Witham in the First World War.
02. Part the book “A History of Witham” by Janet Gyford
For a list of other chapters about WW1, click here
1. An extract from the book
2. A longer draft of that extract
1. Extract from the book
War was declared on 4 August 1914, and Lieutenant Auriol Round of Avenue House went immediately to fight in France with the Essex Regiment. Three weeks later he was brought back to London wounded, and died of tetanus on 5 September. Most of Witham’s inhabitants watched as his funeral procession made its way sadly to All Saints churchyard. It gave reality to the schoolboys’ new ‘War Map’ at the National School – they had marked the position of the armies in red and black sealing wax. Two of Auriol’s brothers also lost their lives in the War.
On 4 September a meeting at the Public Hall had considered Lord Kitchener’s call for recruits, after the Town Band had played ‘patriotic airs’ in the streets. The vicar, Canon David Ingles, announced that the War was ‘a visitation sent from God’. He wanted ‘all the single men from 19 to 35 years clean out of Witham parish’. A few weeks later his only son was killed in France.
By then, hundreds of soldiers with strange Midlands accents were filling Witham. The 1st/7th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment was the first of several units to be sent here whilst training, including the 2nd/7th Warwicks in spring 1915 and the 2nd/9th Royal Scots in spring 1916.
There were nearly 2,000 men sometimes, doubling the adult population. Camps in the Avenue fields and in Maldon Road filled with horses, vehicles, tents and equipment, and the roads were busy with the noise of men, guns, waggons, and lorries.
Mounted soldiers billeted in Hatfield Peverel were sent on imaginative exercises – one entailed retrieving stolen Christmas rations from ‘the notorious Mahomet Alli Khan’ who was hiding in the ‘Danbury jungles’.
Some of the men in Witham lived ‘rough’ in empty buildings but most were billeted with families. The knock on the door announced an officer come to view your house – then the allotted number of soldiers would tramp in with their kit.
There were some stresses and strains. It was irksome to the councillors that the military horses were given precious water from the mains, when consumption in the town had already risen by nearly a half. But every cloud has a silver lining. James Goodey, who ran the water works, successfully asked for a pay rise in 1915 because of increased work. He was 64 years old and had earned the same wage for the previous 33 years.
And when the soldiers’ rations and a small allowance arrived, the eyes of Witham people were opened to another world. The joints of meat and the large tins of jam were remembered for decades afterwards. So when Captain Abrey visited Chipping Hill School in October 1914, he ‘found all the children looking well, in fact quite surprised … and put it down to the troops’.
Mrs Alice Dazley of Maldon Road called her baby son Warwick to commemorate the regiment (he died but his name was handed on to another new brother).
Local businesses flourished too. Army horses were shoed at Alice Brockes’ blacksmith’s shop in Newland Street, and Stanley Tyrell mended army boots at Chipping Hill.
The troops and the locals vied to entertain each other, particularly in the new YMCA hut built in July 1915. The soldiers revealed many talents including dancing, playing cards, reciting and preaching. Some could sing, others played the organ, the bagpipes or the euphonium. The Scots who arrived in 1916 had a band which gave stirring outdoor concerts.
When a regiment was leaving for the front, there were poignant farewell events and church
services. In 1915 one of the Warwicks’ soldiers wrote back from France to his former hosts that ‘you cannot realise what it is like’.
Fifty Special Constables were recruited from the older men (no women). They were to inspect ‘vulnerable points’ and to question people who ‘look like foreigners or suspicious persons’. Hairdresser William Dibben was very good at patrolling the streets because he had a bulldog, but was fined in 1915 for not attending drill evenings, and resigned.
The residents were also warned to keep alert. They reported the ‘somewhat suspicious movements’ of a German Jewish lawyer, Leo Weil, who was staying in Church Street with his English wife’s relatives, the Deans. Some people continued to spurn the Dean family themselves even after the War, in spite of the fact that John Dean fought in France with the Essex Yeomanry. At nearby Great Totham, a spies’ lookout tower was reported on a house (Ruffins) being built by pioneering art nouveau architect Arthur Mackmurdo. The police decided ‘there is no reason to suspect [him] of espionage, he is believed to be an Englishman’. In the same parish, an alleged wireless installation was found to consist of poles for nets round a cherry tree.
In September 1915, motor cars were suspected
of signalling to enemy aircraft with their headlights in eastern Essex. A special watch was kept but the results were ‘nil’. In the same year a local committee was appointed to prepare for German invasion.
In 1915 the committee began to plan the escape of Witham’s residents into Oxfordshire if the Germans invaded. This was part of a county-wide scheme. The route for our refugees led past Blunts Hall into the back lanes, passing a food depot at Terling. The main routes were left clear for the military. A hundred notices were kept in readiness but never used.
Much of the effort mentioned has been male. But as more men joined the forces, some women were given unusual jobs – Gladys Brewster drove Ardley’s bakers’ cart and actually wore trousers. In 1916 councillors appointed their first female staff member when Mrs Millie Mens, wife of a haulage contractor, became rate collector.
Some employers were resistant to this development. When it was proposed that women should work on farms, Philip Hutley of Powershall feared that ‘agriculture would go to the wall’. Nevertheless, this scheme was successful in the Witham area. In 1917,
novelist Virginia Woolf noted that her young cousin, another Virginia, was milking cows for Lord Rayleigh at Terling Place. The girl really preferred horses, ‘but she couldn’t get horses, and she’s very fond of cows’.
Most members of the Witham VAD, the Voluntary Aid Detachment, were ladies. Like other such groups, it was formed before the War. They used to practise First Aid in the Doctor Gimsons’ garden – one of their victims later recollected being accidentally dropped in a gooseberry bush there. They joined the British Red Cross’s huge war effort, meeting wounded soldiers on passing trains, and giving them refreshments such as hot bovril and sandwiches. There was also an active ‘Work Depot’ where over 10,000 garments were made.
The largest endeavour was the Red Cross Hospital, with 34 beds, in a wing of the Bridge Home. 700 soldiers in turn stayed there for treatment of minor injuries. The visiting medical officer was Dr Karl Gimson (his brother Dr Ted was in the army). But otherwise it was run by women. The Commandant (first Mary Gimson and then Charlotte Pattisson) organised everything including the finances. The Matron supervised the small number of trained nurses and all the VAD helpers. Some Witham ladies also went to other hospitals, including two or three to France. Lilian Luard, one of the Admiral’s daughters, spent a year at Calais and Le Treport.
To return finally to Witham’s own soldiers. efforts at recruitment increased through 1915, while killing continued on the Western front, and also in Gallipoli where four Witham soldiers died. In early 1916, compulsory conscription was introduced for the first time ever. This hit small businesses. Local Tribunals heard appeals and William Pinkham asked to keep his son Bert to look after the complex machinery at the glove factory – he had been specially trained in Germany. But he had to go. Several men from the Peculiar People’s chapel were pacifists and were given non-combatant work, though some of the Tribunal members were hostile to them.
In March 1917 John Douglas Dean of Church Street made drawings in his diary during the War. He was with the Essex Yeomanry in France and Belgium. Their most valiant action was a dismounted bayonet charge at Frezenberg ridge in 13 May 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres; they recaptured the front line trenches. 69 out of 302 were killed including the Commanding Officer. John received a special commendation for his role as a stretcher bearer. He wrote that he ‘went up & down the line bringing the wounded down, saw some awful sights & blood flying … once a shell fell in front of us putting 2 men out, thought every minute my turn next, cannot describe the full details of that day’.
Albert Thompson, headmaster of the Boys National School, left for the army, and his wife Kate took over his work – the school inspector noted approvingly that she was ‘a strong disciplinarian’.
The most devastating slaughter began in 1916. Over three quarters of the men named on Witham’s war memorial were killed after March of that year. We lost eleven on the Somme in 1916, when the guns could be heard in Essex, seven at Arras in Spring 1917 (including Charlie Driver of Mill Lane, a popular singer), fifteen at Passchendaele and Ypres in late 1917, and fifteen in the German spring offensive of 1918. The three Chaplin brothers were all killed after September 1917. Then on 11 November 1918 a soldier in Newland Street heard at Afford’s shop about the armistice. He wrote to his father ‘Flags are flying from every house: boys are marching round the
streets with flags’. In the evening there was the customary bonfire in the main street, ‘the greatest seen for many years’.
There had been many hardships at home that I have not had space to describe, such as the fear of Zeppelins and enemy aircraft, the darkened
streets, the shortages and later the rationing. But they must have seemed petty compared to the slaughter. More than a third of Witham’s thousand men had gone to fight, many had been injured, and about seventy had been killed. In addition, Congregational Minister David Picton died at home in 1916 when a Scots officer was showing him a hand grenade and it exploded.
In 1919 Percy Laurence of the Grove gave land for a War Memorial, money was raised, and the opening ceremony was held in November 1920. The Laurences were the last survivors of the rich and benevolent military families who had formerly played such a large part in the life of the town.
2. First draft of the above book extract. Longer but with gaps.
On the eve of the War, Witham society was little changed from the late 19th century, when everyone knew their place. Things were never to be quite the same again. During the next few years the fathers of several other rich and benevolent military families died as well as Admiral Luard, and the sons moved away or were killed.
It has been said that Britain embarked on the First World War with ‘innocent enthusiasm’. In Witham the innocence did not last long. War was declared on Germany on 4th August, and only a month later the whole town watched the sombre funeral procession of Lieutenant Auriol Round, a regular soldier of the Essex Regiment, as it moved sadly down Newland Street to All Saints church. This gave reality to the ‘War Map’ newly purchased for the boys at the National School, on which they had marked the position of the opposing armies in red and black sealing wax. The Lieutenant was 22 years old, and had landed in France with the men of the British Expeditionary Force. During the retreat from Mons, the first battle of the British against the German army, he was shot in the knee. When he was brought back to hospital in London he was in good health, but he died of tetanus on September 5th. He was the first Essex officer to die in the War. Three months earlier he had been enjoying a visit to Germany to play hockey. His parents lived at Avenue House and two more of their sons were killed later.
The night before Auriol died, his father Francis had attended a large meeting at the Public Hall to consider Lord Kitchener’s call for new recruits. The Town Band played ‘patriotic airs’ in the streets beforehand. The vicar, Canon David Ingles, declared that that the War was ‘a visitation sent from God’, and that he wanted to see ‘all the single men from 19 to 35 years clean out of Witham parish’. A few weeks later the Canon and his wife heard that their only son, Major Alexander Ingles, had been killed in France. News often arrived surprisingly quickly. Even when the massive steam ship Cape of Good Hope exploded in November off the coast of Chile in a confrontation with German ships, it was only a few days before the family of one of its stokers, Ernest Glass of Chalks Road, heard the sad news. But there were exceptions: Captain Richard Howard Vyse of the Lawn had been killed in France in September, but when his mother died five months later she still only knew that he was missing and wounded.
By this time, hundreds of soldiers with strange Midlands accents were filling Witham. They were from the 1st/7th Battalion of the Warwickshire Regiment. Previously part-time Territorials, they were some of the 17,000 soldiers altogether who were sent to Essex. Here they were to undergo training and also defend us against invasion. With them came men from the Royal Engineers and the Medical Corps. This first group stayed in the town till March 1915, to be succeeded in turn by the by the 2nd/7th Warwicks and others of the South Midland Division till early 1916, then by Scotsmen including the 2nd/9th Royal Scots till January 1917. It was while the Scots were here that the hugely popular Congregational minister, Reverend David Picton, was killed by a hand grenade at his home in June 1916. The officer who was billeted with him was showing him how it worked when it exploded and they both died instantly. For the last part of the War we had a Northumbrian Division?more.
With nearly 2,000 soldiers here sometimes, the adult population of the town was more than doubled. The Avenue fields were busy with horses, vehicles, tents and equipment, and the roads with men, guns and waggons and sometimes motor vehicles, making their way daily out to the edges of the town. There were practice trenches at the top of Rickstones Road, and a rifle range at Powershall farm with its own W H Smith bookstall and a refreshment stand. The farmers there noted the ‘extraordinary traffic’ along the road, which became badly worn and ‘almost impossible’ for cyclists. Small boys loved the extra entertainment and >> years later Walter Peirce still had a nick in his ??ear, nose from a dummy grenade. Many extra tasks were given to the men. For instance in September 1916 they went to help with the clearing up after a Zeppelin had showered the adjoining village of Wickham Bishops with debris (including a machine gun). Some of the soldiers lived ‘rough’ in large empty buildings like the Whitehall, and some at a camp in the Maldon Road, but most were billeted with families. The knock on the door announced an officer come to view your house, and then the allotted number of men would tramp in with their kit. In due course their food rations and a small allowance also arrived, and the eyes of Witham people were opened to a world which many of them had never imagined. The joints of meat and the large tins of jam were remembered for decades afterwards. When Captain Abrey visited Chipping Hill School in October 1914, he ‘found all the children looking well, in fact quite surprised to see them, put it down to the troops’. There were of course some stresses and strains. When the councillors were nagged by the Government about the state of Witham’s smaller houses, one of them retorted that ‘things cannot be so very bad when the Government see fit to stow away 1,700 soldiers in the present cottages at Witham. They have got as many as five soldiers in some small cottages’. It was also irksome to find that the military horses were being allowed to drink precious water from the mains, when consumption in the town had already risen by nearly a half. But every cloud has a silver lining, and Mr Goodey who ran the water works felt able to ask for a pay rise in March 1915. He was 64 years old and had earned the same wage for the previous 33 years; he was given an extra three shillings a week, a ten per cent increase.
The shops reported increased trade from their new customers, in spite of rising prices, and the churches had full collection plates. Social life blossomed as the troops and the locals vied to entertain each other. Afford’s stationary shop on the corner of Guithavon Street was the centre for making plans and spreading news. The townspeople set up a special bath and shower unit in the coal shed at the old waterworks, where the soldiers were given 6,000 baths by mid-1915. They also opened three canteens and two reading rooms, which were amalgamated into the new YMCA hut in Collingwood Road in July 1915; it was said to be big enough for 400 soldiers. Soldiers and civilians alike displayed their talents as singers, magicians and card players. Thus the different social ‘ranks’ often mixed in a way that did not happen before the War. There were often dozens of tables of whist at the Constitutional Club. At a ‘military gymkhana’ in August 1915, attended by a large crowd, the competitions included ‘Live bomb throwing for NCOs’, and ‘Wrestling on horseback’ (the latter won by a group ‘composed mostly of Canadians.’). Not long afterwards there was a ‘Water Carnival’ at the town bathing place in the river Blackwater. The Scots who arrived in 1916 had a silver and pipe band which gave stirring Sunday concerts in Newland Street. They were rewarded with a high tea and entertainment at the cricket pavilion, which concluded with dancing and a military tattoo. Great friendships grew up. Mrs ??name Dazley of Maldon Road called her son Warwick to commemorate the regiment of her two visiting soldiers. The baby died so she christened her next son Warwick instead?, and the later generations of the family still use the name today. When a regiment was about to leave town for the front, there was great sadness and many farewell events and church services. Thus when the 1st/7th Warwicks were preparing to depart in March 1915, 19-year old Private Francis Purcell Warren from Leamington Spa played the organ at the Catholic church for the last time and closed with Mendelssohn’s ‘War March of the Priests’. Before volunteering for the army he had been a student and composer at the Royal College of Music (his father was an organist too, hence the musical name). He was killed on the Somme a year later. One of the Warwicks’ soldiers wrote back from France to his former hosts that ‘you cannot realise what it is like’.
The residents’ other responsibilities were many and various. They were told to keep alert and in September 1914 some of them reported the ‘somewhat suspicious movements’ of a Bavarian, Leo Weil, who lived in Church Street with a local builder. The Chief Constable looked into the matter but we don’t know what he decided. Similar anxieties continued and in 1916 the Council were asked to display notices reminding people to refrain from ‘indiscreet discussion in reference to the war’. Early on, special constables were recruited from the older men (no women), and Witham mustered over fifty of them. When a new sergeant was appointed in 1915 he found that many of them were ignoring the drill evenings though they liked being on patrol. The ‘worst’ culprit was hairdresser William Dibben. He was prosecuted for neglect and fined ten shillings, even though his former corporal told the magistrates what an asset he had been, because he had his bulldog for company and so was happy to walk the streets alone. He resigned. (his shop finally closed in 1966, run by his ???)
There were serious fears of invasion, and long defensive ditches were dug across the county in 1914. One of them passed near Witham at Rivenhall. Plans were prepared by the county authorities to evacuate Essex if necessary, with guidance from similar proposals prepared during the Napoleonic Wars over a hundred years earlier. The plans for the large division which included Witham got off to a bad start in early 1915 when the Lord Lieutenant wanted to sack its organiser for inertia. This was Dr Salter of Tolleshunt Darcy and he refused to go. But a few months later Witham parish had its own ‘Local Executive Committee’ consisting of a ‘Headman’, Hugh Bawtree, and six ‘Aids’, with sub-committees for ‘Exodus, Transport, Food, Clothing and Stock’. The escape route for our refugees led out past Blunts Hall and along the back roads and past a food depot at Terling, leaving the main routes for the military. The destination would be a safe haven in Oxfordshire and the journey was expected to take 24 hours. The Committee identified 37 waggons, 70 carts and 44 heavy horses available in Witham to help with transporting the ‘infirm, old, women and children (in the order named).’ The other horses had already been taken at the beginning of the War for the army. The county’s military and civil authorities competed for control of the plan, causing considerable confusion, and in due course it was modified. For instance, it was decided eventually that farmers no longer needed to slaughter their cattle before departure.
It will be noticed that much of the effort mentioned so far has been male. But as the numbers of men in the parish diminished some of women were given unusual jobs, like ? Brewster who drove Ardley’s bakers’ cart and actually wore trousers. And in 1916 the councillors appointed their first female staff member. She was Mrs Millie Mens, wife of a haulage contractor, and she was the only applicant for her post of rate collector when the previous incumbent was called up. She demanded a rise in the following year but was given a bonus instead. Women were also sent to work on farms. Elsewhere in the county they had problems, but in 1916 it was reported that in the Witham area they ‘were working extremely well, and that local farmers were quite satisfied’. In 1917, novelist Virginia Woolf noted in her diary that her young cousin, another Virginia, was busy milking cows at Terling Place near Witham, and that ‘she prefers horses, but she couldn’t get horses, and she’s very fond of cows’. In 1919 Grace Laurence of the Grove and Cicely Pelly of Witham Lodge, were presented with pieces of antique furniture by Essex farmers in gratitude for their Committee work ‘obtaining labour for the land’.
It was the better-off ladies like these whose efforts were best publicised, and who organised fundraising events such as the outdoor ‘Patriotic Pastoral Play’ of August 1915, or were always called upon to organise ‘Flag days’ to collect money or such people as the Russians, the Rumanians, or ‘the British and Foreign sailors’. In particular they served as ‘VADs’ in Witham’s ‘Voluntary Aid Detachment’, formed like others before the War. They used to practise in the Doctor Gimsons’ garden, and one of their victims later recollected being dropped in a gooseberry bush there. Then they joined the British Red Cross’s huge war effort. There was an active ‘Work Depot’ in the town, where ‘10,251 garments’ were made during the last three years of the War alone, to help the Essex regiments and others. The working groups often met at the Vicarage. The greatest effort, however, was the Red Cross Hospital, with 34 beds, in a wing of the Bridge Home. Like many others in Britain it was set up spontaneously by the local VAD at the outbreak of War. It was then taken over by the Warwickshire regiment for nine months, during which time the VAD concentrated on meeting trains full of wounded soldiers as they passed through Witham station. They served 2,000 men in 17 trains with ‘hot milk, bovril, tea, coffee, eggs, bread and butter, sandwiches and cakes’, and provided cigarettes and stamped postcards. Then in July 1915 they took over the hospital when it was accepted by the War Office to take soldiers sent from the front. When a group of men arrived from the battle of Loos in October, seven local people sent their motor cars to transport them from the station. Some of them were ‘stretcher cases’ on that occasion, but by and large the patients were not gravely ill; only two died here out the 700 who were treated altogether. So they were able to enjoy whist drives, theatre visits, tea parties and concerts. There was a visiting medical officer, Dr Karl Gimson (his younger brother Dr Ted was serving overseas). But otherwise it was run by women. The accounts, the accommodation, the food supply and the labour were organised by the Commandant (first Mary Gimson and then Charlotte Pattisson). The Matrons and a few others were qualified nurses, often from other places. One of the Matrons married a patient. Boys from the adjoining Bridge Home ‘fetched and carried’, and most of the rest of the work was done by enthusiastic local VAD ladies with basic training. They also helped with other activities such as the Red Cross’s large annual fundraising events. Some also went to other hospitals, including two or three to France. Lilian Luard, one of the Admiral’s daughters, spent a year at Calais and Le Treport.
To return finally to Witham’s own soldiers. Efforts at recruitment increased through 1915, while more and more lost their lives. Four Witham soldiers were killed in the Gallipoli campaign. The two Sneezum brothers Charlie (22) and George Sneezum (24), were on the Western front at the battle of Loos. They had enlisted together in 1914, and saw each other sometimes in the trenches. Both were injured and sent to Britain to hospital. George was in Belfast and he wrote to Charlie who was in London to ask, ‘Do you know how Tom, Jack, Dolly, Chris, Bulland and the rest of them got on ?’ Charlie heard Zeppelins dropping bombs not far from the hospital, and his family visited him – probably their first visit to the capital. He died in October and so yet another sad military funeral procession wended its way to Witham’s All Saints church, led by the Town Band playing the Dead March. One of his army friends wrote ‘may I say that a better + truer comrade I shall never find again’, and asked for a photograph. When George he recovered he was taken back to the front, where and his mother sent him parcels of tea, jam tarts and oxo cubes. He wrote home urging his younger brother Bert to appeal against conscription and saying ‘I am sure nobody would cease praying for the boys out here, if they only knew what it was like’. He was killed in May 1916. His fiancéé Lily wrote to the family ‘No one can tell what a terrible blank my life seems now for he was always in my thoughts and indeed he still is now. All our letters were of the future even his last letter for I never once thought of him getting killed, I don’t know why I did not’.
In fact Bert did have to join the army in the end, but survived. Compulsory conscription was introduced in early 1916. At regular local tribunals, the town’s worthies sat in public judgement on their fellow citizens, who pleaded for exemption or postponement for themselves or their employees – to care for elderly mothers, to get in the harvest or, most frequently, to keep a business going. At the Station Maltings there were only eight workers left out of the original fourteen, so one of them was allowed to stay an extra six months. But William Pinkham was unsuccessful when he begged several times to keep his son Bert to run the machinery at the glove factory; he had been especially trained in Germany. And photographer William Bull was only awarded a temporary delay when he pointed out how much the soldiers and their families wanted to have their photos taken. Several men from the local evangelical church, the Peculiar People, were pacifists and were allowed to carry out non-combatant work, though the reaction of the Tribunal members to them varied, some being very hostile.
In the end, 430 of Witham’s thousand adult men went to fight during the War. The most devastating slaughter began in 1916. Over three quarters of the eighty-two men named on Witham’s war memorial were killed after March of that year, including eleven on the Somme in 1916, when the guns could be heard in Essex, seven at Arras in Spring 1917, fifteen at Passchendaele and Ypres in late 1917, and fifteen in the German spring offensive of 1918. The three Chaplin brothers were all killed during the nine months following September 1917.
In March 1917 Mr A G Thompson, did he go to trib the headmaster of the Boys National School, left for two years in the army, and his wife Kate took over in his absence; in due course the school inspector noted approvingly that she was ‘a strong disciplinarian’.
On 11 November 1918 a signaller stationed in Newland Street wrote on a postcard to his father that ‘We got the news this morning that the Germans had accepted our armistice terms: it was put up in the window of the stationers shop opposite. We saw it at 11 o’clock: it is so hard to understand and believe. Flags are flying from every house: boys are marching round the streets with flags’. In the evening there was the customary celebration bonfire. There had been many hardships at home that I have not had space to describe, such as the darkened streets, the fear of visits from Zeppelins and enemy aircraft, the shortages and later the rationing. But looking back they must have seemed rather petty compared to the killing of the men.
??? Witham people were killed in action during the War, and three including Rev Picton had been killed in Witham itself. In 1919 the town sought to commemorate them. Mr Percy Laurence of the Grove gave a site for a War Memorial next to The Avenue, then still a leafy drive, money was raised for its construction, and the opening ceremony was held in November 1920.