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Remembering the Essex Men

PUBLISHED: 10:23 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 16:13 20 February 2013

Normandy  Sign

Normandy Sign

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II and is the 95th year since the beginning of World War I. Ian Hook, keeper of the Essex Regiment Museum, looks back at how the soldiers from this county served the nation so well...

FORMED in 1881, following the union of the 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot and the 56th (West Essex) Regiment of Foot, the Essex Regiment had seen active service in South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War.But by the beginning of World War I in 1914, the Essex Regiment truly lived up to its name - its ranks full of men from the county as well as a strong East London contingent.

The regiment was made up of two regular battalions (the 1st and 2nd), the 3rd (special reserve), and five Territorial Force or part-time units, numbered 4th to 7th with headquarters in Ilford, Chelmsford, West Ham and Walthamstow, plus an 8th (Cyclist)
Battalion at Colchester.

War brought great expansion and in total 31 battalions served, 11 of them overseas. The 1st Battalion fought the Turks at Gallipoli before moving to the Western Front. It took part in the initial landing on the peninsula and in all the hard-fought battles that followed. But it was the 2nd Battalion that was the first in the action, moving to France in August 1914 and taking part in the historic Retreat from Mons and the Battle of the Marne.

Territorial battalions joined the 1st Battalion at Gallipoli and continued to face the Turks in Egypt and Palestine, including costly battles in the current trouble spot of Gaza.

New battalions were raised from the flood of patriotic volunteers and the 9th, 10th, 11th and 13th battalions served in some of the most horrific and historic battles of World War I including Loos, Ypres, the Somme, Cambrai and Arras. Although perhaps less well known, the Battle of Monchy-le-Preux will not be forgotten by the Essex Regiment. In March 1917, the 1st Battalion was virtually destroyed during this battle, the third time in its history. In all, nearly 9,000 officers and men of the Essex Regiment died during World War I, many having no known grave.

Within 30 years the world was brought to the brink of war again and in the tension of the 1930s the Nazi air threat brought about the conversion of the 7th and 6th Battalions to anti-aircraft and searchlight roles. Between 1936 and 1938 these new battalions
were given the task of preventing the Luftwaffe attacking London via the Thames Estuary. In 1939 the 4th and 5th Battalions were doubled in size, forming the new 2/4th and 2/5th Battalions. Home Defence units were also raised to guard Essex airfields.

The 2nd Battalion were again first in action, moving to France in September, 1939. They took part in the retreat to Dunkirk in May, 1940, and returned on D Day in 1944 to liberate Bayeax, the first town freed from occupation. The 2nd Battalion fought on without respite to the final surrender of Germany in May, 1945.

In 2002 a memorial stone funded by subscription in Essex was raised in the grounds of Bayeax Museum to remember the men of the 2nd Battalion who died in Europe. The Mayor of Bayeax presented each veteran and widow with a commemorative medal with the words, 'Thank you for liberating my town'.

The 1st Battalion served in the Sudan, Iraq, Syria, at Tobruk and in Assam and Burma. It played a central part in the famous struggle for Ed Duda during the successful break-out from Tobruk in November 1941 and later as Chindits it patrolled behind the Japanese lines in the mountainous jungles of Assam and Burma.

The 1/4th Battalion had perhaps the hardest service in North Africa, Italy and Greece. It took part in the Battle of El Alamein and in the battles leading to the enemy surrender in Africa. In Italy its fighting in the ruins of Monte Cassino is marked by a memorial stone dedicated in 2007.

The 1/5th Essex also gave valiant service in some of the bitter fighting in the Italian campaign of 1943-4, particularly in the night assault crossings of the Rivers Trigno
and Sangro.

Meanwhile the 2/5th Essex (TA) was overwhelmed at Deir-El-Shein
in 1942, but its north Essex men have the satisfaction of knowing that the 24-hour delay their resistance caused Rommel's Africa Korps was an essential factor in gaining time for the withdrawing Eight Army to reorganise and stand on the Alamein Line.

During World War II 8th, 9th and 10th Battalions of the Essex Regiment were raised and converted to armoured, artillery and parachute troops. In these new roles, the battalions took part in the final campaign in northwest Europe.Some 1,200 men and women fell in service to the Essex Regiment between 1939 and 1945, and their names joined those from World War I to be honoured on war memorials throughout the county and beyond.

In January 2010, Chelmsford Borough Council will open an extension to Chelmsford Museum which will include a new Essex Regiment Museum. Utilising modern lighting and display techniques, this new museum will tell the story of this county's regiment - an integral part
of the wider history of Essex that is exhibited so well at the Chelmsford Museum. This new museum records the evidence of the men from the Essex Regiment who, in the past, have served their county and faced the nation's enemies. A task that was no easier than that faced today by the Essex Regiment's worthy successor, the Royal Anglian Regiment.

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