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  • Writer's pictureSadie

1918-Victory

Rarely has a year started and ended so differently.


As 1918 began the hope of victory and the end of the Great War seemed unobtainable, and yet by 8th August, when the Battle of Amiens and the hundred days offensive began, victory was a real possibility.


But for Fletton, the day of victory was still a long way away, as news of death, injuries and capture still arrived on a daily basis.


The Spring Offensive


The beginning of 1918 was an extremely worrying time.


Starting on 21st March 1918, the Germans commenced a series of attacks along the Western Front. They calculated that their only remaining chance of victory was to defeat the Allies before the weight of the American forces and resources could be deployed. The German’s also had an advantage as they had fifty divisions that had been freed to be moved to the western front after Russia’s surrender.


The offensive was met with resistance and in many cases successful defence, followed by withdrawal to protect the flanks where the line had been broken. The whole idea was defence in depth, not committing too many to the front line, where they would be slaughtered by artillery. The old Somme battlefield, that saw so many losses in 1916, was overrun in only a couple of days.


Tactically, the Germans gained territorially, but with almost equal casualties on a like for like basis, they were less well able to hold a line now extending much further. The British hung on, eventually holding a line east of Amiens, refusing to let the German’s break through to strategic gains.


The ‘Kaiser’s Battle’ had failed.


One of the many casualties was Private James Crane, 2nd Bn Bedfordshire Regiment, son of Thomas Crane and Mrs. Crane, of St. Margaret’s Road, Fletton. James, who was previously employed by the brickyards as a bricklayer and labourer, was in Chichester hospital suffering from gas poisoning.


Second Lieutenant Jack Crowden, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, who had been injured twice before and is discussed in blog 22 and 23, was wounded and was recovering in Lady Mason’s Hospital, Mount Street, London. James had been proceeding up the line when a shell burst a short distance from him. A piece struck him in the face and chest, but luckily, his injuries were not considered life threatening.


Prisoners Taken


News of prisoners continued to be received by their families.


Private James Robert Sowman, 1st Wiltshire Regiment, of Princes Road, Fletton, was reported safe in Switzerland. He had been taken prisoner at Mons on 26th September 1914 and imprisoned in Germany for three years. On Christmas Day 1917 he was transferred to Switzerland and reportedly was doing well. This is a perfect example of discrepancies in the thousands of records that were created during the Great War. Although the German records state he was captured on 26th September 1914, the medal rolls state he entered theatre on 7th October 1914!! Interestingly, his son, Douglas, was killed on 16th July 1944 whilst acting as a batman/bodyguard to Randolph Churchill, Winston’s son.


Private Percy Arthur Thurley, Machine Gun Corps, youngest son of Mr John Thomas and Mrs Eliza Thurley of Manor Farm, Fletton, had been officially reported missing on 21st March. A month later, the news came through that he was a prisoner of war and had been sent to Largrett, in the Ukraine. Tragically, Percy died on 8th August of stomach problems. You can read more about the Thurley family in blogs 13, 14 and 16.





Prisoners of War relied on food parcels from home to keep them from starvation. Letters home to family and friends often pleaded for food parcels to be sent. Each county established similar funds to assist with this need. The Northamptonshire Prisoners of War Fund found it increasingly difficult to support the number of prisoners who had been captured. In just three weeks, 200 POWs had been confirmed and many more captured. The fund now supported 1,000 prisoners, which put a great deal of strain on resources. An appeal asked for everyone to offer practical help.


Only the previous year, the fund had had just 200 prisoners on their books. But the Battle of Dunes and the Spring Offensive had increased that number. On a western front scale, The Battle of the Dunes, July 1917, was small. It was a British/Belgium offensive, but many lives were lost and about 1,200 prisoners taken, many from 1st Bn Northamptonshires. For every one man being supported in 1917, there were now five requiring support. The cost of providing food alone was £3 7s 6d per month per man. This meant that £850 a week was now required.


Between September 1917 and June 1918, the fund received 10,000 letters from relatives of POWs, roughly 50 a day. The need was urgent, and an appeal was launched, the ‘Special Star Effort’, to rise £15,000 by September. ‘Only by the most strenuous efforts shall we be able to maintain our proud boast that Northamptonshire has solely supported in captivity these gallant lads who helped to save it from the horrors of invasion’.


More Men Wounded


There was no let-up in the numbers of men who were wounded.


Over these five blogs, it has been recorded many times that families often waited for news, not just from one son, but several sons.


One such family were the Sismeys, George and Florence. The Sismey brothers were both being treated in hospital. Lance Corporal Thomas Sismey, 7th Bn Northamptonshire Regiment, of Peterborough, had been gassed and was in hospital in Eastbourne, Surrey. His brother, Sergeant Major George Sismey DCM, 6th Bn Northamptonshire Regiment, of St. Margaret’s Road, Fletton, was wounded in the thigh and side and was recovering in Edinburgh Hospital.


Another such family was John and Elizabeth Marchant of 57 High Street, Fletton. The report states that their third youngest son, Private Herbert Marchant, Lancashire Fusiliers had been wounded and was recovering in hospital in Ipswich. Herbert had been shot in the foot, by machine gun fire, on 11th August. He had joined up twelve months earlier and had been in France since 14th February. When the news was received by the family their eldest son, Private John Marchant, Field Ambulance, was home on leave. John had joined up in 1915 and had been in France for thirty three months. The family understood the grief that so many families were enduring as their middle son, Lance Corporal Sidney Marchant, 1st Northamptonshire Regiment, had been killed on 21st April 1916, near Loos.


Unfortunately, there are several discrepancies in the report. Not surprising really when you consider the volume of news reports that local papers were dealing with on a daily basis. Herbert was in fact Private Harry Marchant, 50705, Lancashire Fusiliers, and there was no unit called the Field Ambulance Corps.


As the end of the war came ever nearer, the fighting intensified. The allies were pushing ever harder, and the Germans retaliated, making the British pay dearly for every yard gained. The numbers of casualties grew day by day.


Private George Wright, 15th Bn London Regiment (Civil Service Rifles), the eldest son of Frederick and Lydia Wright, High Street, Fletton, had been wounded and was recovering in hospital in France. He sent a message to his sister saying, ‘wounded but quite well’.


John and Harriet Kilby received news that their son Gunner George Henry Kilby, Royal Field Artillery, of 197, High Street, Fletton had been wounded in the head and was in hospital in France. His brother Private Thomas (Tom) Kilby, 1st Bn Northamptonshire Regiment, had been a prisoner of war in Germany for fifteen months, having been captured at the Battle of the Dunes in July 1917.


But of course, the Great War was not just fought in Europe. Gunner Edward Stanley Newell, Royal Field Artillery, the second son of Edward Swann Newell, Fletton Spring, was in Alexandria Hospital with broken ribs as a result of being kicked by a horse. Edward was in the battle when Jerusalem was taken. He joined up on 12th September 1914, with the 1/1st Northamptonshire Battery RFA (known locally as the Peterborough Battery) . He first went to France, then Egypt.


The London Brick Company and Air Raids


When we talk about air raids, we usually think of the Second World War. However, aeroplanes were also important in the Great War and were a real threat. In Peterborough, in early January 1918, the Watch Committee decided that the public should be warned of hostile daytime aircraft raids. It was decided that hooters would be sounded at three locations in the city: Peter Brotherhoods in Walton, Perkins Engineers, Ltd in Westwood, and The London Brick Company in Fletton.


The signal that the public needed to listen for was intermittent blasts of the hooters as they sounded for one and a half minutes, of five seconds duration, with short intervals. The signal for the All Clear would be two long blasts with an interval.


Unlike the Second World War, there were no air-raid shelters. Should an air raid take place, it was advised that the public should seek shelter in the nearest building.


Women Wanted


The longer the war went on for, the more able- bodied men were called up to serve. This left agriculture in desperate need of labour. The answer was a call for 14,000 women to join the Land Army. The slogan was, ‘the Land Army feeds the Fighting Army’.


The Land Army was divided into three sections: agriculture, timber-cutting and forage. The sign up time was either six months or a year. Once a woman had passed the selection board, and signed up for a year, then she could choose which section she wanted to join. If she then passed an efficiency test, she could expect a wage of £1 a week, or more. Billeting charges were approximately 18s a week but in most cases a woman could expect to take home 25s a week.


If a woman signed up for six months, then she could join the agriculture or timber-cutting section. The wage would be 18s a week or £1 if she passed her efficiency test.


In both situations, a woman would also receive a free uniform and free rail travel.

The duties expected of the women were varied.


In the agriculture section, she would be expected to milk, plough, hoe, harvest, take care of horses and plant.


In the forage section, duties would include baling hay, stacking the hay and chaff cutting.

Timber-cutting included tree felling, sawing into lengths, stacking and carting.


Fund Raising Endeavours


There was a range of fundraising activities in the city for the war effort.


On Thursday 23rd July there was a fete in aid of the Red Cross on the Oundle Road Recreation ground. Events included a croquet tournament, string band, baby show, programme of sports, rifle shooting and refreshments. The Mayoress and Lady Winfrey presided over the judging of the events.


The Final Push


News in the Advertiser on 10th August 1918 gave a glimmer of hope that the Allies were in sight of victory. The reports came from the French Government and included headlines such as; Paris Liberated, Soissons and Chateau Thierry Re-conquered, Over 200 Villages Delivered, 35,000 Prisoners, 700 Guns, and The Hopes of the Enemy Crumbled in the Dust. Other reports stated that since the middle of July, the Allies had captured 15,000 guns (artillery pieces) and between 70,000 and 80,000 prisoners. In contrast, it was estimated that German casualties exceeded 350,000.


Peace


The Advertiser reported that the Armistice was signed at 5am on Monday 11th November and that hostilities would cease at 11am. An army of volunteers raced around the city with paste pot in hand, putting up posters sharing the good news. As the good news spread, the people of Peterborough, and surrounding areas, made their way to the Cathedral, and other central places. The bells rang out, shops closed, and music and dancing took place in the streets. It was beyond midnight when people gradually drifted home to take in what they had witnessed and remember those who were lost.


Memorials


Memorials commemorating those who made the ultimate sacrifice can be found in churches, schools, chapels, places of work, and public buildings the length and breadth of the country. Whether an individual’s name is recorded on these memorials is an emotive issue and every family had their own personal view.


A meeting was held at the Guildhall, Market Place, Peterborough on Friday 4th October 1918. The issue under discussion was the urgent and pressing need for a new hospital.


It was decided that although the Old Infirmary had done such splendid work in caring for the town’s sick and injured, a new hospital was required. Mayor, Mr. George Nicholls said that the new hospital should be a great Peterborough and District War Memorial. It should be associated with the men and women who were living as well as the men and women who died in service to their country. It was also decided that citizens of all classes should both contribute and benefit.


Two sites were being considered. The first, a four and a half acres site, behind the Cathedral and the second on Thorpe Road.


Many people were opposed to moving to a new site, especially when money was needed for so many other things. However, it was decided to send letters to every household within a twenty mile radius of Peterborough, approximately 70,000 to 80,000 people with an aim of raising £50,000. Optimistically it was considered that equipping the new hospital would be no problem with so many military hospitals soon to be closing down.


Memorials were established in many local buildings, including St. Margaret’s Church, Fletton Ex-Serviceman’s Club, Fletton Grammar School, Old Fletton Methodist Chapel, Fletton County Secondary School, and the New Fletton Baptist Church. Some of these memorials survive today, unfortunately others have been lost.


The St. Margaret’s Church memorial window was dedicated on 4th November 1920 by Reverend Charles Dowman, after it was unveiled by Mr. George.Charles.Wentworth. Fitzwilliam. The window depicts St. George, St. Andrew, and St. Patrick. Flanking the window are two panels listing the names of Fletton men who made the ultimate sacrifice. The lesson at the service was read by Mr. Henry Albert Stow, who had served in France and Flanders with the 9th Bn Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment. In his address, Mr. Fitzwilliam congratulated the parishioners on such a splendid window. He went on to say that through the courage of men, such as these, the country had been saved a great horror.


The Memorial Hall in Fletton was built as an ex-serviceman’s club to honour the men from Stanground, Fletton and Woodston who fell in the Great War. It was opened on Saturday July 29th, 1922, by Major General Sir Frederick Maurice K.C.M.G. C.B. The memorial tablet was unveiled by Commander Oliver. Locker-Lampson C.M.G. D.S.O. M.P, who had commanded the Royal Naval Armoured Car Detachment in Russia, and dedicated by the Bishop of Ely, the Right Reverend Frederick Henry Chase D. D. At the same time a memorial to the late John Cathles Hill, founder of the London Brick Company, was unveiled by Reverend Charles Dowman, a personal friend of the family.





Major General Sir Frederick Maurice saw service in the Great War and was a champion of the rank and file man. ensuring that promises made by the government were not reneged upon. He was also a founder of the British Legion. Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson was well known as the MP for Huntingdonshire.


The scheme for building the Memorial Hall started with a donation of £130 from the United Services Canteen Fund. There were many other donations of money and fixtures and fittings from local residents. The culmination was a fine building consisting of a hall, canteen, and billiard room.


In the entrance hall, the names of the fallen from Stanground, Fletton and Woodstone were recorded on three panels.





At the Old Fletton Methodist Chapel a plaque on the organ commemorates the fallen. The organ is dedicated ‘to the glory of God and in grateful memory of those connected with this church who fell in the Great War’.





Fletton County Secondary School


The memorial at Fletton County Secondary School was unveiled on 18th March 1920 by Lord Huntly. It was dedicated by Reverend Warren Hastings. The memorial was re-dedicated on 9th July 2014 by Reverend George Rogers, Royal British Legion Padre.


There was also a memorial at the New Fletton Baptist Church. The memorial was dedicated on 25th December 1920.


To find the name of a Fletton man who died in the Great War you can consult the Roll of Honour at Roll of Honour - Huntingdonshire - Old Fletton (roll-of-honour.com)


After the War


Woman Return Home


After the war ended life gradually resumed some kind of normality, although this was of course a new normality, nothing could ever be the same as it was before.


On 23rd November munition workers were demobilized. A large number of men had already been dismissed and they had returned to their homes to take up their pre-war occupations. Almost a thousand women were affected. The management at Messrs. Barford and Perkins Ltd, Messrs. Sage’s and Perkins Ltd met with the women. Night shifts were reduced, three day weeks introduced, and the women were encouraged to leave to prevent the companies needing to take further action.


They were of course thanked for their hardwork, but it was now time to show further patriotism and return to their pre-war occupations. For the majority, this would of course, mean returning to household duties.


Prisoners Released


By 30th November 50,000 British POWs and interned civilians had returned to England.

This was, however, too late for some men. Private Percival (Percy) Finch, 1st Lincolnshire Regiment, second son of Harry and Emma Finch, 23 Milton Road, Fletton died before he was able to be returned home. Percy was taken prisoner on 16th April 1918. His parents were informed, by which time Percy had been sent to Friedrichsfeld prisoner of war camp in the Wesel district of Germany. Friedrichfeld was a multinational camp holding a maximum of 35,000 prisoners.


With the German army in full retreat after the Battle of Amiens in August 1918 new defences had to be built quickly. In common with many prisoners, Percy was drafted into this work, moving to the temporary Happegarbes Camp, Landrecies near Valennciennes, France. With little food and hard labour, Percy died on 20th September 1918, of ‘intestinal catarrh’, a general description covering illness and starvation.


The news of Percy’s death was not received by his parents until Thursday 12th December when communication arrived from the Geneva Red Cross.


Belguim Refugees Return Home


Peterborough and Fletton had been home to almost 500 refugees during the war. By December 1918 arrangements were in progress to repatriate them. Although the families were eager to return home, they had made strong friendships in the area, and they left with memories that would remain for the rest of their lives.


Military Hospital Closes


On 15th March 1919 the Peterborough Palace Military Hospital closed. Although it had only opened five months earlier, on 1st October 1918, during that time it had treated 156 men. Ironically, the hospital was missed as the last physical sign of the war was swept away in a city that had risen to the many challenges that the Great War had presented.


The War to End All Wars and the Spanish Flu


The War to end all Wars ended with victory.


But more loss was to come. Waiting for the world were the horrors of the Spanish Flu.


The 1918 flu pandemic ran from January 1918 to December 1920. In Great Britain it killed 250,000 but it is estimated that 500 million were infected worldwide, that is 1 to 3 percent of the world’s population. Estimates vary but between 17 and 50 million people died, and some say it was as many as 100 million, more than lost their life in the Great War.


This made it one of the deadliest natural disasters.


But why the Spanish flu?


In a time when it was important to maintain morale the press was highly censored. Therefore, in countries such as England, America and Germany reports of illness and mortality were severely restricted. However, this was not the case in neutral Spain where the epidemic was freely reported, creating a false impression that Spain was the epicentre.


The flu pandemic was particularly hard to take as soldiers, who had survived all the hardships of war and were looking forward to a new future, contracted the disease and were cruelly taken, losing a battle they were not equipped to fight.


‘Futility’

Wilfred Owen


Move him into the sun—

Gently its touch awoke him once,

At home, whispering of fields half-sown.

Always it woke him, even in France,

Until this morning and this snow.

If anything might rouse him now

The kind old sun will know.


Think how it wakes the seeds—

Woke once the clays of a cold star.

Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides

Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth's sleep at all?


I am indebted to Derek Smith, David Gray and the Imperial War Museum, without whom this blog would not be written.


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