From records held at the Norfolk Record Office
Unpalatable a thought as it was, plans for possible invasion and evacuation had to be considered during the First World War. Norfolk, along with other places along the east coast, was particularly vulnerable.
An Emergency Committee memorandum was issued in December 8th 1914. Local Emergency Committees were set up across Norfolk operating under a Central Emergency Committee (NRO, MC 561/123 808×9). These committees had to act with the military authorities in case of invasion. Necessary arrangements for the conduct of civilians would be carried out by the police and special constables.
While invasion may have been regarded as improbable, evacuation plans needed to be in place. Posters were displayed around the county explaining the function of the Emergency Committees (NRO, MC 1129/1 805×9). There were three strands to the evacuation plans; the evacuation of the civilian population, transport and livestock.
Unless the military authorities suggested evacuation, the civilian population ‘must decide for themselves whether they prefer to remain at home or retreat inland. No advice is given by the Government. If they remain at home they must on no account use firearms. In case of a raid, word will be passed round to “Stand By”, when all persons intending to leave their homes should take their carts etc. with warm clothes, blankets, and enough provisions for about two days’ (NRO, MC 166/273 633×4).
Evacuation routes were detailed on local posters (NRO, MC 166/273 633×4). All forms of transport were to be removed along these specified routes and taking the elderly and infirm with them. It was important that transport was not left behind to fall into enemy hands. Such transport had to be rendered useless by sawing out half of the spokes in each wheel. Some transport might be commandeered by the military authorities.
The instructions for livestock were clear and simple. Move them or kill them.
Having received a “Stand By” warning of a raid, preparations for evacuation would begin. This would be followed by “Partial Emergency”, “Total Emergency” or “As you were”. For “Partial Emergency” all transport was to be removed or rendered useless. For “Total Emergency” all the measures planned by the Emergency Committees would be carried out (NRO, MC 1129/1 805×9).
Once the Emergency Committees were set up, the hard work began. Chairs of these committees would often be local dignitaries and landowners such as Sir Robert Gurney of Ingham Hall. The first task was to carry out a detailed inventory of the parish to establish just how many people might need to be evacuated, who needed transport, what transport was available and what to do with the livestock.
Gurney reported that in his area there were 40 school children of whom 30 were able to walk. There were 15 old and infirm who would also need transport and he had five available wagons which could carry 100 people. Other farmers in his area reported to him on the transport they had available (NRO, MC 1129/1 805×9).
Gurney gave detailed instructions on what to do if the need for evacuation arose. The typed note below to Bowell, one of his employees, made clear how Ingham Hall was to be evacuated (NRO, MC 1129/1 805×9). As Ingham Hall was an auxiliary war hospital, one of the wagons was needed for wounded soldiers
Needless to say the plans were not without their problems. H Wivers wrote to Gurney detailing all that he had done. His frustration and exasperation is evident. He had organized the counting of everyone in the parish and noted those who needed transport. He had prepared notices on what to do which were to be delivered to every home and he had organized the Scouts to deliver them. He had made a list of all transport including boats. Farmers would be told to take their transport to one of four locations for loading up purposes; Stalham Green, Chapel Corner, St John’s Road and Stalham Staithe for boats only. ‘The only difficulty that appears now is can we have the farmers’ horses? If not our rather elaborate paper arrangements will go crooked . . . an empty wagon is of no use without horses. Who will pay the men? Who will pay the farmer for his already overworked horses which will be required to stand for 6 hours?’ (NRO, MC 1129/1 805×9).
The frustration and exasperation eventually got to Gurney too. In June 1918 he had received an order to destroy all petrol that had not been commandeered by the military authorities and yet the farmers in his district were relying on petrol for their cars to evacuate their own families. ‘The whole thing is so obviously absurd that I shall be glad if you will allow me to resign from a position in which I can be of no use’. (NRO, MC 1129/1 805×9).
Records of the Aylsham Emergency Committee present a similar picture and also include details of the role of the Special Constables (NRO, MC 561/123 808×9).
These records show that the duties for Special Constables was first issued May 1916 and largely involved directing the civilian population, guarding bridges, keeping road clear for the military and acting as dispatch riders. In April 1918 the Norfolk Constabulary decided to see if the 18 Norfolk Emergency Committees were still up to date with their procedures and planned an evacuation drill. Instructions would be given as to how far the emergency measures should be carried out. ‘Any Special Constable absent from his post will be dealt with according to Law’. (NRO, MC 561/123 808×9).
There is no record of when in 1918 this evacuation drill took place. It would have happened before Gurney wrote in his frustration of the absurd situation over petrol. Whatever the outcome it is clear that local landowners, farmers and the civilian population all did their bit to make sure they were prepared for the worst. The hope for an evacuation plan is that it will never be needed and fortunately this was the case.
Daryl Long, NRO Blogger