Diss and District in the First World War: Part 7 - The winter the food ran out

Dennis Cross Memory Lane ANL-140907-171553001
Dennis Cross Memory Lane ANL-140907-171553001

Christmas 1916 had been celebrated, and there had been a Christmas Day collection, in Diss, to provide Relief Funds for the people of Belgium.

With the coming of the New Year it was hoped by all that 1917 would bring peace.

But a recent offer of peace by the Germans had been rejected by the Allies, as reported in the first issue of the Diss Express in 1917 on January 5. Germany’s offer to the French Government, on December 30, was viewed as “empty and insincere”, as reported by the Press Bureau.

The Allies would not accept it unless reparations and guarantees were offered. They were particularly angered by two of the statements made in the note from the enemy, for “throwing upon the Allies the responsibility of war, and the other proclaiming the victory of the Central Powers (Germany and her allies)”.

Locally there was a more cheerful prospect. The paper carried a large advertisement for a concert by the ‘Roland Ramblers’, in aid of funds for the Diss Red Cross Hospital.

This would be under the distinguished patronage of the Dowager Lady Bateman, and others who would be in attendance. A successful concert for the Norfolk Regiment Prisoner of War Funds had recently taken place at Kenninghall with floral decorations for the stage sent by Lady Albermarle.

The paper was becoming more and more concerned with reports of the progress of the war, as were its readers.

Crucial campaigns were taking place in all theatres of war both in Europe and further afield.

In late January the War office announced that a Turkish position had been taken near El Arish, on the Sinai Peninsula, in Egypt, and 1,600 prisoners taken by the Anzacs and Camel Corps.

Local men from the 12th Norfolk Regiment (The Yeomanry), would be deployed here in February 1917. Letters home to the paper included one from a Diss man, Private G Pearce of the 1st Garrison Battery, Northamptonshire Regiment stationed in Egypt, thanking the people of Diss for his Christmas parcel. He wrote: “Of course out here we can hardly believe it is Christmass time, as the weather is more like summer in England.”

Factories all over the country were requisitioned for war production, including the manufacture of arms, armaments and explosives. The Diss foundry in Victoria Road made shell cases, which were then sent off to other locations to be finished and filled with explosives.

Diss Mere had frozen over in January, much as it had in earlier years. On January 23 a report appeared describing the previous evening’s event on the Mere. It said: “Last evening there was a large concourse of the military on the ice and dancing took place to the music of a pianoforte and other instruments”. This led to the planning of a charity event which would take advantage of the frozen Mere.

It was advertised in the paper that a ‘Fancy Dress Ice Carnival’, to raise funds for the Diss (Red Cross) V.A.D. Hospital, would take place on February 13 (Jack Frost and weather permitting). No entry fee would be charged for those in costume. All those wishing to take part were invited to meet in the Market Place at 2.45pm; Tuesday was half–day closing in Diss. Unfortunately the ice broke up on the Mere before the carnival was held, but the committee decided to fall back on a Fancy Dress Parade, which ended up at the Picture House, where a fundraising concert was held.

As the war progressed there were drastic reductions in food supply with the continual sinking of British, Allied and other merchant vessels by German submarine attacks. In March for instance seven Dutch, (the Netherlands was neutral country) liners from the mercantile marine were sunk off Falmouth, in Cornwall. They were carrying mostly foodstuffs, it was reported. Bread was already subject to Government regulations, with a national ‘War Bread’ recipe being in place. But there was an article printed in early February from the Government Food Controller appealing for the voluntary rationing of bread, meat and sugar. The maximum quantities specified per head per week would be; bread, 4lbs (or its equivalent in flour, 3lbs for bread making), meat 2.5 lbs, and sugar 0.75lbs. The key aim was to lessen meat consumption. Everyone was expected to eat 1lb less per week of bread, than before the war.

Cakes and puddings had to be made from the flour allowance given for bread. . The making of fancy cakes, muffins, and currant bread was disallowed, and those defying the orders would be prosecuted under the ‘Defence of The Realm Regulations’. The advertisements for events such as dances and fêtes increasingly advised people that they must bring their own sugar if they wished to sweeten their tea.

Articles published on March 9 showed the high level of Government concern both in relation to the growing food crisis and army recruitment.

There would be a review of exemptions from service granted to men under the age of 31. Locally the Norfolk Appeal Tribunal who met in March 1917 had to consider the case of Mr. Ernest Edward Thompson M.A, the much respected Diss Secondary School Headmaster. Having failed to have his appeal against Military Service upheld, he left Diss Secondary School at the end of term in April. He embarked for France on September 27, 1918 with the 228th Battalion Royal Garrison Artillery. Subsequently he was put in command of one of the six-inch Howitzer gun crews of the battalion near Le Cateau in France. The position was constantly under enemy fire and after nearly a fortnight’s continuous action, he was killed by a piece of shrapnel on October 16, 1918.

A list of war casualties was printed weekly in the paper from official information which was released. 1917 would see a particularly high number of casualties among local men. Thirty five died including Arthur Turner son of Mr and Mrs Turner, of Walcot Green who was serving with the 50th Battalion Canadian Regiment (he had emigrated to Canada before the war), and Gunner Sydney Buckley, who had died in France in January 1917. As with other local families his relatives received a letter following his death, from one of his officers. The letters, however much they veiled the true circumstances of a death, must have given some comfort to the parents, families and relatives who received them.

There were also announcements of honours won in battle for bravery such as the award of the French Military medal to Driver Bertie Harris of the Army Service Corps, and the English Military Medal awarded to his brother Bombardier Arthur Harris, also in 1917.

n This article is based on a forthcoming publication, ‘A Norfolk Market Town at War – Diss 1914 – 1918’

n NEXT TIME: The summer

of 1917