At the beginning of August we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war. The scale of media attention nationally indicates the importance of the anniversary of one of the most devastating events in modern history. Few communities and few families escaped unscathed.
In West Sussex, the centenary has given the library service and record office opportunity to examine in detail the significance of the war both for the local population on the home front and for the Royal Sussex Regiment overseas. The support of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the work of around 150 volunteers has enabled local archive sources to be digitised, indexed and researched and has helped a team of authors to compile a new book on the county at war, to be published on the day of the anniversary.
A glimpse into the story will be presented in an illustrated talk, West Sussex in the Great War, at South Bersted Church in Bognor on Sunday, July 6 at 2.30 pm. It is one of a series of events planned by the county over the next four years to mark the centenary of the war.
The story begins with the declaration of war on August 4, 1914. Posters soon appeared, with Lord Kitchener’s accusatory finger proclaiming ‘Your Country Needs You’.
There was no conscription at this stage, but the response from volunteers was overwhelming. Within a few weeks, a battalion of 1,200 recruits had been raised in the Chichester district. On one afternoon, 17 employees from Shippams factory enlisted together. The Barracks proved inadequate and the Olympia Skating Rink at Northgate was commissioned for the overspill.
Patriotism, doing one’s bit for King and Country, was a major inducement to enlist. The expectation it would ‘all be over by Christmas’ encouraged some to join up underage; one lad from Worthing dying on the landing beaches of Gallipoli when barely 15 years of age.
For the wavering, fear of moral censure tipped the balance. A letter to ‘Bognor’s Young Men’ appeared in the Observer, urging local girls to give a white feather to every able-bodied young man they met, until all such slackers had ‘donned the Khaki’.
The stalemate on the Western Front put paid to any belief in an early end to the war and soon local newspapers were full of names of the dead and wounded. On one Sunday morning in May 1915, an ill-fated attack at Aubers Ridge claimed the lives of many young men from Bognor and Chichester.
Some families received royal commendation for supplying multiple recruits to the services. Edward Squires of Ockley Road, Bognor, had five sons and a son-in-law in the Army.
This could have terrible consequences. Three brothers from Worthing – Alfred, Charles and William Pannell – were killed on the same day, June 30, 1916, at the disastrous Battle of the Boar’s Head at Richebourg.
Soldiers shared together the awful conditions of the trenches, often rat-infested and knee-deep in mud, and faced the prospect of death or mutilation on the battlefield. They were fortified by faith, camaraderie and humour. While Sussex by the Sea, the marching song composed by William Ward-Higgs of South Bersted, sustained them on their weary way to and from the front line.
The Great War cast a long shadow over those who fought and those they left at home. Many of the former suffered wounds, physical and mental, that remained with them for life. Many of the latter were left only with a framed photograph, a memorial scroll and a family bereft of the bread-winner in a country still to discover a Welfare State.
Graylingwell became a war hospital, admitting more than 29,000 cases during the war. Some of those who died there are buried in the cemetery at Portfield. In Chichester Cathedral, panels in the Chapel of St George record the names of 7,302 officers and men of the Royal Sussex who died in the war.
Elsewhere, war memorials carry their own poignant record of the service and self-sacrifice of local communities; one of the most distinctive designs being the magnificent lion guarding the road junction at Eastergate. Commemoration of the fallen took other forms; stained-glass church windows, new village halls, hospitals even, such as the War Memorial Hospital in Bognor.
Remembrance is enshrined, also, in the poetry and prose of the Great War. Ironic perhaps that such ghastliness should find expression in beautiful writing. The county regiment has its own famous son in Edmund Blunden, whose book, Undertones of War, became one of the classic accounts of trench war.
There is lesser-known material, too, in the archives. The illustrated wartime journals of the Arundel artist, Ralph Ellis, for example, and the haunting verse of soldier poets, such as A Mother’s Lament by an unidentified ‘Field Officer’, must surely bring a tear to the eyes of even the most insensitive of reader.
In a story dominated by events overseas, there is sometimes tendency to understate the concerns of the home front. But there were foretastes in 1914-18 of a later war.
The origins of the home guard, land army and food rationing. Issues such as the part played by women in the war effort and the role of the church were just as pertinent then as they were in the second world war. Even the fear of invasion and air raids exercised minds and occasioned precautionary measures.
All will be covered in a book, Great War Britain: West Sussex, to be published by West Sussex County Council and the History Press, on August 4. But for the moment, come along to South Bersted Church, for a special presentation to commemorate the centenary. You will be very welcome.
n West Sussex in the Great War. An illustrated talk by Alan Readman. At South Bersted Church, Bersted Street, Bognor Regis, PO22 9QE. On Sunday, July 6 at 2.30pm. Tickets: £5 (on the door).