War stories of everyday folk in events that shook the world
PUBLISHED: 15:53 02 November 2018 | UPDATED: 16:57 08 November 2018
A volunteer researcher makes a plea to store records that shine a light on the near ancestors who lived in a world quite different from ours. Tony Wenham reports.
Somewhere in a house, in a bookcase, at the back of a cupboard... somewhere there’s a faded photograph, a record of someone in a single moment yet reflecting a lifetime in one frame. A christening, a wedding, a family group, a man or woman in uniform.
All this week, it’s those photographs of the men and women in uniform that cause us to pause, to consider their optimism, their pride, perhaps most of all their ignorance of what was to come.
As individuals and communities across the country prepare for Sunday’s centenary of the end of the so-called “war to end all wars” – the Great War – these poignant reminders of a world beyond the understanding of most 21st century westerners encapsulate the simple aspirations of young Edwardians who found themselves caught up in a brutal four years of conflict which would cost the lives of millions.
If you have one of these photographs, cherish it. It’s a repository of memories that may be lost for current and future generations thanks, ironically, to advances in technology.
“We live in a digital age,” says Daryl Long, a retired Wymondham primary school head teacher, now volunteering at the Norfolk Records Office (NRO) and the author of a series of blogs around stories that she’s uncovered in the archives.
“We have thousands of pictures on our phones – which is where most of them will stay. Instead, we should put names on them and store them as a record for future generations.”
Daryl struck gold early on in her researches. “I was going through some documents at the NRO and I saw the name of a man I’d worked with when I first came to Norwich,” she explains. “His daughter had given his diaries to the Records Office.
“He was a tiny, mild-mannered man who had worked in banking all his life. A puff of wind would have blown him over, but he enlisted in the King’s Royal Rifles in the First World War, not returning until 1919. He didn’t see a lot of action, he got diptheria and the Spanish ‘flu.
“He came back and went back into banking, this quiet unassuming man, who had been a part of history. And, for me, that’s what it’s all about – the stories.”
Now Daryl is preparing to re-tell some wartime stories at a free lunchtime talk on Wednesday, November 7 at the NRO’s Archive Centre. “Any library or bookshop has volumes on the big battles,” she says. “But I want the personal stories, including the dark humour and the funny stories.”
So, prepare to meet some of the characters from Norfolk’s First World War:
n The two 16-year-olds, for example, who both found themselves in the armed services. One joined the Navy and was killed at the Battle of Jutland; the other enlisted in the Army after being accosted in the street and urged to join up. He was injured in Mesopotamia, evacuated to a UK hospital, recovered in time to fight in the Battle of the Somme, survived and came back after the war to marry “the best girl in Yarmouth”.
n Woodbine Willie, a Norwich vicar, who set up a tobacco fund, encouraging parishioners and their children to raise cash to buy cigarettes for the troops overseas.
n Dog-lover Private Bob Benifer, of the Norfolk Regiment, who kept a photograph album during the war, many of which included man’s best friend.
n Nelson the tank, one of six which toured the country, capturing the public’s imagination and promoting the sale of War Bonds and War Savings certificates. Nelson came to Norwich and became a “Tank Bank” from which Bonds and Certificates could be bought. It arrived in Norwich on March 31, 1918, and made its way to the Guildhall where more than £380,000 was invested in the first 15 minutes.
Daryl has also been looking into the role of women in the First World War, including the girls from the Norwich Municipal Secondary Girls’ School (now known as Blyth-Jex) who raised, for example, five guineas (£5.25p) for the EDP Christmas Pudding Appeal in 1916.
“Looking ahead, I’m also hoping to make a complete Roll of Honour for the Norfolk women of the First World War,” says Daryl.
Norfolk Tales from the First World War: a Miscellany of Personal Experiences, November 7, 1-2pm, at the Archive Centre, Norfolk Records Office, Martineau Lane, Norwich NR1 2DH.