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The end of a long, long road - memories of Great Yarmouth during the First World War

PUBLISHED: 17:46 24 April 2014 | UPDATED: 17:47 24 April 2014

GOOD NEWS! Crowds outside the Town Hall in 1945 when Victory in Europe was declared.

GOOD NEWS! Crowds outside the Town Hall in 1945 when Victory in Europe was declared.

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Wars are back in the news as we reflect on conflicts that have destroyed lives, families, homes and even communities. Already our attention has become sharply focussed on the centenary of The Great War although hostilities did not begin until August 1914.

CELEBRATING: a VE children’s party between Harley and Garfield Roads in Yarmouth.CELEBRATING: a VE children’s party between Harley and Garfield Roads in Yarmouth.

The Great Yarmouth Mercury is detailing its impact on local families resulting from husbands and sons being recruited to fight, many of them never returning home. There were celebrations when peace came in 1918, just as we rejoiced in 1945 when that war ended after six years of anguish and bloodshed.

The borough gave an ecstatic “welcome home” to the Yarmouth Volunteers in 1901 after their campaign in South Africa in the Boer Wars. We had also shown profound relief 87 years earlier when Napoleon Bonaparte was overthrown and another war in Europe ended.

That war had little impact on Yarmouthians but nonetheless, its cessation was marked by a celebration probably never equalled before nor since. The numerous street parties on VE Day in 1945 were nothing compared with the event held exactly two centuries ago this month.

In April 1814, at least one section of our populace indulged in marking the restoration of King Louis XVIII to the French throne. Somehow Yarmouthians were persuaded to subscribee £1106 8s 6d (£800,000 today) towards the cost of “a grand dinner to all the inhabitants who chose to partake of it.”

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BACK HOME: the Great Yarmouth Volunteer Section which had fought in the South African Transvaal War. Pictured in 1900 are: back row – Privates A Nicholls, Lay, French, Olley, Beeching, Ward, T Nicholls and Veale; middle – Privates Hewitt, Vince, Nockles, Wooden, Pratt, Tilley, Brett and Tyrrell; front – Bugler Vince, Cpl Harrison, Sgt Owles,Cpl Driver, Pte Frere.MAIN BACK HOME: the Great Yarmouth Volunteer Section which had fought in the South African Transvaal War. Pictured in 1900 are: back row – Privates A Nicholls, Lay, French, Olley, Beeching, Ward, T Nicholls and Veale; middle – Privates Hewitt, Vince, Nockles, Wooden, Pratt, Tilley, Brett and Tyrrell; front – Bugler Vince, Cpl Harrison, Sgt Owles,Cpl Driver, Pte Frere.

According to one account: “Fifty-eight tables were spread in the open air along the Hall and South Quays, at which 8023 persons were seated, and made an excellent dinner of roast beef and plum pudding. Lacons Brewery supplied over 20,000 pints of beer to a festival dinner to celebrate the final defeat of Napoleon’s France.

“A man personating Neptune in a car, attended by Tritons and other deities, paraded the town, headed by a band of music. In the evening a large bonfire was made on the North Denes, in which the effigy of Napoleon the First was consumed amidst much rejoicing, and in the presence of nearly 30,000 persons.”

Dr Mark Rumble, in his A New Perlustration of Great Yarmouth, provides more detail of this “massive open-air dinner”. He writes: “At this incredible party, 6844lb of beef were eaten, and no less than 70 barrels of beer drunk.”

But he points out: “This party, seemingly extremely premature, celebrated Napoleon’s resignation, but he was in fact not defeated at Waterloo until June 1815, more than a year later. After a disastrous attempt to invade Russia in 1812, Napoleon had been defeated at Leipzig in 1813, and was forced to abdicate in April 1814, as celebrated in Yarmouth.

“He was exiled to the Isle of Elba, but escaped and returned to power, and was not finally defeated until the battle at Waterloo the following year.”

One version of this “plentiful” celebratory dinner states that the recipients were Yarmouth’s poor, “of which all that thought proper were allowed to partake.” So-called “gentlemen of the town” assisted and presided, among them 74-year-old Jacob Preston, ship owner and shipbuilder.

It must have been a huge and daunting feat of organisation, all done in a hot hurry. Who obtained and supplied so much meat and plum pudding? Where was it all cooked? How was it delivered and served before it got cold? Where did the crockery, cutlery, chairs and tables come from? Who washed up afterwards?

We can but speculate...but I am sure about one thing: my indebtedness to regular Mercury correspondent Miss Rita Farmer, of Marine Parade, Gorleston, for suggesting the 1814 celebration as a topic.

Wars result in casualties, and sadly I revisit the case of 22-year-old Clifford Harbord, a victim of the South African Boer Wars. “Yarmouth man awarded the Victoria Cross. Bugler’s gallant act. Shot six Boers and saved his colonel’s life,” announced Mercury headlines in 1902.

Our report, based on his letter home to his parents, said his colonel was in peril of his life when Boers surrounded him, but Harbord shot six of them dead at close range with his revolver.

“He has been very frequently in action and constantly on trek. He has had two horses shot from under him and on one occasion, lay with a dead horse for three-quarters of an hour while Boers were firing in his direction, but the bullets passed him by.”

We continued: “Bugler Harbord will be one of the youngest wearers of the coveted decoration. He was for several years bugler in the local corps of the Artillery Volunteers and served his apprenticeship as a gas fitter with Gray and Palmer, of King Street.

“Capt T P Devlin, comm-anding officer of the Artillery Volunteers, has been apprised of the welcome news and, on his return to Yarmouth, Bugler Harbord will receive a rousing welcome.

“The townspeople will do honour to the young hero when he returns to his native town, and one may be sure that the occasion will be one for the exhibition of considerable enthusiasm.”

But there was no VC – the nation’s highest award “For Valour” - for Bugler Harbord, nor any other decoration as far as I can ascertain. The Mercury never again mentioned it, nor reported his homecoming.

On the basis of his dramatic letter home, the town looked forward to his return from the South African battlefields. Saving the life of Col von Dunlop – with a revolver, a weapon used by officers and not other ranks – does raise doubts 113 years later.

I doubt that the young soldier was a hoaxer, but perhaps was a fantasist. The effect on his parents and family must have been devastating, but they had to come to terms with the fact that in battle, not all wounds are physical and visible but can also cause distressing mental hurt.

Perhaps the horrors he saw and suffered on the veldt made Bugler Harbord yet another casualty of war.

We shall never know.

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