First World War: How war touched East Anglia and Kitchener’s Suffolk link

HMS Amphion, which was sunk in the North Sea after hitting a mine - the first Royal Navy ship to fal

HMS Amphion, which was sunk in the North Sea after hitting a mine - the first Royal Navy ship to fall this way during the First World War. - Credit: Archant

It wasn’t long before the shadow of war fell across East Anglia. Dr John Greenacre, the First World War centenary co-ordinator at University Campus Suffolk, looks at the effect on the county.

Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener - the man who attracted crowds of recruits to the military and who wa

Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener - the man who attracted crowds of recruits to the military and who was no stranger to Suffolk. - Credit: Archant

Suffolk’s first experience of the war came on account of its position as a coastal county. Men of the Royal Navy Reserve left their maritime trades to take positions on His Majesty’s battleships, destroyers, monitors and minesweepers.

On August 6, 1914, the cruiser HMS Amphion, returning to Harwich, struck mines off the Suffolk coast and sunk. The first British ship lost during the war claimed nearly 150 lives.

Six weeks later, on September 22, 1914, HMS Cressy and her sister ships Hogue and Aboukir were sunk together by a German U-boat. Dozens of men from Suffolk were lost in the incident, six from Southwold alone.

On the outbreak of hostilities the High Steward of Ipswich, Field Marshal Horatio Kitchener (see panel), was elevated to the post of Minister of War.

Far sighted in terms of how the war would be fought, Kitchener embarked on a massive recruitment campaign, epitomised by the poster bearing his accusing finger.

Millions flocked to join the “New Armies” and the ranks of the Suffolk Regiment swelled as a result. By the end of 1914 the regiment comprised three regular battalions, six territorial battalions and five “New Army” battalions.

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The 2nd Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment, was in action from the start, fighting in the opening battles in France at Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne and the first fighting around Ypres in Flanders with the loss of over 130 men.

The stalemate

As the optimism of 1914 gave way to the realities of 20th Century industrial warfare, men from Suffolk fought in Belgium and France, Salonika and Gallipoli, on the high seas and at home.

Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment were victims of the first lethal gas attacks in the Ypres Salient in April, 1915. During 1915 and 1916, men from Suffolk won the British empire’s highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross, at Loos, in the Ypres Salient, on the Somme and the Gallipoli peninsula.

For the first time the Home Front fell under threat of direct attack. At the end of April, 1915, the German Zeppelin LZ38 visited Ipswich, dropping explosive and incendiary bombs and damaging property across the town.

On April 25, 1916, a cruiser squadron of the German Navy bombarded Lowestoft, killing four civilians and causing panic amongst the population.

Despite these attacks, industry across the county continued to support the war effort. Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies in Ipswich and Richard Garrett & Sons of Leiston produced aircraft and armaments, while Maconochie Brothers in Lowestoft canned rations for troops at the front.

The women of Suffolk worked in these factories but also provided care in the dozens of converted and temporary hospitals and convalescent homes that sprang up across the county. These institutions provided an immediate indication of what was happening at the battle front. A soldier wounded in the trenches of Flanders on a Monday could be in a bed in the Ipswich and East Suffolk hospital by Thursday.

The shifting balance

By 1917 the rapid expansion of Britain’s fighting forces had eased and the harsh lessons of the fighting in 1915 and 1916 were producing a more effective military machine.

The results could be seen even on the Home Front, sometimes in spectacular fashion. In the early hours of June 17, 1917, the Zeppelin L48 crossed the Suffolk coast and was attacked by several Royal Flying Corps aircraft, some taking off from the air station at Orfordness.

Thanks to new incendiary bullets, the Zeppelin burst into flames that could be seen for 50 miles across the county. The huge airship crashed at Theberton, killing all but three of the crew. The victims were buried in the parish churchyard.

The Royal Navy in all its guises was increasing its control of the sea, blockading Germany and reducing the food and supplies reaching the enemy.

Suffolk fishermen confronted German U-boats, acting as lures in converted trawlers and drifters known as Q-ships.

On August 15, 1917, Lowestoft skipper Tom Crisp’s armed fishing smack Nelson attacked a U-boat in the North Sea despite being hopelessly outgunned. Crisp was mortally wounded in the action but stayed on the deck, went down with his boat and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his courage.

The war ends

With the tide of war turning against the German army there was a slim window of opportunity for a last, desperate but massive assault across the Western Front.

By the spring of 1918, when the German attack was unleashed, the Suffolk Regiment had five battalions in France and Belgium. They bore the brunt with the rest of the infantry and lost 650 men from March to May, 1918.

Even when the tide turned and the British army went on the offensive, through the final 100 days to victory, the notification of casualties in the towns and villages of Suffolk continued to be a familiar, though dreaded, feature of daily life.

The village of Crowfield was not unusual; a third of the men it lost were killed during these final stages of the war. Sergeant W Boardley of Lowestoft and the Suffolk Regiment died on the Western Front at the moment the war ended on November 11, 1918.

Even the Armistice did not spell an end to the losses for the county. A Spanish Flu epidemic raced across Europe, aided by the mass movement of humanity at the end of the war. Millions, weakened by the years of war, died from the effect of the virus through 1918 and 1919.

Men returning from the war were particularly vulnerable. Nearly a quarter of the First World War burials in Ipswich Old Cemetery are of men that died at the end of 1918 and through 1919.

The war becomes history

The end of the “war to end all wars” was not a cause for celebration, rather for reflection and remembrance. Churchyards and cemeteries across Suffolk held hundreds of burials of victims of the war – men who had died through accident or disease while stationed at home and those injured at the front that made it back to Suffolk’s hospitals but subsequently died of their wounds.

In the old naval cemetery at Shotley, some of the first casualties of the war, crewmen from HMS Amphion, lay buried. In Ipswich Old Cemetery the Ipswich Ladies Guild had established a separate plot for servicemen as early as 1915.

After the war, the Imperial War Graves Commission took responsibility and the familiar white Portland headstones began to appear in the cemeteries across the county.

Nearly every parish and borough erected a prominent stone memorial to commemorate their losses.

Less obvious memorials were also created.

In Beccles the new hospital, opened in 1924, was dedicated as a war memorial. In Lowestoft, a fund had been raised to commemorate Lord Kitchener, who had been lost at sea on his way to Russia in June, 1916.

The proceeds of the fund were used to purchase a seafront property that became a convalescent holiday home for veterans of the war: the Lord Kitchener Memorial Holiday Home for Ex-Servicemen

Dr John Greenacre served in the Army for 24 years, with deployments in the Gulf War, the Balkans and Northern Ireland. He holds a doctorate in military history from the University of Leeds and frequently leads and guides battlefield tours on the continent.

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