It’s hard to imagine living a century ago and having death rain down
- Credit: Archant
One day, the people of an East Anglian market town were enjoying a glorious country fete. The next – along with the rest of Britain – 'they were plunged into the deadliest war in history'.
It's hard for us, cocooned by the relative comfort and security of 21st Century England, to imagine living a century ago and having death rain down on us. Today – what with TV and the web – we know and understand so much. In 1915, folk didn't even have radio broadcasts letting them know what was going on around the world.
So, it must have been truly terrifying when the people of Bury St Edmunds found themselves under attack from the dark skies – targeted by a German Zeppelin. The advent of aerial warfare showed them they were no longer safe in their own country, now their enemy had such a long reach.
It happened first on the night of April 29/30, 1915.
Although the rules about stopping lights shining at night, 'people in Bury had not been very conscientious about adhering to the restrictions and in the panic that ensued, with bombs raining down on the town centre, individual house lights were switched on and Bury shone like a beacon in the night', says author Glynis Cooper. 'Captain Eric Linnarz could steer his aircraft simply by following the blazing trail of lights.'
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His four-engined Zeppelin LZ.38 was 536ft long and carried two tons of bombs.
'Forty-one incendiary shells and four high explosive bombs were dropped on and around the town but, astonishingly, the only casualties were a border collie killed by debris in the Buttermarket and a few hens on an allotment. However, there was a great deal of structural damage.'
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It wasn't the last visit these aerial death-ships would pay to Bury St Edmunds.
The next raid started just before midnight on March 31, 1916.
'The first bombs fell near Northgate Railway Station, and Eastgate Railway Station was also hit. Four people, including a mother and her two young children, died in Mill Road, two men died in Raingate Street near the King of Prussia pub, and one soldier from the Cambridgeshire Regiment died on Chalk Road.
'In total, seven people were killed, five people were injured and thirty-seven houses damaged,' writes Glynis in her book Bury St Edmunds in the Great War.
'The whole episode induced in Bury what would probably be described as a kind of collective post-traumatic stress reaction.
'The town became obsessed with lighting restrictions and blackouts and measures to deal with aerial attacks, and remained so, long after the main danger from Zeppelin attacks had faded and the government had relaxed restrictions.'
As the cracks across Europe grew wider in the summer of 1914, it hadn't been thoughts of war that occupied the minds of many folk in Suffolk but reality on the doorsteps. Local farm labourers' wages were among the lowest in the country, and the problems of working conditions and tied cottages filled newspaper columns.
The day before Britain declared war on Germany, folk enjoyed a big bank holiday fete on Hardwick Heath, Bury St Edmunds. After that, things became very serious very quickly in west Suffolk.
The colour and tone of those days, and those that followed, is captured in Glynis's new book.
'The Suffolk Yeomanry were given a rousing send-off from Angel Hill as they marched off to war, and the 3rd Suffolk Battalion made an early-morning departure from Bury St Edmunds.'
The Defence of the Realm Act was passed on August 8, allowing – in essence – the authorities to do whatever they thought necessary.
'There were rumours of food shortages, but Suffolk's lord lieutenant made an appeal for calm and common sense. There was, he said, 'No occasion for panic. There is plenty of food and gold and definitely no shortage of Bird's custard or Horniman's tea.''
By early September, the first casualties of the Suffolk Regiment had come back to the town with 'thrilling stories of fighting at the Front', but there were also reports of prolonged fighting. Belgian refugees arrived with stories of appalling atrocities.
Life was terrible on the Western Front, but also difficult at home. 'There was hardship as the separation allowances paid to wives and families when the breadwinners were away fighting were woefully inadequate.'
Food and fuel prices rose steadily, and rents went up. Military recruitment was causing a shortage of agricultural workers.
Around Christmas, Glynis tells us, there was 'an increase in weddings as local soldiers and sailors wanted to spend some precious married life with their sweethearts, whom they might well never see again.'
'In Bury St Edmunds the landlord of the Griffin, on the corner of Cornhill and Brentgovel Street, was called Theodore Jacobus,' says Glynis. 'He was, in fact, a British citizen, but on 15 May, a week after the sinking of the Lusitania, the pub was attacked by angry locally-billeted Royal Engineers and bricks were thrown through the windows.
'Two days later, West Suffolk County Council dismissed its weights and measures inspector, Mr Walters, from its town offices simply because he had German parents.
'Braham's scrap merchants in Risbygate Street were forced to take out advertisements to prove that they had no German blood in them, and the King of Prussia pub on the corner of Prussia Lane and Southgate Street was hastily renamed the Lord Kitchener.'
On the battlefields, by mid summer, The Suffolks were suffering heavy losses in France. At home, the talk was of compulsory conscription to swell the ranks. It would come at the start of 1916.
There were efforts to recruit women to work in agriculture. 'There was no shortage of volunteers. The main problem was the prejudice of the farmers…'
Glynis writes: 'By March, farmers in Norfolk had accepted female workers on their land and had been impressed with both the quality and quantity of their work. The women worked from 8am-4pm for 2/- (just over £6) per day. The pressure was now on for West Suffolk, including Bury St Edmunds, to follow suit.'
The year brought the Battle of the Somme, which lasted more than four months 'and was one of the biggest military disasters in history… The battle virtually wiped out a whole battalion of the Suffolk Regiment. Mr H Goodfellow of Bury lost three of his four sons'.
Suffolk was increasing food and vegetable production in gardens. Pupils, too, were taught to grow their own food, and potatoes were cultivated in the Abbey Gardens.
War casualties were now practically a daily occurence. 'Individuals were making incredible patriotic contributions, one local family having nine sons in the forces; another had five sons serving, and one Bury St Edmunds lady reported that of her four sons in the war, two were dead, one was an injured prisoner-of-war, and one was still serving.'
There was big political news. The vote would be given to women over the age of 30. 'It was the suffragette dream come true, and due to the simple fact that on the declaration of war they had laid aside their campaign for women to have the vote and thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the war effort,' says Glynis.
'They did the jobs men did before going off to fight with equal aptitude, they provided back-up support to the forces, they cared for refugees, nursed the sick, raised funds for the troops and prisoners-of-war, brought up their children and kept the home fires burning.'
Several people were complaining that the clock on St Mary's Church, Bury, was slow, and making them miss trains. The one on Moyse's Hall, the medieval merchant's house, however, was spot on.
'The matter of the two clocks caused a great deal of debate and several complaints, but it provided something on which to focus that didn't constantly remind people of the war,' writes Glynis.
She points out that life was sometimes a 'real life 'tale of two cities'.' For instance: after wage-earners were called up, many cash-strapped relatives were moving in with family members to make the pennies go further. On the other hand, a full-page advertisement trumpeted Lindsey Brothers' new showroom for fur coats, opening on the corner of the Buttermarket and Higher Baxter Street.
Fur coats apart, many things now seemed to be in short supply, including decent homes.
It was, says Glynis, 'not exactly the land fit for heroes that had been promised'.
By September, 362 disabled men had returned to Bury St Edmunds and West Suffolk. 'Of these, 119 went back to their old jobs, 69 were unfit to work, 61 were placed with new employers, 101 were in need of light employment…'
There was a measles epidemic in the autumn, and cases of flu.
'By early November it was recorded that the flu outbreak was of epidemic proportions in Bury… Three wards at the local isolation hospital were filled with flu victims and eighteen of the first seventy-four patients died, including one of the hospital nurses.'
Finally, on November 11 the cruel and terrible conflict came to an end.
The town was a blaze of lights and bunting, Glynis reports, 'but the war and the attacks by the Zeppelins had left deep scars, and there were still some Bury folk who could not bring themselves to draw back their curtains and let in the light.
'The old order had gone and a whole way of life had disappeared, but Bury St Edmunds could hold its head up with great pride in its Suffolk Regiment and for the immense contribution the town had made in so many ways to eventual victory over the Germans.'
They'd have had no idea the same thing would happen all over again barely two decades later…
* Bury St Edmunds in the Great War is published by Pen & Sword Military at £9.99