Monday, August 12, 2013

Echoes of the Great War

Echoes of the Great War

In August 1984,  Radio 4 ran a programme on an intriguing War diary kept by a rector called Dr Andrew Clark .  By a strange coincidence this was the name of my 'hero' in The Long Shadow, a story of World War One as it was experienced by the Allies in Salonika, Greece.  My husband was busy sorting out a load of old newspapers and copies of the Radio Times that he's kept all these years for various reasons of his own and this article caught my eye as he rifled through them  

The real Andrew Clark was a quiet scholarly rector in the peaceful village of Great Leighs in Essex.  He was born in 1856 in Dollar, Clackmannanshire.  As a young man he went on to Oxford and took a first class degree in Greats, returning to Scotland where he married and had children.  He eventually moved to Oxford where he became known as a skilled historian.  He left Oxford with some reluctance due to the fact that his wife hated university life and preferred the quiet of a rural backwater such as Great Leighs proved to be  He was a popular and successful rector there and well liked by his contemporaries.

Dr. Andrew Clark
When war was declared in August 1914, Clark decided that he would collect as much information as possible about the reactions and events that occurred to ordinary people as the war progressed.  No one dreamt it would last as long as it did or that one million British soldiers would not return home again.  Clark's historical background served him well and with meticulous care and a keen eye for observation he determined to note everything he heard or saw relating to the War, from air raids to billeting, and from health issues to news of fatalities.  He also collected letters, recorded rumours and conversations he overheard, compared them to the officially released news with all their edited propaganda and useless information.
He also collected ephemera, recruitment posters, pasted and transcribed letters from soldiers in Flanders, Salonika and Italy that had been sent to villagers and commissioned the local schoolchildren to write essays with their impressions of any events that took place locally. For instance there was the occasion when 8,000 troops marched through the village on the way to war.  At the time the children would have been enormously thrilled and excited by such a spectacle in a quiet farming village like Great Leighs where life had been slow quiet and orderly for centuries.   He also wrote to his daughter in Scotland and gathered news from whatever sources he could find such as YMCA officials, travelling salesmen, wounded soldiers, men on leave and academic men in Oxford.
Dr Clark wrote up his diaries at night and noted events hour by hour until the 28th June 1918, when the war ended with the signing of the treaty of Versailles.  He had once been a curator at the Bodleian library and the librarian there encouraged Clark to send in his diaries as each one was compiled, foreseeing that these would have value one day as records of the period as seen from the ordinary lives of people who were not soldiers but nonetheless drawn perforce into what was in effect a 'people's war'.  There was not one, city, town, village or family in Britain that remained unaffected.  Even Great Leighs, a small village of 600 people, sent 72 men to war and 19 of these never returned.
These books lay forgotten in the Bodleian library for 70 years but were at last published as Echoes of the Great War in 1985, edited by Dr James Munson who also gave the talk on radio 4.

St Mary the Virgin, Great Leighs
Lyon Hall home of the Tritton family
My interest aroused, I recently made a visit to the village, Great Leighs.  It was always a spread out village, now bordered by a great deal of new housing.  The trees had grown and little remained of the wide empty country lanes of early last century.  However, we began with the church where the Rector held his services, St Mary the Virgin.  This attractive little church has an unusual tower.  In the graveyard we found many of the Tritton family who had lived at Great Leighs for years and still do live there at Lyon Hall opposite the church. 

Poor Dr Clark!  He had quite a walk from his own home at the Rectory to the church.  Imagine doing this in the dark of a snowy winter morning or early evening, hardly any heating allowed in the church because coal was rationed.  Yet, he seldom allowed himself to shirk his duty unless sick.

The Old Rectory
We found the Old Rectory, now looking very magnificent with wrought iron gates and sweeping driveway.  I suspect Andrew Clarke would have liked to see it looking as smart as this.  He struggled hard to keep up the work and the big garden during the war years when his groom/gardener, Charles Ward, was taken away to fight.  Charles had come to work for him as a lad of fifteen in 1909 and was responsible for the pony, drove the trap when required, looked after the paddock, kitchen garden, orchard and lawns, drains and various other jobs.  For this he got 16 shillings a week.  Dr Clark did his best to keep Charles at home with him because the young man was short in stature and did not have the required chest measurement.  Other village lads were at first rejected on such grounds and felt very upset.  They had thought it would be good to be paid to enlist and see Egypt, Malta, France or Germany.  It was still considered a splendid opportunity to see the world and get away from the village and the hard work of farming and labouring.

Dr Clark did his best to keep Charles Ward with him because the young man suffered badly from weakness of the chest and wet weather would send him to hospital at once. However, letters to the Recruitment Office were of no avail as they considered that if the young man could do all that work, he should manage army life.   Dr Clark, however,  knew he wouldn't be of much use to them on the Front and sure enough, young Ward was in hospital within a few weeks of joining up.  As soon as he was well, he was sent back to the front again.  He adored the Rector and wrote regularly with his news; simple, ordinary little letters of a country lad, but often quite touching.
Meanwhile the ageing Rector struggled with the upkeep of his home, his sick and dying wife, though he made no allusion to his private life in the diaries. He was also obliged to join a form of Home Guard as he was too old to go to war himself.  This meant walking around at night, patrolling the streets and lanes to ensure all light were out and no strangers hanging about.  Spy stories were constantly flying about and anyone vaguely foreign looking or odd was regarded with deep suspicion.  Zeppelins were often heard going close by and making bombing raids on nearby Chelmsford.

Some of the stories brought back by soldiers on leave were truly horrendous.  They put paid to the official bulletins which gave away little or nothing of the true state of affairs in order to keep up morale at home.  But the problem was that rumours then flew around, fuelled by gossip and were
often more alarming than the truth. 

Little by little old class systems were being swept away and even women were being called upon to work as all the able bodied men had to enlist.  The girls had as yet, a confused idea of identity and could at times dress in a rather comic fashion, unsure whether to look like a man or a woman.  Nothing like as elegant as in a BBC TV production, I'm afraid, where they all look pretty and smart!.  Andrew Clark describes a day when he saw some land girls walking through the village dressed in riding breeches, a long smock over these, an ordinary woman's hat atop their heads and a rattan cane in hand.  There was still a good deal of disapproval of girls who worked on the land or in factories and often from other women.  The wages, however, were high and many local girls went off to do factory work, spending the money as fast as they earned it and flaunting their 'wealth'.  But when the war ended and munitions factories closed down, wages also lowered with the resultant discontent and difficulty in re-adjustment for both men and women.
It was a strange period in human history and the diaries of Dr Andrew Clark have captured it in all its everyday detail full of moments of pathos, deep meaning and ridiculous trivia and gossip.
the End Way, Great Leighs

Favourite Quotes

  • My home is my retreat and resting place from the wars: I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner of my soul. Michelle de Montaigne
  • Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony: Mahatma Gandhi
  • Friends are people you can be quiet with. Anon.