The impact the First World War had on Cotswold lives
- Credit: Saffron Blaze
One hundred years ago this month the guns fell silent, marking the end of what was to become known as The Great War. Stephen Roberts remembers the impact the war had on Cotswold lives from 1914-1918
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 November 11, 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 the Cotswolds?
You begin to comprehend the carnage of WW1 when you learn how few Thankful Villages there are in this beautiful part of the world. These were the fortunate communities that lost no servicemen in the war, when all around them did.
There are three such villages in Gloucestershire (Cotswold Life, August 2014): Coln Rogers, Little Sodbury and Upper Slaughter, which has the distinction of being ‘doubly thankful’, that is, a community that repeated its act of escapology in WW2. There’s not a single Thankful Village in Oxfordshire: every single place took a hit. Inside the porch of St Andrew’s, Coln Rogers is a tablet listing the names of 25 men and one woman, nurse Doris Barton, of the V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment), who all returned safely. St Adeline’s, Little Sodbury, has a roll of honour for the six men who served in WW1. Upper Slaughter’s village hall has its rolls of honour, for 25 men who marched away to fight in WW1 and a further 36 who followed their forebears come WW2. Amazingly, they all returned home. Those 25 included six surnamed ‘Witts’, five of them either a Major or Captain.
The Gloucestershire Regiment raised a total of 25 battalions during WW1 and was awarded 72 battle honours. Four members of the regiment were awarded the Victoria Cross, but the cost of glory came high with no fewer than 8,100 men lost during the conflict. The 1st Battalion was in action almost from the start, seeing action in the 1914 battles of Mons, the Marne, the Aisne and First Ypres. It was also involved in the major British offensive of 1915, the Battle of Loos. Come 1916, the battalion would participate in all phases of the Battle of the Somme. The following year saw the battalion involved in another infamous British offensive of the war, Third Ypres, or Passchendaele. The First Battalion was involved in the Great War pretty much from beginning to end with little let up. Other battalions joined the 1st at the Somme, including several made up of Territorials, plus Service battalions, some of which would also join the 1st at Loos and Passchendaele.
The 2nd Battalion’s experience illustrated that the war was not all about the Western Front slog against Germany. The battalion had been stationed far away in China when war broke out, so didn’t arrive on the Western Front until almost the end of 1914. In 1915 it fought at Second Ypres. Towards the end of that year the 2nd transferred to Greece, where it took up arms against one of Germany’s allies, Bulgaria, a fate that also awaited the 9th (Service) Battalion.
The 7th (Service) Battalion saw action in another theatre of the war when it landed at Gallipoli in July 1915 and was engaged in various actions against another of Germany’s allies, Turkey. In February 1916 the battalion would transfer to Mesopotamia, where it was also engaged against the Turks.
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The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry raised 18 battalions, was awarded 59 battle honours and gained two Victoria Crosses, losing a total of 5,880 men in the process. The 1st Battalion went to Mesopotamia to fight the Turks, whilst the 2nd Battalion faced all those famous 1914 battles on the Western Front, followed by Loos (1915) and the Somme (1916). They were also at the Battle of Cambrai (1917) when British tanks were used in large numbers for the first time. Mirroring the Gloucestershire Regiment, the Oxford & Bucks also sent Territorials to the Somme. The 5th (Service) Battalion was also on the Western Front, including at Hooge in 1915, where the Germans used flamethrowers for the first time, then at the Somme and Passchendaele. The 6th (Service) was also at the Somme, then Cambrai. The 7th and 8th (Service) experienced a different theatre, as they headed for Greece and took on the Bulgarians.
There was also a Home Front, as WW1 was arguably the first ‘total war’ in which the whole nation had to be mobilised in one form or another. The Cotswolds was, however, spared the horror of bombing during WW1. Although German Zeppelins raided London and the East Coast and later in the war Gotha bombers struck the capital and the south-east, the Cotswolds was out of range. Its good fortune would not be repeated a generation later. There were other ways in which this predominantly agricultural and rural idyll would be affected though.
It was all very well sending an army away to fight, but it had to be supplied and fed. Whilst the more industrialised parts of Britain switched from peacetime manufacturing to munitions, the Cotswolds was in the front line as far as feeding its growing army and those at home was concerned, especially in the face of the Germans’ use of unrestricted submarine warfare, which sent many a British merchant ship to the bottom of the sea. This was potentially catastrophic for the nation’s war aims when you consider that 70% of Britain’s food was imported. We were a long way from being self-sufficient and from 1916 food shortages became noticeable, with rationing finally introduced in January 1918.
A lot of the men who would normally have worked the fields were away fighting, of course, as many had volunteered in that initial rush of enthusiasm for a rightful (and hopefully brief) war, before conscription had to be introduced in January 1916. The farms of the Cotswolds had to rely on migrant labour, including Belgian refugees (it had been German’s attack on Belgium in August 1914 that had ostensibly brought Britain into the war), Irish travellers, German POWs and children as young as ten years of age. In 1917, during the latter stages of the war, 50 German POWs arrived in Evesham on a special train from Dorchester, the county town of Dorset. They’d been brought in to provide extra manpower to plant spuds. If you had lived in the Cotswolds area at this time you could not have failed to notice that there was a war on.
The Cotswolds and its environs, with its fertile soil and market gardening, was key to Britain being able to prosecute a successful war, that, in the end, would last for over four years. One of the local staples was the plum, grown in vast quantities in the Vale of Evesham, and used to make plum jam, which went off to the Western Front to provide sustenance to the men in trenches. A soldier needed at least 3,000 calories each day to keep performing: it was the duty of the Cotswolds (and other agricultural areas) to provide those calories.
Astonishingly, a soldier on the Western Front was given special leave to return home and help bring in the fruit harvest in the Vale (veg, and fruit, but especially plums). It seems almost inconceivable, but William George Haynes was given leave from the Somme in August 1916, during that infamous battle’s second month. That really does drum home just how vital it was to get the harvest in during wartime.
Annie and William Souls of Great Rissington had six sons, five of whom were old enough for military service. All five gave up their farm jobs to fight in the war: all five would perish. Frederick, Alfred, Arthur, Walter and Albert were all aged between 20 and 30 when they died. Two of them were privates in the Worcestershire Regiment. All would die on the Western Front. As if the family had not suffered enough, the sixth son would then die of meningitis. It’s just one story of thousands of local stories, but it brings home the human cost of war and the cruel impact on our area, when brave young lads swapped pitchforks for rifles and bayonets.
There was a mood after the war, of course, to honour the fallen and support the survivors. Virtually every one of the Cotswolds’ myriad of parishes has a memorial, dedicated originally to the dead of WW1 (but sadly with other names added subsequently).
This November the Cotswolds’ 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 1914-1918 names on all the war memorials in the Cotswolds you’d have many thousands of very good reasons.
Hellfire Corner (hellfirecorner.co.uk) – for Thankful Village stories.
Forces War Records (forces-war-records.co.uk) – for Gloucestershire Regiment and Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
BBC (bbc.co.uk) – for Gotha bombing raids and the story of the Souls brothers.
The Hoot, courtesy of Clutton Cox (cluttoncox.co.uk) – for Agriculture stories.
How the Pershore Plum Won the Great War (M Andrews & J Waugh, 2016)
Evesham’s Railways – article published in Steam Days (Steve Roberts, 2017)