Gallery: ‘I do hope more Clacton men will come out and help finish this dreadful war. They certainly ought to do their bit’
Not surprisingly, The Great War left its mark on Essex. Steven Russell looks at a new book chronicling both events on the battlefield and life on the home front
Men from the Essex Regiment were involved in most of the major actions of the First World War – “big pushes” such as the Battle of Le Cateau in August, 1914; the Marne the following month and the First Battle of Ypres in the October. Loos, the Somme, Passchendaele… the list went on.
It took a while for folk back at home to learn what was going on. We didn’t have radio, obviously no TV, and even phones were a rarity.
It was newspapers that told people what was happening on the Western Front. Pretty much. For as Andrew Summers explains in his new book, “Throughout the war the papers (with certain exceptions) could only print what they had been officially told, which was heavily censored.”
His title, They Did Their Duty, traces the Essex Regiment from 1914 to 1918. It tells the stories of Essex Farm and Calvaire – two cemeteries in Belgium forever tied to Essex. And it portrays life at home as seen through the eyes of the local press.
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While Andrew reminds us that most men came home physically unscathed, the toll was still great.
“More than 8,000 Essex Regiment soldiers were killed in action or died of wounds or disease during the conflict. The number of casualties, though, was much higher than the deaths indicate, something like three or four wounded to each one who died.”
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The First Battalion had nearly 1,800 of its officers and men killed. “Even the 9th, 10th and 11th Battalions, which didn’t take part in active service until a year after the war started, suffered 1,000 fatalities each. The battalions were kept going by a steady stream of replacement recruits arriving from England.”
It’s also salutary to learn that the commanding officers of the 1st, 2nd, 9th, 10th and 11th battalions were killed in action or died of wounds.
It was on Saturday, August 8, 1914, that the Essex County Standard reported the declaration of war ? on page five ? Andrew says. “Whilst the mood of the press was generally upbeat, it had little hesitation in publishing letters of complaint. On September 5th the Essex County Standard published a letter from ‘one who may lose his job’. It concerned London firms driving up to Colchester in large vans and selling goods to soldiers based at the barracks. In the opinion of the writer, this was outrageous, as there were many capable traders in and around Colchester who could provide a better selection of goods at more reasonable prices.”
The Essex Chronicle started printing a “Roll of Honour” of war dead – more than 100 Essex names from the army and navy – on October 23. The following month it ran a paragraph describing the bombardment of Ypres and pointed out the cloth trade links between Colchester, Dedham, Coggeshall and Ypres stretching back more than 300 years. “Little did anyone know at that stage that Ypres’s medieval cloth hall was to be reduced to rubble in the following six months.”
Powerful first-hand accounts began to appear. In 1915 the Chronicle detailed the experiences of a Dunmow soldier from the 2nd Battalion Essex Regiment who had been in Belgium over the winter. Private May was sent home to recuperate from severe rheumatism worsened by long spells in waterlogged trenches. But his biggest fear was snipers.
“Every day some of the men are knocked over, then carried back at night to the little cemetery in the rear where the Essex fallen are buried,” he said. “The German snipers are dead-shots. If a man happens to show his head above the trench he is bound to be killed. We even held up a spade but it was instantly riddled with bullets. Often the enemy fire through pipes laid along the ground. We have no chance of seeing where the shot is coming from and frequently men a mile behind the front line are hit.”
Private May added: “After trench warfare we wouldn’t mind facing death in a grand charge on the German lines.”
The Chronicle’s Essex roll of honour grew so large that it was printed only once a month. On the first Friday of August, 1915, the fallen filled a whole page.
On the front, life was appalling. The Clacton-on-Sea Graphic published the words of Private E Burling, written to his uncle in Wellesley Road, Clacton.
“We lost two more of our men; one was killed in the trench and another from a shell from a German big gun,” the soldier said. “As far I know only one man was wounded, although I thought there would have been more. My mate who was killed leaves a wife and three children, what a blow to them. Truly this is a horrible war.
“We are having some wet and cold weather, and as we have only the clothes we stand up in, they have to dry on us. Some of the trenches we walk through are knee deep in water so we do not always have dry feet.
“We have dug-outs in the trenches to sleep in if we can snatch the time. It would be a treat to get home for a while and lie in a warm bed at night.
“I do hope more Clacton men will come out and help finish this dreadful war. They certainly ought to do their bit as we are doing ours.”
In the summer of 1916 there was a report about a Mr Miller Christy, who lived three miles outside Chelmsford, repeatedly hearing the sound of big guns in Flanders. “Mr Christy had kept a record in his diary. He noted that on 6th October, one particular explosion (when ammunition depots had been destroyed) had greatly excited the pheasants in the nearby woods.
“Mr William Marriott of the Royal Meteorological Society had explained there was no high ground between Chelmsford and Ypres, and that cloudy skies were more favourable for sound travelling than clear.”
Meanwhile, the Battle of the Somme started on July 1, 1916. By nightfall there were 57,000 British casualties for little gain. “Over the next two weeks reports began to appear in the local papers, based on official press releases,” writes Andrew.
Papers described it as The Great Advance, though details were sketchy. At the end of the month the invariably-upbeat Essex County Chronicle published a letter from Private Harry Rawlinson to his parents at Great Bardfield, near Braintree.
“Glad to say I am well. I came through it alright and had some exciting experiences. We are now out for a few days’ rest. It was a tough job to move the Huns at first. Their dugouts were very deep. They were wonderful places with bunk beds, just like a ship. Some even had electric lights. None of our shells touched them but they played havoc in the trenches, dead bodies everywhere, and we took prisoners too.”
He went on: “Our artillery has been splendid. You may have read in the papers that we have now taken some of the villages but they are villages no more, just heaps of debris. Everywhere we advanced there were shattered trenches, barbed wire and stripped trees.”
Andrew says: “Yet, what was clear from the outset of the ‘Great Advance’ was the enormous scale of casualties. The papers filled their pages with obituaries and photographs of local men fallen. The Essex County Chronicle no longer preceded its ‘Roll of Honour’ with poetry.”
In September, 1916, a big fete took place in Chelmsford, opened by Winston Churchill. It drew 10,000 people and raised money for wounded Russians and Scottish prisoners of war. A highlight was a display of captured German guns.
Churchill told the crowd: “We must not weaken our resolve”, adding: “Whilst the Germans may be reeling, they are not beaten; far from it.”
Five days before the armistice, the Clacton Graphic highlighted a report from medical photographer Norman Harrison, a local man stressing the urgent need to build 400,000 houses.
“He said there had been encouraging noises from Ministers, but questioned whether he was ‘flogging a dead horse’. He finished by saying no matter what the crisis, ‘The British capacity for muddling through is enormous and will be needed in the chaos which will ensue when peace does come’.”
They Did Their Duty is published by Summersbook at £9.99. ISBN 9780955229596. www.essex100.comFor more on East Anglia’s contribution to the First World War, visit our commemorative centenary page here