The sinking of the famous White Star passenger liner The Lusitania in May 1915 and the resultant loss of civilian lives had a profound effect on peoples’ attitudes toward the realities of war.
Everyone was vulnerable.
The Diss Express continued to report the attacks on both the merchant and fishing fleets off our coast and the Zeppelin raids over Norfolk and Suffolk. Anti-German riots were reported as having taken place at Ipswich and Kings Lynn in the May 21 edition of the Express.
However, the men of Diss were receiving much praise for their support of the war effort, which was reported in the Diss Express’ May 28 edition.
Colour Sergeant Buckenham, the local recruiting officer, was pleased to report that he had attested, for military service, 254 men from Diss and district. The Express was widely read abroad by the troops who were serving.
A letter appeared in the paper on June 1 from Harry Angold titled Somewhere in France.
Fundraising for those troops who had been captured in 1914 and were prisoners of the Germans continued apace. Mrs Mabel Thomas, who ran the fund, sent a letter, in early June, reporting that the first batch of boxes, which were to be sent fortnightly, containing essentials such as tea, cheese and biscuits had been dispatched.
Other fundraising was also taking place during June and July. A concert had even been held in the church hall where funds were collected to provide sand bags for troops at the front.
Sadly though the paper was also recording further losses of local men who had been killed including Alan Batley of Mission Road who served with ‘B’ Company of the King’s Royal Rifle Corp, and Percy Cullum of Mill Drive, which was also off Victoria Road, in Diss. They were remembered along with other Diss casualties at memorial services at the Diss Baptist Chapel on August 8.
Private May of the Royal Army Medical Corps, whose father was in business in Mere Street, was serving in Gallipoli where there were a great many losses, including local men.
Pte. May became one of the papers most interesting correspondents and wrote a vivid account of what was happening on the front in August 1915, which included an account of the dressing station where he was working and enemy aircraft which were constantly patrolling and bombing the area.
There was a national campaign once again for the recruitment of more potential servicemen, which was well reflected in the ‘Diss Express’ in letters and articles which were appearing.
The military authorities were struggling to find enough service personnel in the face of increasing losses and an ever increasing battle front across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Most of the regular army who had gone to fight in 1914 had been killed or seriously wounded and the shortage of manpower was reaching a critical level.
The first National Registration form was printed in the paper on August 13. In conjunction with the need for further recruits, national registration of everybody in the country was brought in. This was so that the Government could more accurately gauge the number of potential service personnel and identify foreign nationals who could pose a threat.
It was also proposed to raise a National Volunteer Force with local Volunteer Training Corps being set up all over the country. Here, men could volunteer to join and be trained by older retired soldiers or those no longer fit, or able to serve in the forces.
This was advertised on August 13 in a large advert on the front page of the paper, and a public meeting was due to be held on August 16. At this stage of the war there was no compulsory military service in Great Britain, unlike the situation in other nations, including Germany, where it was in place.
A volunteer company was successfully formed in Diss as a result, and not before time. By September 10, alongside the report on the Harvest Thanksgiving Service at the Diss Wesleyan Methodist Church, appeared a harrowing account of the fighting taking place in Gallipoli.
Under the heading A Soldier’s Battle, it described a desperate battle, concluding that it was the “most furious since Inkerman” (in the Crimean War).
Following this and the acknowledged rapidly deteriorating state regarding manpower in the forces the situation here regarding compulsion began to change by late September when the issue was discussed in Parliament by Lloyd George, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and later wartime Prime Minister.
The local mood was lightened to some extent in August and September. Military weddings took place, including that of Miss Long of Denmark Street, who was attended by her three sisters and three soldier brothers.
In September there was a large advertisement on September 15 for Ginnett’s and Luko’s ‘All British Empire Circus’, which was arriving on Monday next.
The circus was to be set up on the Saracen’s Head meadow. Shops advertised and many letters were received from troops who were grateful for gifts sent from the children at Diss Council School as part of the Overseas Club’s Empire Day Fund (pictured) to provide comfort at the front.
A letter had also been received by Clement Gaze, from Captain Morgan of the Diss Coy. 4th V.B.N.R (Volunteer Brigade Norfolk Regiment) now at the Dardanelles, reporting that: “We are getting jolly good rations now, biscuits, bread, bacon, jam, meat, rice and prunes.”
By the October 8 1915 edition it was being reported that the proposed Red Cross Hospital, at The Uplands in Diss would shortly be open for the reception of wounded soldiers, from the North Midland Mounted Brigade stationed in and around Diss.
They were now appealing for the loan of any of the following articles - six easy chairs, piano and games for the recreation room. The Secretary, Miss Heywood, of The Wilderness, Diss, would receive the items.
Between September 1914 and August 1915 more than 1,000 patients had been treated there at the Voluntary Aid Detachment Hospital and three of the V.A.D. nurses had gone to serve in France.
Toward the end of October it was announced that a new recruiting scheme was being brought in which had been instigated by Lord Derby, and became known as the Derby Scheme.
The tragic event in France reported in the October 22 edition was going to have a local impact on recruiting. The mood darkened again as everyone read their papers that day and talked about the news in the town and county. Edith Cavell, born at Swardeston, Norfolk, had been shot at dawn by a firing squad, for treason by the German military authorities, on October 12 at Schaerbeek, in Belgium.
She had been running the Berkendael Medical Institute for the Red Cross in Brussels, where she nursed injured soldiers irrespective of their nationality.
From here she also ran a safe house willingly risking her life along with her Belgian and French colleagues helping over 200 Allied soldiers escape to the Netherlands, a neutral country. Her body was repatriated after the war and a national memorial service held at Westminster Abbey. Edith is now buried at Life’s Green, by Norwich Cathedral.
Nationally, this heightened anti-German feeling and reportedly led to a rapid increase in local recruiting, as Norfolk men sought to avenge her death.
As Christmas 1915 drew near, the local shops were keen to encourage festive spirit, many using the theme of buying gifts for loved ones serving at the front.
On December 3 for instance, Livock and Moss, Watchmakers and Jewellers at 72 Mere Street, Diss, placed the following advertisement on the front page: ‘Don’t be in the dark about that little gift for your friend.’
G.May and Son, The Cash Jewellers, 49, Mere Street had the tagline: ‘For Aeroplane quality and Submarine prices.’
A football team wiped out
An interesting account also appeared in the paper in the run-up to Christmas. It related to the men of the Diss Tuesday Football Club joining up to fight, and brings home the devastation of the war.
There was every hope that they would all come home again. The club met on a Tuesday afternoon, which was half day closing in Diss. They played at what is now Gaze’s sale ground in Roydon Road where the cricket team also had its pitch.
It read: “Patriotic Footballers. A record hard to beat in the matter of patriotism.”
Twenty of the 26 players who volunteered for service had perished. (Two including Mr. Frank Rayner, the Tuesday Club secretary, were not fit for service. Though by 1918, Mr Rayner was serving)
It reported: “Mr. Rayner is devoting a section of his shop window in Chapel Street to a Roll of Honour.
The Roll of Honour comprises the following names: S, Buxton, F.A. Cullum, M. Easto, G.A. Garland, G. Harbour, G. Hawes, F. Kerry, P.Long, R. Pettit, G.Pearson, A.Madgett, G.Madgett, W.Noble, F.J. Read, W. Gillman, L. Stevens, E. Weavers, P. Welton, E. Easto and P.Ward.
Social historian Helen Kennett has undertaken exhaustive research into how the Diss area was affected by the First World War. In the fourth in our series, she looks at how people in the area tried to do what they could to help the boys on the front. Pictures supplied by Dennis Cross.