“There was always an air of expectancy as a new battalion marched into Witham. I was a boy standing open-eyed outside my father’s harness-maker’s shop in the High Street, then a small market town. They marched in fours – packs on backs, rifles shouldered, bayonet scabbards at hips, each company with captain marching ahead, lieutenants behind”. Gerald Palmer wrote this in 1988, about the First World War. He was four when the War began.
He continued: “Young women, and older ones too, stood on the pavement, smiling and waving, and there were some saucy remarks, and whistles from the men themselves. Most glamorous of all, and cheeky too, were the kilted Highland regiments. Often there was a band marching in front, and often the men made their own music, ‘Mademoiselle from Armentieres’,
‘It’s a long, long trail a-winding’.
‘Hello, hello, who’s your lady friend?
Who’s the little girlie by your side?
I’ve seen you, .. with a girl or two,
Oh, oh, oh, I am surprised at you’”
In a previous article I described the billeting of most of the soldiers with Witham families, who often found it beneficial. The equipment and horses were taken to the fields on either side of The Avenue, and the other soldiers camped there to look after them. Gerald Palmer watched their arrival and wrote “Occasionally there was cavalry, and sometimes horse artillery, with gun carriages and ammunition limbers, long lines of mules, with shell-laden panniers. Their arrival was more subdued, the clomping of the hooves, the jingling of harness. Artillery and cavalry went into the big meadows, which lay on each side of the fine avenue of lime trees, now The Avenue, where I remember the marquees, bell-tents, and long lines of tethered horses and mules.”
Other people had similar memories. For instance Walter Peirce (born in 1908) described “a great big camp from Collingwood Road right through to Avenue Road. Then in Collingwood Road they had the great big bake houses where you used to put all your wood in, heat all the oven up, then you’d clear it out and you put your dough in and you’d bake all the bread and that there”.
Mrs Edith Brown, born in 1896, said that “they were all over the place, they had The Avenue, didn’t they, for the horses and going down Collingwood Road on the left as you go down, that’s all houses there now, they used to be just meadows there and you could see the soldiers all cooking there, got all their things built, you know, what they cook with.”
Most of the soldiers seem to have made themselves at home fairly quickly. George Hayes (born in 1904) told me about the ones that lived with his family. “I think nearly all of them had been in prison for something but you could leave five bob’s worth of silver and they wouldn’t touch it. Two of them used to borrow Dad’s ferret and they used to go all over where nobody else would go and they used to sell the rabbits for beer.
And one Christmas they had to be in by eight o’clock and they used to dress up in women’s clothes and so they’d be down the pub till ten.. ‘Whenever they got leave home, you know seven days at home, they always had to send an escort down after them, never came back of their own free will, they always had an escort. They were known as Ferret and Nutty. Ferret was a little thin bloke and Nutty was a big fellow”
Others made a more cultural contribution. Alf Baxter (born in 1899) remembered when his father brought his melodeon out to one of their soldiers and said “‘Can you play?’ ‘Just a wee bit, just a wee bit’ he said. And he started and he was playing all Scotch reels and everything like that. And my father said ‘Well, After hearing you play, man, I come to the conclusion I know nothing about it’ and he never played it no more! No, he never played it no more. But this soldier, he was a quaint old boy, but he could really play that. He used to sit down and play, and we’d sit down and listen.”
Mrs Marjorie Coleman (nee Brown) was born in 1907, so she was a girl during the War. The Browns’ large house in Collingwood Road was well provided with comforts, so they had officers living with them. She recalled “one of these officers – and I suppose a lot of them were killed – sitting on the floor and teaching my sister and I to play whist.”
But the pleasure was short-lived. Fred Cook (born 1908) described “one pair when they knew they were going to France, they got drunk as a lord that day, they couldn’t stand. Laid on the floor near the door, you couldn’t shut it. Well I suppose they thought they were in for it didn’t they.”