped off as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on 13/09/1939, to France & beyond. They were kicked off the European soil at Dunkirk on 04/06/1940. He was a strong swimmer and got mentioned in dispatches, in the London Gazette on 20th. December 1940, for rescuing a comrade by swimming with him on his back. His rank then was Lance Bombardier (Royal Artillery's lance corporal). It is reported they were some of the last to leave the beaches.
Mentioned in Despatches (MID) is a military award for gallantry or otherwise commendable service. The award is relatively common, does not confer a medal and is relatively low in the order of precedence. A despatch is an official report from a senior commander, usually of an army, to his superiors, detailing the conduct of military operations. In the British Armed Forces, this report is published in the London Gazette. If a subordinate officer or soldier performs a noteworthy action included in the report, he/she is said to have been "mentioned in despatches". On page 7 of 30 pages, noted as "7174 supplement to the London Gazette 20th December 1940. The names of the under mentioned have been brought to notice in recognition of distinguished service in connection of operations in the field March-June 1940.
He was made up to a higher rank
on 25/8/1940. On the photograph, it looks like they are on training course as it is made up of men with two &
Bill's sister Florence kept the copies of letters from his comrades & documents from the government. I still have the New Testament he got me & signed in February 1942. In amongst Florence's items was a tarnished locket with two pictures of him, one in civvies & the other in uniform. Inside was a lock of Bill's hair. There was also a memorial card of his burial in Whalley Church yard. On it, it gave his age as 25. On his enlistment papers, it gave a birth date of 1916- 26 on his death. Did he need to be 18 to join? Did Bill lie about his age? Did they not have to give a birth certificate? Who knows? It appears he enjoyed the army. He was successful, when it counted, in a World War and died as the result of a simple accident.
It was reported in the Belfast Telegraph, 8th. July 1942 that, whilst he was with his regiment, the 17th. Battery, 1st H.A.A., Royal Artillery, in Rose Park camp, Dundonald, Belfast, Northern Ireland, he slipped as he helped remove a gun from a position. He was killed as the cannon knocked him down and passed over him.
Quote from his local paper.
Whalley soldier dies in hospital
Mr. & Mrs. William Hebden of 2 Poole End, Whalley, have received official notification that their second son, Sergeant William Hebden, of the Royal Artillery, has died in a military hospital in Belfast as the result of an accident. Twenty five years of age, Sergeant Hebden joined H.M. Forces seven years ago and had been in the thick of the fighting. He was one of the last men to leave the shores of Dunkirk, swimming to the boat with a comrade on his back. He served in Malta and has been stationed, in turn, in a large number of towns & cities at the time they were "blitzed". A keen athlete, he was a splendid swimmer and had won a number of medals since entering the army. As a boy he attended Whalley day school and on reaching leaving age entered the employ of J. Staveley, a local farmer.
Men, who die so young, can do no wrong.
All the memories, passed on by my mother, made me want to emulate such a hero.
But was Uncle Bill just another classic example of an ordinary hero? Thousands of whom, gave their lives in a fight against Fascism from 1939 to 1945.
Bill died on 30th. June 1942. In 2008, on the 90th anniversary of World War One, it seemed a good time to remember Uncle Bill once again. Today he would have been 92.
They shall not
grow old, as we grow old.
Age shall not weary them or the years condemned.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we shall remember them.