News of returning soldiers

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 Advertiser report, 15th November 1918

East Street, St Neots, about 1900

Charles Colbert of Offord Cluny, centre back row, 1915

St Neots Advertiser reports the death of Private Colbert, 13th December 1918

News of returning soldiers, St Neots Advertiser, 6th December 1918

Southoe with the church of St Leonard in the distance, about 1905

A report about Prisoners of War, St Neots Advertiser, 29th November 1918

Postcard of Italian Prisoners of War, 1917

Medicine advert from St neots Advertiser, 29th November 1918

Local men in 1917 and 1918

As fighting continued through 1917 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.

St Neots Advertiser ‘Roll of Honour’, 27th July 1917

St Neots Advertiser employee, G. Cropley writes home in October 1917


St Neots Volunteer Training Corps., postcard from 1917

La Targette, France, from a 1918 postcard

America enters the war, St Neots Advertiser, 6th April 1917

Local men awarded medals, St Neots Advertiser, 1st March 1918

One local man’s war

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.

St Neots soldier, Tom Eayrs after he became an officer, 1917

Eayrs butcher shop on St Neots Market Square, about 1914

Eayrs Butcher’s shop, St Neots Market Square

Tom Eayrs in hospital in Oxford, 1919

Tom Eayrs convalescing in Brighton, 1919

The ruins of Ypres, from a small souvenir album sent home by Tom Eayrs

Local experiences at Ypres and Passchendaele

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’.

Letter form Private H. Roberts, St Neots Advertiser, 17th August 1917

Letter from harry Gilbert of Abbotsley, St Neots Advertiser, 17th August 1917

Postcard of Abbotsley village in about 1910

Chateau Wood, Passchendaele, France, 29th October 1917

St Neots Advertiser report, 31st August 1917

In the thick of the fighting

Local men at the Battle of the Somme

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.

Front page of the St Neots Advertiser, 18th August 1916

Contemporary map of the Western Front, 1914 – 1916

British Infantry at Morval, 25th September 1916, Imperial War Museum Archive

British Mark 1 male tank near Thiepval, 25th September 1916, Imperial War Museum Archive

Letter from Private Walter Gale, St Neots Advertiser, 21st July 1916

Letter to Mrs Cropley of Kings Road, St Neots, St Neots Advertiser, 18th August 1916

Letter from Sergeant R. Jakins, St Neots Advertiser, 6th October 1916



Changing clothes fashions for women

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.

At the beginning of the Great War women’s fashions were conservative and restrictive, St Neots Advertiser 18th September 1914

Radical changes in women’s clothing were underway by 1916, St Neots Advertiser, 7th July 1916

Local women fundraisers

From the beginning of the war women’s organisational 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.

St Neots Corn Exchange, seen on the right, was used for many fund raising performances during WWI, and became the Cinema in 1915

St Neots Advertiser article, 5th May 1916

Drawing of a similar local ‘Pierrot’ performance in 1917, by talented local artist Dorothy Wrycroft

The Employment of Women

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.

Farm work for women, St Neots Advertiser, 12th February 1915

St Neots Advertiser, 9th June 1916

St Neots Advertiser, 23rd June 1916

St Neots Hospital Saturday Parade, Postcard of 4th August 1917


St Neots Hospital Saturday Parade, text of Postcard of 4th August 1917

St Neots International Stores Advert, St Neots Advertiser 22nd October 1915

New women employees at St Neots International Stores, photograph thought to be from 1915

St Neots Advertiser, 22nd October 1915 (Mr Phillips ran a photographic studio in St Neots)

‘People Say’ article in St Neots Advertiser, 18th August 1916 – this was a really remarkable salary for a woman in 1916

A local family from Eaton Socon

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.

The Drake family in 1916

St Neots Red Cross Hospitals

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.

St Neots VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) Hospital, 20 Market Square, 1916

Eaton Socon Red Cross Hospital, St Neots Advertiser, 22nd January 1915

St Neots Red Cross Hospital, Nurses shown in the St Neots Advertiser, 4th June 1915


Hospital Sunday Parade, Miss Corby and Miss D. Howe, in nurses uniform attending a bandaged patient, 2nd August 1914

Donations to the St Neots Red Cross Hospital, St Neots Advertiser, 20th October 1916