From records held at the Norfolk Record Office.
Edith Upcher’s diary started and ended with a very loud bang (UPC 188 642×2). In the short time that she kept her diary, spanning the first three months of 1916, she captured the fears both real and imaginary of the people of Sheringham.
Crash. Bang. Shake. A loud explosion. Every door & window in the house struggling to break free.
Thus wrote Edith in her first entry recounting a zeppelin raid on 31st January 1916. The servants had seen the zeppelin flying low over the wood near Edith’s home, Sheringham Hall. It appeared to be following the coastline. Such was the noise that Edith’s mother thought it must be a naval battle. Edith describes bombs being hurled from the sky, some in the direction of Holt. Following the raid there was much talk both in the town and at Sheringham Auxiliary Hospital where Edith worked voluntarily.
Everyone claimed that it went “right over my house”. Hospital calm tho’ the locals had been a little excited.
30 bombs were dropped at Bayfield Lodge probably thinking it was the aerodrome:
Windows of house broken, barn damaged and forge blown to bits. Many dropped in fields. 8 large holes in which 22 men could stand. Report told of aircraft party having left on their large light and finding “things too hot for them” fled to Holt leaving the searchlight turned on Holt Lodge.
The fear of further raids was ever present. Unconfirmed stories circulated about zeppelins approaching. Mrs Steward, a local resident, is said to have desired a gun so that she could shoot them down adding that neither guns on the cliff at Bodham would fire and they needed someone to come up from London to look at them because the man from London “knew more about guns than what those soldiers do”.
Residents were understandably fearful of any unexplained noises or anything flying overhead. On one occasion Edith was chatting to a local neighbour when an aeroplane flew by.
Old Mrs Dawson Sidney fled indoors in tears crying “Oh I do hate them things. I don’t care if they’re ours or not they do frighten me”.
On 5th March there was another zeppelin scare, heavy snow providing ample light for the zeppelins to see. Edith wrote:
Music for a bit then to bed wondering how used one got to the idea of Zepps about but hoping that a hurricane would meet them on the way back.
Residents were also worried that the presence of troops in the area would invite attack. On 8th March Edith remonstrated with a soldier about the danger of leaving ammunition wagons close to local houses. The residents were anxious that if the wagons were attacked by zeppelins then their houses would be blown up too. The unsympathetic soldier replied, “We could have put em in your back yard if we had had a mind to”.
While strangers were welcome in the seaside town before the war, now they were viewed with suspicion. Two women checked into one of the town’s hotels, one demanding a room overlooking the sea and the other a room at the back of the hotel. Edith wrote that they were:
Suspiciously like spies – but after a time proved to be officers’ wives coming to stay to the finish.
When the lifeboat went missing during a rescue mission, there were again fears of invasion. Rumours circulated that the Germans had landed and were dressed in khaki so that no-one would know who they were.
Good deal of agitation about many soldiers on Links and round Hospital. Found out from outpatient that a landing was expected, all the soldiers had been out all night & not come in for morning rations. . . . . One after another the men came in with the same tale & always ending in awestruck voices. . . . . .As it happened there were a most unusual amount of ships hanging about all the morning. As we were looking at them we saw one of the soldiers from the Hospital hoist up the Union Jack & the Red Cross Flag. He had got leave to do this to calm his feelings but it had the contrary effect on most of them as they again came to pour out their fears.
The missing lifeboat eventually returned having taken its rescued vessel safely to Grimsby. Fear of invasion fuelled rumours that it was returning with German spies on board. A lifeboat member from Sheringham was stationed on the beach to meet its return and to identify every man aboard to check there were no Germans among the crew.
Edith’s diary concludes with a major explosion in the town which caused severe damage. On 11th March she wrote:
At 5 past 8 a resounding bang and windows rattling furiously. . . . A floating mine had come ashore. It was seen for 2 hours but no steps were taken to prevent disaster. Reports as usual. “They” had telephoned Lowestoft for instructions & received none. “it was too rough for any boat to get out to it”. None of the fishermen would have dared touch it etc etc. Anyhow the unsuitable had happened and the mine had burst. The spot it chose was the Town drain pipe and here it did its worst though mercifully so much less than if it had met its end a few minutes sooner and not a soul was hurt or even touched by the portions of pipe-mine & stones which were flying incredible distances into Town.
The damage caused by the mine was extensive with Cliff Road particularly affected. Mrs Lucas’ house ‘The Mo’ on East Cliff was badly damaged as it was close to the blast. Stories of narrow escapes abounded. Birrell’s house was apparently lifted out of the ground eight inches and dropped back again. Edith wrote that Birrell then ran about all day long carrying a bottle of medicine from which he drank at regular intervals. Mr Craske had heard about the mine and got his wife out of bed. After the explosion they found a large piece of metal in her pillow. Fortunately, because the morning was so stormy, children were not playing outdoors and so escaped injury.
After the mine explosion people went around the town collecting metal shards in an attempt to prove it had been an English mine so that the town could claim damages.
Edith’s diary illustrates how the fear and reality of war manifested itself directly on the doorsteps of British towns in the First World War.
Written by Daryl Long NRO Blogger