The Norfolk Regiment in March 1915: A Soldier’s Kit

Each month staff at the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum look back to what the Norfolk Regiment was doing 100 years ago, and tells their story through objects from the museum’s collection. See previous blog posts here.

Company Sergeant Major Walter Hipkin's sketch of a soldier's kit

Company Sergeant Major Walter Hipkin’s sketch of a soldier’s kit

For the 1st Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment, March 1915 was spent in the hard routine of trench warfare at St Eloi on the Western Front.  A typical month for a soldier would be four days spent in the trenches, four in support, eight in reserve and the remainder of time would be spent resting or training away from the front. During their time in the front line trenches the soldiers would experience extreme discomfort, constant shelling and a stream of casualties.

Inspections were an important part of daily routine in the trenches. This drawing of a soldier’s kit was sketched by Company Sergeant Major Walter Hipkin of the 1st Battalion, as instruction to the men in his company to ensure that they had the correct kit laid out ready for inspection by a junior officer.

Men of 9th Battalion outside a camp hut awaiting a kit inspection at Shoreham Camp, 1915

Men of 9th Battalion outside a camp hut awaiting a kit inspection at Shoreham Camp, 1915

If we take a look at the kit that Hipkin has drawn, some items are more familiar than others. The “housewife” that Hipkin has drawn in the middle of the picture is what soldiers called the kit that contained everything that they would need to carry out repairs to their clothing. The “housewife” was also sometimes referred to as a “hussif.”

The P.H. helmet and the box respirator were vital pieces of kit in the event of a gas attack. The P.H. (Phenate Hexamine) helmet was a gas mask issued by the British Army to protect troops against chlorine, phosgene and tear gases. Box respirators were comprised of a mouthpiece connected via a hose to a box filter, which contained chemicals that neutralised the gas and delivered clean air to the wearer.

Hipkin’s note at the bottom refers to a particularly poignant part of a soldier’s kit.  With the outbreak of war, a new red identity disc was introduced. The idea was that this disc should be removed from the soldier’s dead body for administrative purposes, but this led to many unidentified bodies. Some soldiers had their own additional discs made, but it was not until November 1916 that they were officially issued with two – one to be removed and one to be left on the soldier’s body.

This red identity disc belonged to M. Forster of the Norfolk Regiment

This red identity disc belonged to M. Forster of the Norfolk Regiment

Luckily, Hipkin returned home with both of his discs. He went on to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in September 1918 and the Meritorious Service Medal in 1919, then served with the 5th (Territorial) Battalion after the war. He was discharged in 1932, after being associated with the Regiment for over thirty-five years.

War Diary March 1915

War Norfolk
Battle of Neuve Chapelle

 

British and Indian troops launch their first offensive in France with limited success.

German Aviators Rescued

 

Sailing trawler Newbay picked up 2 young German Airmen who had been adrift on their wrecked machine in the north sea for 40 hours. Lowestoft was under much excitement to have captured the 1st German Prisoners of War. The aviators were in a bad way after being exposed to the elements and shook hands with each crew member in appreciation.

Naval Blockade Begins

 

Royal Navy warships begin a concerted blockade of Germany and its ports.

Appeal for Men

 

Captain J.H.Kennedy made an appeal for more men to join the army. Since the war began over 10,000 men from Norfolk had enlisted. He was making a special appeal to the city of Norwich, because while the county with a population of 337,000 had enlisted over 9,000 recruits the city of Norwich with a population of 122,000 had given approximately only 1,000 men,

 

Norfolk Stories: ‘Jackie’ Fisher

jackie1    jackie

John Fisher, known as Jackie, was born in 1841.  He had a very distinguished naval career, which culminated in his appointment as First Sea Lord in 1904: he set about bringing the British Navy up to date in preparation for war.  He is best known for his ‘Dreadnought’ programme of building new capital ships to match any navy in the world.  He also built torpedo boats and submarines to defend Britain against possible invasion.

Fisher retired in 1910, but his voice was so important that he was called back after the war broke out – at the age of 73!  He returned to his duties in October 1914, but resigned in May 1915 after disputes about sending ships to the Dardanelles.

Fisher lived for many years at Kilverstone, near Thetford.  When he was promoted to the peerage in 1909, he chose to take the title of Baron Fisher of Kilverstone.  His beloved wife Frances died there in 1919, and he followed in 1920: his ashes are buried in Kilverstone churchyard, where there is a memorial to this naval hero.

He is credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with the earliest use of OMG for ‘OH MY GOD!’ which appears in a letter he wrote in 1917 – a Norfolk man who was far ahead of his time!

Taking your work home with you!

Work can follow you to the most surprising of places –  just before Christmas we went to visit some family in Berkshire and the topic of World War One came up.  A photo had been unearthed of my husband’s grandfather in a uniform, mounted on a horse with a date of 1913 written on the back.

LH Beard

Another relative said that the smartly attired gentleman in question had been part of the Berkshire Yeomanry and that she thought he’d served in Egypt during the war.  This piqued my curiosity hugely and I thought this was the ideal time to make use of the wonderful Norfolk resource “A Guide to researching First World War Military Family History” and free access to the Ancestry.com websites through Norfolk’s Libraries.

record office book

As I knew very little about the gentleman, Louis Henry Beard, I started at the very beginning and located him on the 1891, 1901 and 1911 censuses and established his date and place of birth.

After this I turned to the military records held on Ancestry and this is where I encountered my first problem as there were no records for a Louis Henry Beard anywhere, although there was a Lewis Henry Beard listed with all the other details being correct.  Sadly many WW1 records were destroyed during WW2 and all I had to work from on line were the Medal and Service Award Rolls.

On talking over with an archive specialist at one of the free “Ask the NRO” sessions held at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library we decided that this was probably going to be him but that until further records are either published on line or discovered in family members house we cannot be more than 95% certain that this is the right man.

As so many of the details were correct I decided that I would assume that this was the right L H Beard and look into his war service some more.  Although he was a Berkshire man the records available show him as finishing the war with the Household Cavalry to which he’d transferred from the Staffordshire Yeomanry.

Looking at the history of the Berkshire and Staffordshire Yeomanry records that are available to access on line it would appear that the two regiments served in the same fields of war and were present at Gallipoli and later on in Egypt and other locations in the Middle East – which links back nicely to family recollections of Egyptian service.  Further research has shown that the Yeomanry divisions merged and were renamed frequently which could explain his movement from the Berkshire Regiment to the Household Cavalry.

I found an invaluable site The Long, Long Trail dedicated to the British Army from 1914-18 which gave me detailed accounts of the movements of both the Staffordshire and Berkshire Yeomanry’s.  Further investigation on line lead me to the Berkshire Family History Society webpage where the account of the regiment’s time at Gallipoli – with only 50 men still fit for service by the end of the campaign – sounds horrific and would show that L H Beard was either very lucky to survive and be transferred to the Staffordshires or very lucky to be serving with them by this point.

The records that I have found on line have let me see that L H Beard served throughout the war. His Medal Card shows he was awarded the 1914-15 Star (showing he was a member of the armed services prior to conscription) and that he left England on 21st April 1915 and returned on 17th April 1919 – almost exactly 4 years of service abroad.  Sadly at present we have no idea if he had any home leave in this period.

I know that next time I visit I am going to have to ask the family if they have any other memorabilia or information for me to investigate and I am now tempted to contact the National Archives and see if I can get copies of the Regimental Diaries and explore more about their movements and to see how L H Beard ended up with the Staffordshire’s.

Louis Henry Beard came back from the war and returned home to Hungerford where he lived a full life, dying only in 1961. The Beards are an old Hungerford family and Louis Henry took over his father’s coal business as well as taking an active part in town life. Many of his direct descendants still live in the town today.

Temperance pamphlet to encourage sobriety among the British workforce

This is just one of several hundred newly digitised original photographs, posters and notices connected with the First World War in Norfolk. The material is all held in the collections of the Norfolk Heritage Centre and over the course of the next four years will be posted on http://www.picture.norfolk.gov.uk (the online picture archive for Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service)Temperance pamphlet

The past is another country…

Testament of Youth – book and film.

20140504222301!Testament_of_Youth_Book_Cover

I first read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth when I was in the sixth form at school, I seem to recall a friend telling me that I “had to read this amazing book” and pressing her copy into my hands.  She was right and that Christmas I was given copies of all three Testament books, which I still have now.

Over the next six or so years I think I re-read Testament of Youth about once a year, and it was certainly one of the books I wanted with me should I have ended up on that mythical desert island.  I don’t recall reading Testament of Friendship or Testament of Experience quite as frequently but I have read them more than a couple of times.

When I heard that there was to be a film version of the book I was extremely nervous – how would such a favourite book adapt to the big screen?

Testament_of_Youth_(film)_POSTER

On the whole I enjoyed the film a lot.  I thought that it captured the Vera I remembered from the book and gave a face to her brother Edward, fiance Roland and friends Victor and Geoffrey. The move from the carefree Edwardian period into the horrors of war and then Vera’s equally troubled peace worked very well on film.

I did bristle at some of the changes made to the story – there was a sharp intake of breath a couple of times – but from a cinematographic point of view I understand why these happened, and as they just changed timelines and not facts I went with the flow.  After all if Vera’s daughter, Baroness Shirley Williams, liked the film who am I to quibble?!

I saw the film with my husband, who wasn’t familiar with the story at all and we both agreed that it was a good, if romantic version of one woman’s war.

When I got home from the cinema I decided that it was time to dig out my copy of the book and have another read. This is where I got a real surprise…

Instead of falling back in love with the book I found myself astonished at how little I actually liked Vera Brittain as she portrayed herself. I found her to be a hard, almost selfish character that I could no longer identify with – I suppose that this isn’t too surprising considering all she went through, but I could no longer see the progressive woman that I had so admired as a younger woman.

Since finishing Testament of Youth I have also read her son’s autobiography and a biography written by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge. Interestingly both of these books echo my current feelings about Testament  and the author.

I do feel sad that my feelings have changed, I feel a little like I have lost a friend in some ways.  I am glad that I did see the film however as that has left me with the spark of hope that perhaps in a few years I will come back to the book and rediscover the aspects that I so loved a decade ago.

Copies of Testament of Youth can be borrowed from Norfolk’s Libraries, as can the Berry/Bostridge biography.

The film is currently too new to be available on DVD but the BBC television series from the late 1970s is available for hire.

A Village at War event

Thornham at War

Friday 20th and Saturday 21st February

thornham sign

Thornham History Society has been in touch with us to let us know about an exhibition they are staging this half term in Thornham Village Hall.

The exhibition will be laid out as a timeline around our large village hall.  It will start with the village before the war (looking at employment and life styles) and move on to enlistment, life in the trenches, life on the Home Front, the Armistice and lastly what we have called “the aftermath”, concentrating on the village’s Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital and on details of the Thornham men who failed to return from the war.

Entry is free and there will be refreshments.

The hall is fully disabled access friendly and there is on site parking freely available adjacent to the hall.

For more details please contact Thornham History Society but do drop in if you are in the area it sounds fascinating.

Photo by permission of the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum.

Photo by permission of the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum.