The War Letters of a Light Infantryman

When thinking of First World War writers of poetry and prose we often think of people such as Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Charles Blunden. However, Norfolk has a man who wrote letters home full of warmth, courage and humour to rival the finest of his generation.

Lieutenant-Colonel Sir James Edmund Henderson Neville (1897-1982), of the Neville family of Sloley, served in France and Russia during the Great War with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He wrote and received regular letters to and from his family at their home at Sloley Hall, not far from Worstead in north Norfolk.

In a book entitled The War Letters of a Light Infantryman, published in 1931, Neville recalls:

We are under fire. The only time I felt funny was at 6.30am on 17th…. The strafe lasted three quarters of an hour, we got no sleep all night, and I had a terrible shivery feeling and could not control the shaking.

This was in January 1916 in Bouzincourt, France. He and his friend Harry agreed they were shaking because of the cold.  Neither wanted to admit to feeling scared.

There were funnier moments:

The Hun always relieves the front line by day and saunters along with his hands in his pockets from post to post.  On the 18th (January, 1916) a party of them waved to us and invited us over for a beer.  They are never armed.  I simply longed to have a shot at some of them to pay off a few scores.

It was of course very cold.  Their accommodation was just a piece of canvas nailed to upright posts, not waterproof, with nails for hooks.  Mud was his constant companion.  Nevertheless, he says he enjoyed some of the marches through the woods at Fontaine-sur-Mer.  But at night:

The sky and inky trees were lit up every other second by yellow flashes coming from far away, yet not a single sound to disturb the stillness of the night.  And I realised that probably each one of those flashes might mean that some poor man, friend or foe, was being blown to bits.

The book is available at Norwich Heritage Centre at the Millennium Library in Norwich.  The Norfolk Record Office also has a short story written by Neville entitled ‘Boots and Shoes’ (Catalogue Reference: NEV 7/74, 589×9), accompanied by a rejection letter from a publisher in Edinburgh.


First page of the short story: ‘Boots and Shoes’. Norfolk Record Office catalogue entry: NEV 7/74, 589×9

Told in the first person, the story tells of a murder, where the guilty party is identified by the gumboots he was wearing, rather than the brown canvas shoes of the author.

Rejection letter from Edinburgh publishers. Includes: '' Norfolk Record Office catalogue entry:

Rejection letter from Edinburgh publishers. The letter writer says the story is ‘well written’ but ‘too artificial’. Norfolk Record Office catalogue entry: NEV 7/74, 589×9

Neville finally made it home on 4 October 1919 by ship to Liverpool in the middle of a strike.  He says:

A good many hoots and jeers from the strikers though some people seemed pleased to see us. And we have eaten abnormally, making up for the bully beef and sardines we ate with a rusty penknife. The next thing is leave, aye, LEAVE!


Nursing Men with Psychological Trauma during the First World War

This blog post is based on a recent talk given on 2nd October at the Norfolk Record Office by Dr Claire Chatterton, an Open University lecturer and Chair of the Royal College of Nursing, History of Nursing Society.

The general perception of soldiers suffering from shell shock during the First World War has been coloured by literature, films and TV.  Officers (upper class) were deemed as suffering from shellshock whilst enlisted soldiers (working class) were shot at dawn.

Dr Chatterton’s talk demonstrated that this was not the case, and though 346 soldiers were shot and most of these were suffering from shell shock, it is estimated that 80,000 men suffered shell shock during the First World War, and some effort was made to treat these individuals.

The condition was first described by Dr Charles Myers in 1915, but there is evidence that the condition was experienced by combatants during the Crimean War and earlier conflicts.

There are disturbing films of shell shocked individuals that are available on YouTube. Please note these are disturbing

During the early years of the First World War, individuals were sent home and usually went through the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley.  However, as the numbers of sufferers increased, more hospitals were required.  Various hospitals and asylums were taken over; and the patients/residents were removed to other institutions, which led to severe overcrowding and death in many cases.  Dr Chatterton described these as the forgotten victims of the First World War.

There was no unified approach to the treatment of the soldiers; it depended on the medical personnel at individual hospitals.  The treatment often followed the Weir Mitchell Cure which advocated isolation, rest, massage and a milk diet. Other psychotherapeutic treatments were based on combinations of baths, massage, drugs, hypnosis, electrical treatments, re-education and occupational treatments.

It proved difficult, however, to treat the large numbers being sent back home.  Therefore a system of Forward Psychiatry was introduced with the acronym PIE

Proximity to battle

Immediacy of Treatment

Expectation of recovery

With the line of evacuation being so long, the increased speed of treatment proved to be efficacious. The principals of this system are still used today for the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in modern warfare.

It seems that there was a class divide evident in the diagnosis of shell shock in that officers were described as suffering from Neurasthenia whilst enlisted soldiers were described as shell shocked.

Dr Chatterton’s talk showed not only the huge numbers of those affected by shell shock but also demonstrated how the treatment of these individuals evolved during the war.

To see other Norfolk Record Office free lunchtime talks, and other events related to the First World War, see our Eventbrite.

‘No Hatred or Bitterness’: Edith Cavell and Norfolk Women in the First World War.

‘No Hatred or Bitterness’: Edith Cavell and Norfolk Women in the First World War.


Edith’s baptism entry. NRO catalogue reference: PD 199/4

Edith Cavell is perhaps Norfolk’s best-known twentieth-century heroine. Born in Swardeston, she was nursing in Brussels when the First World War broke out. After Brussels was occupied, she continued in her post and also helped Allied soldiers to break through enemy lines and escape to Britain. Executed by the Germans on 12 October 1915, her death became an enormous propaganda weapon for the Allies.

Propaganda postcard. From the Norfolk Heritage Centre.

Propaganda postcard. Image courtesy of the Norfolk Heritage Centre.

As this October is the centenary of her death, many heritage organisations are shining a spotlight on Cavell’s life, as well as the role of nurses during World War One. From Monday 5 October The Norfolk Record at the Archive Centre will have a free exhibition entitled ‘No Hatred or Bitterness’: Edith Cavell and Norfolk Women in the First World War.

This exhibition includes original documents that have never been displayed in public before, including letters from both Edith and the soldiers she helped. The exhibition also looks at Edith’s story and how she has been remembered, both at the time and in later years. It delves into the background to her story – the role of other Norfolk nurses, abroad and at home, and at the many roles played by Norfolk women in wartime, even those whose courage took the form of opposing the war. Each, in her own way, was a true Heroine of Norfolk.

Related events will accompany the exhibition. On Thursday 15 October there is a drop in event called ‘Women at War’ at which you can discover the wide range of experience of Norfolk women as nurses during the First World War, from Norfolk to the Mediterranean. Plus, find out how Edith Cavell was portrayed in film. There will also be the opportunity to learn about useful resources for tracing nurse ancestors. There is no need to book for this event, but see our Eventbrite page for more information.

There are also children’s activities taking place in October. On Monday 26 October, during the Autumn half term, children will look at cards and propaganda and choose to either create a propaganda postcard or an embroidered card.

On Tuesday 27 October an activity run jointly with the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital will reveal the history of Edith Cavell, and teach children how to use a bandage and create their own letters with invisible ink or in code.

Booking for the children’s activities is essential, for more information see our Eventbrite page. 


Photograph of nine girls fund-raising for the Red Cross. NRO catalogue reference: MC 84/206, PH10

What can service records reveal?

Since starting my traineeship at the Norfolk Record Office I have read extracts from a number of diaries from the World War One era, and have found them a fascinating insight into the lives of soldiers. However, I had never really given huge consideration to service records, and how much they reveal.

In the autumn, the Norfolk Record Office will hold World War One workshops for schools. As part of the workshops, pupils will recreate a life sized soldier using information gathered from service records.

In preparation for these workshops I have been reading a number of service records of men who stated that they lived in Norfolk. I have found the experience of reading these service records both interesting and moving.

Even though the information provided is restricted by the fact they are based on printed forms and tables, it is possible to flesh out the story of a soldier from this bureaucratically formatted information.

propaganda poster

Propaganda Poster

For instance, there is Charles Abbs, a man who stated his trade was ‘professional footballer’. From a quick Google I found that he is listed as playing his debut game for Norwich City on 24 October 1914. He joined the 17th Middlesex (the footballers’ battalion) in 1915.

This website gives an outline of the Footballers’ Battalion. It says that ‘Following the outbreak of World War One, a heated debate took place in the letter pages of many national newspapers about the continuance of professional football during a time of national crisis…such was the strength of feeling that it was even suggested to King George V that he should withdraw his patronage of the Football Association.’

The 17th Middlesex was raised at a meeting in Fulham Town Hall on 15 December 1914.

Charles Abbs was captured and became a prisoner of war from 28 April 1917, for a total of 261 days. He survived the War but was ‘30% disabled’ and injured in his breast and thigh.

Another compelling story is that of 21 year old Richard Plane. His service record shows that for ‘not complying with an order’ and ‘making an improper remark to a N.C.O’ he was given fourteen days field punishment Number 1. This form of punishment consisted of the convicted man being placed in fetters and handcuffs or similar restraints and attached to a fixed object, such as a gun wheel or a fence post, for up to two hours per day. Later that year Plane died in hospital of pneumonia.

Richard Plane's service record

Richard Plane’s service record

But what’s also interesting about service records is what they don’t reveal.

In the service records of George William Baldry, there is a memorandum and part of it is a note from his wife saying that Mr Baldry has stopped sending his allowance to her, and she asks why she hasn’t received anything. Why would he have stopped?

Also, 17 year old Robert Edward Forsythe was promoted to Corporal on 26 September 1914. But after this point he starts to commit a number of offences such as overstaying leave, irregular conduct, and neglect of duty while in charge of brigade guard. Then on 10 May 1915 on request he changes rank back to Private. Was he misbehaving because he didn’t enjoy being a Corporal?

I wonder what other stories are held within the 2.8 million service records that survived the World War Two bombing…do readers of this blog have any interesting stories or things they’d like to share relating to Service Records?


Norfolk Stories: George Roberts MP

george roberts          george roberts.a

George Roberts was born in Chedgrave in 1869, the son of the local shoemaker.  In 1906, he was elected Labour MP for Norwich, one of the first thirty men who formed the Parliamentary Labour Party.  He remained MP for the city for almost twenty years.  He soon diverged from the official Labour Party in his view of the defence question.  In spite of his position as Chief Whip, he was one of eight Labour MPs who rebelled against their party line by voting against a proposal to cut spending on re-arming the navy in July 1912

When the First World War broke out, the Labour Party was split: many members, including its leader, J Ramsey Macdonald, opposed the war.  Roberts immediately and unhesitatingly declared his support for the war, thereby earning himself many enemies in the Norwich party, where the anti-war movement was strong.  He said:

  I made up my mind that my country was in the right, and being in the right, I determined to support it until peace comes.

Roberts played a full and varied part in the war.  He accepted office in the wartime coalition governments, visited the Western Front and wrote articles about his experiences, and inspected the camps for German prisoners of war in Britain.

After the war, Roberts moved to the right, eventually taking the Conservative whip: he was defeated in the 1923 election, dying five years later.

Norfolk Stories: Allan Noel Minns

Minns   minns.1

Allan Minns was born in Thetford in 1891 and brought up in the town: in 1904, his father, Allan Glaisyer Minns (who had been born in the Bahamas) became mayor there, the first black and minority ethnic  person to become mayor of any town in England.  Allan junior went to Thetford Grammar School, winning a Junior Science Scholarship.  His father and his uncle had both been doctors in Thetford, and Allan also became a doctor.  He served for six years in the Royal Army Medical Corps, gaining the Military Cross for his bravery at Gallipoli in 1916.  The official citation refers to:

His gallantry and devotion … when attending to the wounded under heavy shrapnel fire.  Another officer who was assisting him was killed.  Lieutenant Minns later returned to the dressing station, took out 12 stretcher squads and bought in 24 wounded men.

Allan went on to win the Distinguished Service Order later in the same year.

Allan survived the war with only slight wounds, but was killed in a car crash near Newmarket in 1921: he was thirty years old.  He is buried in Thetford.

Norfolk Stories: Dorothy Jewson

jewson.1jewson jewson.2

Before the war, Dorothy Jewson was a teacher, a union organiser – and an active suffragette.  The leaders of the suffragette movement supported Britain’s involvement in the war.  However, quite a large number of women who had worked for the suffragette movement could not follow the views of their leaders: they took part in an international movement to actively oppose the war.  Important Norfolk figures within this movement included Mary Sheepshanks, the daughter of Bishop John Sheepshanks of Norwich, Ethel Williams, born in Cromer and one of Britain’s early female doctors – and Dorothy Jewson.

Dorothy’s work took practical form – she organised a group of young unemployed women in Norwich, whom she trained in making toys, a deliberately peaceful activity.  Her workshop was in St Benedict’s and, at its peak in 1915, more than fifty Norwich women and girls were working there.  They rented a stall on Norwich Market Place on Saturdays and sold their toys there.

Later, Dorothy moved to London and worked with the National Federation of Women Workers.  She fought for the rights of women workers in munitions and other industries during the war, and tried to protect the rights of those who lost their jobs when the men returned after the war was over.

In 1923, she became MP for Norwich, the first female MP in East Anglia.  She died in 1964.