A shat­ter­ing con­flict

In the month when we mark the 100th an­niver­sary of the end of the First World War, STEVE ROBERTS high­lights the ter­ri­ble cost in hu­man lives it in­flicted on the county of Devon

Devon Life - - Inspirational Women -

Af­ter more than four years of war, the guns fell silent at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was 11 Novem­ber, 1918, 100 years ago, and the First World War was fi­nally over af­ter more than 1,500 days of at­tri­tion. What did the war’s pros­e­cu­tion and its end mean, how­ever, to the peo­ple of Devon?

You be­gin to com­pre­hend the car­nage of the First World War when you learn that there is not one Thank­ful Vil­lage in the county. These were the for­tu­nate com­mu­ni­ties that lost no ser­vice­men in the war, when all around them did. Not one vil­lage or town in Devon was spared.

The Devon­shire Reg­i­ment raised 25 bat­tal­ions dur­ing the war, fight­ing on the Western Front against Ger­many and in other the­atres against Ger­many’s al­lies, Aus­tria-hun­gary, Turkey and Bul­garia. The reg­i­ment was awarded 65 bat­tle hon­ours and two Vic­to­ria Crosses by war’s end,

‘You be­gin to com­pre­hend the car­nage of the First World War when you learn that there is not one Thank­ful Vil­lage in the county’

plus 1,265 other gal­lantry awards and men­tions in despatches.

The 1st and 2nd Bat­tal­ions took part in that fa­mous Christ­mas truce on the Western Front in 1914. That was scant respite, how­ever, from a long slog that in­cluded most of the ma­jor Flan­ders’ bat­tle­fields: the Ypres bat­tles (in­clud­ing Pass­chen­daele), Loos (the ma­jor Bri­tish of­fen­sive of 1915), the Somme (ditto, 1916), and the costli­est bat­tles of all in 1918, as the Al­lies fi­nally pushed the Ger­mans back.

The 1st Bat­tal­ion landed in France on 21 Au­gust, 1914, just 17 days af­ter Bri­tain’s en­try into the war. It served on the Western Front through­out. At 1st Ypres (Oc­to­ber-novem­ber 1914), the bat­tal­ion lost two thirds of its of­fi­cers and a third of its other ranks.

The 8th and 9th (Ser­vice) Bat­tal­ions went into ac­tion on the first day of the Somme. The 8th was com­mit­ted within three hours of the com­mence­ment of the of­fen­sive and suf­fered 639 ca­su­al­ties on that first day.

The 9th mean­while was one of the few Bri­tish units at­tain­ing its ini­tial ob­jec­tives on the first day (but lost 463 dead or wounded out of 775 who went over the top). There is a ded­i­cated Devon­shire ceme­tery at the Somme. The memo­rial states: “The Devon­shires held this trench. The Devon­shires hold it still.”

The Devon­shire Reg­i­ment was in­volved in the fight­ing from vir­tu­ally be­gin­ning to end and the hu­man cost was high, over 6,000 men killed and about three times that num­ber wounded. The vol­un­teer army of 1914-15 in­cluded many Devo­ni­ans, who didn’t all serve with the Devon­shire Reg­i­ment. There was also the Royal 1st Devon Yeo­manry and Royal North Devon Yeo­manry, both of which fought at Gal­lipoli, against the Turks.

In to­tal over 11,500 Devo­ni­ans were lost, some with the Devon­shires, but oth­ers with nu­mer­ous, dis­parate reg­i­ments. What bound them to­gether was a de­ter­mi­na­tion to fight for King and Coun­try.

Some­times they were groups of mates who lived and worked to­gether, such as the eleven Devon-born Great Western Rail­way (GWR) foot­plate men, who all died. Their ages add some cre­dence to the oft-quoted mantra that a gen­er­a­tion of young men was wiped out by war. Three of them were just 19, in­clud­ing Regi­nald Con­nett, who died on the first day of the Somme, the worst sin­gle day in the his­tory of the Bri­tish Army. An­other six were aged 21-23. The old­est was just 31.

The ini­tial en­thu­si­asm for war soon faded as ca­su­al­ties mounted: con­scrip­tion was in­tro­duced in 1916.

Devon be­gan col­lect­ing its roll of hon­our from Septem­ber 1914, record­ing the names of the dead. The orig­i­nal idea was for a memo­rial in­scribed with all the names in Ex­eter, but the sheer vol­ume made this im­prac­ti­ca­ble. In the end a 396-page book was used to record the names of 11,601 men and women.

Devon was spared the hor­rors of bomb­ing dur­ing the First World War, be­ing safely out of range of Ger­man Zep­pelins and Gotha bombers, how­ever, that didn’t mean there was no dan­ger.

Only last year a 25lb shell from the Great War was det­o­nated on a farm at Bovey Tracey, af­ter work­ers found the mon­ster em­bed­ded in a wall they were de­mol­ish­ing. Bomb dis­posal ex­perts con­firmed this was not un­usual: it was posited that the bomb came from old wartime fir­ing ranges on Dart­moor. How the bomb ended up on the farm re­mains a mys­tery, but it was re­put­edly once used as a hefty (and dan­ger­ous) door stop!

The county was di­rectly im­pacted in other ways. The enor­mous war ef­fort needed sup­port­ing: this was ar­guably the first ‘to­tal war’, in which the whole na­tion mo­bilised.

The Heath­coat fab­ric fac­tory in Tiver­ton, the town’s largest em­ployer in 1914, was one of many switch­ing to mu­ni­tions pro­duc­tion. As an ex­porter, it had lit­tle choice with the loss of con­ti­nen­tal mar­kets, how­ever, those war con­tracts more than made up. With many men away fight­ing it was women mak­ing up the short­fall by work­ing the ma­chines.

Devon, with its mix of in­dus­try and agri­cul­ture, also saw the ad­vent of the Women’s Land Army. One of the key fig­ures in ad­vo­cat­ing women’s land work was Miss Sylvia Cal­madyHam­lyn, a mem­ber of a longestab­lished Devon fam­ily, based on Dart­moor’s edge, who was heav­ily in­volved in cre­at­ing the new Women’s Land Army and be­came a gover­nor of SealeHayne Col­lege, three miles from New­ton Ab­bot, where a train­ing course was es­tab­lished.

One big idea was the ‘womenonly farm’, prov­ing to scep­tics that ladies could do ev­ery job re­quired. The first of these was at Great Bid­lake Farm, close to Sylvia’s own home in Bridestowe. A fore­woman and three other girls were es­tab­lished there. The farm took on col­lege du­ties too when Seale-hayne’s build­ings were needed for a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal.

One vil­lage, Sil­ver­ton, some eight miles from Ex­eter, lost 39 men, in­clud­ing seven at the Somme, from a vil­lage of around 1,000. There were fa­mil­ial tragedies, for ex­am­ple, one house­hold los­ing two sons in a fort­night. With so many men away, the im­pact on the vil­lage was man­i­fold, as women worked on lo­cal farms and mu­ni­tions in nearby towns (in­clud­ing pre­sum­ably Ex­eter). It is just one il­lus­tra­tion from many.

There was a mood af­ter the war, of course, to hon­our the fallen and sup­port the sur­vivors. Vir­tu­ally ev­ery one of Devon’s myr­iad of par­ishes has a memo­rial, ded­i­cated orig­i­nally to the dead of the war (but sadly with other names added sub­se­quently).

This Novem­ber Devon’s war memo­ri­als will once again be the fo­cus for Re­mem­brance, with added poignancy as we re­call the end of a shat­ter­ing con­flict that fi­nally ground to a halt 100 years ago af­ter lev­els of death and de­struc­tion that would in­habit peo­ple’s worst night­mares for years to come.

Some peo­ple may still ven­ture to pon­der why we bother re­mem­ber­ing a war from so long ago: if you could count the 19141918 names on all Devon’s war memo­ri­als you’d find over 11,600 very good rea­sons.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.