Remembrance 2018 in Essex: The men who left their county to serve their country
PUBLISHED: 12:40 20 November 2018 | UPDATED: 12:40 20 November 2018
To mark the centenary this month since the end of World War I, Stephen Roberts explores the impact the war had on Essex and some of the men that left this county to serve their country
After more than four years of war, the guns fell silent at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was November 11, 1918, 100 years ago and World War I was finally over after more than 1,500 days of attrition. What did the war’s prosecution and end mean, however, to the county of Essex?
You begin to comprehend the carnage of World War I when you learn of just one Thankful Village in Essex. This was the fortunate community losing no servicemen, when all around it did. Strethall, in the county’s north-west, had all its soldiers return home. Every other community in Essex, from city and town, to village and humble hamlet, lost a quota of men.
The Essex Regiment raised 30 battalions during the war, which was awarded 62 battle honours and one VC, but at a cost of 8,860 men. Recruiting offices opened throughout the county following Lord Kitchener’s appeal for volunteers: everywhere from Brentwood to Braintree, Chelmsford to Colchester, and Saffron Walden to Southend and Shoeburyness.
Around 25% of Essex policemen joined up, with specials recruited for the shortfall. Colchester received an influx of volunteers, which saw its peacetime population double.
The 1st Battalion first encountered the enemy (the Turks) in Gallipoli from April 1915, and, following evacuation in January 1916, joined the fighting on the Western Front, at the Somme (1916), Cambrai (1917) and then the battles of 1918 that finally broke the will of the German army.
If any World War I battle has become synonymous with the futility of war, then it is the Somme, and particularly its first day, on which some 20,000 British soldiers lost their lives. The 1st Battalion went over the top on that first day, assaulting the German defences at their strongest point and suffering grievous losses, as the attack stalled in the face of heavy artillery and machine gun fire.
The 2nd Battalion was involved in a later phase of the battle, also losing large numbers of men. The Thiepval Memorial, on the Somme, records the names of 949 officers and men of the Essex Regiment, who died and have no known grave.
The 1/4th and 1/5th (Territorials) were both stationed in Essex when war broke out, at Brentwood and Chelmsford respectively. Both battalions featured in the war against the Turks, firstly at Gallipoli and then in the Middle Eastern theatre. The 1/6th and 1/7th (Territorials) also fought the Turks, plus the 1st Garrison Battalion, which also suffered at Gallipoli.
The 9th, 10th and 11th (Service) Battalions were formed at Warley, a Brentwood suburb, where the Regiment had its Garrison HQ, and went on to participate in some of the Western Front’s major offensives, including Loos (1915), the Somme (1916), Passchendaele and Cambrai (1917), and the battles of 1918. The 13th (Service) Battalion also served on the Western Front.
The 15th (Territorials) joined their Western Front colleagues, from May 1918, for the final push. 17 sons of Anglican clergymen were among the Essex Regiment’s dead, including 2nd Lt Henry Blythe King Allpass, whose father was vicar at Stanway.
But this wasn’t just an Army war. There was a secret naval base at Osea Island, where torpedo-carrying speedboats (Coastal Motor Boats or CMBs) were berthed. Shortly after the Armistice, between 120 and 150 German U-boats are estimated to have surrendered at Harwich and been lined up on the Stour.
The air also played its part and Everard Calthrop, of Loughton, invented the first parachute, used to drop agents behind enemy lines. The Marconi factory in Chelmsford was also at the cutting edge. One of its employees, HJ Round, developed ‘direction-finding’, using enemy wireless signals to pinpoint the position of its navy, an innovation utilised at Jutland, the war’s standout naval battle. Even dogs ‘joined up’.
The British War Dog School was established at Shoebury, where canines were trained to carry messages.
This was the first ‘total war’ in which a whole nation was mobilised. If you weren’t in the armed forces, you might be in a munitions factory or working on the land, producing the food to withstand Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare, which aimed to starve Britain into submission.
Kynoch Ltd at Corringham employed more than 4,000 staff, predominantly women, in a vast explosives factory, while Crittall, the Braintree windows firm, also turned to munitions. When conscription was introduced in January 1916, farms were shorn of men, which contributed to a general food shortage.
Prosecutions for breaches of rationing occurred, and continued even after war’s end, including that of Arthur Wood at Harlow Magistrates Court (November 1919), who obtained extra sugar.
Military hospitals were created in the county. For example, Saffron Walden’s Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) Hospital, where over 1,000 soldiers were treated, including those with injuries sustained on the front line. The Palace Hotel, in Southend, also became a hospital, treating over 4,000 servicemen, while anti-German riots in the same town followed a Zeppelin attack in May 1915.
With London being bombed, the likes of Stow Maries Aerodrome, near Maldon, defended the capital. The threat of invasion was also taken seriously, and mass evacuation plans existed to remove the county’s populace ‘up country’, should the worst happen. There was also an influx: Brightlingsea was taken over by Australian soldiers, training for the front line.
There was a mood after the war, of course, to honour the fallen. Virtually every one of the county’s 430-plus parishes has a memorial, dedicated originally to the dead of World War I — but sadly with other names added subsequently.
This month the county’s war memorials will again be the focus for Remembrance, with added poignancy as we recall the end of a shattering conflict that finally ground to a halt 100 years ago after levels of death and destruction that would inhabit people’s worst nightmares for years to come.
Some people may still venture to ponder why we bother remembering a war from so long ago, but if you could count the 1914 to 1918 names on all the war memorials in Essex you’d have many thousands of very good reasons. Close to 9,000 officers and men of the Essex battalions laid down their lives.
Lest we forget.