A hundred years ago, our forbears had already lived through several months of the First World War. One of Witham’s volunteers was 32 year old Ernest Glass of 4 Chalks Road. He was a bricklayer’s labourer, but he joined the Navy and became a “stoker 1st class” on the ship H.M.S. Good Hope. Before long he was 7,500 miles away in the south Pacific.
On 1 November 1914, his and three other British ships met a superior German fleet at Coronel, off the coast of Chile. Ernest died when his ship and another were burned and sunk with the loss of 1,600 men. Left behind in Witham were his parents John and Alice, and a young brother and sister, Andrew and Hilda.
Back at home, one of the biggest surprises of the War had been the rapid arrival in Essex of large numbers of British troops from other parts of the country for training. In Witham alone there were sometimes 2,000 men billeted, which doubled the adult population. The first to arrive were the 1st/7th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
Mrs Nicol of Guithavon Street said “Everybody, if they’d got an inch of room to spare, they had to have soldiers. My aunt had three soldiers. Whitehall, that was the Quartermaster’s stores [now the Library]. And the food those soldiers used to bring in. Well, it was absolutely wicked, really. Great hunks of cheese like that, a whole ham at a time, a whole shoulder of lamb they’d bring in, and when they went away, I should think my aunt had twenty four, thirty tins of jam in her cupboard that they’d left.”
Mrs Elsie Hammond recalled that “They used to bring the rations round. Oh, that was a good time for us. Yes, because you see, for four soldiers you had quite a bit of meat. We, I think that really was a, absolute change in our house then. I think that was a little bit of a turning point for having more food. I believe I had to sleep on the floor, me and my sister in another little room, what you could make into a bathroom nowadays.
Mr Cecil Ager told me with great amusement about the experience of his employer, Mr Goodchild, a butcher in the High Street. “The officer came to find out what the premises were like. And then, ‘Right, fall in six men’. I’ll always remember it. Well, old Goodchild nearly fell through the floor! Six men, in they marched, trampled in, with all their equipment on, rifles and bayonets and good knows what, kitbags.” Apparently Mr Goodchild had two shops, with the bedrooms over the shops, and another house as well.
The Croxalls’ house at the Gas works in Mill Lane was also rather special. Miss Lucy Croxall and her sister Mrs Eva Hayes remembered that they were amongst “the only people that happened to have bathrooms, you see. Not everyone had a bathroom in those days. That’s why we had officers, two officers billeted on us, because we had a bathroom.”
The soldiers soon became involved in the life of the town, and I hope to write more about that another time. In March 1915 the 1st/7th Battalion completed their training, so, as Cecil Ager put it, they were ready “to be sent out to France to be shot”. Their last Church Parade is pictured above. The next battalion to be living in Witham was also from the Warwicks, this time the 2nd/7th, shown below.
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in July 2014