Norfolk in the First World War - Armistice 1918

Neil Storey, 20 November 2018

It was a cold November evening as we gathered to remember the end of WWI.  Neil Storey gave a very poignant and interesting talk which resonated with all of us, regardless as to whether you had a direct relative involved in the war or not.  Of the young men who returned, many had physical scars which in time would heal, but also mental scars which would remain forever etched in their minds.  Neil reminded us that, “the love of a good family” was then, as now a hundred years later, so important.

Conscription was introduced in January 1916.  By this time 2.6 million had already volunteered, a further 2.8 million were conscripted and by 1918 the British Army had reached a strength of 4 million.  Private H Jeary, described the battlefield he had seen:

“As far as the eye could see was a mass of black mud with shell holes filled with water.  Here and there broken duckboards, partly submerged in the quagmire; here and there a horse’s carcass sticking out of the water; here and there a corpse.  The only sign of life was a rat or two swimming about to find food and a dry patch of ground.  At night a yellow mist hung over the mud; the stench was almost unbearable.  When gas shells came over the mist turned to brown.”

War was declared in the summer of 1914, and fortification of the coastline began.  Great Yarmouth became a Naval Submarine base.  The fishing industry was suspended and many of the fishermen joined the Trawler Section of the Royal Naval Reserve.  The Norfolk coast has always been vulnerable to attack and this was evident when the German Navy shelled Gt. Yarmouth in 1914, fortunately the shells fell short.  Subsequent attacks culminated in 1918 when there were four fatalities and eight injured.

The Voluntary Aid Detachment was created in 1909.  The War office concluded that should there be further conflicts there were insufficient medical facilities for Armed forces.  The British Red Cross together with the Order of St. Johns set up Auxiliary hospitals mainly for those who needed bed rest and convalescence.  In 1914 there were 26 fully staffed Hospitals in Norfolk, this rose to 64 by 1918.   Over 317 convoys transported over 40,000 wounded from ambulance trains arriving in Norwich to the Auxiliary hospitals in Norfolk.  This work was mainly done by women.  Seafield was a large house on the corner of King’s Road and Nelson Road in Yarmouth which could accommodate 37 patients.  By the end of the war it had treated 815. 

Work done by women during WWI was inestimable. We have little concept of what this must have felt like.  Before WWI few women were in charge of their own destinies; this all changed with their new found independence.  From every walk of life the war changed every person and everything.

War shrines were placed in churches, and at the end of streets in villages across Norfolk, listing the missing and dead. These have long been forgotten but they were the forerunners of war memorials which are so familiar to us today.

Public buildings in Norfolk were used for military use.  The Volunteer Training Corps used the Winter Gardens, Pier Gardens, and Wellesley Recreation grounds for drill practice.  The Gorleston Pavilion was used as a canteen and recreation room for troops based in the town.  Pill boxes were erected along coastal areas, a few of which survive.  The coastline from Mundesley to Yarmouth Beach Station was patrolled by an armoured train carrying two 12-pound naval guns and a machine gun, with an armour-plated locomotive.

In January 1915 a Zeppelin airship from the German Navy dropped 10 bombs.  The one dropped on St. Peter’s Plain killed Martha Taylor aged 72 and Samuel Smith aged 53.  These were the first deaths in England: the first people killed from the air.

Finally on November 11th 1918 Germany signed an armistice which came into effect four days later.  A war-weary country started to believe the events of the last four years were now over.  The celebrations now began.  In Great Yarmouth work was abandoned as soon as notices had been posted.  Peals of Joy rang out from the churches.  Naval sirens and gunfire could be heard.  Aircraft made numerous flights over Yarmouth.  There was shouting, cheering and singing and a grand march was arranged through the town.

Janet Edwards


Women on farm

(Above: Women on farm)
(Below: Armoured train)

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