Hertfordshire's Great War
PUBLISHED: 17:46 11 August 2014 | UPDATED: 17:46 11 August 2014
The First World War, which Britain entered 100 years ago this month, impacted heavily on Hertfordshire as it did every communnity in the land. Leigh Goldsmith, with thanks to the Herts at War project, looks at the fears and deprivations endured and great efforts and sacrifices made in the county to help win the conflict
On August 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany following the Kaiser’s refusal to withdraw an invasion force from Belgium. Upholding a neutrality treaty with the ally, the British Government’s decision would ulitmately send millions of men from these shores to fight in Europe.
This month, we commemorate the centenary of the First World War – a harsh and bitter confict that rocked humanity to the core, causing the death of an estimated 37.5 million people worldwide. From the fringes of Australia, to the snow-capped mountains of Alaska, the effects of the conflict penetrated all corners of the globe. Hertfordshire was no exception. The county sent thousands of its young men to the Western Front. Many men from the county fought in The Hertfordshire Regiment. Prior to 1915, this operated as a territorial unit, the men training together at weekends and during summer holidays. Even for those early recruits with training, nothing would prepare them for the misery and hardship they would face in a war dictated by new ferocious technolgy. On July 31, 1917, the regiment experienced its darkest day. The date marked the beginning of the third battle of Ypres – north of the town in the small village of St Julien. The Hertfordshire Regiment prepared to take the third and final objective of the day, the German Langemarck line. However, a spate of bad weather towards the end of July, combined with German intelligence about the operation, would prove disastrous. With waterlogged trenches and saturated grounds, neither man nor tank could make much headway accross the battlefield, and unknown to the regiment, the enemy were aware of the impending attack and had abandoned its first and second trench lines and instead fortified its third line.
At 10am the regiment received the order to go over the top. Unable to advance on the third line and heavily pounded by German fire, of the 620 officers and men who began the attack, only 130 returned. It was a devastating day for Hertfordshire, with nearly every village and town in the county losing at least one soldier.
One soldier’s story.
Like many relatives around the county, Bertha Buck of St Albans eagerly anticipated news of her husband Percy from the Front. On November 25, 1916, Private 267098 P. Buck arrived at Boulogne to begin service with the Hertfordshire Regiment. He would go on to fight at St Julien with his comrades the following summer. As news of the fatalities on July 31 reached Britain, Bertha became increasingly concerned. On August 10, 1917, Percy was listed as missing in action by the military. The painful wait for news came to an end on October 8 when a letter from the British section of the International Red Cross in Geneva arrived at Bertha’s home. Enclosed was a photograph of Percy and a typed note which read: ‘Dear Madam, We are enclosing herewith a photograph which was returned to us by a German soldier; he wrote a letter with it of which we are forwarding a copy. It speaks for itself, husband’s last thoughts were evidently of you and his little one, and this must have soothed and supported him in his death when he gave his life for his country.’
Inside the letter was a translated version, which had been sent by Josef Wilczek, a German solider, to the Red Cross. It said: ‘I beg to enclose a Post Card, which I took from a British soldier in Flandres. He was holding the card in his hand, and, as I learnt later on, that the finder was asked to forward it to his wife. I, wishing to fulfill the last will of the dead comrade, send it to you with the request that you forward it to his wife. The address is written on it. He fell on 31st July or 1st Aug near St Julien in Flandres. May he rest in Peace. I should be very pleased to hear whether the wife has received the card.’ Percy’s body was never identified.
The Hitchin riots.
While the threat of war had loomed for weeks before August, it was not until the official declaration that a state of excitement, panic and fear spread through the county. In Hitchin, residents worried they would soon be without everyday essentials. When the wealthier classes began panic buying, emptying the shop of supplies, anger began to bubble among the poorer classes.
When it became apparent that some retailers were raising prices, the mood deteriorated further. One vendor who received the brunt of the public’s animosity, was grocer WB Moss and Sons. During the afternoon, a mob gathered outside the shop on the High Street, shouting and threatening. By evening, tempers had reached boiling point and the protestors moved on to the home of Mr Moss in Bedford Road where damage was caused to the garden and windows. Police officers were called to the scene in a bid to restrain the crowd. Mr Moss appeared to reassure the people that prices would be held at that of the previous week.
No arrests were made and the crowd gradually dispersed. Mr Moss received compensation for the damage under the Hitchin Riot Order.
Zeppelin bombing raids.
As Hertfordshire was on the flight path from Europe to London, there was a great fear of ‘war from the air’. From May 1915, Germany’s Zeppelin airships began raids in earnest on strategic sites. On September 3, 1916, a Schutte-Lanz airship SL-11 brought the conflict directly to Hertfordshire. During the night, 2nd Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson shot at the SL-11 as it flew over Cuffley on a bombing raid intended for London. Robinson brought the aircraft down behind the Plough Inn. All 15 crew members were killed. It was the first airship to be shot down on British soil and Robinson received the Victoria Cross for his bravery. A memorial stands at the site of the crash.
On October 1, 1916, pilot Wulstan Joseph Tempest, of the 39th Home Guard spotted 11 airships heading for London on a massive bombing raid. He had been given orders to patrol the Thames, but decided to use his biplane to fly at a higher altitude in an effort to engage the airships before they reached London. In the early hours, Tempest opened fire. A red and orange blaze filled the night sky as a struck Zeppelin fell from the skies over Oakmere Park in Potters Bar. All crew members perished. Among them was Lieutenant Heinrich Mathy, credited with carrying out the most bombing raids over Britain during the war. He had jumped from the burning aircraft.
Tanks at Hatfield. As the Allied death toll rapidly rose in Europe, no family was left untouched by the war. By 1918, five members of the Cecil family, owners of Hatfield House, had been killed in the conflict. The family’s sacrifice was not its only contribution to the war. Between January and February 1916 Hatfield House played a crucial role in the testing and development of the first British tank. The prototype, built by William Foster and Company of Lincoln, underwent a series of secret tests in the parkland around the stately home. Under cover of darkness on January 29, the tank, known as Little Willie arrived by train to the town. Trenches were dug and obstacles put in place in an attempt to duplicate the terrain of war. The initial trials, attended by top brass and politicians, were a success and King George V travelled to Hatfield on February 8 to inspect the weapon, which he declared ‘a great asset to the army’. The tank went into production and into the war.
In 1919, Winston Churchill presented James Gascoyne-Cecil, the 4th Marquess of Salisbury, with a Mk 1 tank in recognition of his contribution to its development. It remained on the grounds of Hatfield House until 1969, when it was given to the Bovington Tank Museum. It is the oldest surviving tank in the world.
After the war, the Marquess’ son, Robert, appalled by the human suffering of the war, vowed to do everything in his power to prevent another atrocity. In 1937 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in creating the League of Nations Covenant in 1919 – the precursor to the United Nations.
The threat of espionage.
Prior to the war, Hertfordshire, like many areas of the country, had ex-pats from many countries participating in the community. When war broke out, a cloud of suspicion soon gathered above foreigners, most notably Germans. In order to control the movements of ex-pats and limit the threat of espionage, it became government policy to detain Germans and place them away from the general population, both for their safety and for national security. In Hertfordshire an estimated 17 prisoner of war camps were created.
As conscription was law in Germany, it was thought 18 to 38 year-olds posed the biggest threat. These were detained and guarded in military camps. For the older generation of Germans, places like Libury Hall in Ware, which was operating as a German Farm Colony prior to the war – a place of employment for more than 7,000 out-of-work Germans – was one of the places chosen. It became the largest internent camp in the county and there were still 83 inmates as late as 1920.
Minor camps were also set up for foreign work parties at Ashwell, Malting House, Baldock, Berkhampstead, Oak Hall, Bishop’s Stortford, Braughing, Buntingford, Gemmaes Court, Hemel Hempstead, Hunton Bridge, Cotlands, London Colney, Napsbury War Hospital, Panshanger, Rickmansworth, Saffron Walden and New Street Farm, Standon.