Great War Project

The Great War Project - a Personal Perspective

Introduction

 

Into the field of battle he bravely took his place,

And fought and died for England and the honour of his race.

 He sleeps not in his native land but ‘neath a foreign sky

 Far from those who love him best

 But in a hero’s grave he lies.

 Gone from our home, but never from our hearts.

 One year has passed, our hearts still sore

 As time rolls on, we miss him more.

 His loving smiles, his welcome face,

 No-one can fill his vacant place.

 Sleep on, dear one, in far-off land

 In a grave we may never see.

 But as long as life and memory last

 We shall remember thee.

 

You won’t find that poem in any anthology of war poetry. This heartfelt anthem for a doomed youth was written by Louisa Richardson, who lived in the little village of Streat near Ditchling with her husband and two sons. She wrote it when, after a year of fruitless searching, she realised that her beloved younger son, Ern, was never coming home.

 

Background

 

Just about two years ago I answered a call for volunteers in West Sussex County Council’s newspaper Connections.  The newspaper article described a project to bring together information charting the impact of the First World War on Sussex residents to coincide with the approaching centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The project was being run by the Library Service in conjunction with the County Record Office and they were looking for about a dozen volunteers, ideally people who had a background in researching family history or local studies and who were generally computer literate. I had just retired and I was looking for a challenge. I thought I - more or less – fitted the bill.

 

They were looking for a dozen volunteers – a staggering 150 of us responded. And, to the great credit of the Library Service, they decided not to turn the majority of us away – but to turn the project into something much more ambitious and far-reaching than they had first envisaged. As for me – and the other 149 volunteers – well we didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for.  It must have come as a bit of a shock to the Project Manager, too, who thought she had been successful in landing a research job only to find herself managing a massive volunteer army. It must, at times, have been like herding willing, but wayward, cats. This is my own, very personal perspective, on the last two years working on the Great War Project.

 

Facts and Figures

 

First, some facts and figures. The Great War Project was funded by a Heritage Lottery Grant of £89,700.

 

The Library Service would be working with the County Record Office plus volunteers, teachers, schoolchildren and students to create a vivid picture of how towns and villages, families and individuals were affected by what was called 'the war to end all wars.'

 

A major focus of the project would be to create case studies telling how the war affected people in different ways – servicemen, nurses, conscientious objectors and those on the home front. The project would delve into the family backgrounds of local people involved, and try to discover their fate. Domestic issues such as recruitment, home defence, morale and dissent, internment of foreigners, rationing and the threat of zeppelin air raids would be explored. So would the effect of the war on the towns and villages of the county.

The initial target was for 30 case studies.

 

West Sussex schools would be involved in putting together teaching packs to aid further study. County newspapers covering the period 1910 to 1925 were to be digitised, to cover the years leading up to the War and its aftermath.

 

The project outcomes would be a dedicated website to help researchers and residents trace family histories, a new book on West Sussex at War 1914-18, and a travelling exhibition that would tour county Libraries during the summer of 2014.

 

The Beginning

 

The project took a while to get underway. Those of us who had attended introductory sessions at one of the County’s libraries were all fired up with enthusiasm and dying to get started. There followed a somewhat frustrating, though understandable, wait. There was the recruitment of the Project Manager, Emma White, to be dealt with.  Training was provided including a tour behind the scenes at the County Records Office (here we are with Project Manager Emma White on the left of the picture) and more detailed training on how to handle our first major task – to index information about both people and events from ten major local newspapers over the period of the Great War.  Part of the Heritage Lottery Grant had been used to pay for the digitisation. Now, with so many volunteers on board, it would be possible to create the kind of detailed index which would have been out of the question without us.

 

The Events Index

 

 I was allocated three months worth of Worthing Gazette – from July to September 1916.  You might be thinking of the size of today’s Herald and wondering how I ever got through such a mammoth task but the Gazette of 1916 only ran to eight pages. Those eight pages were, however, crammed with extremely small print and very few pictures. 

 

Our first task was to create an Events Index of significant events recorded in the newspapers we were analysing. It would be, we were told, “a considerable intellectual challenge.”  The first challenge, to be honest, lay in working out how to use the Snapshot tool on my computer! Then, while reading through all those close-packed pages, the next challenge was in deciding what exactly was a significant “event”. I might get carried away with the ever fascinating adverts of the day or with an account of a particularly juicy court case – but were they relevant to the war? In all I logged 92 events for the three months – plus another 99 for three months worth of the Sussex and Surrey Courier which I analysed in the closing stages of the project. For every entry I had to capture and store a digital image – which is where the Snapshot tool came in - so that when the twelve authors of the Great War book came to write up their chapters they could call up relevant articles and pictures to include. 

 

 If they had been working alone, it would have taken them years and years to carry out the breadth of research which we volunteers managed to cover. Here’s the book – and imagine my delight to find in chapter 12 which Emma wrote on Those left Behind and Those Who Returned, the story I had identified about the poor Worthing woman who tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide only to find herself hauled up before an unsympathetic court. Plus there in Chapter 5 on the Home Front, there’s a photo of a Picturedrome advert which I’d captured showing how local residents had a choice of evening entertainment  - the official war film The Battle of the Somme – or The Perils of Pauline.

 

It was, in fact, amazing just how much entertainment was still going on in Worthing during those dark days – and just how many court hearings to hear people’s cases for exemption from war service. Every week in the Gazette there was an update on the Gazette Tobacco Fund the sole aim of which was to keep every one of our gallant men stocked up with plenty of baccy. No warnings in 1916 that “Tobacco Kills” – but then they were fighting an even greater foe.

 

The newspapers provided an absolutely fascinating picture of Worthing during the war years and I could probably give an entire talk on that if there wasn’t so much else to tell you. This is quite an interesting picture – the group includes five local schoolboys aged 13 who had been released from school to work in the nursery of Mr P.J. Page at East Worthing. The Education Committee wasn’t entirely happy about this disruption to their education with one Alderman arguing that it was “not in the best interests of the Nation that the boys’ education should suffer.” The Committee was assured that they were “all very happy doing their bit to aid their country through the conflict.”

 

The People Index

 

Having completed the Events Index, the next task was to compile a People Index using an Excel spreadsheet to capture all the relevant names appearing in the newspapers for my quarter. It was, by and large, a sad catalogue of soldiers reported dead or missing or wounded in battle. My Worthing Gazette spreadsheet eventually ran to 367 names. For each entry, I had to include a short description and a reference to the page and column number so that in the future people researching their ancestors, knowing they lived in Worthing and served in the Great War will be able to check if they were mentioned in the local newspaper and, thanks to the digitised newspapers in our library, track down the exact article. Being a family history addict myself, I feel pleased to think that someone just like me might be able to track down an elusive record of an ancestor because of one of my entries in the People Index.

 

The Digital Photography Team

 

Alongside we indexers was a team of keen photographers, who managed to capture no fewer than 9.000 digital images – once again far, far more than had been originally envisaged. This was one part of the project I wasn’t involved in – mostly because I am more than a little prone to serious camera shake!

 

Instead I threw myself into researching four individual case studies – these are circulating in the hall.  I am going to tell you a little bit about Arthur the Artist, Ernest the Farm Boy, Arthur the War Hero and Albert the Gardener.

Arthur the Artist

 

There is a pencil drawing of Arthur the Artist, drawn by Ernest Dinkel, a celebrated artist of the day who served with Arthur in the Royal Engineers.  Arthur William Pickering, to give him his full name, wasn’t on the list of potential case studies we volunteers were given. But his name does appear on the First World War Memorial in my church, St Andrew’s at Tarring and, when I wrote a short article for the parish magazine about the Great War project, his grandson contacted me. He told me that his sister Jane, who lived in Devon, had a whole scrapbook of precious memories about their grandfather though he warned me she was very protective of this information. It took me a little while to win her trust, through phone calls, letters and emails all the time reassuring her that I wouldn’t publish anything without her approval. Bit by bit she sent me more and more letters and photographs, while her brother filled me in on the family history.

 

Arthur sent back beautiful letters, pictures and postcards to his little daughter, Eileen, whom he called by the affectionate nickname of Jimmy. Many of them were enclosed in hand made envelopes, fashioned out of the graph paper which he would have been using every day in his work. “I have been to the seaside and paddled, just like you dear,” he told her in a postcard from Boulogne sur Mer, On 12th March 1918, to mark little Jimmy’s fifth birthday, Arthur sent the following letter and pictures. He wrote:

 

“Very many happy returns of your birthday and I do hope I shall be home next year to celebrate the occasion. I enclose two drawings, one is a portrait of your daddy drawn by Ernest Dinkel, the other I drew and please let me know if you recognise it dear.” He closes: “It will be nice for you at Easter, Uncle Charlie and all of them coming to Worthing and if it is fine I expect they will come down on the beach with you.” You can hear the longing in his voice, can’t you?

 

One of the postcards Jane sent me showed the somewhat bizarre conditions in which Arthur and the men of the 5th Railway Survey Team worked at the Front – their office was an old railway carriage. Here’s another postcard, showing them at work – the figure on the left is Ernest Dinkel, who drew the picture of Arthur. Engineers were critical to the progress of the war. Without them no supplies would have got through to the troops because they maintained the railways, roads, water supply, bridges and transport.  Arthur was the only one of my four case studies whose records survive so I was able to find out that he had proved himself to be “Very Superior” on Profiles and Plans.

 

Arthur the Artist never got to paddle in the sea at Worthing with his beloved Jimmy. He survived the war only to die of the Spanish flu on November 19th 1918, eight days after the signing of the Armistice. He is buried in the Auberchicourt British Cemetery in Nord, France.

 

After his death, his wife Florence gave birth to his son, Arthur, born on June 6th 1919.  The death of the father he never knew had a profound effect on Young Arthur and he refused to fight in the Second World War, though he served his country on the Home Front with distinction and courage.

 

The best part of this case study was being able to check all the details with living members of Arthur’s family so that I could be pretty sure that it was a true and accurate portrayal – and, most importantly for a researcher, that the facts were correct.

 

When the case study was published, Jane wrote to me: “Jaqui, you have every reason to be proud. Our family were deeply touched and impressed by your portrayal of our relation “Arthur the Artist”. You can imagine how much that meant to me.

 

Arthur the War Hero

 

Of all my four case studies, the one I am least pleased with is the one of Arthur the War Hero. This is mostly because it proved to be so very difficult to find out much about him – even his full name proved elusive for quite some time. Plus I was unable to find a photograph of him. I think if I could have seen his face I might have felt differently. His war records were among those destroyed by fire, the so-called Burnt Records, so I couldn’t find out his age or where he lived and there were hundreds and hundreds of possible Arthur Richardsons listed in the 1901 Census. All I had was his file from the County Records Office which contained his own firsthand account of the action on 1st September 1918 on the battlefield at Kemmel, for which he was awarded the Military Cross.

 

Written in pencil, it wasn’t easy to decipher:

“On the evening of Sept 1st my company was ordered with others to go forward through another battalion and occupy a certain line. Advancing 800 yards we were held up by machine gun fire and snipers and found no support on either flank, the others having failed to come forward.  The company therefore dug itself in – 1 platoon on the left, with Company HQ in rear, my platoon on right of that and two platoons 100 yards in rear in support. About 4.30 a.m. on the 2nd I heard movement and crawling about for about an hour I found a party of the enemy about 20 strong in the right rear of my platoon about 10 yards from me.   I crawled back to my sectionand about turned them and ordered them to open fire – the enemy at the same time doing the same at 20 yds range. I called on my Lewis gun to give flanking fire but got no response, but No 9 platoon opened fire from my then right flank and the enemy ran.  I got two with my revolver and my servant was shot through the head. The enemy used rifles, two automatic rifles and bombs, but fired too high. I then returned to my Company commander and was ordered to bring my platoon back about 20 yards to a trench. I then went out to do what I could for my servant – I found he was dead and brought in his personal belongings but was unable to get his body in. I then went out a second time and recovered one of my Lewis Guns and 15 full magazines, my team having retired with the two support platoons, afterwards saying they had orders to do so. I tried to get out a third time to get identification of the enemy but owing to the number of enemy snipers and machine guns was unable to do so. One of my lance corporals was also wounded when my servant was killed. I had 7 boys, my servant, an old soldier and two others with me out of a total of 27.”

 

It’s not easy to interpret how he felt about the events of that day and night. There seem to have been mixed orders from above and quite a lot of frustration at not being able to finish the job. When I first read the account, I found it hard that Arthur did not mention the name of his “servant”. I had to remind myself that this was the way of army life in those days – and that he did venture out, at great personal danger, to recover the man’s personal belongings.

 

The citation in the London Gazette of December 9th 1918 tells of: “Conspicuous gallantry while commanding a patrol which was attacked by a superior force of the enemy and surrounded. Owing to his fine example of courage he succeeded in beating off the attack and accounting for several of the enemy.”

 

 

After much searching through the Roll Books of serving officers was that Arthur William Richardson had joined the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps – the Devil’s Own – based at Berkhamsted.  The Inns of Court OTC provided basic and officer training. Subjects practised were route marching, map reading, digging trenches, wiring, bombing, musketry, field tactics and strategy which took the form of complete battalion exercises in open warfare. Lectures covered a whole range of subjects from leadership, billeting, welfare and trench sanitation.

 

According to the local Gazette, the Inns of Courts OTC dug 13 linear miles of trenches in an area called Kitchener’s Field, mainly as a rehearsal for the forthcoming experience of real trench warfare on the Western Front and partly as fitness training for these young volunteers, some of them barely out of public school. The trenches were also to provide valuable experience in modern trench layouts, based on the real trenches in France and from hard lessons learned there.

 

Arthur William Richardson survived the War and returned to England a hero.  His was a short but glorious war in many respects. It is fascinating to consider how much his officer training, in the trenches of Kitchener’s Field in rural Berkhamstead helped him when under enemy fire on the battlefield at Kemmel in Belgium.

 

The Richardson Brothers

 

My case studies of the Richardson brothers, Albert and Ernest, were on the list of potential individual case studies sent to me by the Project Manager. Though I did not know it, I was about to embark on a succession of visits to the County Records Office in Chichester which would transport me right back to the days of the Great War. I hadn’t been to this particular Records Office before so I had to learn the ropes – how to secure a locker, how to order files, where to sit, where the coffee machine was when I needed a break. All in all, over the next few months I was to pay eight visits to the Records Office. I even took out a loyalty card at the cafe on Chichester railway station. Many times, at the end of several hours of research, I would emerge from the Records Office, blinking in the daylight and finding it hard to think myself back into the present.  Often I took a detour to check on the peregrine falcons nesting in the turrets of Chichester Cathedral, just to remind myself that life goes on.

 

I will always remember the thrill of ordering Ernest Richardson’s file and opening it for the first time, gently loosening the cord which held it in place and my first sight of the papers within.  There in the file in front of me, twenty letters written by Ernest to his “Dearest Mother and Dad” over the course of the war, the first from the ship bound for Gallipoli (“I must not tell you where we are, it is forbidden”) and the last just before he was killed.

 

It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for Ernest, a farm boy of 22, to find himself fighting in Gallipoli and then in Egypt. Both Ernest and his older brother Bert, signed up at the very beginning of the war in August 1914. The local newspaper printed a picture of the “Streat and Westmeston Boys” who had answered the call of duty. Ernest joined the 4th Royal Sussex Regiment and Albert the 5th Royal Sussex Cinque Ports Regiment.

 

Ern’s letters are full of thoughts of home and reassurances for his parents: “we keep struggling on the best we can as we hast to look on the bright side of things,” he writes, adding, poignantly, “I shall not be sorry to get back there with you all. Please remember me to the girls at Streat Place...” My father served in North Africa during the Second World War and Ern’s accounts of his trips to Cairo when he had a day off or a few days’ leave remind me so much of my dad’s stories.

 

On my second visit to the Records Office I called for Albert Richardson’s file. Not so many letters here but they were, like Ern’s, full of love and yearning for the family and life left behind. Unlike Ern’s they include lots of charming anecdotes about Bert’s visits to a local farming family, trying to learn “the lingo” as he termed it and sharing the local vino.

 

“It use to pass an evening away when we were back, to call at a farmhouse and have a coffee and try to talk to the people, one learns the lingo a bit in that way. The people here are mostly small farmers in a very poor way. They used to sit in the cow stalls of an evening all the people do, have never seen them use any coal. They have plenty of food, they live chiefly on maize pudding, and eggs, and plenty of wine which they call vino. The country people do not seem short of much except sugar. The people use oxen chiefly on the land also donkeys which they have no mercy on have seen sometimes 4 oxen and 1 donkey in front on a plough, once  saw one cow and a horse together on a plough. Ask dad how he would like that.”

 

Then, a surprise. Opening one envelope, addressed to Louisa, I was expecting another letter – but what fell out onto the table was this collection of dried flowers. Even in the midst of war, Albert the Gardener could see beauty in the world around him – and took time to press the flowers he had picked and send them to his mother.  “We are now on the hills close to the line, things have been fairly quiet so far, the primroses are just coming out, also snowdrops and several kinds of rock plants. I enclose a few.... “ he wrote. If you look carefully, you can still see the shape of the leaves and ferns and a few bright blue flowers among the brown. You can take the boy out of the garden, but you can’t take the gardener out of the boy – I will admit that I sat there in the Records Office and cried.

 

 

Ern fought in Gallipoli, then in Egypt. He spent time in hospital suffering from diphtheria. A comparison between two photographs, one when he signed up in 1914, the other a year later in 1915 after the Gallipoli campaign shows clearly the effects on him. He writes home to tell his mother that he has visited Bethlehem and Jerusalem “and the place where Our Lord fasted forty day and forty nights..” He is quietly proud to be part of the capture of Beersheba and Jerusalem. He writes to his brother: “I shall never forget New Year’s Day 1918 as we had to do about 12 miles march and it poured in torrents all day but thank goodness we got a tot of rum at the finish. I have got a bivouac which consists of two sheets but they are not always water proof and we are behind a nice wall which keeps a lot of rain out and thank God we have got plenty to eat and drink more than thousands of poor people in England perhaps. “

 

As the years pass, Ern’s letters are still deliberately upbeat but, reading between the lines, you can tell how much he dreads the possibility of being sent to France where he knows so many men are being killed every day. He is glad that Brother Bert, having already served in France, is now with his regiment in the Italian mountains. In .June 1918, his worst fears are realised and he writes to tell his parents of his new address as part of the British Expeditionary Force in France.

 

In July 1918 Ernest sent this postcard to his parents. It is typical of the sentiments of the day – depicting a soldier dreaming of the family he has left behind. It reads:

 

Now the restless day is ending

And the shadows round me fall

Homeward aye my heart keeps wending

Home where is enshrined my all.

And I think about you often

Fearing not what luck may bring.

If the home I’m guarding’s guarded

And you’re right – that’s everything.

 

On the back he writes: “We are very busy at present, rather an anxious time I think. No news of leave at present.”

 

Also on the back of the postcard, in pencil, Louisa has written: “Dear Ern’s last card.”

 

On July 291918, in the Bois de Beugneux, the men of the 4th Royal Sussex Regiment were caught in enemy fire. Ernest took a massive hit in his thigh. The shelling was so bad that nobody was able to reach him to bring him out to the dressing station. It is horribly, horribly likely that he bled to death there where he had fallen. His body was never recovered. I can hardly bear to think of it.

 

Louisa Richardson found it impossible to accept that Ernest was dead. Hoping against hope, she had advertisements placed in the Southern Weekly for at least three weeks running in a desperate search for anyone who could provide her with any information about her missing son.  A chaplain wrote with a patriotic message urging her to be proud that her son had died for his country; a more sympathetic response came from Mrs Beatrice Slowly, of Brighton, whose husband had been wounded in the same action, full of concern for the grieving mother and praying that she would find her “dear boy.” Her letters, and the others Louisa received, are all there in the file, testament to Louisa’s sad and fruitless search.

 

Bert survived the war, returning home in 1919 and marrying Dorothy Ellen Green, a domestic servant working at Streat Place, in 1926. Louisa, perhaps worn out with grief, lived only another seven years after the end of the war, dying at the age of just 60, while her husband, George, went to live with Bert and Dorothy for several years before his death in 1939. I can’t find any record of children born to Albert and Dorothy but I like to think of him working away in his garden in Eastbourne. I hope he was happy.

 

Postscript

 

One beautiful sunny afternoon, Brian and I took a drive out to the little village of Streat. We lost our way a few times and found ourselves pulled over by an off duty policeman for driving too slowly  – but that’s another story. Even today, Streat is a peaceful place. It is hard to imagine the contrast for the brothers as they headed off to battle in foreign fields.  At the same time it is easy to understand why their letters home reflect so often on what is happening at home, how their father is coping with the workload, whether the harvest has been a good one, what is going on at the “big house”. 

 

Eventually we found ourselves at the parish church.  Next door the rather magnificent mansion, Streat Place, where Albert worked as a gardener before going off to war. Across a pathway, a memorial cross with no names but bearing the inscription "To remember the war 1914-1918. Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory."

 

Inside the church, there is a memorial tablet to Ernest and the other Streat and Westmeston men who died in the conflict.  Out in the churchyard, we found Albert’s grave where he is buried with his wife Dorothy and – just a short step away – the grave of George and Louisa.  Ernest ‘s name is included on the Soissons Memorial in Aisne, France where nearly 40,000 officers and men with no known grave are commemorated. But with their boy lying in an unknown grave, George and Louisa had clearly determined that he would be remembered in his home village. Their gravestone bears an additional inscription: “Also of their son, Ernest George Richardson 4th Batt. Royal Sussex Regiment Killed in Action 29 July 1918 aged 26 years.”

 

 

In death, at least, this close-knit and loving family was finally reunited. Standing in the churchyard on that sunny afternoon, Brian and I felt very close to the Richardson family.

 

 

So what did we achieve, at the end of it all?

 

 

We indexed 10,000 events and captured 9,000 digital

images. We logged details of 14,000 names reported in the county’s newspapers. Here is the book: you can buy it at Worthing Library (or any of the county’s libraries) for £12.99. It’s a really good read. The initial aim for around 30 case studies has been far surpassed – there are over 100 now on the website. You’ll find my four case studies there but also so many more inspiring stories about local people and places and how the Great War affected them.

 

 

Very soon the lives and times of those who lived through, and died in, the Great War will slip behind the curtain which divides the past from living memory.  I hope I have played a small part in holding the curtain open by ensuring that the names of Arthur the Artist, Ernest the Farm Boy, Albert the Gardener and Arthur the War Hero will not be forgotten. I feel both humble and privileged to have been a volunteer on such an amazing and unique project.

Write a new comment: (Click here)

SimpleSite.com
Characters left: 160
DONE Sending...
See all comments

| Reply

Latest comments

26.10 | 14:21

Mmm, was it because there were '24 men kicking a ball' that it didn't end entirely satisfactorily???

...
15.10 | 11:13

I don't remember seeing this first time round.... but thank you for sharing with me. You write beautifully, and brought a tear to my eyes. Lots of love xx

...
10.10 | 21:37

Jaqui I think your grandchildren are very lucky. You have spurred me on to write a letter to Amelia who like Hazel is away from home for the first time. 💕

...
03.07 | 22:43

Wouldn't have missed it for the world. xx

...
You liked this page
Hi!
Make your own website like I did.
It's easy, and absolutely free.
AD