11 November 1918
When Armistice was called at 11.00 on 11 November 1918 there was rejoicing in Norwich Market Place. The men of the 51st and 52nd (Graduated) Battalions of The Bedfordshire Regiment were all photographed cheering with their hats atop their bayonets, rifles held high.
They had not seen service and now knew they would not be sent to an active theatre of war. For the people at home there were celebrations on the streets and in market places, but there could be no real celebration until their loved ones returned home.
For the men on the front line there was cheering and undoubtedly relief that the ‘bloody war’ was over. However they would be left with the surreal feeling of what do we do now? The military authorities were very keen that the men carried on with military duties and maintained discipline as the clearing up began and the battalions began to leave their lines. Thousands of British soldiers were involved in theatres of war far beyond The Western Front with The Norfolk Regiment Battalions out in Mesopotamia and Palestine. In the aftermath of the war there was still a need for soldiers to provide the occupation forces of Germany, pursue the campaign in North Russia, conduct garrison duties across the Empire and the men of the Royal Navy had many minefields to clear at sea. Demobilization of British military personnel would not be a swift process.
When a man could be released from military service depended on the terms of service he had signed up for. The men who had enlisted as regular soldiers knew they would keep on serving. Most of those who had volunteered or had been conscripted could not wait to get home. Men with ‘in demand’ industrial skills, including miners, enjoyed a priority discharge as did those who had volunteered to serve during the early war years. However, this left the conscripts, particularly those who had turned 18 in 1918, at the bottom of the list for demobilization or ‘demob.’ Most of the men were back home in time for the national Peace Day celebrations of 19 July 1919.
THE CREATION OF VETERANS’ GROUPS
The close comradeship of the trenches, forged in the heat of battle, led to hundreds of Divisional, Regimental and even Battalion Old Comrades Associations being started. These associations were formalised after the war with elected committees and arranged annual dinners and outings. Subscriptions and donations were collected to provide support for former members of the men’s old regiments who were experiencing hard times through sickness, disability or genuine misfortune.
The National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers founded in 1916 united several groups for discharged servicemen. Membership came predominantly from the working class and it rapidly developed links with trade unions and the Labour Party. The National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers was formed in 1917. This was soon nicknamed ‘The Silver Badge Party’ after the Silver War Badge worn by those who had been granted an Honorable Discharge from military service during the First World War. The Comrades of The Great War was also founded in 1917 and a further group, the Officers’ Association, was formed in 1920. All of these groups rapidly gathered support and started branches across the country. However it was painfully apparent that despite striving for the same aims there was a large amount of duplication in their efforts and unnecessary politics and rivalry.
In May 1921, at a unity conference at the Queen’s Hall in London, a number of veterans groups merged to form The British Legion. Its task was large. It was estimated that among the 7,000,000 men who fought in the First World War and the wives of the 1,000,000 dead, at least one in every hundred would need help. Membership grew rapidly and included The British Legion Women’s Section. Many of the new British Legion branches adopted bands from their local area and these became the uniformed British Legion bands that play at public events and lead the marching soldiers on Armistice Day parades.
Branches of The British Legion were soon created across the country. A conference was convened at St Faith’s Lane, Norwich on 7 October 1922 with a view to forming a Norfolk County Committee. The committee consisted of a delegate from each British Legion Branch and there were soon branches in every town and many villages across Norfolk. Today The Royal British Legion has over fifty branches in Norfolk and continues to help servicemen and women past and present
NORWICH WAR SHRINES
During the First World War many communities shared feelings of loss and grief for the fallen and hopes and prayers for those on active service. As a result, a new phenomenon emerged – the War Shrine.
In working class areas of Norwich, where the greatest numbers of men had enlisted for war service, the names of those who had fallen began to appear, chalked on the walls of end terraced houses at the entrance to their streets. Before long flowers were laid and these places became a gathering point for local people to offer support to the bereaved and those who still had family and friends on the front line.
In 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, the first purpose built street shrines emerged. These were usually under the leadership of the local vicar.
The shrines commonly took the form of a simple triptych or crucifix under a canopy made of wood. The names of those serving and the fallen from the street were written neatly on paper which was glazed on the front to prevent damp damage. There was a shelf beneath for flowers which local people often decorated further with images of war leaders and small Union Jacks.
Some of the earliest War Shines in Norwich were erected in the parish of Heigham. In November 1916, the first War Shrine was erected in Devonshire Street containing the names of 44 men including five who had died for their country.
Two of the most high profile shrines were erected on Bethel Street and affixed to the old city wall on Coburg Street in the parish of St Peter Mancroft. These bore the names of about 100 service personnel and were unveiled by the Lord Mayor and dedicated by the Lord Bishop in front of a large crowd in December 1916. Across the county many churches printed lists or ‘Rolls of Honour’ of local men and women serving their country in their parish magazines. Similar lists were also displayed in churches and chapels with a short note asking for their church communities to remember them in their prayers.
After the end of the war street shrines faded away. Many of the places in the churches where the lists of the living and the fallen service personnel were displayed became the place where the permanent war memorials to the fallen of the parish were erected.
THE FIRST POPPY DAY
For many, the poppy has become a defining symbol for the millions who have lost their life in conflicts. Today, The Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal takes place in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday nearest to Armistice Day on 11 November. It raises money for those who have served or are currently serving in the armed forces who have been affected physically, mentally and economically by war.
The poppy as an image for remembrance owes much to the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ written in May 1915 by Canadian born Lieutenant Colonel John McRae. The poem contains the lines ‘the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row…’
After successful Poppy Days in America and France, the idea was taken up in Britain and the first UK Poppy Day held on 11 November 1921 raised £106,000 – over £3.1 million in today’s money. Production of the poppies was initially established with a five man team in Bermondsey, London but this was soon expanded to a 55 ex-servicemen factory based in Richmond. Over 30 million poppies were produced in 1922. The first poppies were made of crimson silk with a pin and were sold with a leaflet with reprints of McRae’s poem.
The first Poppy Day in Norwich was held on Saturday 10 November 1921 to allow people from the countryside to come in to Norwich on market day to purchase their poppies. Silk poppies were sold for one shilling and small poppies for three pennies.
There are several different versions of the traditional red poppy. In 1933, the white poppy from the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the Peace Pledge Union represented pacifism and a desire to end all war. Some veterans saw red poppies as a glorification of war and chose to wear white with the wording ‘No more War’ in the centre. Purple poppies have been worn to commemorate animal victims of war and the French wear a blue cornflower.
THEIR NAME LIVETH EVERMORE
One of the tragic legacies of the First World War was that many of the ex-servicemen, who had been permanently disabled by injuries or sickness, had to fight to receive the pension they were entitled to. Sometimes by the time the pensions came through it was too late because the ex-servicemen had succumbed to their old wounds and conditions or had died in the Spanish flu epidemic.
Widows and families were often ill-equipped to deal with the paperwork so it fell to local clergy, solicitors or veterans’ organisations to ensure they received the pension they were entitled to. Many disabled ex-servicemen were unable to resume their previous employment and needed to learn new skills. A number of centres and schemes to support ex-servicemen were established in the county by The British Legion, Norfolk & Norwich Association for the Blind and at Queen Alexandra’s Technical School, Sandringham. Others, determined to help themselves, sold toys and games door to door, dealt in rags or firewood or sold bootlaces on the streets. Some could never work again and would need care for the rest of their lives.
In the months immediately after the armistice, hopeful families with a relative reported missing were hit with the harsh reality that they would not return home. Memorial Plaques, scrolls and medals were sent to the next of kin and parishes compiled their rolls of the fallen. The Diocese of Norwich and The Great War 1914-1918 Book of Remembrance (which includes Ely and some parts of Suffolk) was completed in 1924. It records the names of 15,318 casualties.
There were also many Norfolk men who had emigrated with their families before the war and joined their local regiments in countries such as Australia, New Zealand or Canada. Many of those who fell do appear on Norfolk’s local memorials but others were missed. It was initially hoped that there were some ‘Thankful Villages’ in Norfolk, where all who had left for war had returned, but it has emerged over the years that there is not a single parish in Norfolk that did not lose someone in the First World War.