Diss and District in the First World War: Part 8 - The new threat from the skies

Strafed Zeppelin ANL-140508-093355001
Strafed Zeppelin ANL-140508-093355001

On April 6, 1917, a large advert had appeared in the paper, which was the beginning of the campaign to recruit women for National Service.

It stated: “10,000 Women wanted at once to grow and Harvest the Victory Crops. Don’t delay enrol at once in the Women’s Land Army. Send your application at once to the Director General.”

Those who enrolled immediately would receive a free outfit, maintenance during training and necessary travel expenses amongst other benefits.

Enrolment forms it said, could be collected either from the Post Office, or the Labour Exchange.

This was a direct indication of the ever dwindling supply of men for the forces. It was hoped that the move to recruit women would release more men for service and ensure the maintenance of a home grown food supply.

The British victory in Palestine in late March, where 900 Turkish prisoners had been taken, including the whole Divisional Staff of the 53rd Turkish Division, was being widely talked about. This success earned the commendation of the King who sent a message to General Sir Archibald Murray who was commanding the Egyptian Forces. Further successes were also reported regarding the fighting in France and the offensive which had begun over Easter.

The battle of Arras began on April 9 and continued into May. It was fought over a twelve mile front. According to Sir Douglas Haig’s dispatch to the Press Bureau in London nearly 6,000 prisoners were taken, during the first phase in early April. The battle at Vimy Ridge, north of Arras, part of the same campaign, lasted from the April 9-12 leading to its capture by the Canadians.

A detailed report of the events appeared in the Diss Express, from Mr Philip Gibbs, a War correspondent for the Daily Chronicle.

It said: “The Great British offensive began on Easter Monday. On the previous day, (Easter Sunday) and several days before that, a tremendous preliminary bombardment went on.”

These achievements nonetheless came at a very high cost in terms of men. The month became known as Bloody April - there were 158,660 British casualties during the battles, including air crew from the supporting Royal Flying Corps. Out of 365 aircraft, 245 were lost and 211 air crew killed. Local army casualties of the Arras campaign included Albert Beckett, Royal Marine Light Infantry, William Harold, Suffolk Regiment and David Hobbs, Middlesex Regiment. It would be some time before their families knew of these losses.

“President Wilson declares for War”, announced the Diss Express in the same edition of the paper.

He stated that “he would co-operate with the Allies.” However it also said: “None of the Presidential advisers contemplates at present…dispatching military forces to Europe”.

However, supplies of munitions, steel, other war materials and food, by all available shipping for at least a year would be sent over to the Allies, as this was seen as being more important than dispatching the American forces.

By the next week’s edition the battle of Messines Ridge, in Flanders, was being reported on and recorded as a great British success. The area under the battlefield had been tunnelled by sappers, many former mine workers, over many months and the tunnels filled with explosives. When set off it created “the largest mine explosion of the year, the sound of was heard by many people on this side of the channel.”

American troops did eventually arrive and details were given in the Diss Express in early July.

Over the following weeks advertisements began to appear for annual events such as ‘Alexandra Rose Day’ and special concerts which were to be held in Diss, like the planned Red Cross fundraising concerts.

‘Special Artistes’ from the Albert Hall, Queen’s Hall and Victoria Palace in London were billed as appearing.

Summer was on its way, but the war situation was of course still of great concern.

Severe fighting was going on near St. Quentin in France. There were reports too of aerial combat by the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service over enemy lines both on the battlefield and at strategic enemy positions. Zebrugge harbour in Belgium was attacked and bombarded in an attempt to destroy part of the German U-boat fleet which was doing so much damage.

Each week there were more sad reports in the paper about local men who had died and there was a moving account of a memorial service, in the May 18 edition, for two of them. Held at the Diss Congregational Chapel, Trooper Herbert Carver, of the Household Regiment and Gunner Bishop were remembered.

Other men killed included Ernest Brame who had attended the Diss Secondary School, and Sergeant C W Parsley, of Bressingham.

German prisoners were held in camps in Norfolk as in the rest of the country. In Suffolk three escaped prisoners were apprehended by a local policeman, as they made their way to the coast near Southwold. Stopped at this point it turned out that they had escaped from a camp in Northamptonshire and had managed to travel as far as Halesworth by train.

On May 25 there was an article reporting a statement made by Lord French, regarding the growing concern at home about the increasing number of Zeppelin raids which were taking place.

It stated: “Four or five hostile airships approached the coast of East Anglia shortly before midnight last night.”

The raiders were pursued by aeroplanes, but thick clouds enabled them to escape. One man was killed in a Norfolk village.

Londoners had not been so lucky in terms of air raid casualties.

The victims were the result of first daylight air raid on London, on June 13, involving 14 German Gotha bomber aircraft. The saddest incident was the bombing of the Upper North Street School, in Poplar, where 18 children were killed. This outrage brought a call for systematic and ruthless reprisals against the Germans.

A meeting was held at the Royal Opera House with a petition being drawn up to be presented to the King about the matter.

One raiding Zeppelin, which had been involved in a raid over London on June 17, the L48, the first U-class Zeppelin, was caught by four aeroplanes and crashed at Theberton, in Suffolk.

A list of air raid precautions was published in the paper, in September following a series of further attacks over the summer.

News of these raids reached members of the North Midland Mounted brigade who had trained in Diss and a letter from one of them, written in July, was published in September. It said: “I guess the present period is a very trying one. Of all the machinations of war, bombs are the worst.”

Further restrictions were being put on food supplies throughout the year and the King issued a Royal Proclamation which amounted to a scheme for Voluntary Food Rationing. A pledge to this effect was printed in the paper, which readers could sign and return to the authorities. On June 1 an advertisement appeared on the front of the paper announcing “The coming Dearth of Bread” and the meeting to be held at Heath Farm, Winfarthing, where a demonstration and discussion would be held relating to bread substitutes. Oat and rye bread were among the recommendations demonstrated.

In November a correspondent was writing about potato bread. Bread was made of 2lbs of potatoes to 4lbs of flour.

As the year progressed fighting increased, as did local concerns about the troops that people knew. An account of the annual Anniversary of the War service held in Diss was published by the Diss Express on August 10. Little did the Rev Dixon of the Wesleyan Church realise as he read out the Roll of Honour, that by the end of the year that list would have several local additions. British troops were advancing near Ypres where the ground troops were receiving aerial support when weather permitted. The headline “Air Cavalry at work. Thrilling tales of their work in Flanders,” appeared on August 24. This air support was given by both the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, which had an aerodrome at Pulham Market. By November 17 accounts were being published of the British and Canadian attack at Passchendaele, where heavy rain was falling as the attack began hampering essential air support. Fighting continued in November with the battle of Cambrai.

A number of the men serving at Pulham aerodrome with the Royal Naval Air Service formed a concert party which performed regularly at local functions. With the approach of Christmas 1917 they gave a concert at Diss Corn Hall which was very well received.

Other dances and entertainments were also held though one military band had to make a public appeal through the paper for a piano which they could use for the rest of the season.

lThis article is based on a forthcoming publication ‘A Norfolk Market Town at War

– Diss 1914 – 1918’

lNEXT TIME: 1918 and the home stretch.