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Norfolk in no rush to heed call to arms

15:27 14 August 2014

First World War Recruitment in Norfolk. Pictured: volunteers answer Kitchener’s call to arms in Norwich. Recruiting in Norfolk was slow in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of war. Picture: SUPPLIED

First World War Recruitment in Norfolk. Pictured: volunteers answer Kitchener’s call to arms in Norwich. Recruiting in Norfolk was slow in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of war. Picture: SUPPLIED

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STEVE SNELLING explodes the great myth about the rush to enlist as he charts the reality of recruiting in Norfolk during the first days of the war

First World War Recruitment in Norfolk. Pictured: The men who would form the ‘Businessmen’s Company’ of the 8th (Service) Battalion, the Norfolk Regiment marching down St Giles to enlist en masse. Picture: SUPPLIEDFirst World War Recruitment in Norfolk. Pictured: The men who would form the ‘Businessmen’s Company’ of the 8th (Service) Battalion, the Norfolk Regiment marching down St Giles to enlist en masse. Picture: SUPPLIED

It is perhaps the most enduring image of the First World War - a finger-pointing Lord Kitchener with a patriotic call to arms, and the slogan ‘Your Country Needs You.’

To many, the poster and its direct message go hand in hand with an impression of a nation stirred to action in a wave of enthusiasm that saw recruiting offices besieged by a flood of eager citizens anxious to do their duty. The truth, however, is a little more complicated.

The poster itself did not appear in its official guise until after the first appeals for volunteers had taken place. As for the rush to enlist - well, so far as Norfolk was concerned, it simply did not happen: at least not in the immediate aftermath of the declaration of war and nor even after Kitchener’s initial appeal a few days later.

There were good reasons for this. For a rural county such as Norfolk, August was one of the busiest of all times.

The harvest, already late because of heavy rain, was just beginning and farmers were as reluctant to release their workers as the labour force were to give up their secure work for an uncertain future in uniform.

Many may also have wondered what the point was in joining, when much had been made of the claim that this would be a short war.

Kitchener, however, knew differently. Almost alone among his Cabinet colleagues, the newly appointed Secretary of State for War expected nothing but a long slog. Moreover, he was well aware that the country’s existing army was pitifully inadequate for the job.

Reinforcements would be required, of that Kitchener was certain, so he set about raising a new volunteer army of 100,000 citizen soldiers, with a fresh call to arms.

The result, so far as Norfolk was concerned, was another lukewarm response. By August 17, with the county’s harvest in full swing and the city’s main employers, the shoe-manufacturing industry, buoyed by full order books, barely 500 men had signed up for the “New Army”.

Amid growing disquiet about the shortage of volunteers from the east, Kitchener persuaded Ian Malcolm MP to lead a recruiting drive culminating in a mass meeting in Norwich’s St Andrew’s Hall on August 31.

As chance would have it, the climactic gathering coincided with the end of the harvest and encouraging news from local industry.

On the day of the meeting, a letter from Norwich brewery Steward & Patteson was published in the Eastern Evening News stating that any of its workers joining the “New Army” would have their jobs “kept open for them” with assistance offered to dependants.

It was a critical moment ahead of a meeting that would prove the turning point in the great recruiting struggle in Norfolk. What the local press called “a memorable spectacle” saw St Andrew’s Hall packed to the rafters and the area round about swamped with thousands.

No event in living memory had, in the words of one account, “seen such a manifestation of public enthusiasm”. To the Evening News, it appeared as if “practically all Norwich” had turned out “en masse to demonstrate its deep feeling of the justice of the national cause”. The vast crowd was, according to one reporter, “literally fighting to gain admission”.

Those who made it through the crush into the hall heard speaker after speaker call for a spirit of unity against the “common enemy”.
Time and again the crowd erupted in cheering. The response was immediate. That night 250 men signed up. But it was merely the beginning. The following day recruiting offices across the city were inundated. Around 1,000 volunteers had enlisted before doors closed, and 2,500 within a week.

Belatedly, the rush to join up had started - and all without a single finger-pointing Kitchener poster.

Thanks to local historian Dick Rayner for access to his research on recruitment in Norfolk in 1914.

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

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