Hertfordshire’s Great War: 100th Armistice Day
PUBLISHED: 14:10 08 November 2020 | UPDATED: 10:55 10 November 2020
We mark the centenary of the First World War Armistice with an account of its impact on the county many would not see again. Article first published in October 2018
The guns fell silent at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was November 1918 and the First World War was finally over. After more than four years of horror and attrition, what did the conflict and its end mean to the county of Hertfordshire?
You begin to comprehend the carnage of the war when you learn of just one ‘thankful village’ in Hertfordshire. These were the fortunate and rare communities who lost no servicemen, when all around them did. Puttenham, in the county’s north-west, had all its soldiers return home. Every other community in Hertfordshire, from city and town, to village and hamlet, lost loved ones.
There was a strong mood after the war, of course, to honour the fallen. Virtually every one of Hertfordshire’s 130-odd parishes has a memorial dedicated to its dead in the ‘war to end all wars’ (sadly, with other names added all too soon from the Second World War).
Many of the county’s men who served abroad fought with the Hertfordshire Regiment, a pre-war Territorial Force unit of part-time soldiers, one of a small number of such units called upon to support the regular army as the British Expeditionary Force battled the Germans in August 1914. As such, the Hertfordshire Regiment’s war would be a roll-call of the British Army’s major Western Front engagements. The Herts lads, ordinary fellows from all walks of life, earned the respect of the regular army, being dubbed the ‘Herts Guards’ in the process.
The 1st Battalion of the Hertfordshire Regiment was the only one of its battalions to serve abroad, arriving in France in November 1914 and joining the closing stages of the First Battle of Ypres. The following year the men fought at Loos, the major British offensive of 1915, then at the grinding Battle of the Somme in 1916, when it achieved a notable but toll-taking success in the offensive’s final stage, the Battle of the Ancre, advancing 1,600 yards and taking 250 prisoners, the battalion’s casualties numbering seven officers and 150 men.
The Third Battle of Ypres – Passchendaele – commencing in July 1917, saw the battalion suffer grievously at the hands of enemy machine guns. On the last day of the month alone, all the battalion’s officers were casualties, including eleven dead, plus 459 other ranks. The final year of the war saw the 1st Battalion thrown into the frontline again to help withstand the German Spring Offensive, its last desperate attempt to prevail on the Western Front in March 1918. As the war finally turned in the Allies’ favour, the battalion would be involved in the fighting for the German Hindenburg Line.
Almost 900 men of all ranks from the battalion fell in action during the war, with 2,000 more wounded or taken prisoner. Nearly 200 gallantry medals were awarded, two of which were Victoria Crosses. Corporal Alfred Burt, a Hertford-born gas fitter, was 20 when he won the VC for disabling a German bomb that fell in his trench at the Battle of Loos. Second lieutenant Frank Young was posthumously awarded the army’s highest honour in September 1918 for courageous leadership, enabling the battalion to hold a position in the face of fierce enemy assault. He was just 22.
Many other Hertfordshire men served in the regular army ranks of the Bedfordshire Regiment. Private Christopher Cox, a farm labourer, was born in Kings Langley and was one of the Herts lads to join the neighbouring regiment. He won the VC in March 1917 for single-handedly bringing in four wounded comrades from enemy machine gunfire-swept ground. Private Edward Barber, of Tring, was posthumously awarded the VC in March 1915 for valiantly attacking large numbers of the enemy with grenades, resulting in his own death, aged 21. He was a Grenadier Guardsman.
With the huge numbers of wounded, the need for hospitals at home increased as the war progressed. Hertfordshire ended up with around 40 auxiliary hospitals, everything from church halls such as St James Hall and Ewen Hall in Barnet, a golf club in Knebworth, a school in Royston and mansions such as St Paul’s Walden Bury near Hitchin, childhood home of the Queen Mother.
The war was not just fought on foreign fields, but on these shores too, as German airships brought the conflict to the skies over Hertfordshire. Principally aiming for London, they dropped bombs on Essendon, Cheshunt, Willian and Hertford, destroying buildings and injuring and killing residents. One of these Zeppelin was shot down by a Home Guard Squadron biplane at Cuffley in September 1916. Another, lit up by the Barnet Searchlight Detachment, was destroyed the following month. The crew of both airships were killed.
The First World War was the first ‘total war’ in which a whole nation was mobilised in a fight to the finish. If you weren’t serving at the front you might be working the land, helping to feed a nation threatened with starvation due to Germany’s deadly U-boat blockade of ships, or working in munitions factories, as Britain made the shells used to pound the German Army into submission. There was a munitions factory in Dunhams Lane in Letchworth called Kryn and Lahy. Founded by refugees, it employed many Belgian refugees (it had ostensibly been Germany’s invasion of Belgium that brought Britain into the war in August 1914). By the end of the war, Belgians made up a quarter of the garden city’s population. They were welcomed by residents (concerts were put on and efforts were made to speak and label things in French) but the numbers put pressure on housing, finally leading to the creation of the Westbury area, dubbed Little Antwerp. As with many factories, John Dickinson’s historic paper mill at Apsley was also converted to munitions production.
The shortage of manpower was acutely felt, to the extent it was jested that milk deliveries might be reduced to sending a cow round door-to-door, so householders could help themselves. When you hear what happened at Heath Farm Dairy in St Albans, which supplied around 2,500 customers, you realise the joke had a sharp edge. When war broke out the business had 12 milkmen, by May 1916 this had reduced to five (conscription having been introduced by then), when a further three were called up. The owner, Jacob Reynolds, made strenuous efforts to hold on to his men at St Albans Tribunal, but got nowhere, other than in September 1916, when he was permitted to retain his son-in-law, Arthur Martin, so long as he joined the Volunteer Training Corps, the equivalent of the Home Guard.
Another small business which suffered a labour shortage was that of watercress grower Thomas Partridge who had beds near Rickmansworth (the crop became a staple during the conflict). He was repeatedly hauled before St Albans Tribunal, as he pleaded exemption from conscription on the grounds of hardship, claiming his removal would ruin his business and those dependent on him. Prior to the war, he employed around 10 men, but by February 1917 his depleted resources were just three older men.
Stepping into the roles of men in many professions however were the women of Hertfordshire who played a crucial role on the home front. They became ‘Land Girls’ in the Women’s Land Army, reclaiming land, growing crops and farming animals across the county, as well as munitions factory workers (in some factories in Britain more than 90 per cent were women) as well as many other jobs. The social shift this represented was to play an important role in the fight for women’s suffrage.
With the need for food pressing, more and more allotments were created as Herts folk ‘dug for victory’. In St Albans there was the additional pressure on resources due to some 7,000 trainee soldiers billeted in what had become a garrison town, many of whom were occupying spare rooms in homes. The extra burden on residents was considerable, but the vicar of St Peter’s, while recognising how pressed his parishioners were, urged them not to forget their duty to God and attend church. The people of St Albans helped in other ways too, by the end of 1919 they had raised nearly £900,000 in war savings. Some of this came from the wealthy, but also from savings by ordinary workers.
This month the county’s war memorials will again be the focus for remembrance, with added poignancy as we recall the end of a shattering conflict that finally ground to a halt a century ago after levels of death and destruction that would inhabit people’s worst nightmares for years and often lifetimes.
Some may ponder why we bother remembering a war from so long ago – the 1914-18 names on all the memorials in the county provide the justification. Close to 900 men of the Hertfordshire Regiment alone never walked back into their homes and into the arms of their loved ones. Lest we forget.