“The Old Contemptibles” were the soldiers of the regular British Army who were serving when war broke out in August 1914. They became known as the British Expeditionary Force or BEF for short. The survivors were an exceptional group of men to have come through the whole of the Great War. The phrase comes from the purported communication by the Kaiser in which he referred to the British Army as a contemptible little force. However it has been apparent from as long ago as 1925, when the Old Contemptibles Association was formed, that the Kaiser never used these words (or their German equivalent). The message was almost certainly a piece of British propaganda, whether official or not. It was a very effective story nonetheless.
Anyway the name stuck and the Old Contemptibles Association grew to have nearly 200 branches; Norwich being one. Aunt Ruth the Lord Mayor of Norwich in 1950 is standing in the front row, the only woman in the picture and one of the few people in the group not to have seen action in the First World War. There are also only two people in the picture who are not wearing a hat; one is a clergyman in the front row – can you spot the other one?* Also on the steps of the City Hall are the Chief Constable Mr A. F. Plume, and the Dean of Norwich. The President of the local branch was Brig-Gen R. Hare. The annual dinner had been attended by over 100 and was held at Ashworth and Pike’s restaurant – long since disappeared from local memories, but in my youth a well-known establishment.
Uncle Laurie, my step-grandfather, was an Old Comtemptible himself. He had been a regular at the outbreak of war and was involved in the British Expeditionary Force from the start. He had been in the Sherwood Foresters, officially the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment. Born in 1884 in Leicestershire, by the time he was three months old he had moved to Great Yarmouth where he was brought up by his grandparents. His grandfather was a fisherman, the skipper of a sailing smack.
Uncle Laurie began work with Alderman J. W. Nightingale, the prominent businessman in late nineteenth century Yarmouth. Nighingale managed a lot of the amusements on the front including the scenic railway and the Britannia Pier. Laurie did most of his work at the Royal Aquarium Theatre where Nightingale ran a circus twice nightly during the summer season. When the young man got tired of working backstage he decided to enlist in the army. This was in 1908.
He wanted to join the “Death or Glory Boys” – the 17th Lancers; he was light enough (as the lancers needed to be) but they were “not open” for new recruits according to the Quartermaster Sergeant at Yarmouth. On hearing that the Sherwood Foresters could take him he chose to go to Normanton Barracks at Derby. At the outbreak of the Great War he was based in Ireland, then part of Great Britain of course. As part of the 2nd Battalion he arrived in France in September 1914, and after taking part in the Battle of the Aisne he was sent to the Ypres salient. They remained there for just over a year before being dispatched to the Somme. Even the Armistice did not see him return home; instead the Foresters had to march into Germany to occupy the defeated country. They did not return to Derby and a hero’s welcome until 1919. He was one of only two dozen soldiers in the battalion to leave in September 1914 who returned five years later.
He was certainly not averse to talking of his wartime experiences, telling us of his experiences in the trenches. He would recount the most terrible events in a very matter-of-fact manner, telling us of the remorseless way the young officers sent out to the front were cut down with depressing regularity; so too were the older reservist officers, recalled from retirement to serve the nation. One officer went mad with shell shock – today we would call it post traumatic stress. “Did you send him home, Uncle Laurie?” “No, we sent him up the front where he got a nice little shoulder wound. We never saw him after that.” Throughout it all he was never seriously injured. He ended the war with the rank of Colour Sergeant. But he never spoke of his own heroism or of the engagement which won him the military medal.
After the war he remained a soldier, being sent to Turkey, Egypt and India. He retired in 1930 to work in Derby and did not return to Norfolk until he was 65. After his wife had died he married my paternal grandmother in 1954, nine years after she herself was widowed.
* The other man without a hat is five from the left in third row.