Norfolk’s forgotten heroes who battled the First World War on the home front
PUBLISHED: 08:00 24 July 2018
The battlefields, the death and destruction, the bravery and the heartache – memories of the First World War and the fallen are never far from our minds as we approach the ending of the conflict a century ago.
But far too often those working from home, at the factories, in the hospitals, the Red Cross, the YMCA, the Special Constabulary, home defence and in a range of other vital and often harrowing voluntary work are all too often ignored.
They were often our relatives from 100 years ago who become the forgotten heroes of this terrible time in our history of our country.
Across Norfolk men and women were working non-stop. For so many of the women, times were especially tough as they were often labouring night and day in factories or hospitals and looking after a family at the same time and living on pennies.
Far too many would never see their husbands, fathers, or brothers again and often the men who returned from “hell on earth” were never the same. They lived through daily nightmares, many suffering in silence.
Yes there were the big factories making aircraft, munitions, boots, shoes, uniforms, even chocolate and a huge range of other equipment and thousands of miles of wire netting for example. But there was so much more going on.
The Work of the Hospitals
Tens of thousands of men were treated at Norfolk hospitals and readers of the Eastern Daily Press and Eastern Evening News raised money for a special ward at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Convoy after convoy arrived where they were tented wards in the grounds.
Queen Alexandra, accompanied by Princess Victoria, visit the hospital in 1918 and expressed her appreciation and excellent arrangements made for the comfort of the patients.
No fewer than 44,651 men passed through the Norfolk War (General) Hospital at Thorpe and smaller hospitals and homes opened up across the city and county. Looking after these poor wounded soldiers was no easy task.
The Red Cross
Before the war the organisation of the Red Cross Society was split up into detachments. In Norwich none were up to strength.
Then August 1914 came. The call went out for members and the people responded.
Before long four men’s detachments were formed into the Norwich Transport Company. Their work, which also involved collecting wounded soldiers from the trains, served as a model and an example to similar organisations in many big cities.
It received the highest commendation from prominent red Cross and military authorities having dealt with more than 41,000 men during the war.
The Red Cross also ran a Rest Hut on Thorpe Station which during the war was used by more than 25,000 men.
Two new Women’s Detachment’s were formed to serve alongside the five others. They ran smaller hospitals including the Town Close Hospital which was for the local sick and needy and proved to be one of the most useful institutions in the whole county. The “commandant” was Mrs Mahon who was honoured for her work.
Then there was Bracondale Hospital, Carrow Auxiliary Hospital and Bishop’s Palace Hospital. The school at City Road, Lakenham, was also turned into a small general hospital.
The Red Cross did such wonderful work across Norfolk – and they even helped to organise a street parades when the soldiers returned home. Those honoured included Mr C W Steel made a OBE and Mrs Fox, who received the Royal Red Cross award.
Men stepped forward to serve performing “irksome and fatiguing” duties at home while full-time police officers were called up for the armed forces. And let’s not forget that Norwich became a “City of Dreadful Nights” when the lights were switched off. Even the striking of matches in the street was an offence.
As J Handel Mills wrote in 1919 in such a wonderful way:“In all kinds of weather, rain or shine, frost or snow; in the stir of the evening or the quiet watches of the night, the specials, with a fine constancy and a finer courtesy, with no hint of complaining and generally with a praiseworthy cheerfulness were at their post.”
The specials were sworn in by magistrates and there were more than 700 of them keeping law and order in the city. They were given armlets and truncheons, then caps and finally a blue uniform. Overcoats didn’t arrive until February 1917.
Local businessmen did much to support the specials.
It was the much-loved and generous S L Witton, a special, who ran a shoe factory in Norwich, decided that the city needed a new ambulance and in 1918 he presented the Corporation with a new motor ambulance at a cost of £1,000.
The Specials also found time for sport. They loved bowls and Mr Winsor Bishop MBE gave a silver challenge cup for competition and Mr E J Caley, of chocolate factory fame, helped to form the Norwich Volunteer Special Constables’ Rifle Club at a chalk working in his grounds at Thorpe.
By the last year of the war the association in St Giles Street controlled some 25 centres in and around Norwich and leading citizen Lewis Buckingham supervised the important gatherings at St Andrew’s Hall where no fewer than 20,000 soldiers used the hall every week for social gatherings and help.
They are just some of the people who stayed at home but whose work was so important....a century on we salute them all.