First World War: How Thomas battled for Britain, at home

Thomas Underwood, who lived at Great Saling, near Braintree

Thomas Underwood, who lived at Great Saling, near Braintree - Credit: Archant

Don’t miss the chance to catch the First World War exhibition at Braintree museum, which has less than three weeks to run. Steven Russell looks at the life of one local man whose story is told in words and pictures

You didn’t have to fight on the Western Front to play a valuable part in the war effort 100 years ago, though Thomas Underwood was ready and willing to put on a uniform and take up a gun.

At the time of the 1911 census he was living at home in Great Saling, near Braintree, with his parents and 11 brothers and sisters. They shared a house with just five rooms.

When war broke out, Thomas was 22 or 23 years old and working as a fitter at engineering firm Lake & Elliot.

Less than a year later – in the middle of July, 1915 – The National Registration Act was passed. This obliged all men and women of working age to register.

Braintree District Museum has a collection of documents relating to Thomas Underwood on display as part of its First World War exhibition, which has welcomed 2,000 visitors since early August. Among the papers is his registration card.

There’s also his attestation card, from February, 1916. In an attempt to avoid introducing conscription, the Government launched a scheme in October, 1915. It encouraged all eligible men to “attest”, or state, their willingness to fight if required. However, this tactic failed and conscription was given the go-ahead in January, 1916, though it did not come into effect until the March.

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Thomas therefore attested after the Conscription Act had been passed but before military service was enforced.

He must have been considered for active service, as another item in the collection is his army medical classification certificate from February, 1917. Thomas was ruled ”A – Fit for General Service”, meaning he could be sent to the front line.

However, he was not called up for active service because he was carrying out important munitions work, setting the machines at the Lake & Elliot factory in Braintree.

In May 1917, he was given a certificate confirming that he worked in a scheduled occupation and was exempt from fighting. Thomas also received a certificate giving him permission to wear a War Service Badge. These were given to men so they would not be harassed on the street as cowards.

Lake and Elliot joined the East Anglian Munitions Committee during the war. It built a special factory in the summer of 1915 for making fuses. It expanded in 1917 and also made armoured grating for warships. This contribution to the military effort helped save HMS Warspite during the only direct naval battle of the conflict: the Battle of Jutland.

In 1917 the company added a “powerhouse”, then one of the most potent industrial power generation plants in the nation. It also supplied electricity to other local industrial giants – such as Crittalls and Courtaulds – and the surrounding towns until the formation of Eastern Electricity in 1946.

Lake and Elliot became an important cog in the automobile industry, producing jacks and other car parts during most of the 1900s. Every British vehicle involved in the D-Day landings of the Second World War carried one of the company’s jacks.

The exhibition runs until December 19. www.braintreemuseum.co.uk

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