Yeovil – First World War Stories from the Home Front

Yeovil – First World War Stories from the Home Front

Yeovil – First World War Stories from the Home Front

       On 4 August 1914, the last day of peace for four long years, the Yeovil Conservative and Unionist annual Fete the ‘Fete of the West’ was held at Yew Tree Close Park, and the winning tableau was ‘King, Peace, Empire’.
       During the following weeks, enthusiastic and patriotic crowds lined the streets as local Territorials and volunteers marched off to the war and which most people expected to be ‘over by Christmas’.

The Belgian Refugees
       The German invasion of neutral Belgium in August 1914, saw more than a million of its citizens fleeing the advancing armies, and the majority of the refugees crossed the borders into Holland, which remained neutral, and France. The British Government offered hospitality and Belgian refugees were welcomed to our shores. A Yeovil Belgian Refugee Committee was set up and ‘Greystones’ on Hendford Hill was opened as a reception centre and temporary home supervised by a Roman Catholic Sister from Langport and a Sister from St Gilda’s Convent in the Avenue.
       The first party of refugee families comprising 50 men, women and children, arrived at the Town Station on Saturday 3 October 1914, the first of several hundred Belgians who would find hospitality in Yeovil and the neighbouring villages.

The Athletes’ Volunteer Force
       At the outbreak of war there was a large number of men debarred by age, occupation or medical conditions, from serving in the armed forces but who were keen to carryout some active duty at home.
       Movements for home defence sprang up across the country bearing such names as Home Guards, Home Defence Leagues, Citizens’ Corps and such like, and who with the help of old soldiers and other trained men, quickly grew into companies and battalions. In Yeovil the Athletes’ Volunteer Force of some 100 men and youths was set up in September 1914 and began training. By the end of the war, these volunteer units had developed into well trained battalions and the Yeovil men were formed into D Company, 2nd Battalion, Somerset Volunteer Regiment. In 1919 all the Volunteer Regiments were disbanded.
       From early February 1915 until the following April, over a 1000 Home Service Territorial soldiers from the Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire Regiments plus the Army Service Corps were billeted in the town. When they left, there was general praise for the way in which the men had conducted themselves.

Air Raid Precautions
       In February 1916 the Town Council adopted precautions against possible German air raids. German Zeppelin airships had been attacking London and the Home Counties since the summer of 1915 and there were fears that these raiders would extend their night time operations to other parts of the UK. Thankfully neither the Zeppelins, nor the German bomber aircraft which began operating late in 1917, raided this far west. The Western Gazette reported that – ‘As precautionary measures against hostile aircraft, the Town Council has made the following arrangements, and notices signed by the Mayor will be published in the town.. It has been decided to extinguish the street and public lamps at eleven p.m., and inhabitants are requested to shade the windows of all premises showing lights visible from the outside after such time and until further notice. Upon notification of the approach of hostile aircraft being received the hooter of the gas works and other hooters will sound a series of long blasts, with intermediate short blasts, and all lights must be immediately extinguished, and remain so for the night. Street and public lights will be immediately extinguished. People in the streets and in public buildings are requested to return home and remain there until the danger has passed. In conclusion it is added that the arrangements are purely precautionary in nature, there being no reason to anticipate an attack in the district by hostile aircraft.’

A Patriotic Fete
       The Yeovil Patriotic Fete Committee met in the Municipal Offices on Wednesday evening, 5 July 1916 to discuss holding the event at Newton Park during the coming August in aid of the Yeovil Hospital and the Yeovil Red Cross Hospital. A provisional programme was agreed to include athletic sports for old and young, swimming races and diving in the River Yeo, pony jumping and donkey racing, platform entertainments, side shows and ‘varieties of various descriptions.’ The Committee decided that both fields would be used on each side of the river.

A rough ride on a Bath-chair
       Having recovered from his injuries in the Red Cross Military Hospital in the Newnam Memorial Hall (now Pegasus Court), South Street, on a pleasant July afternoon in 1917, Private Hawes pushed his pal Private Parks in a Bath invalid chair up Hendford Hill, but rather than pushing him back down, Private Hawes decided it would be a good idea to sit on the front of the vehicle and ride it down using his feet as brakes. This Private Hawes did, but the Bath-chair gathered speed and he could not slow it. Down the Hill they went and at the bottom the chair turned over throwing both men out. Thankfully Private Parks was only shaken, but Private Hawes’ upper arm received a compound fracture in the same place where he had suffered a similar injury in France and from which he had just recovered in Yeovil. Private Hawes, had been due to be discharge to a convalescent camp a couple of days later. This would now be delayed but provided there were no complications the longer stay in the hospital would no doubt be welcomed as it would postpone his return to France. The record is silent on the future of the two men – it is hoped they survived the war and that neither got into too much trouble over the escapade.

Too Much War?
       A soldier, who had probably seen too much war, was found in a railway truck and was brought before the Magistrates charged with being an absentee from the Wiltshire Regiment’s camp at Littlemore, Upway, Weymouth. The soldier, who came from Leicester, admitted to having no pass and being an absentee, and was remanded to await an escort back to his unit. The Western Gazette’s court reporter, noted that the soldier wore a wound stripe and had been in the Army since 1914; the veteran’s fate remains unknown.

       Arising from the effective German U-Boat campaign in the Western Approaches to Great Britain during the winter of 1917/18, and the continued sinking of large numbers of ships bringing supplies of food from the United Sates and Canada, the Government introduced rationing in February 1918. Ration books were issued to every family and retailers were strictly controlled. By May, rationing covered a wide range of basic foods from bacon to sweets. Local committees were established by councils to deal with the food controls, and the Yeovil Borough Food Committee on 7 May discussed the co-ordination of road transport to give priority to the movement of food, the supply of potatoes to local bakers for bread making, the proposed new national scheme for food control, the reduction of sugar from ten pounds weight to six pounds per person for jam making, and the problems of butchers selling sausages with ration coupons. The Committee declined the request by a Pen Mill baker, accompanied by a petition, for support in his application for deferment from military service, and likewise a request from an inspector of national kitchens to establish a national kitchen in Yeovil was declined as the Committee felt there was no pressing need at present.

       In 1918 at their November meeting the Yeovil Education Committee were informed that in October, the boys of Reckleford School had picked 652 lbs of blackberries and the girls 441 lbs.

       At 11 o’clock on the morning of the 11th November 1918 a great silence fell across the battlefields of France and Belgium as the guns stopped firing; the war was over. During the 1,561 days which had passed, from the day Great Britain declared war on Germany and her Allies on 4 August 1914, several thousand Yeovilians had served their country in all the theatres of war on land, sea and in the air, over 236 had been killed or died from wounds or disease, and hundreds more wounded.
       The Western Gazette’s report on how the news of the end hostilities was received in Yeovil after four years of the most terrible conflict the world had known, was somewhat restrained, remembering the countless tragedies suffered in the town and across the nation:- ‘On the posting of the telegrams at the newspaper offices announcing the signing of the armistice the news spread like wildfire on Monday morning, and those in the outlying parts of the town and others who had not heard of the telegrams got their first intimation from a visiting aeroplane decorated with streamers in the national colours, and which performed some extraordinary evolutions over the town. The flags on the Town Hall were quickly hoisted by Mr. H Jesty, and under his direction, and with the ready assistance afforded to him, the centre of the town was soon wreathed in bunting. Following this lead flags and streamers of every kind -some of them showing the effects of four years storage – made their appearance in all directions, and it is long since the town looked so festive. By mid-day work had been practically abandoned and the streets gradually filled, flags and national colours being carried by nearly everyone. The bells in the Parish Church tower added their note to the rejoicing, which was everywhere of a restrained character. The losses of Yeovil men have been too great and the appearance of the motor ambulances of the Men’s Voluntary Aid Detachment. filled with wounded men being taken to the Red Cross Hospital, while provoking a sympathetic cheer, helped to remind the thankful crowds of the sterner side of the war.’
       On the Monday evening, there was a packed town meeting to give thanks for the signing of the Armistice and the next day St. John’s Church was filled to capacity for the Service of Thanksgiving.

Jack Sweet
November 2018

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