Norwich in the Great War

  • Author:
    Stephen Browning
    This book is from an excellent and growing “Your Towns and Cities in the Great War” series from Pen & Sword. Obviously, the standard and scope of each book depends on the skill and interests of the author, as well as the characteristics of the town, city or area described.

    The author, Stephen Browning, has written several other books about Norfolk, including Norwich Cathedral, Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path (long distance walking paths), books for learners of English in Asia and detective stories.

    The book is well illustrated, with a mixture of photographs from World War One era, buildings used at that time illustrated in modern times, posters from WWI and memorial structures and windows installed after Armistice, all in black and white.

    Norwich, sometimes nicknamed “A Fine City”, was a city of manufacturing, surrounded by agricultural land, with seaside holiday resorts. Factories changed their products. Many footwear companies, including Haldinstein, Howlett & White, Wm Hurrell, Sexton, Son & Everard and S. L. Witton produced thousands of boots for field use, shoes for hospital patients. Boulton and Paul, a firm which grew out of ironmongery, produced building used as stables, huts, hospitals, prisoner of war camps, Royal Flying Corps hangars, field kitchens, plus electric lighting plants. They are probably best remembered for their work, from 1915 onwards, producing more Sopwith Camel aircraft than any other. These aircraft were test flown at Mousehold Heath.

    Other famous firms from Norwich played their roles. Norwich Union insurance guaranteed that employees volunteering for armed service would get their jobs back, and pay was supplemented if they earned less in forces. Colemans reduced the acreage used to grow mustard to grow more essential crops. Caley's produced “Caley's Marching Chocolate” bars, which are still on sale at Caley's Coffee Shop in the Old Guildhall.

    Reducing light emission was vital to hide city and nearby ports from airship and aeroplane raids. “Pulham Pigs” airships flew from the village of Pulham St Mary, 18 miles south of Norwich, searching for German U-boats in the North Sea, from 1915, and later undertook research into parachuting.

    Many local men enlisted, with the Norfolk Regiment the local infantry regiment. Some joined a cyclists' battalion, “mounted infantrymen”. Those who joined 2/6th battalion became known as the Half Crown Boys, as 2s/6d was half a crown, a crown being 5 shillings. The Peppermint Boys got their name from the black and white stripped hats worn by boys of Bracondale School. Many old boys joined 8th Battalion. The Army Service Corps and Royal Flying Corps also included many Norwich local men.

    Two famous people in the Great War had strong Norwich connections: Woodbine Willie and Edith Cavell.

    The Reverend Samuel Frederick Leighton Green, became known to his parishioners as Heigham “Woodbine” Willie after the War. At time of enlistment, he was vicar of St Bartholomew, Heigham, in central Norwich. He was served as chaplain to a unit of soldiers from the East End of London. He regularly wrote home to his parishioners to request items for soldiers, and they sent cigarettes and magazines. He endured gassing and trench fever, and suffered a breakdown after the War, but worked at All Saints, Mundesley, on the north east Norfolk coast, until his death, aged 47 years, in 1929. He was buried with full military honours, as befits a double Military Cross holder.

    Edith Cavell was born in 1865, in Swardeston, just south west of Norwich, where her father was the vicar. At outbreak of War, she was working in Brussels, Belgium, and continued to work when the city was occupied by the Germans. She assisted many wounded soldiers from many nations to escape, including back to UK. She was arrested and tried, entirely in German language, which she did not speak, and executed by firing squad on 12th October 1915. Her famous words “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone” were spoken on the night before her death. Perhaps of more relevance to soldiers, she also said “There are two sides to any war, the glory and the misery”. Edith Cavell's body was exhumed from her grave in Brussels in March 1919, escorted to railway to Ostend, escorted by British troops on initiative of the then Major B. L. Montgomery, then on HMS Rowena to Dover. The coffin was carried on a horse-drawn gun carriage through the streets of London to a funeral service in Westminster Abbey, attended by George V. Her family chose to have her buried in Norwich, over the offered option in Westminster Abbey. Her coffin was escorted to Norwich Cathedral by train and gun carriage, escorted by soldiers of the Norfolk Regiment. The Cavell Memorial Home for District Nurses in Tombland, Norwich was officially opened by HM Queen Alexandra, accompanied by Princess Victoria, on 12th October 1918.

    All considered, an excellent book, with information about nationally important characters, as well as details for those resident in, or visiting, Norwich and around. I am leaving this book with friends, after reading while house and pet minding near Cromer, for use by adults and school age children.

    For completeness, to assist people considering buying this book, I include a list of chapters and appendices below:
    1. Norwich, 'The Fine City', on the Eve of the Great War
    2. 1914: Eager for a Fight
    3. 1915: Deepening Conflict
    4. 1916: The Realization
    5. 1917: Seeing it Through
    6. 1918: The Final Blows
    7. Aftermath
    Appendix I: The Worldwide Conflict
    Appendix II: A City Centre Great War Walk

    4.5 out of 5 Mr MRHs

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