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.
This simple strip of red cloth, printed with the figures “5 BNR,” represents the struggle of the British Army to prepare the men of Norfolk for their part in fighting the First World War. This armband was issued to a new recruit into the 1/5th Territorial Battalion.
On August 4th 1914, the 1/4th and 1/5th Territorial Battalions of the Norfolk Regiment mobilized with such efficiency that they amazed detractors, who had termed the territorials “Saturday night soldiers.” The 1/4th assembled at Drill Hall in Chapel Field, Norwich and were billeted at the City of Norwich School on Eaton Road. The 1/5th Battalion prepared for war at Dereham. Armbands like the one pictured above were issued while new recruits waited for their uniforms, which were scarce and often took time to be issued. Men trained in their civilian clothes and wore armbands like this to indicate which battalion they were part of.
However, in the first weeks of war few battalions of the Norfolk Regiment were at full strength. With Lord Kitchener’s appointment as the Secretary of State for War came a great call for men to join the war effort. The Eastern Daily Press called upon the “loyal men of Norfolk” to join the 1/4th Battalion. New recruits were sent with the territorials to train in Essex but they soon found that equipment was in short supply. The commanding officer for the 1/4th Norfolks, Colonel Harvey, appealed to the people of Norfolk for 1,000 flannel shirts and pairs of socks for the men.
Despite the strain that these extra men put on resources, in actual fact by mid-August very few men had come forward to enlist into the other battalions of the Norfolk Regiment. On August 17th, only about 500 men, excluding reservists and territorials, had signed up. Norfolk men were slow to join up for a number of reasons.
Firstly, farms needed men for the harvest and work had already been delayed by bad weather. For labourers, the prospect of earning extra money gathering the harvest was too valuable to turn down. Also Norfolk’s other important industry, boot and shoe manufacture, had turned to the production of army boots and had full order books. Employed men found Kitchener’s appeal ambiguous and feared impending unemployment on their return from the front – his appeal asked for “general service for a period of three years or until the war was concluded.”
Ian Malcolm M.P. stepped in and led a powerful recruiting drive throughout East Anglia. Malcolm exploited the traditional rivalries between Norfolk and Suffolk by convincing the young Norfolk men he spoke to that more men in Suffolk had rushed to enlist. Financial incentives and guarantees of work on return also helped to convince the men. By the latter months of 1914 and the beginning of 1915 the men of Norfolk had started responding to Kitchener’s call in their thousands. More and more men flocked to the recruiting offices.
The 1/4th and 1/5th Battalions went on to serve closely together in the 54th (East Anglian) Division. It wasn’t until spring 1915 that they would be sent abroad. The two battalions were together in the same brigade during each of the operations in which they took part, including the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign.
Thanks to Dick Rayner for his help with this post.