The Norfolk Regiment in January: Albert

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.

On paper, January was a month of “rest” for Norfolk’s 8th battalion. The men had been stationed at the French town of Albert for over a month, aiding in its defence, away from front line trenches. A look at many diaries and letters however says little of rest.

The shattered Basilica at Albert, taken from a popular print.

The shattered Basilica at Albert, taken from a popular print. The “Golden Virgin” hangs over the edge.

Albert, which lies between Amiens and Bapaume, became a symbol of Allied resistance when the golden statue of Mary and her infant Jesus, atop the Basilica of Notre-Dame de brebieres, slumped to an almost horizontal position after a shell burst. “Protecting the Golden Virgin” therefore, was a task which gained symbolic significance and captured the imagination of people at home. This textile, made by F. W Taverham, goes some way in highlighting the romanticism of Albert and similar churches.

 

Silk chair cover painted with views of churches at Albert, Arras, Persomme and Ypres

Silk chair cover painted with churches on the Western Front, by F. W Taverham . Clockwise from top left – Albert, Arras, Ypres and Persomme..

For the 8th battalion however, daily life was still hard going. Fatigue duty, or manual labouring – usually digging or carrying equipment, was a constant. Private A E England wrote sombrely,

“sometimes it would be carrying boxes of explosive ammonal up muddy communication trenches or even the top of sapheads, or perhaps we would be wanted by the sappers to work in the tunnel filling sandbags with the chalky soil excavated by the engineers and passing them back on hands and knees along a chain of one’s unfortunate comrades all similarly crouched and listening from time-to-time for the sound of Jerry’s pickaxe engaged in the same fearful activity”. 

Private W H Dunnell noted,

“We badly need out of here, socks more than anything, warm home-knitted socks… Our feet are always wet now, so the more we can change our socks the better”. 

Men of the 8th Norfolks with an Indian soldier. The "Golden Virgin" lies almost toppled in the background

Men of the 8th Norfolks with an Indian soldier. The “Golden Virgin” lies almost toppled in the background.

The evident angst among the 8th battalion men is perhaps best summed up by Private G F Mason. In a fit of rage, he wrote bitterly about men back home who were yet to sign up. In a letter to his sister, he exclaimed,

“Some of them will have to leave their nice little jobs they got, after us first chaps come away… I’ve got the nark and would tell someone off if I could. Well sod the thing am [sic]  going to close now. Love from your loving brother”.

Mason’s remarks, typical of a soldier in poor conditions and bad weather, were soon to ring true. Conscription became the order of the day in the early months of 1916. In the meantime, the 8th would have to make the best of Albert; mud, monotony, weet feet and occasional “rest”.

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