Diss and District in the First World War: Part 5 - Rumours of conscription as war is fought on home front and abroad

The Forge, Scole ANL-140807-121348001
The Forge, Scole ANL-140807-121348001

With the beginning of a new year everyone was hoping that the war would soon be over, even if they realised that this might not be a reality.

Certainly from what they were reading in the press it seemed increasingly unlikely.

Territorials at Diss ANL-140807-121337001

Territorials at Diss ANL-140807-121337001

News of casualties reached home daily and yet still more men were needed by the military.

Rumours of compulsory conscription and compulsion abounded.

A veneer of the old way of life continued in spite of everything and announcements for the local January sales appeared as they always had.

However there was an ever increasing focus on the war. With the heavy losses sustained among the merchant shipping which were reported regularly in the Diss Express, there was a growing threat to the national food supply, which was coupled with the diminishing supply of an agricultural work force, keenly felt in Norfolk, as the men were called up.

Supply Carriage on Victoria Road ANL-140807-121316001

Supply Carriage on Victoria Road ANL-140807-121316001

The January 7 edition carried news which would change the dimension of the war along with matters nearer to home.

A front page advertisement appeared announcing a conference to be held by the Depwade Agricultural Committee called Cropping in Wartime. Wartime work for women on the land was also mooted in the paper.

The situations vacant column had an increasing number of positions for young lads to work on farms, or take on apprenticeships in businesses where older boys and men had left for military service. It echoes of a similar situation found in the Second World War.

Many men had joined the military under Lord Derby’s scheme, a voluntary enlistment scheme and they were asked to take part in a route march, through Diss, assembling at the bridge on Victoria Road in an advert which appeared in the same edition.

Keen readers would of course read perhaps with trepidation on the same page that the Compulsion Bill, (military service) which had been unpopular when discussed in Parliament in 1915 was finally passed with a Government majority of 298. This was passed on January 27 and came into force on March 2. It brought in conscription.

Every man was deemed eligible for military service, though they could go before a military tribunal to gain exemption.

This was coupled with the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, put the country firmly on a war footing.

The campaign in Gallipoli in 1915 had involved many men from Norfolk who were serving with the 4th and 5th Norfolk’s.

Those from the 4th came from the Diss area and the 5th the Kings Lynn area.

The alleged fate of the so called ‘Lost Battalion’ men (5th Norfolk’s) from the King’s estate at Sandringham has passed into history and been dramatised on television.

Page 4 in the January 7 edition carried an official account about them in a dispatch written by Sir Ian Hamilton, claiming that Colonel Beauchamp of the 5th Norfolk’s had led only the men of that battalion on that fateful day.

This was to be seriously challenged in the following edition by Private Sydney R. Spurling, who was there.

He wrote to the paper stating that many Diss men of the 4th Norfolk’s were among the men who allegedly disappeared in a cloud never to be seen again.

In fact he said: “As everyone will understand, in a moment such as we were in then, there was a little confusion and the regiments got mixed.

“Some of our men came back a few days afterwards, but others have not been seen since”.

By February 11 the paper reported that under the ‘Derby’ scheme all men were brought automatically into War service when they reached 18.

The first emphasis was on single men.

Appeals against military service could be put before a Local Military Service Tribunal, such as the one reported in the March 3 and 10 editions.

The Diss Tribunal panel met in Diss, in the Magistrates’ Room at Diss Corn Hall.

The tribunal panel was made up of local councillors, justices of peace and magistrates, with a military representative.

Names of those called before the tribunal are omitted, but it is sometimes possible to deduce who they are by their stated occupation.

The headmaster of Diss Secondary School, Mr. Ernest E Thompson, being an example.

He was granted an exemption from service, but went into service the next year. Two other Diss men who could be identified were one of the Anness brothers and the hairdresser’s son Frederick Studd.

The local retailers Henry Bobby of St Nicholas Street had an advertisement on the front page of that week’s paper in which they advertised themselves as ‘Henry Bobby and Sons, Military Tailors and Outfitters, Agents for Burberry’s War Kit’.

At this point much there was much concern in the press and in the town over the battle for Verdun.

However the war’s effects were also causing concern at home as there were an ever increasing number of Zeppelin raids.

The paper reported the number and counties, including Norfolk and Suffolk where they took place, but for security reasons not precise locations.

One raiding Zeppelin, the L15, was shot down, wrecked and its crew captured.

Various government measures were brought in to improve security, such as church bells being silenced and to save fuel, and the Daylight Saving bill, which meant that shops closed earlier.

As in the Second World War, showing a light at night was an offence and there were similar black-out restrictions in force.

This gave rise to a series of lighting offences cases which were heard at the Magistrates’ courts locally.

April saw an announcement that on the 25th of the month, the first anniversary of Anzac Day would be celebrated in England.

This commemorated the appalling Australian and New Zealand losses at Gallipoli of 8,000 men the year before.

At the same time it was reported that the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, had issued an ultimatum to Germany on April 18 demanding an immediate reply.

This followed the sinking of yet another British passenger ship in the English Channel, the Sussex, with Americans once again among those lost.

He demanded that Germany reverse its policy of submarine attacks on merchant shipping which they believed were trading with the allies.

The American Senate also immediately passed the Army Re-organisation Bill which would provide a regular military reserve aggregating 1,000,000 men.

In Britain at the same time it was reported that the government had to withdraw its new Military Service Bill as it proved so unpopular.

However under the Lord Derby voluntary scheme, married men up to the age of 35 were being called to enlist.

By the May 25 edition of the Diss Express the Military Service Bill had come into force. Now extended it included everyman between the ages of 18-41.

In view of had happened recently in Ireland as well as our commitments in Europe and other war zones, this was very timely.

Rioting had broken out in Dublin with the so called ‘Dublin Revolt’.

The Easter Rising had taken place in Easter week beginning on Easter Monday.

The leaders sought the secession of Ireland from the United Kingdom and the setting up of an Irish Republic.

Martial Law was quickly declared in Dublin City and County.

An eyewitness account from a Diss man, who was in Dublin on holiday, Mr. Walter Clarke, who worked for Mr. Cupiss, the printer, appeared in the paper on May 5.

While the paper continued to try to keep up the spirits of the local people the advertisements and articles were focusing on the war effort and the war.

The British Red Cross Farmers Fund, set up by a London businessman, to provide items for those serving held regular sales in Diss and district which were being advertised in June.

They included the sale announced on page 1 of the June 9 paper, this included the sale of Anzac Ben, a dog which had been on active service with its master, Trooper Ben Squirrel.

The dog appeared in many such sales and raised a considerable sum for the fund.

Though this must have lightened the mood, the war reports could not be dismissed and the continuing unfolding events put to one side in an area where so many men were now on active service. The week’s paper had much to say about the British Front on land and at sea.

As well as soldiers and those serving in the Royal Naval Air Service, the forerunner of the Royal Flying corps, a very large number of men from the area were serving in the Royal Navy.

In the press reports of that week were accounts of the battles and fierce fighting taking place in France south east of Ypres, between Ypres and Ypres Menin and an account of a raid by the R.N.A.S using 26 planes which launched an aerial attack over enemy lines.

Heavy raids by the enemy were also taking place at Arras according to the paper. Several local men, were reported killed, injured and missing in these battles, adding to the losses endured in the war so far.

At the same time the paper was reporting on the Battle of Jutland which occurred on the previous Thursday and Friday. The British navy had suffered severe losses of men and shipping.

Three battleships including the Queen Mary, as well as several other large vessels, among them the Defence and much other shipping, was sunk, many with no survivors being rescued.

The war was certainly at the forefront of all people’s minds.

n This is a modified extract from a forthcoming publication – Diss and District in WWI