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  • Writer's pictureSadie

The Great War 1917-No End in Sight

1917 dawned with little hope for an end to the war. Morale at home was waning. Daily news from the front brought the families of Fletton information about the wounded and dead. At home the provision of food dominated everyone’s thoughts.

There was no respite.

The community gathered together to do what they could for the soldiers on the front line.

1917 also saw two major battles. The Battle of Arras began on 9th April and ended on 16th May. Whilst the lengthy Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) began on 31st July and went on until the fall of the village of Passchendaele and the capture of Hill 52 on the 10th November.

Fletton’s losses were heavy. In the Battle of Arras, 10 men were lost and in the Third Battle of Ypres, 19 men were lost.

Dry Feet Required

Local people were doing what they could to keep soldiers dry. Prisoners of war interned in camps in Russian territory, which was now occupied by the Germans, were receiving wellington boots. The men were being forced to dig canals and lay railway lines and the Russian winters were harsh. The boots were made in Northampton. They were made from leather and eighteen inches high. They were also receiving fur coats from a fund set up by the ‘Northampton Independent’ newspaper.

But the weather conditions were harsh all over Europe. Soldiers needed scarves, gloves, and socks. Volunteers were doing everything they could to meet demand. Fletton, Woodston and Stanground sent 167 mufflers, 104 pairs of mittens, 9 pairs of socks and 1 body belt to Mrs. Scott Gatty at the Relief Office in Huntingdon.

There was also a flag day and house to house collection on the 9th December 1916. The amount collected was Old Fletton £9 12s 6d, Fletton Urban £8 8s 4d, Stanground South £5 6s 4d and Woodston £2 6s 4d.

Private Herbert Savidge, formerly Hertfordshire Regiment, now Bedfordshire Regiment, of Queen’s Walk, was invalided home from active service suffering from trench feet. He was recovering in the 3rd Western General hospital, Cardiff.

Trench foot was a painful condition caused by the feet being immersed in water or mud for long periods of time. The condition is identified by blackened feet where the tissue has begun to die. If not treated trench foot could lead to death. Even if the condition was treated the sufferer could experience numbness and coolness in the feet for life.

Herbert was one of eight members of staff of Mr Edward Swallow, of Bank Chambers, Market Place, who had joined up since the outbreak of the war.

Paper Shortage

Along with other commodities paper was in short supply. From the 10th March the price of the Advertiser was increased by one halfpenny from one penny. The Advertiser did not want to reduce the coverage of the paper so they hoped that by increasing the cost fewer papers would be sold. The government had already said that there would be less space available on ships for importing paper as the space was required for other commodities.

The Advertiser was desperate to continue delivering news of the war to the 20,000 homes in Peterborough and the price of the paper had not increased for 63 years.

Infant Welfare Success

The war highlighted the poor health of the nation and this started with the youngest members of society. The first annual meeting of the Fletton, Woodston and Stanground Infant Welfare clinic was held on the afternoon of Tuesday 3rd April. The centre was established in December 1915 due to the unusual number of infant deaths, 140 per 1,000 births, in the Fletton area. To read more about the clinic see blog 2.

Clinics were held every Monday afternoon at 171 High Street. There was a waiting room and consulting room, and mothers were made welcome with tea on arrival.

In the preceding year, 94 children had attended the clinic, 50 girls and 44 boys. A myriad of ailments was recorded, from rickets to malnutrition, congenital syphilis to thrush. Of those who attended, 60 infants were breast fed and 34 bottle fed. The chief problem was that mothers were not feeding their children correctly. Advise was given on preparation of food, cleanliness, and clothing.

The clinic had amazing success and the infant mortality rates declined from 140 per 1,000 in 1914, to 128.9 per 1,000 in 1915 and 60.8 in 1916.

The clinic also had aspirations to further improve the health of infants in the area. Their work was going to be extended to include home visits and a purpose built clinic.

Child Labour

Children had to be fit and strong if they were to carry out the idea put forward by Mr. E. Adams at the monthly meeting of the Education Committee on Monday 26th March. His suggestion was that during the Easter holidays farmers could use children to assist on the land.

It was decided that an advertisement should be placed in the newspaper. How many children, or farmers, took up this opportunity is unknown.

War on sparrows

Food was a precious resource, and everyone had a responsibility to ensure that it grew well and was used sensibly.

A letter appeared in the Advertiser on Saturday 14th April appealing for help in reducing the number of both rats and sparrows. It was estimated that sparrows could eat or destroy one fifth of the grain harvest. The government employed men to systematically reduce numbers by destroying the nests, eggs and young in springtime.

But this was an ongoing occupation and volunteers were also required to assist. Action was needed immediately and the newspaper was appealing for volunteers to help by forming rat and sparrow clubs.

It could be a lucrative business and remuneration was favourable, 1s per dozen rat tails, 3d per dozen heads of fully fledged house sparrows, 2d per dozen heads of unfledged house sparrows, and 1d per dozen house sparrow eggs.

Again, an important contingent were children. However, they could only receive payment if the activity had been supervised by their teacher, and they weren’t allowed to catch rats.

I can’t imagine this being an acceptable school pastime now!

Food Economy

Every member of the public could play their part in preserving food supplies for the nation. There were appeals to the public to exercise the most stringent economy in the use of cereals for human food.

The reasons were fourfold: the wheat crop of 1916 failed all over the world, four fifths of the wheat was imported, vessels previously used for the transportation of cereal were now being used for munitions, troops and feeding the army, and the sinking of ships by submarines.

In an unusual request the government asked the public not to eat cheaper food if they could afford better quality and to reduce the amount of bread they eat.


Food rationing and ration books are often associated with the Second World War. But there was also rationing in the First World War. These were mainly local initiatives to preserve stocks, limit food hoarding and reduce food intake. But these were voluntary. National rationing only started in January 1918 with the rationing of sugar, then other staples such as meat was rationed from April 1918.

On the 17th November new local weekly food recommendations were announced in the Advertiser.

The weekly ration for bread ranged from 11 lb for men on heavy industrial work or agricultural work, to 5lb for women who were occupied in heavy industrial wok or agricultural work, to 3 lb 8oz for women who were unoccupied or on sedentary work.

Other food for adults included: cereals 12oz, meat 2lb, fats 10oz and sugar 8oz.

There were no restrictions on the amount children ate, they were allowed to receive reasonable quantities of food.

Fitzwilliam Hunt

Although insignificant perhaps, by comparison, on May 5th the patron of St. Margaret’s church, the Earl Fitzwilliam, lost some of the Fitzwilliam Hunt pack in order to save food. The loss of the hounds was another sign of the ever pressing needs of the war.

Mr. Fitzwilliam was prepared to lose more hounds if the need dictated but since the outbreak of the war, he had not allowed his hounds to eat any flesh that was fit for human consumption or any particle of oatmeal.

His loss must have been felt by all pet owners as they struggled with the same dilemma.

Reports of injuries continue

Reports of wounded men continued to be received by Fletton families.

Private George Papworth, 1/6 Bn Essex Regiment, son of Mr and Mrs Papworth of Queens Road, was injured in Egypt on 27th March. By 14th April he was in the hospital in Port Said.

Private Reginald Hugh Clifton, 29th Bn Canadian Infantry, son of Mr and Mrs William Clifton, of 25 Fletton Avenue was reported wounded at Vimy Ridge. A piece of shrapnel entered his leg and came out at the knee. He was recovering in hospital in Norwich. William Clifton was manager at the Angel hotel in Peterborough.

Private James William Frederick Mason, 3/8 Bn Sherwood Foresters, son of Mr and Mrs James W. Mason of 9 London Road was wounded at Lievans on the 23rd April. He received shrapnel in the right leg and was recovering in the Norfolk War Hospital at Norwich. He spent 239 days in hospital. He was an old Cathedral chorister and when he joined up was working in the engine department at G. N. R. He was also Assistant Scoutmaster to St. Mary’s Boy Scouts.

Bombardier John William Mace, Royal Horse Artillery, Fletton, was wounded on the 2nd June, in the chest, right shoulder and left leg. He had only just returned to France for the second time.

Private Thomas William Allitt, of the 15th Bn, Canadians, was now in hospital in England suffering from a gunshot wound to the chest. His brother, Private Charles Henry Allitt, also 15th Bn, Canadians, was in hospital in France, having been shot in the leg (he also suffered a severe wound to the chest). Both brothers joined the Canadians in 1915 and were in action at the taking of Vimy ridge. They are the sons of Mr. and Mrs. Allitt, Aven Villa, London Road. Both were discharged as medically unfit following their injuries.

Two men were wounded for the second time.

Private Cecil Elderkin, 6th Bn Northamptonshire Regiment, was wounded in the face on 22nd October. He was recovering in Sheffield Hospital. In July 1916 he had been wounded in the shoulder. He was the son of Mr. G. and Mrs. Elderkin, of Duke Street.

Lance Corporal Bert Brown MM, formerly Huntingdonshire Cyclists, now 1/6 Bn Royal Warwickshire Regiment, youngest son of Mr. James and Mrs Brown of Queens Road, was wounded on 25th October and was recovering in Northampton hospital. This shrapnel wound was the second time he had been wounded in six months.

Prisoners of War

After first being reported missing, some families received the news that their sons, husbands and fathers were prisoners of war.

Private George Harry Manning, 1/4 Bn Lincolnshire Regiment, Milton Road, had previously been reported missing but he had now made contact with his family, via postcard, to say he was a prisoner of war in Germany. He had been taken prisoner at Lens on 3rd May 1917, wounded by shrapnel in the neck. He was held on the books of Dulmen POW camp.

Private Albert Stacey, 1st Bn East Surrey Regiment, of Princes Road, was confirmed as being wounded and a prisoner of war in Westphalia, Germany. His wife received the news on Friday 15th June, from the Red Cross Society, of Geneva. It was reported that Private Stacey had a bullet wound to the forehead, inflicted at Fresnoy on 8th May. Like George Manning, he was held on the books of Dulmen.

Effects of Gassing

A terrifying weapon and experience was gas. The first significant use of gas was at Ypres in April 1915, when the Germans released poison chlorine gas. The gas caused injury and widespread fear and there were calls for retaliation, which led to the first British use of gas on 25th September 1915.

Gunner Herbert Arthur Turner, Royal Garrison Artillery, eldest son of Mr and Mrs H. A Turner of London Road, and husband of Mrs. Turner had been gassed and was recovering in the Armstrong College Hospital, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.

On his way north through the Peterborough Station, Herbert had been recognised and news of his injury was sent to his wife. Herbert died on 16th August, 1919 in the Peterborough infirmary, as a result of the war. Although his widow was granted a military pension, Herbert is not commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Committee.

Many men suffered ill health after being gassed, experiencing damage to their lungs and premature death.

Accidents at home

Unfortunately, families did not just experience their sons being injured in war. On the afternoon of Tuesday 20th November Reginald Skinner, aged 13, of Duke Street was seriously injured.

He had only been employed by the London Brick Company for a few days when he fell off a light wagon used for carrying clay. No-one witnessed the accident.

He got his legs entangled in a wire that was connected to the truck and had severe injuries to his legs. On arrival at the Peterborough infirmary, it was decided that the left leg was fractured, and the right was crushed. The left leg had to be removed just below the thigh.

After a few days, it was reported that he was getting on as well as could be expected.

Due to the absence of men many more children found themselves engaged in all manner of occupations. They were often too small or too inexperienced to do the work. Until 1918, when it was increased to 14, the school leaving age was 12.

It is unknown if this was the case for Reginald, but the accident undoubtedly had a major impact on his life.

On the 1921 census, he was recorded as a cripple living in Duke Street with his younger brother Ernest and older brother William. Ernest was 15, a brickmaker, employed by Hicks and Co. William was 21, a brickyard labourer, employed by the New Peterborough Brick Company. Their parents, Albert and Sarah, remained in Boston while their sons lived in Fletton. Albert was a boot repairer and in 1939 this was the occupation that Reginald had.

Christmas 1917

The fourth Christmas of the war was not a festive occasion, except for the weather, which was frosty.

The usual festive treats were in very short supply and if available, were far too expensive for most people to afford. The supplies of bacon disappeared from the shelves quickly, fruit was extremely scarce, and the butcher had little to show in his window. There was some French confectionary, but prices had increased by 75% on the previous year.

Christmas gifts were widely available for those who could buy them. There was patriotic china with a penny of each item donated to the Y. M. C. A.

Children’s toys were plentiful. The choice was yours, bears, dolls, and tea sets. Wooden animal figures were made by disabled soldiers at Lord Robert’s workshops.

Rather soberly, and with no hope for an end, there were even toy soldiers being advertised for ‘our little soldiers to be’.

‘Dulce et Decorum est’

Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

My thanks to Derek Smith and David Gray, without whose research I would not have been able to write this blog.

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