In pictures: Remembering Norfolk's First World War heroes and their harrowing stories
PUBLISHED: 14:40 04 November 2018 | UPDATED: 10:45 08 November 2018
A century on from the First World War it is almost impossible to imagine the sheer scale of the sacrifice. More than 15,000 Norfolk men died. Many more were left permanently disabled. Here are just a few stories of individuals, families and communities changed for ever by war.
Young men, faces scrubbed, hair slicked back and moustaches (where they were old enough to have one) trimmed, gaze from sepia portraits. They stare into the middle distance or look straight out at the viewer, with no hint of the horror they were heading into. Each sepia portrait has a few stark details on the back - a place and date of birth, and then a place and date of death, the place often far, far away, but the date shockingly close to the year of birth. These are boys, cut down in their teens and 20s.
A portrait of Arthur Samuel Quick shows him smiling shyly, hair neatly brushed back, wearing round silver spectacles and a woollen suit. The Thetford Grammar School boy is just 17-years-old. Within 10 weeks of the picture being taken he was dead, killed in the chaos and carnage of the Somme.
Nowhere else is there anything like this poignant archive of painfully young faces, photographed before they set off for war from Norwich, Yarmouth, King’s Lynn, Thetford, and the towns, villages and farms of rural Norfolk.
The unique collection of hundreds of photographs of men about to leave Norfolk to fight in France, Flanders and beyond, was created during the First World War by Norwich librarian George Stephens.
He had already begun a photographic survey of the county and as the death toll mounted he realised the photographs could become a powerful memorial. He appealed for pictures of Norfolk’s fallen, and of men commended for particular heroism, along with newspaper reports, maps, plans, war posters and letters, to build up a detailed picture of the sacrifice of a generation.
Grieving parents or widows would have filled in the slips attached to each picture, hoping that donating a photograph to the new archive would help the memory of their lost boys live on.
Today, this memorial to a doomed generation has more than 1,000 pictures.
In 1920 an exhibition of pictures from the new Norfolk photographic survey was held in Norwich. In a separate room at St Andrew’s and Blackfriar’s halls, visitors were invited to step into the Chamber of the Fallen. Heart-rending pictures of the men who had left Norfolk to fight for their country and never returned covered the walls. Here were the three brothers from a Long Stratton farm, killed within 17 months of each other. Here were the faces of boys and men missing in action whose bodies were never found, and others who had made it back to Norfolk, desperately wounded, to die.
Here was William Spooner, born at Adelaide Street, Norwich, and just 16 when he enlisted with the King’s Royal Rifles. Within five months he was dead.
Here was Major Leslie Davies who won the Military Cross for gallantry in the Somme offensive. He was born in Antingham, near Cromer, in 1893, and educated at Gresham’s and Cambridge. He died on November 10, 1918, just one day before the war ended.
Picture Norfolk is an online collection of more than 25,000 images, created and run by Norfolk Library and Information Service. It includes more than 1,000 portraits of soldiers who served in the First World War - donated by families following a 1917 appeal from Norwich Public Library, for photographs of men who had given their lives, or served with distinction. The archive can be explored at www.picture.nofolk.gov.uk
At Gressenhall, near Dereham, the stories behind the names on the War Memorial were been revealed by Bridget Yates. She was the founding curator of Gressenhall Museum and researched the lives, and deaths, of the 10 names which appear on the village war memorial.
“We come up to church every year for Remembrance Sunday and say “We will remember them” but every time I ask myself how can I remember people I know nothing about?” said Ms Yates. “
The remains of these Gressenhall lads, who signed up for the Norfolk Regiment at its recruiting office in nearby Dereham, are scattered across the world – in Jerusalem and Beirut as well as in France and Flanders.
As a baby, Ernest William Freezer lived in Gressenhall Workhouse. From a family of brickmakers, he grew up to become a talented church bell ringer. He died in France in April 1918.
Ernest James Freezer died in an attack on Gaza on April 19 1917, alongside fellow Gressenhall boys William Atmore and James Reynolds.
William Hewitt was killed in action in Flanders in September 1918, aged 39 and leaving a wife and three children. He had worked as a coachman, probably for Sir Ralph Hare of Gressenhall House, and was awarded a military medal for gallantry. He was buried in Belgium.
Stable boy James Reynolds was just 19 when he died. James, from Dillington, near Gressenhall, lived with his parents, eight siblings and grandfather.
Ernest Abel died of his wounds in Nazareth Hospital in 1917, and Arthur Crown died of malaria in Beirut a week after the end of the war and is buried in a war cemetery in Lebanon. Ernest Burton died of wounds in France in 1917 and Albert Curtis died, only just out of his teens, in the trenches between Arras and Cambrai.
Arthur Ward, the only son of the rector of Gressenhall, had been married just a few months when he went to war in 1915. He was killed in action in Gallipoli in August 1915, part of the Sandringham Company. There is no known grave.
The Sandringham Company, of men from the Sandringham Estate, were part of the 5th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment. The soldiers were sent from Norfolk to the arid and sun-scorched Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey to join the battle against the Ottoman Empire – a key German ally. Two days after they landed they were sent into battle, many of them ill, frightened and thirsty (each man was rationed to just two thirds of a pint of water a day, despite the August heat.) A group of 266 men were last seen at a farm on the front line. Mystery surrounded their disappearance and the Queen herself sent people to investigate after the war. There were even stories of the men being swept up from the battlefield into a strange cloud. However, it is now widely accepted that the men were surrounded and massacred – 266 of the 36,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.
Arthur Coke, second son of the Earl of Leicester, also died in Gallipoli. He grew up at grand Holkham Hall and, in the estate church, a memorial tablet tells the story of how he joined the Royal Horse Guards at the outbreak of war, fought in Flanders, and then transferred to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve sail to Turkey with a squadron of armoured cars. Seven days after landing on the Gallipoli peninsula he was dead.
His letters home are in the Holkham archives. One, written on November 7 1914 reveals: “My feelings were very different from what I expected. I always thought I might rather funk it, but this is what I felt. When we rode I just felt excited, when we dismounted and bullets were humming I felt a bit nervous as we stood there for about a quarter of an hour and people and horses kept on being hit, but when we actually started to advance and open fire I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
But it was not long before the wretched conditions submerged any early enthusiasm. “If it wasn’t for the trenches I wouldn’t mind this war, but it is awful cold and standing in the water and always being shelled...is so trying,” he wrote.
Twice he was buried alive in a trench which collapsed under fire. Then he heard about a new armoured car unit operated by the Royal Navy. Within weeks he was part of Winston Churchill’s dry-land navy - and training back home at Holkham.
His first mission was to provide machine-gun support on a ship, the SS River Clyde, as she was deliberately run aground to disgorge thousands of troops onto the heavily-defended shores of Gallipoli.
Arthur volunteered to take charge of three machine-guns at the front of the ship and wrote home, describing his exposed post as “my seat in the stalls.”
“I cannot think of anything more exciting.” he enthused, “I think tomorrow will be the greatest day of my life, as I...am practically responsible for keeping off any attack while the troops are landing...I think it will be a short but sharp fight to take Gallipoli.”
But the fighting was far fiercer than expected – and the bravery so exceptional that in just 48 hours, seven Victoria Crosses had been won. For 13 hours Arthur’s machine guns kept up a constant barrage. Friends spoke of his supreme courage as comrades were killed all around him. Arthur survived the landing but seven days later was killed by shrapnel and buried on a cliff overlooking the battlefield – but no-one knows exactly where. However, back in Norfolk there is a grave with a link to his battlefield death. Arthur took his pet dog with him to Gallipoli and after his death the terrier was looked after by fellow officers and eventually returned to Holkham, where he died in 1918 and is buried by the Orangery.
A plane flown by a Norfolk man helped dispatch the most feared pilot in the world. The notorious Red Baron survived the aerial duel in the skies above Belgium in 1917, despite being shot in the head, but he died less than a year later.
However, Norwich airman Donald Cunnell never knew he had helped end the reign of terror of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, because he was himself killed by anti-aircraft fire over France just six days later.
Donald was born at 16 Mount Pleasant, Norwich. His father was a brick-maker and he attended Bracondale School in the city. His story is told in a book called The Peppermint Boys by Ed Bulpett and Rosemary Duff, about the pupils of Norwich’s Bracondale School killed in the First World War. An account of the fight with the Red Baron was written by one of the gunners flying with Donald. “There wasn’t a thing on that machine that wasn’t red, and God, how he could fly!” he wrote. “With our combined speeds we must have been approaching each other at somewhere around 250mph…I kept a steady stream of lead pouring into the nose of that machine. He was firing also...His lead came whistling by my head and ripping holes in my ‘bathtub.’ Then something happened. We could hardly have been 20 yards apart when the Albatross pointed her nose down suddenly. Zip, and she passed under us. Cunnell backed and turned. We saw the all-red plane slip into a spin. It turned over and over and round and round. It was no manoeuvre. He was completely out of control. His motor was going full-on, so I figured I had at least wounded him.” The Red Baron just managed to land before passing out from a wound which had splintered his scalp and temporarily blinded him. “For a moment it flashed through my head that this is the way it looks just before death,” he said later.
Bungay fighter pilot Alan Verso Clarke provided a rare glimpse of life on the front line in the First World War.
He took pictures of crashed planes, bombed cities and battlefields as he flew over France and Belgium.
Alan joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1914. He had been a professional photographer, apprenticed to his photographer father who had a studio in Earsham Street.
He had no children and his wartime album, called With the RAF in France 1916-19, was left to his niece, who has given the dramatic record of the war to Bungay Museum.
Curator Christopher Reeve said: “It is quite unique as it shows one man’s journey through his time abroad during the war.
“A normal solider would not have been allowed to take photographs. There were not a lot of people with cameras and there were limitations on what he could photograph. Perhaps as Alan was a professional he was given special permission by his superiors – they may even have been glad someone was recording it.”
The album will be on display at the Bungay Museum, at the council offices in Broad Street, open Tuesday 2-4, Friday 10-12 and Saturday 10.30-12.30.
Charles Hunt was 38 when he was killed at Ypres – one of 69,000 casualties of the battle. Back in Yarmouth his widow, Edith, and four-year-old daughter Ethel, waited in vain for his return.
The gunner had already experienced the first use of poison gas by the Germans. Yellowish-green chlorine gas was released near Ypres in April 1915, causing panic and confusion, and asphyxiating thousands. Just a fortnight later Charles died, under heavy shelling, alongside his commanding officer and seven other men. Their headstones lie side-by-side in a military cemetery.
Patrolled by ferocious dogs and guards and surrounded by barbed wire, Holzminden was one of First World War’s most notorious prisoner of war camps. Yet a Norfolk man’s love of music and determination to get home helped 29 prisoners scramble through a 54 metre-long tunnel they spent nine months digging with spoons and mugs.
Bernard Luscombe was one of the last through the tunnel before it collapsed. Although he was recaptured days later, it is a tale which reads more like a film script than history.
Relatives from Beeston Regis, and Norwich have researched his story,
Bernard was in his 20s when he was captured. A talented musician, with a degree from Cambridge, he formed the Holzminden Camp Orchestra to disguise the sound of digging.
They managed to recruit some Germans to help and during the summer of 1918 maps, torches, civilian clothes and digging tools were smuggled in. The mud was removed in bowls and hidden in a cellar roof.
But even when the 29 prisoners had escaped, they were not out of danger. The story goes that two days later Bernard and a fellow escapee walked past a German soldier who wished them good morning in English. The other man replied, in English again, and the two were recaptured.
Three brothers died on the same day. Another family lost four sons in action. A village postman delivered the telegram which carried the news his son had died. These almost unbelievably tragic stories are all from two neighbouring Norfolk villages – collected by Runton Parish History Society.
On April 18, 1917, seven men from East and West Runton, near Cromer, perished in the second Battle of Gaza. Robert Cooper was reported missing, and then dead, in 1918. His father, also called Robert, delivered the telegram reporting his own son’s death. But, unable to accept the terrible news, at first his mother would not allow his name to be carved on the village war memorial.
Brothers Arthur, Ernest, Horace and Clifford Bird, all members of the Norfolk Regiment, were photographed together in 1914. Horace and Clifford were killed in Gaza and Arthur was wounded and died on April 25, 1917. Only Ernest survived to return to East Runton.
They were not the only family to lose three brothers. Indeed, more than one Norfolk family lost three sons – and then, once the danger seemed to be over, a daughter. In November 1918, alongside the news of peace, spreading around the globe, came something much more sinister. The flu epidemic, which eventually claimed more than 50 million lives, was stalking the land.
In Reedham, three brothers were killed within less than a year – first 24-year-old Jack Hall, killed in action in France in 1917, then James, who died of wounds in Flanders, then Ernest, whose ship was torpedoed. But James and Annie Hall had another child serving overseas – Susannah, who volunteered for war service as a cook and died of flu in France.
In East Harling another family, the Barnards, had lost three sons. Then, as peace was declared, their 13-year-old daughter died of pneumonia and influenza.
Dereham brothers Stephen and Percy Thurgill died within days of each other. Percy, of the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment was killed in action in Flanders in April 1918. Four days later his older brother Stepehn was killed in Basra, Iraq. Their widowed mother learned the terrible news of her youngest son’s death from a letter home from Private A Weales, another Dereham soldier. Private Weales wrote to his own mother: “Let Mrs Thurgill know that her son died like a brave Britisher, and also that he had a quick death.”
The report in the Dereham and Fakenham Times finished: “Words are inadequate to describe the crushing blow this
poor widow has received.”
The lives of the war dead of Saxlingham Nethergate were researched by local women Janet Capon and Jan Fox.
Among those who died was Alfred Funnell, a church bell-ringer and the son of the village baker. He was one of five men who enlisted in November 1914 at a recruiting meeting held in the village, south of Norwich.
He was posted the following day, and killed, aged 24, at the Somme on September 4 1916. His body was never
Arthur Emms, of Salletts Farm, was married to Martha, who died giving birth to their third son in October 1914. Less than a month later he enlisted. He was wounded in 1916 and then wounded again and taken prisoner in 1917. He died eight days later, aged 26. His parents raised his orphaned children and their descendants still farm in the village today.
Ernest Seaman, Victoria Cross, born in Norwich, lived in Scole
By 1918 five men had been awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honour, reserved for the very bravest of the brave. They were Harry Daniels of Wymondham, Sidney Day of Norwich, Harry Cator of Drayton, Arthur Cross of Shipdham and Ernest Seaman of Scole.
Ernest Seaman was just 25 when he was killed after single-handedly capturing several enemy soldiers and their guns and storming another enemy position.
A report in the Norfolk News of November 23, 1918, describes his valour. “When the right flank of his company was held up by a nest of enemy machine guns he, with great courage and initiative, rushed forward under heavy fire with his Lewis gun and engaged the position single-handed, capturing two machine guns and 12 prisoners and killing one officer and two men. Later in the day he again rushed another enemy machine gun position, capturing the gun under heavy fire. He was killed immediately after. His courage and dash were beyond all praise and it was entirely due to the very gallant conduct of the Lance Corporal Seaman that his company was enabled to push forward to its objective and capture many prisoners.”
The youngest of nine children, Ernest was born in Norwich and moved to Scole, near Diss, after his father died and his mother remarried the landlord of the King’s Head Inn. He sang in the church choir and was described as “quiet spoken and well-mannered and his schoolmaster mentions him with pride.”
He signed up in 1915, travelling to France on the evening of Boxing Day. After his death, in September 1918, his commanding officer wrote to his grieving mother: “He was one of the best soldiers whom I had ever met – a gallant soldier in every sense of the world and very keen in his duties. He always volunteered to help in any extra work that had to be done, no mater how dangerous and difficult and for his constant devotion to duty and his gallantry involuntarily attending his wounded comrades under heavy fire.”
Lance Corporal Arthur Henry Cross of the Machine Gun Corps also won Victoria Cross in 1918. He was born and brought up in Shipdham, and married with two children. The Norfolk News of June 29 1918 describes how he, “singlehanded with his revolver captured seven of the enemy with their machine guns and ammunition.”
The news that a Norwich clergyman had been awarded the Military Cross was reported in the Eastern Evening News the day after the Armistice was signed. The Rev B Hinde was awarded the Military Cross “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.”
“He attended to many wounded men under fire, and remained on the field during the night to read the service over the dead, though frequently subjected to shell and machine-gun fire,” the report reads. “His courage and example were a great help to all.”