First World War: How the likes of Crittal and Marconi loobied the Government for munitions contracts and other Essex war stories are waiting to be discovered at Braintree Museum
- Credit: Archant
It’s something of a cliché that the First World War changed the way England lived, thought and looked, but that was certainly true for Braintree. STEVEN RUSSELL learns how history left its mark on the town
Three pals from an Essex village. They live in adjoining houses and go to school together. When war breaks out, they join the same regiment and even serve in the same platoon. Their lives are entwined. Forever.
Thomas Hammond, Alfred Nash and Alec Richardson come from Rayne, just outside Braintree. Letters they post from the Western Front arrive in Essex almost daily. They’re passed around the three families and then shared among other neighbours interested in how the lads are faring, miles from home.
Then the letters dry up. As news filters through, it becomes clear why. The boys are fighting at the Battle of Loos, in the autumn of 1915. They’re simply too busy to pen many words for home. Too busy trying to stay alive.
That November, the lads’ story makes the pages of the national newspaper the Daily Sketch ? the trio billed as the boys who “made history in their village”. It’s an accolade their families would gladly forego.
On a Saturday, the Sketch tells its readers, the stream of correspondence had started again, “only to stop forever. Instead of one letter came three, in long official envelopes, with the usual message of sympathy from Lord Kitchener.
“The boys who started together, and had fought together, died together. They took a German trench on October 12 and, while holding it against the odds, were killed by the same shell.
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“Rayne is proud of them, and their mothers are proud of them…”
Thomas Hammond was 22 ? a gardening labourer from Duck End, Rayne ? and was among the first to sign up for “Kitchener’s Army”.
He’d landed at Boulogne at the end of May and was in the trenches by July. His body was never recovered.
Other local fatalities in the battle included Sydney Howard, 18, of South Street, Braintree, and Lance Corporal Fred Mayn, whose father ran a baker’s shop in New Street.
Between 1914 and 1918 the war claimed at least 202 souls from Braintree and neighbouring Bocking. Fifteen of them died on the Somme; two on the same day.
While we’re doing numbers, there’s 23 ? the number of dead who hailed from Church Street in Bocking. A road that suffered more than its share of misery.
The 202 are honoured on the Great War memorial, a 20ft obelisk of Portland stone standing by St Mary’s Church in Braintree and Bocking Public Gardens.
The stories of many of those who paid the ultimate price, and of the effect of war on the town itself, is told in an exhibition at Braintree District Museum that runs until December 19. While the consequences for soldiers take centre stage, the exhibition also examines the effect conflict had on the town and landscape. Braintree then had about 10,000 inhabitants, says Jennifer Brown, the museum’s collections and interpretation officer, so to lose 200-odd young males would have been felt keenly. “It affected every street.”
Because of the town’s location, France and Belgium not too far away, Braintree’s private homes hosted hundreds of billeted soldiers as they waited for transport to take them across the water. The first troops arrived in the September and October of 1914. Field kitchens were opened in the Corn Exchange in the High Street, and in Fairfield Road. “I think the town would have felt quite different, seeing those soldiers marching around, and a lot of them would have had accents from up north.”
The place would most likely have been quite rowdy at times, she suspects, with troops from all over thrown together with the locals, and all in a heightened atmosphere of fear, danger and anticipation. In fact, there were reports of fights breaking out near where the Constitution Club now stands ? an area that would have been home to numerous pubs 100 years ago.
Lasting friendships were forged in the town, though. The museum has postcards and letters sent from the front to the families with whom soldiers had been billeted. Someone even came back with his bride to spend a honeymoon at the house where he’d been put up!
Locals laid on entertainment for the troops, and a YMCA recreation centre was opened at the Institute in Bocking End. Voluntary Aid Detachment hospitals were set up, including in part of the workhouse on Rayne Road. The isolation hospital, meanwhile, didn’t take in casualties but was involved in disinfecting soldiers’ clothing. A lot harboured lice and other vermin in their uniforms, so disinfectant baths were used.
The soldiers in VAD hospitals were mostly there for rehabilitation and were allowed out to the Picture Palace cinema on the High Street. “One of them got left behind one night, and the nurse didn’t realise,” says Jennifer. “He turned up at the (hospital’s) door, pushed in a wheelbarrow by some townsfolk, roaring drunk. She was absolutely mortified that she’d left him behind.”
The war brought changes to industry. Francis Crittall, whose huge family business made metal window frames, founded the East Anglian Munitions Committee, with well-known names from the region’s engineering sector ? Ramsome, and Garrett, from Suffolk, for instance, and Marconi from Essex. Forty-two firms in all.
At the start of the war, explains Jennifer, the armament producers had a monopoly. “They weren’t producing enough, and they were priced at £1 20/-, so they were expensive for the Government. Teams of men had only about five shells per gun.
“Francis Crittall and Ransome were determined that engineering companies were perfectly capable of making munitions. So they lobbied the Government repeatedly, but didn’t get anywhere. Finally, in June, 1915, they persuaded the Government and got their first contract. Crittalls and the surrounding industries got turned over to munitions work within two months. They started from scratch. The War Office wouldn’t even give them a shell [as a guide] so Francis sidled one out of the War Office, took it home, dissected it, worked out how to put it together, changed all his machinery over to making them, and turned out the first 20,000 in two months ? which is incredible.
“Over the course of the war they made two-million shells at the Crittall works.”
The First World War also brought rationing. A scheme was rolled out nationally from February, 1918, though Braintree had actually introduced it a month earlier.
“It’s the first war that affected everybody,” says Jennifer. “In the past, you might have had kings and their men fighting, but you didn’t have conflict like this, with air raids, your food being rationed, and billeted soldiers wandering about. It would have been a total shock.”