St Neots and District and the Great War 1914 – 1918
Local Life in 1914
St Neots was a small rural market town on the River Great Ouse at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. In 1911 the population of St Neots and Eynesbury was about 5,300, with another 7,500 people living in the surrounding rural area. The Eaton Socon area had a population of about 3,500 and was still in Bedfordshire at this time. Today the town has a population of about 38,000.
In 1914 many of the villages surrounding St Neots had very small populations, for example the village of Waresley had only 216 residents in 1901.
The town’s economy was largely based on farming and rural crafts and trades, with many local men working as agricultural labourers, or in related trades such blacksmiths or horse harness makers. Other local employers included Paine and Co. brewers and millers, Jordan and Addington, corn merchants and millers, the St Neots Paper Mill and also Ibbett’s engineering works. A growing number of people worked in one of the increasing number of shops in the town centre.
Women also worked as domestic servants or at the Paper Mill or undertook seasonal work such as willow stripping for basket weaving.
In 1914 the annual Hospital Week Parade in St Neots fell on Sunday 2nd August. With the widespread sense that war was coming a large crowd watched the parade.
All the major community services in the town took part in the Parade including the Salvation Army Band, the Scouts, the Red Cross, the Railway Union, the Fire Brigade and various Friendly Societies.
Britain did not have a history of conscription into the army so in August 1914 Lord Kitchener, the new Secretary of State for War, called for volunteers to join the army.
By the 14th August every local newspaper across Britain, including the St Neots Advertiser, was printing ‘A CALL TO ARMS’, which asked all men aged 19 to 30 to join up ‘in the present grave National Emergency’.
Many men who had already been professional soldiers re-joined the army. Alfred Chapman of Eynesbury had already served in the army from 1889 until 1907, fighting in the Boer War in South Africa. He re-joined in early 1915 and served until 1917, by which time he was 49 years old.
Many local men joined the local Huntingdonshire Cyclist Battalion. Lord Kitchener did not intend to use his new volunteer recruits until they were fully trained (in 1915) and the Hunts. Cyclists were based in the Grimsby area where they began serious training to turn a battalion of volunteers into a fighting force.
While local St Neots men were sent to the East coast, the 1st Highland Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery from Aberdeen in Scotland were sent to parts of Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire for their training.
The 3rd City of Aberdeen Battery of the Highland Royal Field Artillery were stationed in St Neots, many men were billeted with local families and quickly became popular with local residents.
The Evans family of Cambridge Street allowed part of their builders yard to be used to stable some of the Royal Artillery horses with blacksmiths using one of their workshops.
The heavy field guns belonging to the Battery were stored close to Priory Park on a field which became known as ‘The Gun Park’. During the very wet winter of 1914 / 15 the guns were moved to the Market Square.
During October 1914 Belgian refugees began to arrive in Britain, driven from their homes by the invading Germans. By the 9th of October the St Neots Advertiser was reporting that Belgian families were arriving at Little Barford.
Before computers, television or the radio people obtained important information from the national newspapers which were delivered by train from London. The local newspaper was the St Neots Advertiser and as the war progressed the main source of news was local men themselves. Men wrote home to relatives or were able to come home on leave, and their letters and stories were then passed to the local paper who printed them on a weekly basis.
Graphic accounts of the fighting began to appear in the local paper – albeit weeks after the actual events.
St Neots and District and the Great War 1914 – 1918
Your Country Needs You!
New technological developments in the early 1900s allowed warfare on an industrial scale. By the end of 1916 men with mechanical knowledge were being actively sought by the army to manage and maintain their new equipment.
Steam trains and motor vehicles, enabled vast numbers of men and tons of heavy equipment to be moved swiftly to their destination. Seen here a small boilered “Klondyke” wheels arrangement 4-4-2 designed by H.A. Ivatt.
Aeroplanes, allowed observation of enemy positions and bombing of both military and civilian targets. Portholme Meadow, Huntingdon was used as a training ground by the Royal Flying Corps.
The telegram, telephones and new ‘wireless’ radio, allowed faster communication.
The machine gun, invented in 1883, its recoil action fired 500 – 600 bullets per minute and with bigger and better field guns allowed killing to take place on a never before imagined scale.
Throughout the autumn months of 1914 and into 1915 enormous efforts were made to encourage men aged 19 – 30 to join the armed forces. Young men such as James Malin (Jim), an 18 year old building labourer who lived in Cambridge Street, St Neots, enlisted in August 1914.
By June 1915, as casualties mounted, the age of men able to enlist rose to 35 and by August Huntingdonshire was recruiting for a ‘Bantam’ regiment of men below the usual height requirements for the army.
The government realised that voluntary recruitment was not producing enough men and Conscription was introduced in early 1916, with the first exemption tribunal in St Neots reported in the St Neots Advertiser of 18th February 1916. The Tribunal meetings were held in the Magistrates Room, now St Neots Museum.
Many local farmers, manufacturers and shopkeepers applied for exemption for their staff fearing that their businesses would fail if they lost all their staff, many had signed up in the initial rush to enlist in August 1914 and employers were finding it hard to recruit new staff.
For example Mr Cadge, who ran a clothing and shoe shop on St Neots Market Square, asked for Charles Saddington, the manager of his boot department, to be given exemption in May 1916, but this was refused and it was suggested that he could employ a woman to help in the shop.
By September 1916 the local recruiting office was printing the names of men who had not yet enlisted on the front page of the St Neots Advertiser.
As the German army advanced into Belgium they met unexpectedly strong resistance from Belgian, French and British forces.
The first local man to die was Harry Murphy of Avenue Road, St Neots, who was killed in August 1914 during the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) withdrawal from Mons, Belgium, as German soldiers tried to advance.
Scoutmaster Harris Marshall from Waresley, wrote home to his wife about the Battle of Mons and his letter was published in St Neots Advertiser, 18th September 1914.
Private Holyoake wrote home about the Christmas truce in the trenches of 1914.
As fierce fighting continued men from St Neots and the surrounding villages wrote home with stories and poems, Private Charles Chapman wrote of his ‘extraordinary experiences’ being wounded in France. Private George Corbett of Eaton Ford was gassed at Hill 60, Private Page of Abbotsley had been injured at Neuve Chapelle and was reported to be in hospital in Boulogne and Major Grey William Duberly of Great Staughton was killed leading his men in the capture of a German trench at Neuve Chapelle.
In January 1915 Russia asked its Allies (France and Britain) for help to fight the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary and Turkey) who were attacking them on three Eastern fronts.
The Allies were reluctant to commit troops to the East as this would mean taking them away from the Western Front.
Lord Kitchener suggested a naval attack was the only solution and Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, suggested the Dardanelles waterway next to the Gallipoli peninsula, at the entrance to the Black Sea, as a possible target.
British ships began shelling Turkish forts in February 1915.
Albert Tidman of Eynesbury, who was serving with the Royal Navy at the Dardanelles, wrote home to say that he had helped to rescue sailors who had survived the torpedoing of HMS Goliath, when 570 of the 700 strong crew died. Goliath had been providing cover for the soldiers landing on the beaches at Gallipoli.
The failure of the naval bombing campaign at the Dardanelles led to the decision to send troops to the Gallipoli peninsula.
On the 10th September the St Neots Advertiser published a letter from Sergeant-Major Milton reporting the many challenges of the fighting at Gallipoli; the heat, the dust, the lack of water, the steep hilly terrain, the insects and the Turkish snipers – including women – who could look down on the approaching Allied soldiers and pick them off as they advanced. The death of well-known local man, Captain Rudolph Smythe at the Dardanelles was also announced.
News that Sergeant Darlow of Tempsford had died of dysentry after serving at the Dardanelles was reported in the paper on 20th August. This small notice highlighted the number of troops who died from illness while fighting in Turkey and the use of the Island of Malta as a major treatment centre for sick troops.
Frank Ibbett, of St Neots, (third from right in the photo) was a professional soldier who had enlisted with the Royal Army Medical Corps., in February 1915, and was based in Malta during the Great War.
As the casualties mounted across the Eastern Front the island of Malta, held by the British since 1800, developed as a hospital centre for soldiers. Over twenty-five hospitals were eventually established on the island and treated over 136,000 men.
St Neots and District and the Great War 1914 – 1918
Women in the Great War
Initially, women were only expected to encourage men to enlist in the armed forces, but from the day the War was declared they were keen to do all they could to play their part in the conflict.
Within days of the declaration of war local women had set up a working party to make clothes for sick and wounded soldiers and begun to plan for a Red Cross convalescent hospital in St Neots.
As intense fighting continued on the Western Front and the number of injured soldiers returning to Britain rose dramatically, women across Britain volunteered to work as nurses in Red Cross hospitals.
Even before the war began the Red Cross had searched for properties that could be used as temporary hospitals if war should come and by early 1915, St Neots, Eaton Socon, Buckden and Kimbolton all had convalescent hospitals under the No 1 Eastern Hospital in Cambridge.
Before these new Volunteer Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses could work in local hospitals they were all trained and examined in first aid and nursing skills and awarded certificates.
Women who were not nursing could still support their local Red Cross hospital with donations of food, clothing, magazine, games and other small items.
By early 1915 most adults were involved in the war effort, as this photograph of the Drake family shows: father, Walter F. ran Eaton Socon Post Office and was a member of the local Volunteer Training Corps., mother, Rebecca was a VAD nurse, eldest son, Robert J. was a soldier with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment serving in France (he was killed in October 1917), eldest daughter, Daisy M. was also a VAD nurse, their younger children Herbert and Doris were still at school although Herbert was a member of the Scouts who were often involved in helping the war effort.
With the introduction of conscription in early 1916 almost all available men where called on to enlist and gradually women were called on to fill their roles. Despite concerns that women would take jobs from men they were needed urgently to keep the country running. Already by February 1915 articles were appearing in the St Neots Advertiser supporting ‘Farm Work for Women’, and by June 1916 a meeting had been held in St Neots to organise the employment of women on the land.
A postcard showing St Neots Hospital parade for 1917 with women land workers on a hay cart was sent to a friend by a local woman.
However women were also employed in many other roles during the war, in particular in shops such as the local grocers, the International Stores, which ran adverts explaining that by employing women it had released 2,000 men to join the armed forces. This was seen as so significant in St Neots that a photograph was taken of the new female staff standing outside the shop with their male colleagues.
St Neots also gained its first Post woman in 1915 and for the first time women were appointed to important managerial posts; it was reported that a woman had been appointed a School Attendance Officer in Bedfordshire
From the beginning of the war women’s organizational skills enabled them to play an important role in raising funds for the war effort. Vast sums were needed to pay for munitions, supplies for troops and new equipment,
From selling crafts and homemade cakes, to putting on concerts and entertainments local women work tirelessly to raise money to support the men fighting abroad.
As the Great War progressed women’s roles were changing. Women had more independence than ever before, many women were now the head of their household, managing their homes, bringing up their children and taking on new jobs as well as voluntary work.
The changing status of women was reflected in new relaxed fashions for women. Shorter skirts made walking easier and looser styles (with no constricting corset underneath) allowed easier movement for women constantly busy with new roles and responsibilities
St Neots and District and the Great War 1914 – 1918
Children and the Great War
The war touched the lives of every single person in the St Neots area including children. School lessons were disrupted when troops arrived in town and again when male teachers volunteered or where conscripted into the army and a lack of male role models and paternal influence perhaps led to an outbreak of unruly behavior by teenager boys.
An Extract from the Wesleyan School log book for 31st October 1914 reads:
School opened on Wednesday afternoon. The soldiers billeted in the town had received orders to leave St Neots by 2 o’clock, a few boys came at 1.45 and asked if they might go on the Market Hill and see them off. As I had been told by a Sergeant Young (a friend) that they had to be out of by 2. I said yes. As it turned out they did not go at all it was only a trail of mobilization.
Extract from the Church of England Girls School, Huntingdon Street, St Neots, 7th September 1914 reads:
During the last fortnight the premises have been occupied by a body of territorials. The floors of the main room and of the cookery centre are very dirty in spite of repeated scrubbings.
Equipping the huge numbers of soldiers fighting the war was an enormous task and school children in towns and villages across Britain were involved in making items for the troops. A letter from a soldier to a school girl in the village of Keysoe reveals that some children sent patriotic poems along with the items they made.
At the beginning of the war a National Egg Collection scheme was started, to collect eggs for wounded men who needed a nutritious diet to help them recover from their wounds. One of the egg collection points in St Neots was Cobbs Grocers on the Market Square. The letter from Canadian soldier, John Ross, to an Eaton Socon schoolgirl reveals that children wrote their names on the shells of the eggs.
By autumn 1917, German U-boat submarines were sinking significant numbers of British merchant ships which were bringing food imports to Britain. Food rationing was introduced in summer 1917 and everyone was encouraged to save food and make the most of natural resources. Children were given time off from school, and paid one penny per pound, to collect blackberries to make jam for the armed forces. Extract from the Wesleyan School log book for 12th & 19th October 1917 reads:
12 The school was closed this afternoon to enable the children to pick blackberries for the troops – under an order from the county authority. HM Inspector informed by wire.
19 Half holiday. Blackberry gathering HM. Inspector informed by wire.
Extract from the Church of England Girls School, St Neots, 13th & 20th October 1917 reads:
13 School closed on Friday afternoon Blackberrying
20 School closed on Friday afternoon for Blackberrying
As food rationing became more urgent during 1917 a film ‘Everybody’s Business’ was produced to warn people not to waste food, it was shown at cinemas across Britain and local children were taken to see it at the St Neots Pavilion Cinema on September 19th 1917. This silent film can be viewed on ‘youtube’.
Extract from the Wesleyan School log book for 19th September1917 reads:
Together with the children from the other schools in the town, the scholars were taken to the Cinema this afternoon at 3 o’clock to see a film showing the necessity for economizing food during the war. School closure in consequence.
As the war progressed it became more difficult to import the raw materials needed to make the explosives used to fire the guns on the front line. Acetone was an essential ingredient in the explosive propellant known as cordite and during 1917 experiments suggested that Horse Chestnut conkers could be used to produce acetone. Children across the country were asked to collect conkers in autumn 1917, although the exact reason was not revealed.
After nearly three years of warfare with many men away fighting in various different parts of the world, the strain was beginning to show in society. At St Neots Magistrates Children’s Court two groups of boys were charged with ‘breaking and entering’ and ‘wilful and malicious damage’ in later 1917.
However, Scouting continued to be a popular activity for boys and the St Neots Troop continued a reduced programme of meetings throughout the war years.
St Neots and District and the Great War 1914 – 1918
In the thick of the fighting
At the beginning of 1916 neither side had managed to break the stalemate on the Western Front, but both Germany with Austria-Hungary and Britain with France were determined to mount a massive attack on their enemy to break the deadlock. The Germans attacked first in February at Verdun and the Allies at the Somme in July 1916.
A number of local men went ‘over the top’ on the 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Walter Gale wrote home from Edinburgh War Hospital to say that he had been injured on the first day and Mrs. Cropley received a letter explaining the circumstances in which her son had been killed on the same day.
It was in September as the battle continued that the British first used tanks on the battlefield, Sergeant Jakins wrote home to Great Gransden to say he had seen them up close.
By November 1916, when the Battle ended, the British had lost 400,000 men, with 20,000 killed and 40,000 wounded on the first day. Germany and France suffered similar losses and almost 1 million men died during the campaign.
By the summer of 1917 the British had learnt valuable lessons from the disastrous Somme campaign, and were much better prepared:
• Troops had more shells and ammunition to destroy enemy positions
• Shells were fired ahead of advancing troops to protect them from enemy fire
• The target area was smaller and needed fewer troops to capture it
• Soldiers crawled out at night to cut the German barbed wire barrier
On the first day of the3rd Battle Ypres, 7th June 1917, the British exploded 19 huge mines under the German lines along the Messines Ridge, 10,000 German soldiers died instantly and many more were badly wounded. The explosions could be heard in London.
Gunner Hemmings of Eaton Socon saw the mines exploded and fought in the battle that followed. Private Roberts of Little Paxton wrote to explain how conditions on the battlefield had deteriorated when heavy rain fell and Harry Gilbert of Abbotsley said there was nothing to hear but ‘the din of the guns, enough to send you off your head’.
Tom Eayrs was the son of a St Neots farmer and butcher, with a butchers shop on the Market Square. Born in 1897, he enlisted just after his eighteenth birthday in 1915 and by October he was fighting on the Western Front at Cloth Hall, Ypres. He continued fighting on the Western Front for the rest of the war, being injured on at least one occasion, until in October 1918, only weeks before the end of the war, he received a serious ‘blighty wound’. This was an injury serious enough to need nursing in England, nicknamed ‘Blighty’ by soldiers a mix of Britain / England. Tom Eayrs survived the Great War and lived in the St Neots area for the rest of his life.
As fighting continued through1917 and into 1918, local men were involved in fighting across the world from the Western Front, to Africa and the Middle East. On the 23rd July 1917 the family of George Colbert, of the Army Service Corps., recorded his death in Basra from heat stroke, in the St Neots Advertiser. In October 1917, Private G. Cropley wrote home to say that he was fighting the Turks in Palestine, and was pleased at the success of the Hunts. Volunteer Regiment in training local men.
Enraged by attacks on New York and the sinking of American ships by German U-boat submarines, America entered the war in April 1917. However, American soldiers needed training and equipping and did not start arriving on the Western Front until early 1918. In April 1918 the St Neots Advertiser recorded America’s entry into the war and in an article about men who had received the 1914 Star gave further details of injuries and deaths.
Finally, the success of the British blockade of German sea ports and the arrival of American troops began to turn the tide of the war and Germany and the Central Powers had to admit defeat, or at least agree to an armistice. The Armistice was signed on the 8th November and it was agreed that all fighting would end at 11.00am on 11th November 1918.
Many soldiers were killed and injured in the last few days of fighting, including local men such as William Coppock whose death from gunshot wounds was reported in the St Neots Advertiser for 15th November 1918. Others died from their wounds in the coming weeks and many were struck down with influenza which swept across the world at the end of the Great War killing many who had survived the fighting.
As men began to return from abroad they brought graphic stories with them, including some who had been prisoners of war, but many were unable to talk of the horrors they had experienced and never spoke of the war again.
St Neots and District and the Great War 1914 – 1918
Food and Farming during the Great War
During the Great War the economy of the local St Neots area was based on farming, market gardening and rural crafts and trades. As large numbers of young men enlisted in the armed forces many farms and businesses ran out of workers and from early 1916 conscription increased the number of men leaving the area. Employers, and farmers in particular, became increasingly worried about the lack of experienced workers available.
Britain and Europe had imported much of their food and raw materials for many decades and were heavily dependent on merchant shipping to bring supplies from around the world.
As fighting on the Western front reached stalemate both the German and the Central Powers and the British and their Allies tried to limit the supply of food and raw materials available to the other side in a growing ‘war of attrition’.
From 1915 the Germans intermittently used a policy of unrestricted U-boat warfare to torpedo and sink Allied merchant ships, to prevent supplies reaching Britain and Europe.
The St Neots Advertiser reported regularly on the ships that had been sunk.
Keeping soldiers and sailors well fed was essential to enable men to be ‘fighting fit’ and to keep up their morale. In the early months of the war local man, James Malin, 2nd from right, sent home a picture of himself and other Hunts. Cyclists enjoying a meal of army rations and in April 1915 another local soldier sent the week’s menu for the Hunts. Cyclists to the local paper. Much of the food eaten by soldiers was tinned and a Great Gransden man mentioned the Army Ration meat stew in a letter home about life in the trenches in France.
By summer 1917, as the U-boat campaign reduced the amount of food reaching Britain and conscription took even more farm workers away from the land the British government realized that food control and rationing would have to be introduced. An article about the new Food Controller and the coming control of essential foods such as milk, flour, potatoes and sugar appeared in the St Neots Advertiser.
The very wet summer of 1917 increased worries about the supply of wheat for flour and farmers were thanked for their hard work, men were now allowed to remain working on farms to help grow food. Women were called upon to reduce the amount of food eaten at home and to volunteer to work on farms to replace the men fighting at the front.
By August 1917 St Neots had set up its own Food Control Committee to monitor the production and sale of food in the local area. The prices of essential foods such as meat, bread and potatoes were strictly controlled and anyone breaking the rules could be fined for even minor breaches.
Food manufacturers and shops all had to work together to help save food and to make the available food go further. New versions of products such as margarine ‘just like butter’ were produced to cut consumption of vital foods, such as butter, and make sure that supplies were shared out equally across the whole population. Even after the armistice was agreed rationing continued for many months.
All specific dates relate to publication dates in the St Neots Advertiser
All newspaper cuttings are from the St Neots Advertiser unless otherwise stated
Blue lines through texts are editing marks from the original papers
Exhibition written and produced by St Neots Museum
St Neots Museum would like to thank all the local people who have provided images and information for this project, the Heritage Lottery Fund, St Neots Town Council and St Neots Local History Society for providing grants, Huntingdon Archive Service for allowing reproduction of the St Neots Advertiser 1914 – 1918, the Eatons Community Association for support and the Imperial War Museum and Wikipedia for images from the IWM archive.
All other images are from the collection of St Neots Museum.