I have been informed that the air raid siren had just gone when this picture was snapped. Am I mistaken, or can I see people beginning to hurry towards the air raid shelters? It was a false alarm this time – the real thing would come a couple of years later, with devastating results for this urban scene. Petrol and meat rationing had already come in, and would lead to nearly 15 years of shortages. On this early wartime day it was certainly sunny. I am sure that the little kiosk was left over from the Norwich tramway service. The triangle of pavement where it stood was Orford Place itself, and that was the centre where nearly all the tram routes terminated. The conductors could obtain fresh books of tickets from the kiosk if they had run low. The last tram had run just five years earlier when this picture was taken. It was used by bus drivers and conductors after they took over the city’s transport service.
The view that heads this page is looking towards Red Lion Street. This was taken from John Gantlett’s testing room on the second floor of Frank Mason’s opticians shop. The address was 3 Orford Place. The building is still there as a burger joint, after many years as a branch of Pizza Hut, and before that as fashion retailer Fifth Avenue. The internal arrangements have been completely opened up, and the whole building is now one outlet. When my father Frank was there he only occupied the end shop. Here the Air Raid Precautions sign is prominently displayed. This was in 1940; you can tell it is early in the war because Curl’s department store has yet to be destroyed by Nazi bombing; this happened in April 1942. The site where Curls had been was a gaping hole down to basement level, and was used as a car park when I first became aware of my surroundings. During the rest of the war it had been used as a static water tank to provide plenty of water for fire engines in the event of another incendiary bombing raid. The store, which changed its name to Debenhams in 1973, was rebuilt in 1955. This was hailed as the largest department store in East Anglia at the time. Once rebuilt it had lifts to all floors, escalators and even air conditioning – the height of modernity.
Besides Curls another store was fire bombed in the same raid. This was Buntings, and it was not so badly damaged; after being repaired it was used as a NAAFI while the war lasted. After the war it became the city centre branch of Marks and Spencer, which it remains. Also devastated was Bonds of Norwich which included the Thatched Cinema. This store too was rebuilt after the war, and was later bought by John Lewis. Escaping the destructive fury of the bombing, St Andrews Hall was open every day for off-duty servicemen, both British and American, where they would play billiards, drink tea and eat rock cakes made by the young ladies of the city.
The wartime bombing in Norwich left much destruction. Some historic buildings were lost, including the Boars head hotel in St Stephens Street, but compared to the postwar redevelopments, that saw Queens Road, Grapes Hill and Magdalen Street (among others) carved up to make way for the inner link road, it was relatively minor. Now the great dual carriageway, that was planned to cut a swathe right through the city centre to encourage traffic, is now mostly reserved for buses and taxis to discourage people from driving in the city. The bomb sites have nearly all been filled up with new building – one the last to be restored was in the area round the ruined tower St Benedict’s, the church that was also destroyed in 1942. This now contains a block of flats. The picture below shows the immediate aftermath of the wartime bombing raid.
The car park that had been a temporary measure on the bomb site in Timber Hill has been fenced (in Google Maps) and redevelopment now seems immanent – its about time! (I haven’t been there for a while, and it may even have begun – please tell me if you know.) Ber Street has never regained it bustling character that had existed before the war. Even today the car parks and single storey temporary-looking properties along the north side show the results of the Nazi bombing raids of 75 years ago. It always was a wide street, but the children who played there during the day and the drunks who staggered along it by night were banished when their homes were destroyed by the Germans.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
THE TRIALS OF WAR
In 1938 my father had set up as an independent trader in a shop in the centre of Norwich. Everything must have been going quite well, because he had employed another optician called John Gantlett; but with the outbreak of war in September 1939 everyone’s attention was grasped by the coming conflict. Such mundane considerations as getting one’s eyes tested went out of the window. He had not been in business long enough to build up any financial reserves, and at the age of 28 he was staring bankruptcy in the face.
He was saved by his reaction to an announcement on the wireless that, because of the blackout, in future all bicycles had to display a rear light. It is a sobering thought that until then it had been perfectly legal to ride a bike in the darkness with only a headlight and a reflector at the back. My father correctly thought that all the rear lights in the country would immediately sell out, and that this would provide him with the opportunity to step in. He made a batch of rear lights from copper tube for the battery, a piece of red perspex and a light bulb, and immediately sold them to Norwich shopkeepers. He was quick off the mark – he had to be – and was soon selling them further afield, as it took firms like Ever Ready some time to catch up with demand; by then people had to some extent returned to their prewar concerns and realized that they didn’t see very well. They returned to the optician to get their eyes tested, and bankruptcy was avoided (for now).
Things were still very tight and the family had to give up their bungalow in the country. My father moved in with his parents in their bungalow in Thorpe St Andrew, and my mother returned to her profession of mid-wife. This was her contribution to the war effort; her pay must also have taken a small amount of the financial pressure off my father. She was sent to work in Peterborough, taking her youngest daughter with her, and woman from Sheringham called Ruby Nurse to help with child care. The eldest daughter Christine remained in Norfolk with her father, being cared for by her grandmother. However her Nanny soon tired of looking after her granddaughter and she too was sent to Peterborough where things became very complicated. Ruby Nurse proved to be an agoraphobiac who locked the children in a room in the house. Tiggie, the younger daughter, had made friends with young Johnny Smith next door, but on her arrival in Peterborough the elder daughter came between them. My father had given his children the Red Letter- written in red ink, to be posted to him if things got intolerable in Peterborough. Unfortunately for them this was kept on the mantelpiece, and was quite out of the reach of young hands. Moreover, locked in their room they never saw a post box. Things obviously weren’t working out, and my mother returned to Norfolk.
My family would have been homeless, but they were taken in by the rector of Poringland and Howe, the Rev. Claude Trendell. They were put up in Howe Rectory, and my mother was given the job of teaching the villager First Aid, in preparation for the imminently expected German invasion. My sister Christine was stood on a table while the application of various splints was demonstrated on her limbs by my mother. In Howe church you may see my father’s name on the war memorial; none of the residents of the village were killed in the war, and consequently those who served were remembered instead. Among these was Frank Mason.
The introduction of conscription was to give my father a way out of some these difficulties. As a health worker, he was not compelled to serve in the armed forces, but he volunteered and joined the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in 1940. There he was trained as an instrument mechanic, looking after the many kinds of equipment like gunsights that the army required in the 20th century. He was sent to Woolwich Arsenal, just as the Blitz was descending on the East End of London; night after night the sky was lit up by fires as the bombs fell. On one on occasion he went AWOL: he had heard that Norwich had been flattened by bombs and simply took off to see if his family were OK at Howe– of course they were: it was a false alarm. Perhaps it was on this occasion that daughter Christine remembers her Mummy fainting– she probably thought her husband would be court-marshalled. In the event he was just put on fatigues, nothing worse than that. Against all the odds he enjoyed his time in the army. He made many good friends, and found the technical training invaluable in his later life. This branch of the service was transferred to the newly constituted regiment REME (the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) in 1942, but by then he had left the army. After his training, during which time he was a private soldier, he would have been promoted directly to Sergeant Instructor, but he was retired on medical grounds; his flat feet made him unable to march.
Mt father had returned to Norfolk but the family were still living at Howe Rectory. My eldest sister began her schooling at Brooke Primary School while living at Howe, and would have progressed through the State system, had not Claude Trendell remarked to my father that Norwich High School was a better school. My father took him up on this suggestion and transferred Christine to the High School. She had to wear a passed-down uniform. Thereafter all Frank’s children would be privately educated.
When he was recruited into the army his business in Norwich had been left in the hands of his co-worker John Gantlett. When my father returned to Norwich John Gantlett volunteered in the Royal Navy and was at sea for the rest of the war. He was stationed in the Far East. Back in business, my father could again afford the rent on a house, which was just as well because Claude Trendell returned to his home county of Derbyshire. The family moved into a property in Norwich. This was convenient situated for his work, but also for the German bombs which began to rain down on the city almost as soon as he had moved there in 1942. It was time to move once more, and this time the family found an abandoned railway carriage in a field about a couple of miles outside the city in a hamlet called Markshall. This is across the river Tas from Caistor St Edmund, as has been part of that parish since the seventeenth century. The railway carriage had been used by seasonal workers on the local farm before the war, and had no mains services. Oil lamps and a stove provided light and heat, and water had to be brought from the well at a nearby cottage. I suppose for baths they used the nearby river. It could hardly have been more basic, but it was an idyllic way of life for my young sisters in the summer of 1942. The only black cloud on the horizon for the younger of my sisters was the coming onset of education. “Why can’t I stay at home with Mummie?” she would bitterly complain.
When the Blitz abated my family were able to move back into Norwich (Aurania Avenue), and when the Doodle Bugs and V2s began to fall on the country, the completely random nature of the bombardment meant that no avoiding action was possible. The war in Europe came to an end with the death of Hitler, and the Atom bombs falling on Japan ushered in peace on a devastated country.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
Barnstaple, Devon 1958. My first long distance trip, starting from Norwich Thorpe as the station was then called, to distinguish it from the other two termini in Norwich. Steam engines ruled the tracks in those days!
Glasgow, Scotland, 1962. With my sister Tiiggie we stopped off at Glasgow en route to Malaig, where we were to catch the ferry to the Isle of Skye. We had gone up to Edinburgh on the night sleeper.
Ostend, Belgium, 1965. School trip to Eastern Europe.We went by train from Waterloo. After catching the ferry to Belgium we caught the train at Ostend. There were no electric trains on the European railways then, but in the capitalist West the expresses were already diesel hauled. In Communist Europe the trains were still steam hauled.
Cologne, Germany, 1965. Our first change of trains at about midnight. The workers were still busy digging up the road outside the cathedral (a dedication to getting the job done unheard of in England in those days, and even today). We had to stop at the border with Czechoslovakia where we were thoroughly checked by the Communist border guards. The border was heavily defended by machine gun-toting soldiers. It was strictly prohibited to photograph near the railway, but I managed to sneak my camera there to take this picture!
Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1965. After an overnight sleep in the couchette car of the train we arrived at Prague, our first destination in the Communist East. In the hotel I experienced my first night under a duvet; such things were then unknown in Britain.
Budapest, Hungary, 1965. We spent several days in Czechoslovakia before going on by train to Hungary. We stopped off at the border to view the Danube Bend. In Budapest we rode the ancient electric underground railway which was then still using the original carriages from the 1890s.
Vienna, Austria, 1965. Our last stop was back in the West, and rather flat in comparison to Communist Europe. It was dire in the East for the inhabitants, but as visitors from the wealthy Capitalist part of the world we were treated very specially indeed, almost like Royalty. They needed our cash!
Montreal, 1969. While visiting my sister in Canada my mother and I caught the train from the suburbs to downtown Montreal. We went with my sister and her children. It was single car train, but it had an observation deck (which I used of course). There was another railway visible from my sister’s house, one with plenty of freight trains going past.
Oxford, 1967. I went to Sheringham from school by bus, to catch the train from the station. This was already the new BR built halt. The North Norfolk Railway had purchased the adjacent former station, but as yet no trains were running and it stood derelict. This was in December for my interview for a place at university. From Norwich I caught the train to Liverpool Street, and from Paddington I went to Oxford on a train full of fellow candidates.
Folkestone, 1977, en route for the Baie de Somme, France. With my friend Bill I went on a day trip to ride the Baie de Somme narrow gauge preserved line. The return trip entailed changing trains after midnight at Shippea Hill of all places!
Aarhus, 1982. In Denmark me and my friend Bill travelled from Aarhus in Jutland to the island of Zealand, which at that time involved the entire train being hauled on the ferry for the sea crossing. (Since then a bridge has been built.) The door at the end of the last carriage on the train had a widow, from which you could watch the track disappearing into the distance.
Copenhagen, 1982. Arriving by train, we spent a few days in the Danish capital, where we did all the usual tourist things like visiting the Little Mermaid. We flew back to Manchester airport from there.
Aldershot, 1986. Stopped off for a haircut en route to my RAMC recruitment assessment.
Ash Vale, 1986. To RAMC HQ at Keogh Barracks for basic training.
Windermere, 1986. Just married, Molly and I went on a special to Lake Windermere in the Lake District; on the way we went over the Ribblehead viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle line. We stopped off at Ribblehead station for a look over the valley.
Bournemouth, 1996. I caught the train down to Bournemouth where I had a week’s training at the Elstead Hotel as rep for the Union of Postal Workers. Saw the QE 2 at Southampton.
Paris, France, 2001. Our first overseas family holiday; Molly, Peter, Polly and I went by Eurostar from London. This was before the high-speed line was built, and we left from Waterloo.
Bruges, Belgium, 2002. With our children we went on a day trip by train to Bruges from the Midi Station in Brussels.
Estoril, 2005. On a family holiday to Portugal (when we flew to Porto) we arrived at our hotel by train from Lisbon.
Cascais, Portugal, 2005. We travelled to the beach for a morning sunbathing at the terminus of the line. Sunbathing is something I almost never do, and this was not a success. The railway line was lovely though, and runs along the sea throughout its length.
Flam, 2011. On our Norwegian cruise we travelled this steep electric railway line from sea level (the fjord) up to the mountainous country. There, despite it being August, there was still some snow about.
Brussels, Belgium, 2015. Molly and I travelled on Eurostar from St Pancras and spent a few days with Peter and Alex in Brussels. It as February, and Peter was due to move back to England later in the month. We went first class (as by then I had suffered from a stroke) and were entertained to a lavish meal as we were whisked through Kent.
Wymondham, Norfolk, 2015. I went solo for the first time since suffering from my stroke.I got on the train at Wymonham and travelled to Cambridge, where I was met by my cousin William. I also returned unaccompanied to Norwich.
I have been on many other railway journeys, mostly to London. Over my lifetime I have been by train to Wales, March in Cambridgeshire, Weymouth, Liverpool Street (all of these in steam days), to name but a few. I have travelled on lines that were axed by Dr Richard Beeching in the 1960s. This article includes all my travels abroad.
THE BLOG FOR RAILWAY MEMORIES
[TO SEARCH FOR A SUBJECT IN THIS BLOG ENTER ‘joemasonspage’ and the subject from the list on the right into Google; this should show the relevant blogs]
When the large parish church at ELSING in Norfolk was built back in the 1340s, what is now a small village was a substantial country town. Maybe it even rivalled EAST DEREHAM in size. A number of stones recording burials are to be seen on the floor of the church, and as late as the eighteenth century one of these still refers to Elsing as a town. The remains of the guildhall are incorporated into a house in the village, but nowadays the evidence of the formerly bustling town is mostly hard to spot, and not much remains of the once thriving district.
When l visited the church with my wife Molly there was an exhibition of former parishioners who had fought (and in some instances died) in the First World War. This was in 2014, to the mark the centenary of the start of the war. The centenary of the Battle of Waterloo received no such observance (for one thing it fell in the middle of the First World War), but one of the last survivors of that battle is buried in an unmarked grave in Elsing churchyard.
Elsing church was built in the first half of the fourteenth century and has not been materially altered since. The nave has no aisles and is one of the broadest uninterrupted church roofs in the country. It has lost most of the medieval stained glass, and appears very light and open. Despite the loss of its stained glass a lot of pre-Reformation decorative features remain, including a font cover which has been partially restored, to give some idea of the colourful effect.
Our dog Wesley accompanied us, and we met a man from Lincolnshire on a similar church crawl. He was very taken with the fact that a dog with a Methodist name should be inspecting an Anglican church. But (as he observed) the founder of Methodism (John Wesley) remained all his life a member of the Church of England and, as my wife never tires of pointing out, Samuel Wesley the hymn tune composer remained an Anglican until in 1784 he converted to Roman Catholicism! Wesley is certainly an ecumenical name.
It still has pub just across the road from the church. The building dates from the 16th century and it is called the MERMAID. It retains much of its charm, although modern requirements mean a large open-plan bar area rather than the old-fashioned saloon, snug etc. It has a large old fireplace. It is a dog friendly pub, which is a definite plus in my book. However the meal we had there a year or two ago was rather disappointing. Elsing’s economy was always based on agriculture, even when it was a ‘town’, but it is not all fields. The area is surprisingly well wooded. Even today there are many trees among which you can wander with you dog or ride your horse.
The village lies on the river Wensum, which, before the river was interrupted by many watermills, was a major route for trade. The watermill still stands in Elsing, but the last grain was milled for animal feed in 1970. It was water powered until the last. The final miller was one A. H. Forbes. The mill is now a superior style residence. We went to a fête and duck race (that used the mill pond to race the plastic ducks) in the summer of 2017. It was a lovely sunny Saturday afternoon and the surroundings were quite stunning. The mill at Lyng was in the next village downstream, but it has long gone; for a few years in the early 19th century both Lyng watermill and the one upstream at Elsing were paper mills. So too were other mills on the river, notably the ones upstream at Swanton Morley and downstream at Taverham. Not far away were other paper mills at Oxnead on the river Bure at Stoke Holy Cross on the river Tas. At Hellesdon on the Wensum and Bawburgh (on the river Yare) other mills produced pulp for paper. Paper making was big business in Norfolk 200 years ago, supplying the metropolis of Norwich and using rags from the same source.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA
SLEEPING UNDER CANVAS
I remember the small white canvas tent I crept into in those long-lost summers when I was a lad. It was a real tent for two, but I never actually slept in it. However it was fun to do the things that were ancillary to spending the night there, like arranging the ground-sheet and slackening the guy ropes when it rained. These are things that would puzzle most people today. Wasn’t the ‘ground-sheet’ part of the tent? And guy ropes; – why did they need slackening if it rained? I won’t bore you with the answers, but believe me, if you didn’t take these things into consideration you would have spent a wet night under a heap of collapsed canvas.
I didn’t begin real camping until I was a teenager. For most youngsters this would probably have entailed being a Girl Guide or a Boy Scout, but I was never a Scout. Instead my camping was done as an Army Cadet. Things had hardly moved on since Victorian times in terms of the technology employed. Heavy wooden poles held the tent up, and for the larger tents the pegs were still wooden wedges that had to be hammered in with a mallet. The tents I slept in were bigger than the one I had put up on my lawn at home, but you still had to watch those guy ropes and make sure the ground-sheet wasn’t outside the tent (and so letting in the rain). The canvas of an army tent was very tough, and so they were very heavy. Consequently, on one expedition, the four of us cadets decided to do without a tent at all, and sleep under the stars. It was midsummer, and the worst problem was the heavy morning dew. We did take a ground-sheet with us, and therefore slept under it instead of on top!
Some of my camping took place in Norfolk, but mostly it happened elsewhere. When I was sixteen we went on a three-day exercise from Sennybridge, a large army base that still exists in the Brecon Beacons in Wales. This time we did load our packs with tents. We also had to take a map and a compass, and we were given a map reference to rendezvous with our CO three days later. All our food we had to carry on our backs; this consisted of tinned Compo Rations army style. On the other hand, all our water was provided by the mountain streams. This was fine until we discovered a drowned sheep a few metres upstream of our watering hole; this was after we had filled our water bottles and taken plenty of swigs!
Much of my camping was done under the auspices of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, but the effect was just the same. Once I had left school my camping days were almost over, but after I had joined the Territorial Army this part of my life was revived for a short period. The experience of spending the night outdoors was not an enjoyable one in the TA; I only had a waterproof poncho for protection, and sleeping was out of the question due to fire-crackers being let off all through the night; added to that, the threat of a tear gas attack was not conducive to a good night’s rest.
I returned to the joys of camping when I was over fifty, because by then our children were in their late teens and ready for the outdoor life. We had gone to Sheffield (where they both were to attend university) to spy out the land. We spent a couple of nights at a campsite in Monsal Head. This is a beauty spot in the Peak District, and this is near Sheffield. By then the technology of camping had changed beyond recognition. None of it resembled what it had been in my youth; cotton canvas had gone, and no longer were tents cumbersome but light and compact affairs. Strong but insubstantial tent poles could be erected in seconds and separate rubberised ground sheets no longer existed. Their function was integrated into the tent itself. Sleeping bags, which once had been filled with kapok (a natural fibre that was warm enough but heavy to carry) are now made of man-made material that is both lightweight and easy to stow. I was really far too old to go camping on this occasion, but apart from the fact that my air-bed slowly went down overnight (some things hadn’t changed), it was an agreeable few days. The fact that we had our car with us meant there were no heavy backpacks to be humped across the country; our camping trip wasn’t one of the arduous kind. When we finally loaded up the car for our return home that really was my last night outdoors. I cannot say that I am sorry that this chapter in my life is now well and truly over.
My son and his girlfriend recently spent a few nights camping. We still had the equipment we had used in Derbyshire, and lent this to them. The weather was fine, and they had a good time round the fire-pit as the sun went down. Although she is Dutch, his girlfriend has lived all over the world from Hong Kong to Venezuela, but she found the attraction of North Norfolk very special.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF THE PAST
You may recall that over the course of the years since the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War I have been giving annual updates on the life of Edward Lound MM. He had been born in Leicester, but brought up in Great Yarmouth. He worked for several years in the holiday industry before commencing his army career. He joining up in Derby. As a professional soldier he was at the outset of the war a Colour Sergeant in the 2nd Battalion the Sherwood Foresters; he must have been too good as his job to be promoted, because he never progressed beyond that rank. He fought on the Western Front in Flanders throughout the war; just eleven private soldiers of his regiment shared this distinction with the equally few officers and NCOs. The other battalion (the 1st) that was in existence at the outbreak of war was serving overseas and did not arrive in France until November. At the outbreak of war he had been in Ireland, and was immediately dispatched to Cambridge and thence to France. This made him one of the Old Contemptibles, those in the British Expeditionary Force who were involved in the earliest battles up to the end of November 1914.
After the war he went on to serve in Turkey, Egypt and on the North West Frontier. There he was constantly in conflict with the people who he referred to as Pathans; we know these people as Afghans. After leaving the army he worked in Derby until retirement when he and his wife moved back to Norfolk. When his wife died in 1951 he married my grandmother, who had been widowed in 1945.
THE LIFE STORY OF EDWARD LOUND (part seven)
1917 saw a great change on the Eastern Front, with the collapse of Russian resistance to German advances. From the beginning of the year unrest was growing in Russia, and this led to the February Revolution. The Tsar abdicated and discipline in the army became increasingly suspect. All over Russia the demands for peace were growing. Nevertheless the Provisional Government ordered an offensive against the Austro-Hungarians and Germans to begin on July 1st. The Russians enjoyed initial success against Austria, but Germany proved a much harder proposition, and by the 16th July the offensive had ground to a halt. By the 23rd of the month the Russians were in full retreat. On 1st September Russia attacked Riga, but the Russian troops refused to fight and fled the town. In the October Revolution the Bolsheviks seized power and hastily arranged a truce with Germany.
While the collapse of opposition on the Eastern Front altered the balance of power in Europe, the entry of America into the conflict on the Allied side, on April 6th, proved to be of enormous importance for the future course of the war. The coming of the Americans into the war, in which they had previously been determinedly neutral, was largely brought about by the German attempt to bring Britain to its knees by U boat attacks on neutral shipping. Although the addition of the United States to the Allied war effort was welcome, the arrival of American troops did not take place for another twelve months.
Things were also afoot in Austria, where the Young Emperor Charles I, who had come to the throne late in 1916, was secretly attempting to negotiate an Armistice with the French. Charles, the last monarch of Austria, was not at all warlike in his attitude, and has been sanctified by the Roman Catholic Church for his peaceable intentions. However the part played by Germany was far more influential as far as the British were concerned, and they were by no means ready to make peace.
The new command of the French forces under General Nivelle proposed a large-scale attack by French forces in the north of the country around the river Aisne, which meant a shift in British and Commonwealth forces. These were now to be deployed along a hundred miles of trenches, including Vimy Ridge. This was the scene of three days of bloody fighting which ended on 12th April 1917 with the Canadians taking the Ridge. The dug outs and trenches are preserved as a memorial and this gives some sense of the horrors of war a hundred years ago, though without the mud.
The New Year had begun with hard frosts and snowstorms which made operations extremely arduous for all, including the Sherwood Foresters. The Germans were driven back in the Somme valley by some heavy fighting during January and February. This did not involve the 2nd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters to any great extent; they were stationed between Béthune and Arras. Nevertheless six men were lost in January and on one day’s action on 9th February ten members of “C” Company were killed. The relentless casualties of the war kept reducing the Battalion’s strength not only through death, but also through life changing injuries and disease. March passed with repeated raids and counter raids, some larger than the rest but apparently doing nothing to shorten the war. One German raid early in the morning of April 5th was particularly violent, involving up to 50 soldiers who rushed towards the British line from a sap. They drew such a barrage of fire that they retreated back to their own lines, apparently without loss. Two Britons of the Battalion were wounded during this exchange of fire. This was followed by a similar raid from the Foresters a few days later; a Lance-Corporal was severely wounded but there were again no fatalities.
In the last week of April the Battalion was moved to the Loos area, where the headquarters were briefly established in what for then were luxurious surroundings. The new HQ even had electric light, but after a day or two this unaccustomed refinement, this home had to be surrendered to other occupants. We hear now for the first time in the Sherwood Foresters’ war diaries of a junior N.C.O. suffering shell shock. It is certain that this affliction was suffered by troops long before 1917. The description of the trenches as being full of debris, with rifles and bayonets sticking out of the mud, and the bodies of soldiers left unburied, gives some idea of the daily horror that the fighting men had to endure. This trench warfare had gone on now for years, and almost all were susceptible to the mental damage from daily endurance of scenes of carnage. Edward Lound was not one of these men; he would tell, in a matter-of-fact tone, of an officer of the Battalion who went mad. When asked if the man was then relieved of his duties, he replied ‘No; he was sent up to the front, where he got a shoulder wound which removed him to safety’.
The position of the Battalion in April was particularly bad as their section of trench had no dugouts and therefore nowhere for the men to shelter from the continuous shelling. During this month they lost 18 men killed and nearly 100 wounded. May and June passed in a similar way. There was no large-scale attack on the German lines during these months, but repeated raids of up to 150 men, who would spend half an hour or so in the enemy trenches before returning. The Germans had a very similar way of operating, so the attrition of soldiers continued with little prospect movement.
At the end of June and the beginning of July the 2nd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters were engaging the enemy near the town of Lens. For five months they had been fighting in the area, and although large-scale battles were taking place elsewhere on the front, none involved the 2nd battalion. Nevertheless the fighting had resulted in 67 killed and 302 wounded. On July 14th the troops were visited by King George V for whom the battalion provided a Guard of Honour with drums and bugles; it was an incongruous event in the mud and blood soaked circumstances of war. The whole month of August was spent by the battalion in recuperation, taking part in sporting contests and rifle drills.
On the 4th September they were ordered to ‘Bug Alley’ near Loos, where they were preparing to carry out a raid on the German lines, but on the 9th they were relieved of their duties. At the beginning of October they were again detailed to the front, where heavy rain and gales added to the difficulties of warfare. With the taking of Passchendaele the Third Battle of Ypres came to an end on 6th November, although the Foresters had not been involved; the Allies had advanced five miles in two months of horrendous fighting. With winter approaching the Germans hoped to regroup before a spring-time offensive, when a huge addition of troops freed from operations on the Eastern Front could be deployed before the arrival of the American forces.
The Allies could not afford to wait for these German reinforcements, and the Battle of Cambrai began at dawn on the 20th November. After the initial success of the Allies, the German response developed into the most substantial offensive in Northern France since 1914. The great break-through made in the German trenches and barbed wire demonstrated the effectiveness of tank warfare. By the 7th December when hostilities ceased, Allied advances to the north were balanced to certain extent by German advances to the south. The Sherwood Foresters had lost 23 men killed in the action.
(to be continued)
APRIL 2 – JUNE 14 1982
This is the story of how the war developed. These extracts from my diary will, I hope, give you an idea of the facts as they unfolded, together with the daily round of ordinary events that carried on as usual.
We listened to the nightly bulletins to learn what was going on far away across the Atlantic Ocean. The first reference to the coming conflict came at lunch time on Saturday the 3rd April:
We had corned beef for lunch; I was deeply suspicious that it came from Argentina. That evening I was anxiously watching TV to learn what was happening; I continued to follow the news closely through the following weeks. On Thursday I watched Question Time, which in those days was still hosted by the bow tie wearing Robin Day; there is no doubt what was on everybody’s mind. The spring proceeded nonetheless; the sloes were beginning to blossom on Alderford Common.
With incredible speed a Task Force of 100 ships was assembled at Portsmouth and was ready to sail by the 5th of April. There had been no contingency planning before the invasion; everybody thought such a thing against British Territory impossible. After the initial flurry of activity there was a lull while the Task Force made its way across the equator and into the South Atlantic. My diary concentrated on other things, notably the week’s performance I was giving playing the double bass in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. My friend Bill came down to the Saturday performance and recorded it on his little tape machine.
On St George’s Day I drove to Oxford, where I took my landlady from my student days out to a meal at the Cherwell Boat House, a rather superior restaurant. I must have been feeling well off, because I spent £25 on the meal for two. This was a sum that I would feel a little excessive, even today more than thirty years later! Penelope enjoyed it anyway. The next day I joined a meeting of the Recorder Society (of which I was a member) at Magdalen College and played (so I said at the time anyway) rather well! Back at Penelope’s house we continued to listen to the news, and it was on Sunday the 25th April that we heard of the outbreak of fighting on South Georgia. I had earlier been enjoying the Botanical Gardens by the river Cherwell, and had a drink at the Welsh Pony in George Street. This had been my favourite pub as a student, and in 1982 it was still open (it has long gone now). In the evening Penelope, Ian (her fiancé) and I pored over the atlas to discover more about South Georgia. I learned that Ian and Penelope had been a couple for eight years. Ian, who is disabled, works for British Aerospace. He lives in Stevenage, so theirs is long distance relationship during the week. They get together at weekends.
On Monday I returned to Norfolk. The windscreen of my car already had a crack in it, but at Thetford a pheasant crashed into the car, which made the crack much worse. Back in Norwich I had fish and chips for supper with my sister Tiggy. The primroses were out, and the cuckoo was singing; in the South Atlantic winter was coming. On Saturday May 1st things were beginning to happen, as the Task Force approach the islands: We saw the News to keep up with developments in the Falklands. During the next few days the TV was full of updates. On the 4th of May I saw the News, which was rather bad (this was following the sinking of the General Belgrano, the Argentine battleship). The sinking of HMS Sheffield followed shortly afterwards.
The Government spokesman was a man called Ian Macdonald, and he gave daily updates on the BBC; the eyes of the nation were glued to him. My sister Tiggy and I drove up to Yorkshire with our dogs to spend a few days in Bill’s house near Whitby. (Bill was manager of Whitby hospital.) Naturally we had to visit the North Yorkshire Moors Railway while we were there, and an evening was spent at the Spa Theatre in Scarborough. It is rather strange how serious things were going on across the world while we were enjoying ourselves in the British summer.
Victory for Britain came in the middle of June. The Falklands War demonstrated among other things the great abilities of the Harrier jump jet, without which we would have struggled. The war provided the Vulcan, the last of the three V bombers to remain in front line service, with its only taste of real conflict. Mrs Thatcher, who had been far from popular in the months leading up to the Argentine invasion, drew huge and approving crowds in the aftermath of victory. Following a successful war, for the outbreak of which the UK was in no way to blame, the outcome of the 1983 general election was never in doubt. It was of course a Tory landslide.
The liner Uganda was converted from a cruise ship (taking schoolchildren on education voyages) to a Hospital Ship, for dispatch to the South Atlantic. Like all the work needed to prepare for the distant conflict, this was done in record time. That summer, when she returned to the UK to a hero’s welcome, she was again fitted out as a school cruise ship in September. After just two months she was chartered as a supply ship for the Falkland Islands. When her charter ran out she was taken to Taiwan for breaking up. My friend Bill Wragge (who we had visited in Yorkshire in the summer of 1982) is a long-standing member of the World Ship Society, and members contributed to the definitive history of the ship. The book was published twenty years ago. Bill contributed the chapter on her time as hospital ship.
It was the Falklands War that persuaded me to join the TA, but that is another story, which I have already told. Click here to read of my time as a private in the RAMC(V).
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF THE 1980s
This Norfolk village is hidden away in the depths of the countryside. It is twenty five miles south west of Norwich; it is not exceptionally picturesque but pleasant enough. It comes under Breckland District Council. In summer it is surrounded by green hedges and fields of corn. The church of St Michael is set back on a bend in the road and the bell rings the hours; when we were there in June the clock was a quarter of an hour fast. It has a fine display of 15th century Norwich School stained glass and five remaining figures set in brasses on the floor.
The river Wissey passes through Great Cressingham and rises a few miles north at Bradenham. You are a long way from the Norfolk Broads here, and further downstream the Wissey is home to narrow boats that have come to Norfolk from the Midland canal system. It has more in common with the river Severn that the river Bure in boating terms – almost a foreign country!
Molly and I were there to watch our daughter Polly compete in a British Cycling road race. Although this was held in Norfolk the competitors came from far away; several from London and one from Shropshire. The field was therefore a strong one and Polly did well to finish around half way down the field – there were 30 in the women’s race. It was her first road race, previously she had competed in a Mountain Bike contests near Brandon which we had also gone to watch. On that occasion we never even found the venue! This race started at the village hall and there were seven laps of the surrounding roads, each one taking about 20 minutes to complete. Along the Watton Road the villagers had turned out in force to watch. They probably don’t get very much entertainment in the village. My wife could get no signal on her phone – maybe it would be better on another network.
The nearest town is Watton and for ninety years until 1964 that was their nearest railway station, on the Swaffham to Thetford branch. Great Cressingham may have felt a little less cut off before the Second World War because southwards the Stanford Battle Training Area now blocks off Great and Little Cressingham from the Thetford area. In all five villages (plus a deserted medieval settlement) were taken over by the War Office in 1942 and remain out of bounds today. STANTA is used for regular training exercises by the Paras and others, and soldiers from Europe are frequently to be seen there. The former habitations have been wrecked by decades of neglect and gunfire, but the churches have been preserved. The fine church at West Tofts was largely rebuilt in the 19th century by Pugin, at the expense of its millionaire vicar. It is described as one of the finest Gothic Revival churches in the country and so it is doubly sad that it cannot be visited. However occasional services have been held there since the 1980s.
As a civil parish Great Cressingham is combined with Little Cressingham and two villages together had a population off 421 in the last census. The village school close in 1992 and there is no longer a shop, but the 17th century pub (the Olde Windmill) remains. It seems a popular place with a dining room and guest bedrooms as well as wide range of cask ales.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
The British nurse who was born in the Rectory on the edge of Swardeston common did great work in the provision of modern nursing services in Belgium. However her name would be utterly forgotten today had she not been shot by a German firing squad a hundred years ago. Most people will be aware of her story, and how she tried to help the soldiers on both sides. ‘Patriotism is not enough’ was her cry; but that does not mean she did not feel that patriotism was important.
Although her work to aid the German injured is undisputed, there is controversy over the precise nature of Cavell’s contribution to the Allied War effort; did she merely help British soldiers to escape the Germans, or was her involvement with British Intelligence more substantial? This attempt to cast her in a less favourable light is entirely misplaced, although utterly in accord with modern mean-spirited scepticism. As a patriotic Englishwoman her intention was unmistakably to aid the British, whether in the escape plans of personnel or with intelligence. Strictly speaking, even her work in aiding fugitive Britons to escape Belgium was clearly illegal to the German occupation force. The question should not be whether or not they were right to shoot her; this raises many problems, not least whether the Germans had any right to be in Belgium in the first place. The question should rather be ‘were the Germans wise to shoot her’? And the answer to this is that they made a monumental error. The contrast between her kind and caring but patriotic nature and the unfeeling brutality of the German High Command could not have been more marked. Is it any wonder that observers across the world have, ever since her death, taken her side?
I am afraid that it is still part of the German psyche to pursue legalistic correctness in disregard of the wider decencies of life. Even today the Germans (and it is they who run Europe) are inflicting apparently endless economic punishment on Greece. The Greeks may have acted extremely irresponsibly in the past, but what is the point of loading extortionate loans onto them, loans that they have no prospect of ever repaying? Individual Germans may be delightful people, but as a nation they appear dour and humourless. Even their sports cars are dedicated to speed and performance rather than fun. Perhaps it is this trait that has made the nation such an economic powerhouse.
Edith seems to have been an exemplary character, whether as a student of French, an amateur painter, mistress of her beloved dogs, nurse to her ailing father or matron of a hospital in Brussels. In spite of her life in Belgium, she was quintessentially a middle class English spinster of a type that no longer exists. These women had grit. It is in no way to denigrate her courage and fortitude to say that any number of her contemporaries would have behaved exactly as Edith Cavell did, given the same circumstances.
I sometimes reflect on the fact that Edith and I attended the same school in Norwich (though 75 year apart). This may seem a little odd as it was the Norwich High School for Girls, but as I have explained elsewhere, the school briefly accepted boys for the first two years of their education. Swardeston common itself was a popular dog-walking spot during my youth, and despite often passing her former home I scarcely gave the poor lady a second thought. My son must have passed her statue daily on the way to school, but such regular attendances soon blunt any deeper consideration. It is as well to take some time to examine the significance of the life and death of nurse Edith Cavell.
FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
PRIVATE MASON No. 49919
Alfred John Mason was born on January 3rd 1898. He was one of the ten children of Charles Mason who survived beyond infancy. He was the second child (of five) his mother Alice had with Charles; she was his second wife. Alfred grew up at 25 Russell Terrace in Trowse, a village just outside Norwich. Like his brothers and sisters he was educated at the village school. On leaving at the age of fourteen he worked in the mustard mill at Colman’s Carrow Works where his father and eldest brother were also employed.
When the First World War broke out two years later he was too young to enlist, but as soon as he was old enough he enrolled in the army. He was kept in England as in 1915 (aged just seventeen) he was still too young to fight, and so he was trained in the Royal Army Medical Corps. After basic training he was transferred to the Service Corps in 1916 and deployed to France. He finally made it to a front line fighting unit, the 6th Battalion the Lincolnshire Regiment. This Battalion had been formed in 1914 and after serving in Gallipoli and Egypt they returned to France in July 1916, where Alfred joined them in 1917. After fighting for months in France he had returned to Trowse on leave in September 1918. During his stay he took the opportunity of visiting old friends and colleagues at the mustard mill. His smart military appearance and his concern for the goings on back home made a definite impression on the workers he met.
In Northern France, at the end of October 1918 his Battalion were in training at
Valenciennes, but with just two hours notice they were ordered to the front line. On the 1st of November their fellow combatants in the 9th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters were ordered into battle, with Alfred and his unit held in reserve. On the 4th the Foresters made a successful attack on the hill at Sebourg with the Lincolnshires in support. On the sixth the Lincolnshires experienced some resistance from the enemy, but on the seventh the Germans were forced back; they were in retreat and disarray, and the war was rapidly coming to an end. However Alfred Mason had already been hit by shrapnel, and on the 3rd of November 1918 he had died of his wounds. By a cruel irony he was the only member of his Regiment to be injured by that shell blast. A week later the Armistice was signed on the 11th November to general rejoicing back home in Norwich, and many people thronged the market place. Alfred’s sister Edith met her future husband on that happy occasion. At the family home in Trowse this delight turned to despair three days later when the news of Alfred’s death arrived. His oldest brother was 38 and his youngest sister was only 11 at the time of his death. It was a very cruel circumstance that he so nearly survived the war.
He was buried at the St Vaast cemetery near Cambrai. There are 45 graves of British soldiers in this military extension to the communal cemetery; for much of the war this village was in German hands. Compiègne were the Armistice was signed is about half way between Valenciennes, where Alfred died, and Paris. Cambrai, where his body lies, is between Valenciennes and Compiègne. In 2014 on the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War a display was mounted in Trowse church, with details of the twenty one villagers who gave their lives in the conflict. A photograph of Alfred Mason was among them, and two of his nieces attended the exhibition.