Gerald Palmer was a small boy in the summer of 1914. He was four years old, and lived in the High Street, where his father was a saddler and harnessmaker. Gerald often roamed around Witham, and one of his favourite places was the railway station, where he used to peer through the railings.
One day he saw “lots of Khaki figures standing on the platform”. He was told they were “Territorials coming back from camp, and that they might be going to Belgium”.
A few days later, he saw “a stationary train, full of wounded soldiers, dark blue uniforms, red piping, glengarry caps, and local ladies serving them with tea”. He was told they were Belgians. So the First World War had begun, and Belgium and Britain had become allies against Germany.
That was on the 4th of August. By the 14th, the Boys National School had purchased a War Map, and marked the armies’ positions with red and black sealing wax.
Volunteers were sought for the army. Edgar Sainty senior joined up and later regretted it. After the War, the Essex County Council would not give him his job back, saying “No, you volunteered, you’ve let us down”.
A greater effort was asked for, and on 4th September, a meeting was held in Witham Public Hall “to consider the call of Lord Kitchener for recruits”. Witham Town Band “played patriotic airs about the streets beforehand”.
Among the speakers was the vicar, Canon Ingles. He announced that “I shall for ever be ashamed of my parish if she does not send out all her young men, and those of the proper age to fight. I don’t want to see the married men go out first. I want to see all the single men from 19 to 35 years clean out of Witham parish” Just over a fortnight later, his own son, Alexander, was killed in France at “the bombardment of Reims Cathedral”.
Mr Francis R Round, CMG, of Avenue House in Newland Street, was also reported to be at the meeting, but another paper implies that he was at the hospital bedside of his son, Lieutenant Auriol Round, in London, which seems more likely.
Auriol, aged 22, had been shot in the knee on 24 August at Le Cateau in northern France. He died of tetanus the day after the meeting at Witham. He was the first Army officer from Essex to die in the War. A very keen sportsman, he had been playing hockey in Germany three months earlier. Two of his brothers were to be killed later in the War.
Auriol’s funeral was in Witham. He was buried in what was to become the family grave. Bordered by kerb stones, it can still be seen near the back gate of the Holy Family and All Saints church. Sometimes it has a cross on it. It was rare to have a military funeral so near to home, and it was a very solemn and shocking occasion for the town, especially as it was so soon after the War had begun.
The newspaper reported that “nearly every family in Witham was represented at the funeral … for, besides the circumstances of the late officer’s death, he was the son of a gentleman who is a member of one of the oldest and most respected of Essex families, and who, as a magistrate of the Witham Bench, and one who identifies himself in many ways with the life and pastimes of the town, is esteemed by all the inhabitants. To this must be added the popularity of the late officer himself in Witham.”
That was the beginning of the First World War in Witham.
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in July 2014