First World War: How the Great War touched the lives of everyday families in Suffolk
The First World War touched every family in Britain. Steven Russell hears how it affected the ancestors of five local readers – from a young soldier killed at the Somme to a sailor who again found himself at the heart of the action 20 years later
We’ve had a tremendous response to our invitation to readers to share their stories about the First World War. It’s been a genuine privilege to hear tales of bravery and sacrifice, and happy endings. Today, we share more descriptions of how The Great War changed the lives of five families.
Rita Gibbons writes from Stowmarket with a sad story.
“I share excerpts of a letter written in pencil on September 11, 1916, to my late aunt from her brother in France. (Durham Light Infantry.)
‘I should very much like to have one of your photos. They might help to stop a bullet, you know.
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‘I should think you had quite an exciting time when the Zepps came that way – I was pleased they didn’t do any damage – but it’s nice to hear of ’em being brought down.
‘I don’t want you to worry about me. I’m alright. I’ve been under horse vans etc. I am trusting God to bring me through this alright. That’s a great blessing to me that I have someone to go to for help and guidance, and trust that the prayers being offered on behalf of the soldiers and sailors will be answered in His good time.
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‘I haven’t much else to say. I hope you will take care of my girl – then, when I come back, I shall treat you to a fish supper.
‘So cheer up gal. With best of love to Ma, Dad and Vera [my mother] and yourself.
‘I remain your loving brother, Jack [Hammond] xxxxxxx
‘I hope Aud and Syd are alright.’ [His other sister and friend, later husband.]
“Sadly, he was killed in action on Saturday, October 7, 1916 – age 21. His memorial is on the Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France.
“He originally enlisted as 27941, Suffolk Regiment in Stowmarket, later transferring to 12th Durham Light Infantry.
“He served in France and Flanders. His brother also served in France and Flanders, and died August 12, 1917, aged 27. Both are named on the Stowupland War Memorial.
“So sad for my dear Mum to lose two big brothers, and, for all the family, two sons – as it was for so many families.”
A sad tale, too, comes from Helen Revell, of Saxmundham – along with some intrigue.
She writes: “My mother’s brother (one boy with seven sisters) survived four years in the trenches, only to die of flu while waiting to be demobbed in Calais in 1919.
“My father never spoke about the war, but when we lived in Southern Rhodesia in the 1930s he would put on his medals for the parade on Armistice Day to the war memorial in Salisbury.
“When he died, my mother gave me his medals, including the MC. [Military Cross; given in recognition of “an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land…”] I had them mounted in a frame and gave them to my eldest son. He tried to find out how his granddad got the MC. Unfortunately, all records from that time were destroyed in the Blitz of the 1940s on London etc.
“Last year my cousin (her mother was my father’s sister) told me that my aunt said my father (an engineer) had been involved in digging tunnels under the German trenches and blowing them up.
“This didn’t mean very much until I saw a programme on TV recently which showed both German and British soldiers tunnelling, breaking through, and in one case meeting when breaking through, which led to a hasty retreat by both groups.
“The numbers that died in that conflict are so appalling and overwhelming that we can hardly think – 20,000 in one battle! I hope we never go through such a time again.”
Margaret Allen, from Ipswich, writes: “My maternal grandfather, John (Jack) Mowles, had been a regular soldier in his younger days and had fought in the Boer War in South Africa.
“When war was declared in 1914 he really was too old to enlist. However, he thought it his duty to do so! He received many medals for his bravery.
“Sadly, I never met him. He died in 1938, just before I was born. He was born in Whatfield, Suffolk, but lived his married life in Ipswich. A true Suffolk man.”
“Enclosed is a photograph from the First World War of the crew of a minesweeper which was based at Felixstowe. The ship was HMS Drummerboy and my father, Able Seaman James Edwin Wearne, is seated second from the left on the second row, with his arms folded, his hat at a rakish angle, and, like many of his shipmates, with a cigarette hanging from his mouth,” writes James Wearne, who lives in the Felixstowe area.
“I am not sure how old he was when the photograph was taken but my mother told me that he was only sixteen when he joined the navy in 1916 and that he had put his age up to eighteen in order to be accepted.
“I have since discovered from his service records that he actually enlisted before his sixteenth birthday. It therefore dates between 1916 and 1918.
“He was born in Truro, Cornwall, in 1900 and first came to Felixstowe as a member of the crew of HMS Drummerboy, met my mother, married her when the war ended (both were only eighteen at the time) and remained here for the rest of his life.
“As if one war was not enough, he, like so many of his contemporaries in this area, joined the Territorial Army in 1938, when war with Germany once more seemed imminent.
“He was eventually called up in 1939 at the outbreak of war and, with so many others from this area, fought in the North African desert campaign until at the fall of Tobruk in 1942, where they were taken prisoner, and had to spend the remainder of the war in Italian and German prisoner of war camps.
“He eventually died in 1973.”