Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Day by Day through the Great War - thoughts from another town


The madness of war: A Swiss shepherd watches a battle on the frontier during World War I from the 1915 edition of Some ‘Frightful’ War Pictures by the celebrated illustrator William Heath Robinson (1872-1944) 

Museums up and down the country - indeed throughout the world - will have been bringing their resources to bear on exhibitions marking the centenary of World War I. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron announced last October that more than £50m has been allocated for a historic commemoration of the centenary of the start of the conflict.

The hunt is still on at Fairlynch Museum for Great War stories with a link to Budleigh Salterton or any of the villages of the Lower Otter Valley.

Those stories based on experiences of active service are naturally of keen interest, particularly when they reveal private thoughts at variance with the official views promoted by the Government’s propaganda machine. Only a few months ago the publication of Warwickshire man and WW1 veteran Harry Drinkwater’s pencil-written secret wartime diaries made BBC news. His papers had been sent for auction by relatives following his death in 1978 and were spotted by collector David Griffiths who was struck by their gripping storytelling style. 

One of many entries from Lt Drinkwater’s diary reflects bitterly on the futility of the conflict:  
"This is not war it's slaughter. No man, however brave, can advance against a sheet of bullets from the front and a shower of shells from overhead - it appears to me that the side who will win will be the one who can supply the last man." http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-24745574


Less dramatic perhaps but absorbing in their way are the diaries kept by non-combatants such as John Coleman Binder, a grocer, baker and corn-dealer from Oundle in Northamptonshire. Recently published by the town’s Museum Trust they cover in detail a wide range of aspects of World War I. 

Editor Alice Thomas was at first hesitant about bringing them to public notice but decided that publishing them was a worthwhile project. “Though I have sometimes thought that it might be better to let these terrible events, with the hatred, brutality and suffering on both sides, be forgotten, they were an inescapable part of life for everyone involved, and a part of our history,” she writes in the preface. “A first hand account such as this is a valuable and vivid record of how life was for this thoughtful Oundle man in his fifties, in the years between 1914 and 1918.”   

Oundle School Chapel was built as a memorial to those former pupils of Oundle School who died during World War I, including the Headmaster's son Roy Sanderson

Having spent over 30 years living and working in Mr Binder’s charming town before moving to Budleigh Salterton I was surprised and delighted to receive a copy sent by Oundle friends involved with the local museum. Maybe they were pleased with me for spotting that Alfred Leete (1882-1933) the designer of the famous Kitchener 'Your Country Needs You' recruiting poster, was born in the village of Achurch just a few miles south of Oundle.  

It’s a long way from Devon to Northamptonshire but I’m in the habit of spotting curious connections from the past. Like the fact that General Simcoe, a one-time resident of Budleigh Salterton, about whom I’ve written at length on this blog, was born at Cotterstock, near Oundle before moving with his family to Exeter.  

A scene from chapter LXIV of François Rabelais' Gargantua telling in burlesque fashion an episode from the story of the Pichrocholine war, illustrated by the 19th century French artist  Gustave Doré 

I’ve often thought about the stupidity and sadness of human conflict, whether finding pacifist elements in the work of 16th century authors like the humanist scholar  Erasmus of Rotterdam or the French comic writer Francois Rabelais...


This depiction of the battlefield of Waterloo by the artist John Heaviside Clarke (1771-1863) was dedicated to the Marquess of Anglesea, Wellington's cavalry commander

... or being struck by the absence of jingoism in this 1816 painting of the aftermath of Waterloo

The book Oundle’s War was my contribution to the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. It was a history of the 1939-45 conflict seen from the viewpoints of Oundle residents, former pupils of Oundle School, and USAAF servicemen stationed in the local area

... or writing about World War Two’s impact on the Oundle community between 1939 and 1945.

Flicking through Mr Binder’s diary at random I found something of note on every page - and there are 268 pages in total.  Here is this worthy shopkeeper describing on page 2 how his Oundle customers reacted to news of the impending declaration of war in August 1914.

“I am sorry to say that this morning signs of panic began to show themselves. On commencing business people commenced to come in with large orders to buy up food especially flour and sugar. I quickly discerned this and refused to supply any person with more than 14lb of Flour or 14lb Sugar and thus although we continued to be very busy all day we were able to cope with the rush.

I am sorry to say this course was not taken by other shops in the town, so that some people were able to secure an unfair quantity of Provisions.”


Above: A 1915 World War I poster appealing for volunteers

Britain had begun the Great War in 1914 by relying on volunteers for its armed forces. By 1916 the Government was introducing conscription, but Mr Binder had reservations about its plans for calling up working men who were already contributing, as he saw it, to the national effort. 

“The burden laid upon this empire is already stupendous, and cannot be added to without the gravest reasons,” he writes on page 95. “We are helping clear the seas. We have an army of 3 millions of men fighting on two fronts. We are keeping our trade going (under conditions which are intolerable) in order to finance ourselves and our Allies, and have practically turned all our steel and iron works of every description into munition factories in order to supply their wants and our own. If we withdraw our men compulsorily from these labours it seems to me the result will be collapse. I am neither an Optimist nor a Pessimist but simply a plain citizen who tries to look at these events in the light of reason. We are told the Voluntary System has proved a failure, that we are ‘a nation of slackers’ etc., etc. This is mere rubbish. No nation that supplies and equips an army of 3 millions in a year ought to be condemned in this way.”

A year later, with men being sent to the front in their thousands, he is clearly revolted by the indiscriminate way in which the cannon-fodder was being chosen. “One of the most painful and shameful debates that I ever remember took place on Thursday in the House on the question of calling up for re-examination men who had been rejected as unfit. Many of these men - notoriously unfit - have been passed by Medical Boards as fit for General Service. The whole affair had become a crying public scandal.” (page 215). 

 Yet Mr Binder is no pacifist. “We cannot wage war in kid gloves with an enemy like Germany,” he concludes on page 214 having described a terrible air raid on London which took place on 13 June 1917, when 104 people - “a good part women and children” he notes - were killed, and 243 wounded. “One cannot understand their mentality at all, and Englishmen have long ceased to try to do so, and most of us now look upon them as real savages, but unfortunately they have been able to bring science to aid their savage and bloody ways.”



As I turn the pages of the Oundle shopkeeper’s diary I wonder how many volumes of diaries and letters still lie undisturbed in East Devon homes, and how many of them might perhaps have been composed a century ago during what Mr Binder describes so rightly as “this grim and bloody war.”  Well, we have four years ahead of us to contemplate its horrors. And perhaps during that time  Fairlynch Museum’s 2014 tribute to the victims of the Great War may help to yield more testimonies which deserve to be better known. 

So please don’t throw away those old family papers and notebooks before checking to see if there’s something as valuable as Mr Binder’s diary.

Oundle Museum's website is at http://www.oundlemuseum.org.uk/

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