First World War. 03. Life in Witham by Gerald Palmer

Witham in the First World War.
03. Life in Witham by Gerald Palmer
For a list of other chapters about WW1, click here.

(1) An article by Gerald Palmer, CBE, written in 1988
(2) Part of an interview with Gerald Palmer in 1990, by Janet Gyford

(1) An article by Gerald Palmer, CBE, written in 1988
There was always an air of expectancy as a new battalion marched into the town. That was nearly seventy years ago, and I was a boy standing open-eyed outside my father’s harness-maker’s shop in the High Street in Witham, 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. 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”

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.

Infantry were usually dispersed about the town. Large houses and empty shops were commandeered and became headquarters, stores, officers’ mess. To a small boy the town seemed to be taken over by the army, bugles sounding “Reveille”, “Come to the Cookhouse door, boys”, “Last Post”. Sentries stood with fixed bayonets outside company headquarters, and after dark, challenged every passer-by .. “Halt. Who goes there? Friend or Foe?”

We often had four men billeted on us. At first they brought in their rations .. (I can still smell the loaves of bread in somewhat dirty sacks.) bully beef, jam, biscuits, and my mother cooked for them. During such an occupation of the living room, my parents and I lived and fed in the scullery, myself eating from an upturned box. I think my mother was paid one shilling a day for each man: she always saved this, and, at the end of the war she boasted that she had been able to put more than one hundred pounds into the Co-op. Towards the end of the war, there was central feeding for the troops, and then our family rations had to suffice.

Except that one time we were lucky. We had four sergeants, I remember, the Veterinary Sergeant, the Police Sergeant, the Quartermaster Sergeant, and another. The quartermaster sergeant was particularly significant, and from his time dated a large number of seven pound tins of plum-and-apple jam, a supply of corn-beef, stacked in the spare room upstairs, which lasted our family for years after he had gone. “Them that asks no questions, isn’t told a lie.”

Some of those billeted on us were less pleasant. There were some towards the end of the war: this particular lot originated somewhere in Central Europe, were treated as enemy aliens, in khaki, but carrying no weapons. They were disgruntled, employed in constructing a firing range, just off the Faulkbourne road. One seemed to spend every evening repairing his trousers. The other used to put a tight rubber band round his upper arm, and say “Look Mrs Palmer, I shan’t be well enough to work in the morning!. And sure enough, his arm would be puffed up next day, he would go on sick parade, and much to my mother’s annoyance, would be back inside the house within the hour.

Each morning, there was a parade and inspection in the High Street, infantry in the widest part, outside what is now Barclay’s Bank, and cavalry in Newland Street, between Collingwood Road and Whitehall, now the library. And then the companies marched out into the nearby country for training. I think it must have been their final training before France. Out along the Rivenhall road, in the field on the other side of the railway bridge, there were trenches and revetments, barbed wire entanglements, and dugouts. I saw men climb up over the parapet at the sound of the officers’ whistles, clamber over the mud towards a supposed objective. There, too, I saw lines of men, yelling, with fixed bayonets, charging forward to stab bayonets into swinging bags of straw. I wonder now how many came back from the Somme, or Paschendale.

On one occasion, being of an inquisitive nature, I ventured behind “The Retreat”, a former mental home in the Maldon Road, and I found myself some fifty yards from a group of soldiers in gas masks, standing on the parapet of a trench, surrounded by a green haze of gas. I turned and ran, but I don’t think it could have been the real thing.

The Congregational Church that my parents and I attended received renewed life with the advent of the soldiers. Not only was a contingent marched in for the Sunday morning service, the official Church Parade for those professedly non-conformists, but the evening services were full and overflowing, perhaps because they were afterwards followed by sausage rolls, sandwiches and tea in the school at the back, at knock-down prices.

There were one or two Sunday evenings, I remember, which had a devastating effect on me. This was when we knew that the men were about to leave, usually for an unknown destination, which meant the Western Front; on one occasion they were leaving that very night. The minister invariably chose as the last hymn one that was particularly lugubrious, with a mournfully monotonous tune ..
“God be with you till we meet again
When life’s perils thick confound you,
Smite death’s threatening wave before you,
God be with you till we meet again”

That same minister, a Reverend Picton, had officers billeted on him in the Manse, now 2 Newland Street. One evening, I think in June 1916, one of the officers took a grenade in to show them. He evidently mistakenly thought it was a dummy, and as he was explaining how it worked, he took out the pin. The officer and the minister were killed outright, his wife and daughter seriously injured. My parents somewhat foolishly took me next day to see the shattered windows of the house, and I remember being terribly upset by the affair.

In that same chapel, one evening there was some special occasion with a visiting preacher. Midway through the service a policeman appeared at the back, told the sidesmen that lights must be extinguished as there was an air-raid. The gas-lamps were turned off, the soldiers left, and someone began to sing “Lead Kindly Light, Amid th’encircling gloom”, and we all joined in, stumbling occasionally over the words:-
the night is dark, and I am far from home
Lead thou me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent till
The night is gone.”
Later, by the light of candle, the preacher gave his sermon, and we emerged into the clear light of a harvest moon. The raiders had gone.

Full moons were always regarded with a certain amount of fear, because then Zeppelins might come.; I only saw one, a silver cigar high in the sky, caught in groping searchlight fingers. I heard several on separate occasions; they came one at a time; they had a distinctive engine sound; it was said that they switched off their engines in order to change direction, but I don’t know if this was so. When we heard that one had been brought down, as at Potters Bar and Billericay, we were jubilant next day. One came down intact near Wigborough, on the road from Maldon to Colchester; the crew set it alight, were given tea in two cottages in the early hours, so I was told, and were then taken in charge by the village policeman, before being taken off to Colchester, prisoners-of-war. My father cycled over to see the Zepp’s crumpled skeleton, and brought me back a piece of aluminium as a souvenir

The most daring of the raids was in broad daylight, a Saturday morning. There were nine or ten biplanes, Gothas, very high up, and moving slowly, or so it seemed. We came out into the High Street to watch and saw them come back from London two hours later.

These raids of course gave rise to a good deal of speculation and conversation next day. One old man in my father’s shop asked:
“Did you ‘ear that ‘un larse night, Mr Palmer ? Me and my ol’ woman, we’d jus gone to bed, and she say to me ‘Ere come one o’ them ol’ buzzers’ I say ‘No, mate’. She say ‘There be’. I jump out o’ the winder, put me ‘ead out o’ the bed. Couldn’t see nawthin’. Black as pitch.”

It was before the days of radio, of course, and urgent news, what we should today call a newsflash, was posted up, typewritten in the newsagent’s window (it’s still there, at the corner of Guithavon Street). Soon a little crowd gathered, and my father would run across, and come back with the latest news; in this way I learnt of the loss of the Hampshire, with Kitchener on board, and of the murder of Tsar Nicholas.

There was a small military hospital in the town, a wing of what had been a home for mentally defective men, the Bridge Home. From it emerged men in bright blue, loose fitting clothes, red ties, crutches, bandaged, perhaps in wheel-chairs pushed by V.A.D.’s. And as the war dragged on, I was aware of widow’s weeds and black arm-bands. Men whom I had known, or whom my parents knew, were reported missing or killed. I remember one friend, on leave, coming in to say goodbye to my parents. He laughed, no doubt to cheer up his wife, held up his hand, and said “I’ll just lift up my hand over the parapet, and get a blighty one, and I’ll be back soon.” But he was reported “Missing” a few weeks later.

In 1917 and 1918, other squads of soldiers appeared, marching to and fro each day, .. dirty field-grey uniforms, round pill-box hats with a button in the front, some with large flapping long overcoats, German prisoners, escorted by British guards with fixed bayonets. They were marching to and from their barbed-wire cage, along the Faulkbourne road, and they were employed clearing ditches, embanking rivers, repairing roads. They looked glum and disconsolate, and to me they appeared more human and docile than I had been led to believe the Boche could ever be. Only once did I see them brighten up. That was in March, 1918, at the time of the German break-through on the Western Front. They marched then with a jaunty step, and some even began to sing.

At this time, in an attempt to stiffen morale at home, public meetings were held at which a message from the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, was read. I went to one such meeting in the Public Hall, still standing in the Collingwood Road. We waited a long time for the M.P., Sir Fortescue Flannery, Bart, to come, as he had several meetings that evening in his large constituency, which included Maldon and Braintree. While we waited, a local rector, Canon Galpin, from Faulkbourne, gave a recital on an ancient musical instrument, a serpent, whose lugubrious notes were hardly such as to cheer us up. And then Sir Fortescue arrived with his “Backs to the wall” message. I can only remember the last two words, “Hold Fast”.

If I take my mind back to 1914, I can remember going for a walk with my grandparents one evening. It must have been August 3rd, Bank Holiday Monday. We walked under the railway bridge near the top of Guithavon Road, and there were two soldiers with rifles standing on guard. I asked why they were there and was told “There’s going to be a war”. Later that evening, I stood by the railings overlooking Witham Station and saw lots of Khaki figures standing on the platform. I was told they were Territorials coming back from camp, and that they might be going to Belgium. A few days later, I stood at the same point above the railway platform, and saw a stationary train, full of wounded soldiers, dark blue uniforms, red piping, glengarry caps. Local ladies were serving them with tea. “Belgian Soldiers”, I was told.

Over four years later, I was just recovering from ‘flu, when one misty November morning, another notice appeared in the newsagents’ window. My father ran across, as usual. He came back smiling. I can see him now. “There’s going to be an Armistice”, he said, “at eleven o’clock”. It was two minutes to eleven. Almost at once, the munition works siren sounded, the blue-overalled munition girls came out on to the streets, soldiers broke ranks, everyone came out into the High Street, cheering, singing, waving flags.

That night, there was a huge bonfire in the High Street. Somewhere or other, the soldiers had found some barrels of tar. What a blaze !


(2) Part of an interview with Gerald Palmer in 1990, by Janet Gyford

And then the road swung round and over the bridge [Collingwood Road bridge]. And the railings are still there that I stood and watched the solders at the outbreak of the War. I was four, I remember it. And there was a trainload of Belgian wounded in the station [railway station]. I think I’ve probably told you this before.
Q:    Goodness. And that was at the beginning of the War?
Mr P:    The beginning of the War, I was four. I remember it. Those houses were there but none of these were here [these prob = east side of Collingwood Road].
Mr P:    This was the Army headquarters during the War [57, Midland Bank]. Midland Bank now. A large empty house with guards – sentries on duty here and the bugler giving the bugle calls – ‘Last Post’ for example, I used to hear.
Q:    What, every day?
Mr P:    Yes, every night. He’d stand outside here.  That place, Martins [across the road, 70] was a newsagent’s and it was there that a hand-written notice was put up if there was anything special. For example, my father ran across and read the Armistice had been signed. Or I remember his coming to say Kitchener had been drowned, and things like that. He would come across to read it outside there.
Q:    Because I suppose not so many people took a newspaper then, did they?
Mr P:    Well, no, this was stop press news. Today what we would call a ‘news flash’!

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