Monday, 4 August 2014

The Men Who Marched Away.

This is the draft of the item I wrote for the museum.  The boss has edited the entire piece but I cannot find it on the laptop.  I suppose there are not that many changes bar of course the grammar!  It was intended as a brief introduction to the Great War which as you must know by now began on the 4th of August 1914 as far as this nation was concerned.
Gavrilo Princip’s action in assassinating the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, meant little to most Essex people that June day.  With summer at hand the people’s thoughts probably centered on day trips to the coast, Southend by rail a mere three shillings and sixpence ‘Third Class,’ or possibly a day at a local fair or fete.  However by the August Bank Holiday as they returned cheerful to town news of the long awaited European war being at hand dampened their enjoyment somewhat.
The towns and district around the small towns of Braintree and Bocking shared the same patriotic fervour as the rest of the nation that day war was declared on the 4th of August 1914.  The Band marched through the streets playing patriotic tunes and enthusiastic volunteers made their way to the Drill Hall in Victoria Street eager to ‘do one’s duty,’ either for the sake of the Empire or to protect ‘gallant little Belgium.’  Many ex-servicemen, some with experience of the Boer War, also re-joined the colours; their experience a boon to the fledgling troops who took a militaristic pride in their uniform once that is they received one.  It is unlikely any among them had any comprehension of what full scale industrial war between mighty powers would entail. 
The Territorials were already on exercise when war was declared and took up positions throughout the county in defence of the much dreaded invasion.  Business was hit badly, Crittalls alone watched well over a hundred reservists and Territorials leave for the fight.  The long hard struggles over wage rates became struggles to create munitions with the common belief, even at very high levels, that the war would be, as the Kaiser himself claimed, ‘over by Christmas,’ a belief that was soon proven false. 

Over the next four years the district shared the traumas and despair of war.  The majority supported the war effort and those who did not suffered badly from all around.  Pacifists and conscientious objectors were widely despised, the more so as the death count mounted.   While many continued to offer themselves as the war progressed and a short war faded into distant memory the need for men increased.  Some favoured conscription, others, usually unable to serve themselves, demanded all young men should enlist.  Insistent women stood at factory gates seeking young men for the colours, others offered white feathers to men in the street and young women refused to ‘walk out’ with a man who would not enlist.  Harassment from such as they and noticing the treatment of soldiers by their officers or army doctors also inclined many to rush into the munitions factories for ‘war work’ in the factories rather than ‘in the field.’  Employers not involved in ‘war work’ ‘did their bit’ by sacking men of army age, whether single or married, who did not enlist, and the pressure of middle class women attempting to enrol farm hands had the opposite effect in Essex as the men were annoyed and tore down recruitment notices.  The most vociferous patriot is usually the one staying at home.

The absence of reliable news coverage plus a strict censorship enabled rumour to become something of an art form.  The best example being the small company of the Russian Military Representatives who landed near Aberdeen and were transported south by train, soon this had become 80,000 Russian troops heading for the front.  There were claims that through the blinds, always lowered on troop trains travelling at night, lit cigarettes illuminated Russian beards!  The much feared invasion offered constant rumours of enemy landings, something that worried Essex people who were in the forefront of any invasion.  For this reason a million men were stationed in East Anglia partly to defend against invasion but also preparing for transport ‘to the front.’  Troops from many parts were billeted on the district; even small houses with families had up to six men with them.  This could be an advantage to the householder if she gave lodging to cooks who enabled the family to eat better than usual!  The great disadvantage being that many became family friends and their loss felt almost as grievously as they families itself. 

Over the next few years the people of the district spent many anxious moments awaiting news of their men.  Official reports clashed with tales from returning wounded from the same regiment, months could go by with no news whatsoever.  Knowledge of a soldiers regiment participating in a ‘Great Push,’ with no acknowledgement of his whereabouts caused great suffering for months on end in many homes while the distant rumble of guns in Flanders a constant worrying reminder of what their men endured.  Many women as well as men however benefited from the high wages found in munitions work.  Crittalls, paid their women employees the same as the men and provided medical care which lessened absence and gave a degree of security to the workers.  Lake & Elliott were among those leading the munitions drive along with other East Anglian companies creating a factory making fuses entirely staffed by female labour.  Women from all social strata and backgrounds took up routine factory work, mixing somewhat uneasily, while others became voluntary nurses at local war hospitals.  The social classes in service at home and abroad mixed together in ways unknown for some time.

The people of the Braintree and Bocking, Finchingfield and Coggeshall, Wethersfield and Bardfield in town and village faced the fear caused by a new kind of war, one fought in the air.  The experiments of Jack Humphreys at Wivenhoe alongside the other air pioneers had by 1914 produced the early machines that were to change war forever.  This change was noticed in Essex by the dark slender shapes of Zeppelins whirring by high above dropping bombs from the dark heights.  Zeppelins flying higher than aircraft crossed the North Sea to attack the Britain with a degree of impunity as defences were inadequate to deal with the threat.  The citizen was now in the front line and the citizen did not like it!  In spite of the ‘Blackout’ incendiary devices were dropped on Braintree with a bomb damaging windows in London Road while others fell harmlessly nearby.  On the night of March 31st 1916 Braintree suffered heavily. That night Kapitanleutnant Alois Bocker brought his airship, ‘Zeppelin L 14’ to Braintree arriving around eleven in the evening.  He dropped a bomb which landed on Number 19 Coronation Avenue.  Inside Ann Herbert was killed while asleep in the back bedroom while her daughter and two children survived even though they crashed down from the first floor to the ground.  Next door the chimney collapsed into the house killing the sleeping Dennington’s and their three year old niece Ella, while the entire street suffered concussion damage from the explosion.  Kapitanleutnant Bockers ‘L. 14’ continued to drop bombs causing little damage but now the townsfolk knew what modern war offered.        

High wages were available and women spent much on cigarettes and lipstick earned through long working.  Many men were saddened however as beer increased in price and decreased in strength!  Panic buying was reduced as some degree of price control was installed.  However shortages arose and most folks took to an early ‘grow your own’ policy.  Bread being in short supply by 1918 and lack of coal supplies hurt many during the later winters.  Shortages became more important as German submarines began to take a toll of British shipping during 1917.  The greatest dread however was the knock on the door.  The inoffensive telegram boy saw many sad sights as wife or mother received news of her husband, brother or son, wounded, missing or killed.  The telegram Boy must have been a dreaded sight during those long hard years.  It is no surprise some telegraph boys were overcome with the distress that faced them at the doors and quite unable to deliver the telegrams.  Nine men from South Street, three from Bradford Street, five from Coggeshall Road, three from Notley Road and three from Rayne Road fell.  No part of town was untouched

The four long years of war left around ten million dead.  Nations were damaged physically and politically.  Men returned changed and often found the promised jobs gone, wives and families unable to cope with their hardened attitudes and disturbed physical or mental disabilities.  Shell shock, guilt, both of actions taken and the guilt of surviving, the loss of a steady wage and for some a regular meal also hurt many.  For years after the war many returning soldiers, lived among the ‘down and outs’ of society, many of them officers!   Single women, often widows with children could find few men to replace the ones lost.  The high rates of pay in a munitions factory ended in 1918 and the women returned home with few jobs to replace the war work.  Cultural attitudes, changing before 1914, exploded after the war.  Hair was bobbed; skirt hems raised and for those with money a time of jollity prevailed as an effort to live life took over from death.  The majority suffered bankrupt Britain’s ‘austerity’ however, the poorest suffering most.  The men hailed as heroes found no homes built for them, jobs rare, and the rewards of victory, and they believed they had indeed won a victory, taken from them. 

Was the war worth 750,000 British men dying?  Society changes would have come anyway, slower perhaps but inevitably.  Could the United Kingdom have avoided war by allowing an aggressive Germany to dominate Europe in 1914?  Could Britain have morally stood back when Belgium’s neutrality was ignored?  Surely this war would have had to be fought one day?  These men did indeed give themselves in a great cause, they did save the nation and the people back home could indeed be proud of their efforts.  Can we be proud of how they were treated afterwards?  



Lee said...

And,so very sadly, still no lessons have been learned.

the fly in the web said...

That was a succinct and accurate account...clear and easy to understand.

Home fit for heroes indeed....

Carol in Cairns said...

So nice to read the fruits of your labour after so many months. Well done!

Yorkshire Pudding said...

Lucid and accessible WWI post. As Lee said, it really seems that our leaders have learnt nothing. I ordered one of those ceramic poppies today.

Ted London said...

Your writing made it vivid, real and personal - I feel the shame of what we didn't do for those who fought for their country and returned home to nothing .. war after war after futile war - pity the politicians seem immune to conscience

Adullamite said...

Lee, Human nature will never change.

Fly, Homes for heroes, but the Tory chancellor said no!

Carol, Thank you.

York Pud, Leaders today only see five years ahead.

Ted, Nothing changes re care for soldiers.

Lee said...

Sadly, that is true, Adullamite.

However, what you have written is a job well done...good on you. :)

Jerry E Beuterbaugh said...

'Tis was indeed a very impressive account. What did you have to give to get someone to write it for you?

alan1704 said...

This is an excellent article, i think that it is not for us 100 years later to think was it worth it, but rather was it worth it to those that enlisted, and i think that virtually every one who enlisted fought for what they believed and hoped for. The world has changed and our hopes have changed.

Adullamite said...

Lee, Ta... (I'm blushing here.)

Jerry, I'll write something for you in a minute....

Alan, Indeed that is true Alan.