The pictures that told of First World War heroes, gone but not forgotten
PUBLISHED: 07:00 11 November 2018
Of the pictures adorning the walls of my maternal Grandma’s terrace cottage in Harley Road, Newtown, when I was young, two particularly attracted my attention.
One was a print of a classic portrait of an aristocratic woman, but beneath the painting was printed puzzling information like “stolen” and “recovered” with dates. Poor woman, I thought - wealthy, high-born, but a kidnapping victim.
Years later I realised it was a time-scale of the original masterpiece being stolen and retrieved.
The other was a large framed sepia-tone studio photograph of a seated uniformed soldier with a large moustache. His tunic buttoned was buttoned to the throat, his peaked cap straight, not jauntily tilted.
That soldier was Nan’s late husband, my Grandad who was in the Army in the First World War. I never knew him because he died long before I was born, and was rarely mentioned in conversation.
I cannot recall either Nan or my mother ever telling me whether he volunteered or was conscripted, although I knew that he had worked in Yarmouth before that war broke out.
How did he die? According to Nan, in the simplest of terms: “He was gassed on Hill 60.” She never elaborated.
The infamous Hill 60 in France will mean little or nothing to generations in 2018 - exactly a century since the Armistice came after four years of bloody warfare in Europe. But, just as in the 1939-45 conflict, millions died and families were left devastated.
Hill 60 was not a natural hill at all but a very high man-made heap of spoil from a railway cutting being gouged through the countryside.
It was not created with warfare in mind, but was destined to become almost synonymous with The Great War and its incessant mud and bloody carnage.
Occupation and control of the strategically located Hill 60 changed two or three times, the newly-arrived British troops recapturing it at great cost in April 1915.
A month later the Germans counter-attacked, retaking the hill with the aid of their new deadly weapon: gas.
My Grandad was one of the many unprotected victims who had no choice but to breathe in that killer gas... and cough uncontrollably until he died.
Here in Yarmouth and Gorleston, the official declaration of war came in July 1914 at the height of the holiday season.
According to the late Arthur (“Bill”) Ecclestone’s diary of the borough between 1886 to 1936, published in 1977, the news “was received patriotically by the townspeople but every effort was made to assure the public that there was no danger on the East Coast and no need for people to cancel their holidays, but nevertheless some people curtailed their stay and others cancelled their bookings.”
The borough banned any street lights that could be seen from the sea, so the Empire and Gem (Windmill) Cinemas on Marine Parade closed, transferring their advertised programmes to the Theatre Royal in Regent Road. Churches abandoned evening services because of the black-out.
The German steamer Fiducia was seized at her berth in the harbour.
The September race meeting was abandoned, as was a November election.
Men rushed to enlist in the Armed Forces, and the town was bombarded by an enemy mine-laying force.
The Zeppelin attacks have been well recalled here.
From the same source, we learn that in 1915 a frightened woman jumped out of bed because she thought the Germans were coming, but tumbled downstairs and died.
Another woman, a Mrs Cubitt, died in a dug-out under construction in Park Road, Gorleston.
Emergency hospitals were established at the Town Hall, Shipwrecked Sailors Home, York Road Drill Hall and on the South Denes. Licensed victualler S J Allen gave his motor-car to the Red Cross for conversion into an ambulance.
When the Norfolk Regiment appealed for 1,000 sandbags, a Regent Road shopkeeper asked passers-by to give a penny-halfpenny each to buy one.