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Guardians against ‘enemy at the gate’

15:55 18 August 2014

First World War. Pictured: Crowds turn out to greet the 2/4th Norfolks who were despatched to defend Lowestoft during the early months of the war. Picture: SUPPLIED

First World War. Pictured: Crowds turn out to greet the 2/4th Norfolks who were despatched to defend Lowestoft during the early months of the war. Picture: SUPPLIED

SUPPLIED

With its remote beaches, sparsely populated coastline and relative proximity to Germany, Norfolk was considered particularly vulnerable to invasion. It meant the county was in a the grip of a “spy mania” like no other. STEVE SNELLING looks back at a ‘war’ within a war, close to home.

First World War. Pictured: The German High Seas Fleet shortly before the war. It proved itself capable of delivering lightning strikes against the East Coast in 1914, heightening fears of an invasion. Picture: SUPPLIEDFirst World War. Pictured: The German High Seas Fleet shortly before the war. It proved itself capable of delivering lightning strikes against the East Coast in 1914, heightening fears of an invasion. Picture: SUPPLIED

The timing could hardly have been worse for the strange case of John Jacob Lichters to come to a Norfolk court of law.

The war between the country of his birth and the one in which he had settled was three months old and emotions were running high in the wake of the German attack on Great Yarmouth just two days earlier.

Even allowing for that, however, he could hardly have imagined the combustible consequences of his Guy Fawkes’ Day 1914 hearing in North Walsham County Court before his Honour Judge Mulligan, KC.

As the reputable owner of a guest house at Sheringham, Lichters was seeking redress for the failure of ‘guests’ to honour their summer bookings following the outbreak of war.

First World War. Pictured: A party of the 2/4th Norfolks training with an antique artillery piece while guarding Lowestoft from invasion in 1915. Picture: SUPPLIEDFirst World War. Pictured: A party of the 2/4th Norfolks training with an antique artillery piece while guarding Lowestoft from invasion in 1915. Picture: SUPPLIED

Based on a point of principle, it was, in the circumstances, a singularly misjudged and naïve attempt. That he was on a hiding to nothing was immediately apparent in the partisan tone of Judge Mulligan who summarised the case as “a German [who] owes his allegiance to the Kaiser… suing subjects of the King because they declined when war broke out to go and reside in the house of this German at Sheringham on the North Sea…”

Not content with throwing out Lichters’ litigation on the grounds that as a German (and therefore enemy) he had no rights, Mulligan went as far as to suggest the case revealed “facts which may be fraught with grave danger to the realm”.

In urging the Lord Lieutenant to take action at the highest level, he evoked the spectre of invasion and the shadowy threat posed by the ‘enemy within’. “It is painful to see that lodging houses are permitted to be kept by Germans along our coasts,” he noted in a tone of righteous indignation. “It seems the prohibition of Germans from our coasts is a dead letter so far as Norfolk is concerned.”

Mulligan’s bellicose intervention in the autumn of 1914 may have achieved little beyond ratcheting up already heightened tensions, but they were symptomatic of an invasion paranoia and a spy mania that had yet to reach their peak.

For years, journalists and novelists had warned of the country’s vulnerability to invasion by an increasingly assertive Germany.

Norfolk, given its location just 80 or so miles across the North Sea from the enemy coast, was considered perhaps the most likely places for a German landing. The subsequent German raids on the east coast only fed grave concerns that already existed - not just about the invasion threat but the presence of enemy agents already at work here.

As alarm bells rang loud and clear so parts of the county became gripped by a kind of hysteria. Amid the clamour for civilians of all ages to be prepared to defend ‘hearth and home’, one correspondent suggested, in the absence of sufficient rifles, arming them with 7ft-long ash staves, “which in case of urgent need could speedily be converted by any local blacksmith into pikes”. He argued that the Germans “don’t care for hand to hand fighting” and that the pike, being longer than the bayonet, had “more merit”.

The official response was no less dramatic and thousands of troops were despatched to the coast in the autumn and winter of 1914.

Units of yeomanry cavalry and territorial infantry, supported by a small army of elderly volunteers, coastguards and boy scouts, dug miles of trenches and straddled beaches with forests of barbed wire.

The defences - which included an armoured train trundling from North Walsham to Great Yarmouth - and evacuation plans remained in place for the rest of the war, though the much-feared invasion was never attempted and never seriously considered.

A century on, a scattering of pill-boxes, are all that are left to remind of the threat that had seemed so real - yet never materialised.

Zeppelins aided by mysterious motorists?

Raids on Norfolk by Zeppelins in January 1915 sparked a fresh frenzy of spy mania, initiated in large measure by Holcombe Ingleby, MP for King’s Lynn, one of the two main towns to suffer from the attacks.

He gave credence to reports published in the local press that the airship had been directed by a car “said by several persons” to have dashed along the road from Wells to Lynn.

He gathered a report, based on gossip and supposed eyewitnesses, which he presented to the Home Office. When it was ignored, he decided to publish his “evidence”.

“The Grocers” try out their “cricket balls”

As the war progressed, the quality of troops manning the Norfolk defences went down.

R S McNaught was an under-age recruit drafted into the 49th Provisional Battalion, a Home Defence unit nicknamed the ‘Grocers’ which was made up a sprinkling of over-age survivors of the war’s early battles and “semi-cripples of low medical grade”.

Sent to guard the coast near Winterton, they constructed a line of trenches across the sand hills that appeared “trim and redoubtable” to all but an older soldier who insisted one broadside from an enemy ship would show otherwise.

A few weeks later they were ordered into their trench for a demonstration of a new weapon - the ‘cricket-ball grenade’. When it exploded nearby, it vindicated the old soldier, with the trench dissolving “in a general landslide of sandbags and half-buried soldiery on the Norfolk foreshore between Sea Palling, Horsey Gap and Winterton”.

Suspicions over Barmer Hall

With the country gripped by invasion fear in autumn 1914, Ruby Marson, a teacher at Tattersett School, near Fakenham, recorded her suspicions regarding nearby Barmer Hall, which she believed was connected to the appearance of strange lights in the sky.

She wrote: “Two or more years ago Barmer Hall was fitted up with electricity by strange workmen. The people of Syderstone said, ‘They are three dirty German spies’ to me when I asked who the strange men were I passed on the common. There’s many a true word spoken in jest. Could they not have fitted up a wireless installation on the high ground round Barmer? Is there someone who can read the messages transmitted from an airship?”

Alarms!

F S Hatton, a soldier with the Middlesex Yeomanry, recalled his unit manning trenches near Cromer, following reports of an invasion timed for Christmas Week, 1914.

“Christmas Eve everyone was especially ‘windy’ and we all saw the dawn of our first war Christmas standing to in the cliff trenches; it was a bitterly cold night, and the rime was on our hair and moustaches, as we scrambled out to wish each other ‘happy morn’.”

At Lowestoft, where the distinguished Norwich writer Ralph Mottram was among a battalion of Norfolks sent to defend the coast, there was an even more dramatic scare the following March that saw sailors and soldiers chasing through the streets. Amid a crowd of cyclists “going hell for leather” and a procession of armoured cars, Mottram and his pals “waited and waited” until to his “intense disappointment, the whole thing fizzled out”.

For more in depth stories from the First World War click here

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