It was the beginning of the New Year and there was a growing realisation that the war was continuing.
The Diss Express of January 1, 1915 carried reports of Christmastide in Diss and in the trenches.
Locally troops who were billeted in the town undergoing training had been entertained to tea over Christmas.
Members of the ‘Welsh Horse’ for instance, had sent letters of thanks earlier in the year for the invitations that they had had to take tea with local families. A Diss man, Corporal F. Amy, who was in the Guards Regiment had managed to send home a letter describing Christmas week in the trenches which gave those at home some idea of what he was experiencing.
The famous Christmas fraternization between the British and German troops on the Front and the exchange of cigarettes and game of football had not gone down well with those in charge and the British and German High Command order had been issued forbidding any further instances.
The January sales in the various shops in the town were still being held as in pre-war times as was apparent from the advertisements that appeared on the front pages. There was a hint at the war though, in the advert for the sales. At Mrs Burrage’s Annual Sale they were promoting a ‘Discount for Knitting Wool for Knitting for Our Soldiers and Sailors’. Very apt considering the wet, cold conditions they were facing in the trenches and at sea.
Burfields of Diss, in the Market Place was urging potential customers “to join the Army of Shoppers”.
In late January the war moved nearer to home with the first Zeppelin attacks, which were reported on January 22.
There was loss of life and damage to property along the coast at Great Yarmouth and inland at Kings Lynn. Mr Riches who ran an insurance business in Denmark Street, placed an advertisement in the paper encouraging people to take out policies to protect their properties in the event of an air raid. Ordinary fire policies did not cover aerial attack damage he said.
The war was entering a new and frightening phase for the country. There were fears that there would be aerial gas attacks and the lighting restrictions which we associate with the Second World War were soon brought into force. “Put out that light” was the new watchword in Diss and all over the country.
Cases of lighting offences were soon being heard by the local magistrates at the Petty Sessions in Diss Corn Hall. The country was under further pressure from the Germans as they introduced a naval blockade of Britain, so that food and goods could not be brought in, as was reported in the paper. Locally there were constant attacks on fishing boats, trawlers and other vessels off the Norfolk and Suffolk coast and a great loss of life. As would happen again in the Second World War, it was feared that German ships would be able to land troops on the North Norfolk coast where there was deep water at Weybourne. Ironclad coastguard cutters armed with naval guns patrolled coastal waters, and armed trawlers were used as well.
Lots of entertainments were being staged both at various venues in the town, in early 1915. Detailed adverts for them appeared in the paper which were intended to catch the interest of the readers. There was to be a Military Entertainment at the Corn Hall and the London firm of John Broadwood and Sons, Piano Manufacturers, who had their own concert party, sent them and a grand piano to entertain everyone at the Y.M.C.A. Hall, in Victoria Road in February.
The concerts and other entertainments kept up morale and helped to integrate the various regiments, temporarily in the area, into the population.
Later there would be several military weddings in the town and the local shops were advertising their ranges of ‘Presents for Easter Weddings’ in March 1915.
Wedding reports at this time were usually very detailed and listed presents given, these included writing desks, jewellery, silver and household goods for the dining room like canteens of cutlery.
Among the letters that appeared in the paper there were ‘Letters from the Front’ from local men serving in the forces and navy.
Despite censorship they give a good idea of what was going on where they were, and despite wartime conditions arrived at the paper with remarkable speed form all over the war zones, including India and South Africa and from German prisoner of war camps. There was also correspondence home from Diss men who had emigrated to Canada and joined the Canadian forces. Trooper Henry Angold, Private Arthur Tuner and Private Geoffrey Downton were among them.
Pte Downton’s poem entitled ‘Rolling up from Canada’ was reproduced in the paper. Over one hundred local men served with the Royal and merchant navies during the war. These included a former Diss Baptist minister’s son, James Easter and the McMurren brothers who wrote to the paper. In reading the letters pages you find that some of those serving became regular correspondents like T.E Stannard and Corporal Amy.
Not all the letters home were cheerful and some extracts were printed to report on casualties and loss of life which had been sent to local families. These grew in number and detail as the war progressed, reporting on instances of bravery and circumstances of death from commanding officers. They make for difficult reading even now so long after the event.
Courage and concern for others under fire were never lacking.
As the war progressed there were also increasing reports of bravery awards and medals made to local men.
Regular reports appeared in the paper about the local Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment Hospital at The Uplands, in Diss, which according to the paper, by mid - March 1915, was back in their hands.
It had been previously commandeered in 1914 by the Royal Army Medical Corps to treat injured casualties from the Front.
The hospital would now be used for men mobilised for Home Defence to cut down the pressure on other large war hospitals, like those in Norwich.
Local support for the hospital was very strong and there was a great deal of fundraising for it.
Concerts and sales were held as well as donations of food and goods which were made each week.
A Red Cross working party was set up in the town to make garments for wounded men who were in hospital. Patterns for shirts and pyjamas appeared in the paper, along with an appeal for individuals to make them and send to the Red Cross depȏt in London.
The realities of the impact that the war was having on military personnel numbers were brought home sharply in the Diss Express edition of April 19, 1915.
The disastrous Gallipoli landings had taken place in March and there had been the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in France as well. Both involved local men.
A large advertisement appeared on the front page under the heading ‘Appeal for Recruits’. Men between the ages of 19-38 were wanted, and they were encouraged to send their names to the paper.
Any name submitted would be published and underneath was printed the ‘Diss Express’ Registration Form.
When filled in this could be returned to the paper who would forward it to the appropriate authorities.
A letter from Private H. Spink, of Diss, serving the Worcestershire Regiment, in the British Expeditionary Force in France reiterated this need and sent ‘An appeal to his mates.’
He said that he had been waiting through the winter months for them to join ‘the Colours.’
At this stage of the war America was still a neutral country and passenger liners continued to make regular un-escorted sailings between Liverpool and New York.
People were still emigrating to America and Canada. No one believed that there was a threat from German submarines, they wouldn’t attack a passenger liner would they?
This changed on May 7th 1915, as reported in great detail in the ‘Diss Express’ on May 14.
The ‘Lusitania’ a ‘White Star ‘vessel belonging to the Cunard line and the world’s largest ship sailed for Liverpool on May 1st.
She was torpedoed off Ireland by a German submarine and sank with tragic loss of life. 1,200 passengers were lost. Warnings had been given in New York by the German Authorities advising passengers not to sail on her.
Germany regarded the waters around the United Kingdom as a war-zone and reasoned that they had justification for their actions as they suspected that military supplies were being carried on the liner.
This action influenced American policy and led to them later declaring war on Germany.
There was a distinctly Norfolk connection with the tragedy,
Nurse Edith Cavell from Swardeston, was appointed in 1907 as the director of the Belgian School of Registered Nurses in Brussels, set up Dr Antoine Depage and his wife Marie. She stayed in occupied Brussels to run the ‘Berkendael Medical Institute’ for the Red Cross. The Depage’s had by then set up a hospital at La Panne beyond the front lines.
Madame Depage had travelled to America with her son Lucien to raise funds for Belgian military medical aid and they were returning on the Lusitania when she was lost.
Marie died rescuing children from the liner. Edith was to die, a war victim, in tragic circumstances in October 1915.
A commemorative medal for the two women was struck, it bears the legend;
‘1915 – Remember.’
nThis is a modified extract from a forthcoming publication –‘Diss and District in World War One’
nNext week: The Summer of 1915.