Bury St Edmunds in the Great War, from Glynis Cooper and Pen & Sword Books
- Credit: Archant
The night the Zeppelins came from nowhere and the bombs rained down...
It’s hard for us, cocooned by the relative comfort and security of 21st Century England, to imagine living a century ago and having death rain down on us. Today – with TV and the web – we understand so much, too. In 1915, folk didn’t even have radio broadcasts letting them know what was going on around the world.
So, it must have been truly terrifying when the people of Bury St Edmunds found themselves under attack from the night skies – targeted by a German Zeppelin. Aerial warfare showed them they were no longer safe in their own country, now the enemy had such a long reach.
It happened first on the night of April 29/30, 1915.
Although there were rules about lights, “people in Bury had not been very conscientious about adhering to the restrictions and in the panic that ensued, with bombs raining down on the town centre, individual house lights were switched on and Bury shone like a beacon in the night”, says author Glynis Cooper. “Captain Eric Linnarz could steer his aircraft simply by following the blazing trail of lights.”
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His Zeppelin was 536ft long and carried two tons of bombs. “Forty-one incendiary shells and four high explosive bombs were dropped on and around the town but, astonishingly, the only casualties were a border collie killed by debris in the Buttermarket and a few hens on an allotment. However, there was a great deal of structural damage.”
It wasn’t the last visit these aerial death-ships would pay. The next raid started just before midnight on March 31, 1916.
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“Four people, including a mother and her two young children, died in Mill Road, two men died in Raingate Street near the King of Prussia pub, and one soldier from the Cambridgeshire Regiment died on Chalk Road.
“In total, seven people were killed, five people were injured and thirty-seven houses damaged,” writes Glynis in her book Bury St Edmunds in the Great War.
“The whole episode induced in Bury what would probably be described as a kind of collective post-traumatic stress reaction.”
The town became obsessed with blackouts “and remained so, long after the main danger... had faded and the government had relaxed restrictions”.
As the cracks across Europe grew wider in the summer of 1914, it hadn’t been thoughts of war that occupied the minds of many folk in Suffolk but reality on their doorsteps. Local farm labourers’ wages were among the lowest in the country, and the problems of working conditions and tied cottages filled newspaper columns. The day before Britain declared war on Germany, folk enjoyed a bank holiday fete on Hardwick Heath, Bury St Edmunds. After that, things became very serious very quickly.
It’s captured in Glynis’s book.
“The Suffolk Yeomanry were given a rousing send-off from Angel Hill as they marched off to war, and the 3rd Suffolk Battalion made an early-morning departure from Bury St Edmunds.”
The Defence of the Realm Act was passed: allowing – in essence – the authorities to do whatever they thought necessary.
“There were rumours of food shortages, but Suffolk’s lord lieutenant made an appeal for calm and common sense. There was, he said, ‘No occasion for panic. There is plenty of food... and definitely no shortage of Bird’s custard or Horniman’s tea.’”
By early September, the first casualties of the Suffolk Regiment had come back with “thrilling stories of fighting at the Front”, but there were also reports of prolonged action. Belgian refugees arrived with tales of atrocities.
Life was difficult at home. “There was hardship as the separation allowances paid to wives and families when the breadwinners were away fighting were woefully inadequate.” Food and fuel prices rose. Military recruitment caused a shortage of agricultural workers. Around Christmas, Glynis tells us, there was “an increase in weddings as local soldiers and sailors wanted to spend some precious married life with their sweethearts, whom they might well never see again”.
“In Bury St Edmunds the landlord of the Griffin, on the corner of Cornhill and Brentgovel Street, was called Theodore Jacobus,” says Glynis. “He was, in fact, a British citizen, but on 15 May, a week after the sinking of the Lusitania, the pub was attacked by angry locally-billeted Royal Engineers and bricks were thrown through the windows. Two days later, West Suffolk County Council dismissed its weights and measures inspector, Mr Walters, from its town offices simply because he had German parents.
“Braham’s scrap merchants in Risbygate Street were forced to take out advertisements to prove they had no German blood in them, and the King of Prussia pub was hastily renamed the Lord Kitchener.” In France, The Suffolks were suffering heavy losses. At home, talk was of compulsory conscription. It would come at the start of 1916.
There were efforts to recruit women to agriculture. “There was no shortage of volunteers. The main problem was the prejudice of the farmers…” Glynis writes: “By March, farmers in Norfolk had accepted female workers on their land and had been impressed with both the quality and quantity of their work. The women worked from 8am-4pm for 2/- (just over £6 now) per day. The pressure was now on for West Suffolk, including Bury St Edmunds, to follow suit.”
The Battle of the Somme lasted more than four months: “one of the biggest military disasters in history… The battle virtually wiped out a whole battalion of the Suffolk Regiment. Mr H Goodfellow of Bury lost three of his four sons”.
Pupils were taught to grow food, and potatoes were cultivated in the Abbey Gardens.
Local war casualties abroad were now practically a daily occurence. “Individuals were making incredible patriotic contributions, one local family having nine sons in the forces; another had five sons serving, and one Bury St Edmunds lady reported that of her four sons in the war, two were dead, one was an injured prisoner-of-war, and one was still serving.” There was big political news. The vote would be given to women over the age of 30. “It was the suffragette dream come true – and due to the simple fact that on the declaration of war they had laid aside their campaign for women to have the vote and thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the war effort,” says Glynis.
“They did the jobs men did before going off to fight with equal aptitude, they provided back-up support to the forces, they cared for refugees, nursed the sick, raised funds for the troops and prisoners-of-war, brought up their children and kept the home fires burning.”
Several people were complaining that the clock on St Mary’s Church, Bury, was slow, and making them miss trains. The one on Moyse’s Hall, the medieval merchant’s house, however, was spot on. “The matter of the two clocks caused a great deal of debate... but it provided something on which to focus that didn’t constantly remind people of the war.” Glynis points out that life was sometimes a “real life ‘tale of two cities’.” For instance: after wage-earners were called up, many cash-strapped relatives moved in with family members to make the pennies go further. On the other hand, a full-page advert trumpeted Lindsey Brothers’ new showroom for fur coats, opening on the corner of the Buttermarket and Higher Baxter Street.
Fur coats apart, many things now seemed to be in short supply, including decent homes. It was “not exactly the land fit for heroes that had been promised”.
There was a measles epidemic in the autumn, and flu. “By early November it was recorded that the flu outbreak was of epidemic proportions in Bury… Three wards at the local isolation hospital were filled with victims and eighteen of the first seventy-four patients died, including one of the hospital nurses.”
Finally, on November 11 the terrible conflict came to an end.
The town was a blaze of lights and bunting, “but the war and the attacks by the Zeppelins had left deep scars, and there were still some Bury folk who could not bring themselves to draw back their curtains and let in the light.
“The old order had gone and a whole way of life had disappeared, but Bury St Edmunds could hold its head up with great pride in its Suffolk Regiment and for the immense contribution the town had made in so many ways to eventual victory over the Germans.”
They’d have had no idea the same thing would happen all over again barely two decades later…
Bury St Edmunds in the Great War is published by Pen & Sword Military at £9.99