The War at home

A mother like Celia Pottle or Eliza Shelcott must have dreaded opening the newspaper to see the casualty lists, or seeing a Telegraph boy bicycling up the village street. Many local families had more than one member at the Front.

But not every man was in a position to go off to war. Some non-combatants were the last male of working age left at home to support elderly parents or siblings’ young families, well aware of being looked at askance by folk whose ‘boys were at the Front’. Someone had to keep the farms producing food, despite losing half the workforce, the requisitioning of horses, shortages of fuel, and other wartime restrictions. As the German Navy increasingly targetted any vessel bringing food or other supplies to the UK there was enormously increased demand on domestic farmers, and the government was forced to introduce food rationing in 1917.

Others suffered from chronic ailments which debarred them from joining up, yet had worked in field or factory from their early teens. A local example was Arthur Pottle, who tried to enlist twice despite a serious disability. Even after conscription was introduced, for single men aged 18-41 in January 1916, and married men in that May, many were exempted due to lack of fitness and/or being engaged in vital War work at home. In fact the War revealed the shameful state of the nation’s health : by 1918 over 40% of men examinedwere either totally unfit, or were classified as unable to undergo physical exertion and almost half the infantry was aged nineteen or less.

There were plenty of soldiers ‘doing their bit’ here in Suffolk. A never-ending stream of recruits was trained locally, for instance the large Victorian camp on Bromeswell Heath was re-occupied. This kind of training was usually done by older regular soldiers. There was a firing range on the Heath, and elaborate layouts of trenches with ‘no-man’s land’ between, where the men practiced manoeuvres. Route marches were made to Hollesley, Bawdsey, Boyton, Capel St Andrew and Alderton, where the men practised digging trenches. Other soldiers were involved within our villages in the defence of the English coast (see below). No doubt impressionable local lads found all this very glamorous and exciting and many tried to enlist when under age.

The defence of the British coast was a priority, for the Germans were grimly expected to invade the Suffolk coast in the early years of the War. Every household received a copy of the ‘Guidance for the Civil Population in the event of a Landing by the Enemy on the Coast’. This detailed the action to be taken once the Special Constables had given the necessary order – e.g. to destroy all modes of transport and fuel, foodstuffs including corn and hay, contents of mills and granaries, livestock, etc.

Several units were stationed along our coast with one base at Bawdsey. The Suffolk Regt. Cycle Battalion were a crucial part of the communications system and groups were billeted locally including in the attic of Church Farm, where graffiti they made can still be seen.

Civilians in the U.K. were involved in the War, in a way that was new.

Zeppelins were occasionally seen in our area. One night in August 1915 after ‘a lovely summer’s day’ the Zeppelin ‘L10’ was spotted over Woodbridge heading south, and the men under canvas at Bromeswell received the order ‘Rapid and Independent Fire!’ Sadly this probably only alerted the pilot to the fact that he was traversing a possible target, and he dropped both incendiary and high-explosive bombs on Woodbridge. The result was considerable damage, and casualties including 7 dead. The ‘Zepp’ continued unscathed and also bombed Ipswich and Parkeston.

In September that year the anti-aircraft gun at Bromeswell fired on another three Zeppelins travelling over the golf course.

Young women were expected to fill the gaps left by the men in industry, offices and agriculture, and many worked in new munitions factories. One Hollesley example was Annie Pottle, who worked in a factory in Ipswich (possibly at Ransomes & Rapiers). She described the factory as so noisy that speech was impossible, and so cold that the girls wore their coats and scarves to keep warm. One day the girl working next to her caught her scarf in a machine and if Annie had not noticed and run to get the power turned off, her colleague would probably have died. Long after the War Annie and her young son Ralph were in Lyons teashop in Ipswich when this lady recognised Annie and there was a tearful reunion.

For many single girls the experience of factory work made them reluctant to accept domestic service as the only way to earn a living after 1918.

Even married women found they could work for wages during the War, whereas previously nurses, teachers and others were forced to give up work on marriage. Many local families include a mother or aunt who worked in local orchards, bringing their youngest children in their prams, and other ‘substitution’ jobs.

People at home had to balance the effort to get on with their lives, ‘Do their Bit’ and ‘Keep Smiling Through’, with increasing awareness of the terrible toll the War was taking. The Shelcott family have treasured a small album belonging to ‘A.S.Shelcott’, who carefully pasted in press cuttings, poems and photographs as the War ground on. On one page she records the members of this one family who would never return.