Thick Heads, Cowards and Unmitigated Scoundrels – A Personal Perspective of War. The Naval Letters of Fairman Rackham Mann.

From records held at the Norfolk Record Office.

Fairham Rackham Mann, known as Rack, was a fleet surgeon with the Navy during the First World War.  He was the son of Mary Elizabeth Mann whose family records are also held at the Norfolk Record Office.  Rack’s frequent letters to his mother reveal a very frank and personal perspective of the war. (NRO, MC 2716 A1/30)


Fairham Rackham Mann. NRO, MC 2716 G8

Rack was 44 when war broke out and, with the benefit of hindsight, he confessed that he wished he had retired before war had been declared so that he could have joined the Territorials instead.  It is having to be a doctor doing a job I loathe, running all the risks getting none of the glory that sticks in my gizzard.

In 1914 Rack was on HMS Pactolus at the submarine depot in Ardrossan, Scotland.  He was not enamoured with his posting.  I am fed up with Scotland and long to be away.  I think I would rather go to sea than stay on here much longer.

Rack’s first letter was written before war had been declared. He seemed resigned to the inevitable but tried to reassure his mother.  It seems absolute madness for us to think of fighting over this Balkan business. . . . I have heard news that I think war is practically certain . . . I want you to realise that while I remain here I am perfectly safe. . . . . You must try not to worry.  If the newspapers worry you don’t read them.


HMS Pactolus. NRO, MC 2716 G7

HMS Pactolus’ role was to protect the Nobel dynamite works at Ardrossan.  Life there seemed to consist of drunken soldiers falling in the Basin and drowning and of the frequent explosions at the very dynamite factory they had been sent to protect.

At first, Rack was quite dismissive of the Zeppelins.  I think the Zeppelins won’t do very much.  They may drop a bomb or two in London which would be no bad thing in my opinion.  It’d certainly buck up recruiting. Doubtless this would not have been a view shared by Londoners!

However his views changed over time.  He attempted to explain to his mother why the Navy was not in a position to stop the raids.  They do this (Zeppelin raids) for purely political reasons.  The Hun has got the idea into his thick head that we are a race of cowards & that a little frightfulness of this sort will help his side; and besides it bucks up the German masses at home who are in a pretty bad way.

He later described the bombardment of Scarborough and how the Navy was thwarted from preventing it due to the fog.  The whole navy has been weeping about it ever since . . . I think you and your pals in Ormesby will now modify your views about the navy habitually being too drunk or too taken up with dances to attend to their job.

In the early days, Rack was not keen on the Americans getting involved.  Following the sinking of the Lusitania he wrote:  Suppose the U.S. will have to stomach it.  They can do nothing & we don’t particularly want them in.

However by 1917 he felt that their involvement would shorten the war.  Not because the Yanks are in a position to do much fighting – but because they can lend us money, patrol a bit by the sea, & more than anything else, the Huns can now say they can’t fight the whole world.

Rack also wrote of the trials of life both for himself and for his mother.  He was not one for officialdom and directed his anger towards the little creatures who live at Tooting in £30 a year houses.  They sit in a little office at the Admiralty all day and write insulting letters to the men who are helping to keep them safe.

He was also concerned for his mother’s welfare.  The prices of things at home seem to be terrible.  I hope you are feeding yourselves properly.  Remember I have tons of money which is quite useless to me under present conditions and you can have as much as you like whenever you want it.

In 1916 Rack became the staff surgeon on HMS Agamemnon in the Aegean, based mainly at Mudros and Salonika.  He was there for two years.

His frequent letters did not equate to his news.  On one occasion he told her I simply have nothing to write to you about.  I was ashore about 8 days ago was bored stiff in ten minutes but had to wait 3 hours there for a boat to take me back to the ship.

Various entertainments were provided for the crew.  He described a fancy dress ball on the ship.  All men of course but many were dressed as females & a few looked quite fetching. . . . . The men take their dancing very seriously & do it very well . . . . They lead a deadly existence & the making of the dresses kept them interested for weeks.

In April 1918 Rack moved to Bedenham Camp at Fareham.  This prompted a visit to Brighton to see a similar camp.  His comments were unusual in that he had rarely written about his work before.  The medical arrangements in utter chaos owing to lack of staff & accommodation – so yesterday I went to London to see the Director General & told him about it – He was very enraged . . .Anyway I think I so shook them up at the admiralty that I think I may get some stores . . . We are to have 2000 men here with another 2000 to follow . . They are under canvas in a rain sodden field – no bottom boards available for tents & no mattresses. 

In October 1918 Rack was promoted to Surgeon Commander.  Why they made this change nobody knows as very few people wanted it.  I suppose I shall have to get a new coat & buy a new hat.


Surgeon Commander Fairham Rackham Mann. NRO, MC 2716 G12/13

Rack’s final letters commented on the political situation and his prospects of returning home.  He was pessimistic about the outcome of a forthcoming election.  The ignorant masses have these votes. It will be mob rule. . . . In my opinion Winston Churchill, the most unmitigated scoundrel that this country has ever produced, will be first president of the republic.

Rack finally returned home.  For his mother his letters were undoubtedly precious and reassuring.  They are also an important record, giving a frank account of daily life during the war years as it affected one particular individual.  Fairham Rackham Mann died in 1943.

Daryl Long – NRO Blogger




America, Norfolk and Two World Wars in the Air

While we’ve covered lots of different campaigns & aspects of WW1 here on the blog there are a few we’ve not yet looked at in much detail, two of these being the War in the Air and our transatlantic allies.


2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the USA joining the First World War and while they are better known for their World War Two airborne missions there are still some surprising airborne connections.

As 2017 is also the 75th anniversary of the USAAF arriving in Norfolk during WW2 we will also be commemorating this throughout the year, and our first event will take place in this season of events as a taster of what is to come!

Tuesday 14th March, 7pm

USAAF75: 2nd Air Division Stories.

Nathaniel Sikand-Youngs and the Memorial Library’s American Scholars present stories of the American men and women of the 2nd Air Division, Eighth US Army Air Force, who were stationed in East Anglia during the Second World War.

The stories bring together information discovered in the 2nd Air Division Digital Archive, a unique collection of over 30,000 images of original photographs, letters, memoirs and other documents.2adstories

Thursday 16th March, 7pm

WW1 Aviation ~ the US Air Arm and German Amerika programmes

Local author and aviation historian Ian MacLachlan will be at the Millennium Library talking about the US Air Arm and the German Amerika programme 1917-18 (an effort by Germany to double aircraft output to support the push in March 1918 to beat the Allies before the American entry into the war made a difference).ww1avia

Monday 20th March, 7pm

Too Proud To Fight ~ how we remember the American entry into World War 1

Dr Graham Cross (Cambridge and Manchester Metropolitan Universities) will be at the Millennium Library talking about America’s entry into World War One in April 1917.

In his talk, Dr Graham Cross, explores the factors driving American intervention in the war, but also explores how we remember that pivotal decision. British narratives recognise the American contribution, but often also focus on the lateness of entry and the ‘Associate’ status of American belligerence in stark contrast to the later ‘Special Relationship’ between the two nations. The story of how British hopes and expectations, both at the time and since, colour our understanding of the American entry into World War I is both fascinating and timely in this centenary year for American participation in the war.tooproud

Thursday 23rd March, 7pm

Zeppelins Over Norfolk

Local author and historian Steve Smith returns to the library, this time giving an illustrated talk about the World War One Zeppelin air raids on the county.zeppelinsover

All of these talks will be free but please do book – either through Eventbrite  or by contacting the Memorial Library directly on 01603 774747 /

Blackout instructions for hotel guests 1915

Servants have strict instructions to close blinds before duskBlackout measures were introduced during the First World War due to the new bomb threat posed to the civilian population from German Zeppelin airship raids. This is just one of several hundred newly digitised original photographs, posters and notices connected with the First World War in Norfolk. The material is all held in the collections of the Norfolk Heritage Centre and over the course of the next few years will be posted on (the online picture archive for Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service)

Advert for blackout material from a Red Cross booklet WW1

This is just one of several hundred newly digitised original photographs, posters and notices connected with the First World War in Norfolk. The material is all held in the collections of the Norfolk Heritage Centre and over the course of the next four years will be posted on (the online picture archive for Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service)

Advert for blackout material

The Wartime Journal of Edith Upcher including Zeppelin Raids

This small diary is amongst a collection of Upcher family papers housed at the Norfolk Record Office, and gives a first-hand account of the experiences of a resident of Sheringham Hall, home to the Upchers, as well as revealing the general atmosphere of fear and paranoia in the area. The diarist, thought to be Edith Upcher, explains that she meant to start her journal in 1914 but the ‘crowding in of events’ prevented her.  She recalls the Zeppelins going overhead along the coast in January of 1915, dropping bombs in the Holt area, shaking doors and windows as they headed for a nearby aerodrome.  Nearby Bayfield Hall suffered damage, and a girl reportedly lost her power of speech after seeing the terrifying aircraft.

In the quiet of her own room at night Edith reports that she has trouble sleeping, imagining the return of the bombers, wondering where they had been next and what havoc had been wreaked by the ‘night monsters of prey’. Things are calmer during the day, though, and she walks up the hill that evening to watch the sunset despite seeing smoke over Sheringham’s Grand Hotel.  Throughout the next couple of months there was ‘a great deal of agitation about’, with soldiers on the links at night, and stories of German ships being captured offshore. One report said the enemy had landed at Weybourne, a common fear owing to its deep harbour, and that the Germans were going around shaking the hands of locals with one hand and knifing them with the other!

One another occasion, Edith recalls, the lifeboat was called out to a rescue, but orders had been given to fire on any boat trying to land on the beach.  Fresh order soon had to be issued exempting the lifeboat crew, but the fishermen who helped launch her had to have a military escort to ensure their safety.  Another alarm was caused by rattling windows and a loud bang – “Of course no-ones suggestions were the right ones”, writes the diarist, a floating mine had come ashore and burst near the town’s outflow pipe.  Locals had assembled to watch the spectacle but their hunger soon got the better of them and they left for breakfast.

Meanwhile, stories from abroad of the casualties of war were filtering through, and Edith’s mother started up a Red Cross working party in aid of Armenian refugees. A friend stayed at the Hall who had been sent home from the front with Rheumatic Fever, and was very depressed by the thought of having to return from ‘Heaven to Hell’. Edith herself began working in a nearby hospital for wounded soldiers and recalls the singsongs started by the nurses to try to assuage fears of patients over bombings and invasion.

A couple of years later, in August 1917, a grand Empire Pageant was held in aid of the work of the Red Cross at Sheringham Park.  The programme announces country dancing, drama with woodland scenes, the May Queen and a Flower Frolic, and a patriotic procession led by Britannia, supported by female empire builders including Joan of Arc and Queen Victoria.  The procession also included Florence Nightingale and the Red Cross nurses, munitions workers, land girls, post women, etc. representing the many areas in which women were contributing to the war effort, and ended with the singing of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and, of course, the National Anthem.

Submitted by Liz Larby, Gresham’s School Archivist.

Diary entries can be found in Norfolk Record Office, references:(NRO re. UPC 188, 642 x 2) (NRO ref. UPC 55).

Gresham’s at War: Zeppelin raids 19th January 1915

Some of the first letters from ex-pupils serving on the Western Front in 1914 had spoken of ‘exciting times up in the trenches’, but by early 1915 news was filtering through of harsh weather causing dreadful conditions.

Wet weather at home was also causing problems by holding up building work on the chapel; rainfall for the Holt area in the winter months is normally about 2-3 ins per month, but in December 1914 and January 1915 the total was 11 ins.  House matches had been abandoned in favour of drill with the Corps, and pupils had to get up even earlier for lessons with the introduction during January of Daylight Saving Time due to concerns over the School being a well-lit target for Zeppelins.

In fact, by the 27th January when this was introduced, there had already been a raid.  Two Zeppelins, the L3 and L4, trying to find the Humber, had lost their course in the wintry conditions of the night of 19th January and found North Norfolk instead.  The first one dropped bombs on Great Yarmouth, killing two people and injuring three others.  The second crossed the coastline over Bacton and passed by Cromer.

At nearby Sheringham the pilot tried to find out where he was, hovering above the cloud at only 800 feet, his face clearly visible to startled locals in the High Street as housemaster Wynne Willson recalls in his journal:

“We were among the first people to see or hear them when they came over England.  We were told at Holt that a Zeppelin was hovering over Sheringham; they had a 4.7 gun on the links there, but I believe its elevation was not great enough and its use would have meant considerable retaliation on the town.  As it was, they dropped two or three small bombs, which were the first actually dropped on English soil.  At about eight o’clock they came over us at Holt and we put out all lights.  The little boys in my boarding house were on the whole more excited than alarmed. Luckily for the inhabitants of the boarding house, the bombs all fell round a farmhouse, killing one or two sheep and a turkey, and dislodging some tiles.  Next day the school repaired thither en masse to inspect the damage and the boys searched the small craters for bits of bombs; they collected from round the farm quite a large store of old scrap iron which had probably lain there for decades.  I remember taking a parcel of sweets down for the small children at the farmhouse, who of course had been much frightened.”


Zeppelin photo which was in an album of photos taken by Gilbert Wilson (geologist) who attended from 1913-17.

Wynne Willson’s own son Bill, then a child of three, remembered 85 years later being brought downstairs for safety when the Zeppelins came over.  His six year old sister recorded that “Two boys were going home when they heard a bomb 100 yards away, “ adding, “ they turned round and threw there bykes into the hedge and bolted to the Old School House”, saying “ they where very fritened (and) several boys were crying.”

Some of the residents of the junior house were also frightened and had to be gathered round the fire and read stories to calm their tears.  Young pupil Geoffrey Diggle, however, was disappointed the Zeppelins had not caused more damage than the six small craters that appeared in a turnip field.  He also recalled the housemaster praying for a quiet night at evening prayers following the raid. The attack of 19th January caused a great sensation in Norfolk, bringing the reality of war close to home and invoking mixed feelings in the School of excitement and fear.

Mr Wynne Willson’s detailed journal of life on the home front at Holt is one of the sources we use from the School Archives to help bring this period of history to life for our Year 9 pupils.  It is featured heavily in our centenary exhibition Gresham’s at War: 1914-18 which will be available online on the re-launched Old Greshamian Club website  in January (

Anyone who has Gresham’s ancestors who fought in the War is invited to contact the School Archivist Liz Larby (author of this post) on Tel: 01263 714613 or

Event to Commemorate the Zeppelin Raids of 1915

Zeppelin Talk Jan 15

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Zeppelin raids on Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn we are pleased to be hosting an illustrated talk from historian Steve Smith on the topic.

The talk will take place on Tuesday 20th January at 6pm in the Vernon Castle Room on the 2nd Floor of the library.

Tickets are £2 and due to limited space we do ask if you can pop into the library and collect them in advance or email to reserve your seats.