The summer of 1916 marked the end of an era in military recruitment, which would have resonated in the Diss area.
The town had supplied many ‘Kitchener Men’ when the figurehead of the early recruiting campaign, Lord Kitchener, the Government War Minister, was drowned at sea.
He had been on his way to Russia when the ship carrying him and his staff was lost off the Orkneys.
The Admiralty press release about the incident appeared on page 5 of the June 9 edition of the Express.
It stated: “At 10.20 this morning H.M.S Hampshire (Capt. Herbert J. Saul), with Lord Kitchener and his Staff on board on its way to Russia was sunk off the Orkneys, either by a mine or torpedoes.”
Diss marked the loss as reported in the following week’s paper with the Diss Company of Change Ringers ringing a half–muffled peal in memory of Lord Kitchener and the soldiers and sailors.
There were ongoing local concerns about the men who were fighting abroad, brought home by the approaching harvest season when more men than ever would be missing from the harvest fields.
Everyone realised the importance of what these men were fighting for, but they wished this harvest was back to the pre-war days with the men at home. Some farmers were now employing women under the new ministry scheme, to do the work of the men who were fighting.
This was despite the comments made by a local Board of Agriculture member, Mr B Sapwell, who was quoted as saying ‘he did not think any farmer in Norfolk would be bothered with them’. In the end the ‘Women’s Land Army’ would of course prove their worth in both world wars.
Essential work in farming, foraging and forestry became the foundation of the Women’s Land Army Corps. Their motto in these early days on recruitment posters was ‘God speed the plough and the woman who drives it.’
By the end of June news of the Diss men and their colleagues from the 2nd who were prisoners of war in the Middle East at Kut–al-Amara was reaching home, to the relief of their families. These were the local men who served in the Regular Army and had gone from Bombay in India to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in November 1914.
A list was printed in the paper which contained the names of Lance Corporal Ellis and Private George Jolly, of Diss, as well as men from Billingford, Private Fisher, and Private Mullinger from Tivetshall amongst others. They had been captured and then taken prisoner following the fall of Kut on April 29.
The remnants of the 2nd Dorset Regiment who hadn’t been at Kut formed what became known as the ‘Norsets’.
Other local troops were just about to take action on the Somme, in France where the British Advance against the Germans was being launched.
The First Battle of the Somme opened on July 1 as was reported on July 7. On that morning an attack began north of the Somme. British troops broke into the German forward trenches on the Front of 16 miles.
Summer had arrived and there were many advertisements in the paper as usual for the summer sales at the various shops in Diss. Bellfield’s for instance launched its summer bargain sale with the line ‘Great Advance to Bellfields’, which they saw as an eye catching way to entice shoppers.
As the battles escalated in France on the Somme there were appalling casualty numbers, including local men. Those men who had recently come before the local Military tribunals, such as the one reported on in July were told that in future they would only be granted temporary exemption from war service on account of their trade, or profession on the understanding that they would have to join the volunteer company.
The only exception would be for men who were members of The Society of Friends (Quakers).
Under the Military Services Act which had come into force in June all men were considered to be enlisted in HM Regular Forces.
A local 6th Battalion of the Norfolk Volunteers was set up to recruit men who were under age to join the regular army and older men as well as those with temporary exemption from Military Service.
They would be trained and sent to join the army when needed.
According to the paper 42 volunteered at the inaugural meeting at the Crown Hotel in Diss on July 18.
The anniversary of the beginning of the war, on August 4, was now approaching and an advertisement was placed in the July 21 issue of the Diss Express to announced that a Solemn Religious Service would be held on Diss Market Place, at 4pm.
Mr. C, Humphrey, J. P. Chairman of Diss Urban District Council would be in the Chair, supported by the clergy and ministers of the town.
Businesses were asked to close early so that as many people as possible could attend. The individual bravery of one young boy at the Battle of Jutland, John Cornwell who had stayed at his post, though mortally wounded during the battle, was being widely talked about following the publication of an account of the battle.
But local people attending the commemoration would no doubt have had on their minds the men that they knew who had lost their lives during the previous two years of war.
It was reported that 2,000 people attended the event. A list of the names of the fallen was read out at the service. Fortunately no one present would have had any idea of the number of losses to come. It cannot have been very pleasant for those who had suffered a loss or reassuring to those who had men in the forces, for they must have wondered if their men would ever come home. One of the latest casualties was Sidney Bennett, who was the only son of the Rev. Bennett, a former Methodist Minister in the town and his wife. Sidney had regularly turned out for both the town cricket and football teams.
More deaths were reported in the paper in August including those of Pte. Brown and Gunner A.V.Rudd.
In the midst of the concerns about local men and the war the town had not forgotten the struggles of the people of Belgium and the situation which they were in. Whilst many people had fled the country and come to Britain as refugees, thousands more had remained in occupied Belgium, and were suffering the effects of the war, its deprivations and associated suffering.
The local relief committee had recently held a successful fundraising day which had raised more than £21 according to Mr. Bryant, the Secretary to the local Belgian Relief Committee.
While some of the events held were more like we hear of now, there had also been an exhibition of souvenirs of war including hand grenades, bombs, pieces of shrapnel, German helmets and Turkish Howitzer shells lent by local men who had served abroad.
Military recruitment numbers continued to increase and there were regular reports in the paper about the 6th Diss Volunteers which was up to the required strength of 150 men.
By the end of the month of August it was being reported that the Suffolk Regiments was suffering unusually high numbers of casualties.
It was said that “many were from north Suffolk with a considerable sprinkling from Norfolk.”
September saw fighting in France intensify with battles in areas which included Pozieres, High Wood, Vimy Ridge, Neuve Chappelle and Arras. A further British advance took place in France at Thiepval in September which resulted in the capture of German trenches.
The town had also been entertained by a visit from the Royal British Circus, which had set up in the ‘Saracen’s Head’ yard, and an article was published about the showing of a film of ‘The Battle of the Somme’ at Diss Picture house in the Diss Express of October 13.
Troops were still engaged in fighting in Mesopotamia and as winter approached a letter was published on October 6 stating: ‘An Appeal for our
Troops in Mespotamia, from the Norfolk and Norwich Branch of the Voluntary Women’s War Work Association, 1,500 pairs of mittens were needed by October 15 to send to the troops’.
Christmas was on the way and soon the paper was beginning to report on the sending of four cases of parcels from Diss via American Express to the British prisoners of war at Sennelager bei Paderborn in Westphalia for the troops there who would have few or no presents in addition to the ones being sent to the Diss prisoners.
n This article is based on a forthcoming publication ‘A Norfolk Market Town at War – Diss 1914 – 1918’.
n NEXT TIME: Early 1917.