ID: DJG_WWC / Douglas J. Gurton

TitleTollesbury in War-time - WW1
AbstractRecent publicity regarding remains of V2 rockets found near Thurslet, revives memories not only of World War II but the Great War of 1914-18 when Tollesbury was selected as a training area for infantry. On the 12th December 1914 the Essex Territorial Cyclist Battalion carried out a "sham fight" on the marshes, but this was only a preliminary exercise, within a matter of weeks, units of the Royal Warwickshire and also Hampshire Yeomanry were billeted in the village, and manning sandbag enclosures at The Hard, on the sea walls and at the Pier, relieving to a certain extent the duties of the local Coastguards, Coastguard Auxiliaries (yachtsmen and fishermen) and the local Sea Scouts. Early in 1915 advance units of the Sherwood Foresters Notts and Derby Regiments arrived by train and began preparing The Mount as a military camp.

Mr. Jack Gallant, the local station master, had more to concern him than the despatch of 120,000 oysters firsts and seconds in one day, but had to cope with truckloads of military equipment mules and horses, naturally his station staff was augmented. Up to this time we had fondly imagined that Tollesbury would not attract the enemy, for had not Tollesbury men crewed in the German Kaiser's yacht Meteor, but contrary to their undertaking were now serving in the Royal Navy. Possibly the most shattering thing so far as we children were concerned, was the fact that our sand-pit and toboggan runs on The Mount indulgently allowed us by Mr. George Wombwell of Tollesbury Hall had now been confiscated for military purposes.

No more would we see the outline of Bostock and Wombwell's circus ring or the traces of Messrs. Dolman's "Hippodrome", as concrete platforms for ablutions (soldiers for the use of), latrines and gantries from which bags of straw were suspended for bayonet practices, were quickly constructed. Tollesbury was just benefiting from a piped water supply, most houses still used their wells and the village pumps, but running water at the turn of a tap was startling and was quickly brought into use by the military. The Mount was covered by large canvas marquees and bell tents.

Shortly after 4 p.m. on 20th April 1915 a Naval balloon descended at Carrington's Farm, one joker said "They've dropped in for tea at Guisnes", but the Naval bearded commander was not amused, as he had been heading in the direction of Tollesbury Fleets. The balloon was quickly deflated and bundled unceremoniously in a farm wggon and taken away.

By May 1915 some 250 young men of the village had been called to the forces, and Mr J. Phillips had prepared a large glazed board sited at Brand's Corner (The Square) with the names of each man beautifully executed in gold leaf paint. However, this did not deter an Army Recruiting Campaign one evening on The Square. Harangued by a rosetted sergeant major two young' men stepped forward from the assembled civilians, and were quickly fallen in the ranks of the soldiers. Surprisingly although in civilian clothes they marched off with the soldiers with equable military precision. It was obvious that the two young men were already soldiers.

At first the tentage was not camouflaged, but with air raids increasing, this was rectified, but presented an incongruous appearance, with the brown, green and buff squiggles like so many snakes. Woodrope however presented a more peace-time look with all the large yachts in their mud berths, and smacks laid up in South Dock and Rotten Row for want of crews. Several of the older yachts were hauled up onto the Hard and divested of their copper sheathing and lead ballast, commodities in short supply. There was a minor French invasion when a crew arrived to take away the beautiful sleek steam yacht "Winifred", the pride and joy of Capt. Isaac Rice, Senior, having been sold to France as a hospital ship. The French crew brought a little colour into the village, the officers in their boat cloaks and the sailors in their "pom-pom" hats and blue striped vests. Some of us children helped to trundle handcarts laden with provisions down to the Rickus path, but found that the carts were too wide to go through the wicket gate. The prospect of carrying the items by hand was too much, but with one gigantic heave the Frenchmen rammed the entrance and the gate disappeared in pieces.

Up in the village it was fairly quiet, very few men around. Mr. Bert Redhouse, the bootmaker, had lost his daily visitors, but was receiving postcards from "Somewhere in France". He staged an exhibition of trophies of war, German spiked helmets, bayonets, etc., in his shop's front window. Mr. Joe Stace, the meticulous barber, had few customers, as the soldiers had their own barbers in the ranks, but nevertheless kept his slate with "Please wipe your feet" close by his door.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and although we children did not forsake our tops, hoops, "buttons or "conkers" at the appropriate times, we were able to model ourselves on the soldiers in our midst, and regularly played war-like games, forming little gangs or teams as we called them named after the particular localities, e.g., "High Streeters" - "New Roaders" - "Mell Roaders" etc. Even the little girls took part acting as nurses to soothe our cuts and bruises. Our school masters were called to the colours early in the War, and our school mistresses had a difficult and harassing time depriving us of our implements of war before classes commenced.

The Reverend Swinnerton, Vicar of Tolleshunt Major, endeavoured to channel the older boys' enthusiasm into forming a Tollesbury Boy Scouts Troop, but unfortunately it was short lived due to the over zealousness of a patrol who pulled a young lady off her cycle who had failed to obey, their challenge. A severe lecture followed next day from one of the School Governors, Countess de la Chapelle. Rev. Swinnerton was a courageous man, and suffered a great handicap. He was practically blind and wore dark blue glasses. However, this did not deter him riding a motor cycle combination. Invariably one of the boys sat on the saddle and steered whilst the Rev. Swinnerton operated the controls from the wicker basket combination attached.

Possibly one of the greatest handicaps of those days, were the "black-out" regulations. All householders had to provide their homes with black or dark green blinds, and there being no street lighting the mellow glow from the oil lamps in the houses shining out into-the streets was very much missed by pedestrians.

On Saturday 29th May 1915, two alleged spies, man and woman, masquerading as artists were arrested on the marshes, but were found to be both men and were taken away under armed escort, We children inquistive like went to view the scene of arrest, and were quickly rounded up by soldiers and threatened with the sergeant's belt if found in the vicinity again.

As military training progressed, trenches were dug on the old brickfield and Little Marsh, and signalling exercises were carried cut between soldiers on the Church tower and the newly constructed Water Tower near the railway station.

On Sunday 4th July 1915 a spectacular Church Parade was held for the units of the Sherwood Foresters and Notts and Derby soldiers. Headed by a military band they marched to St. Mary's accompanied by a large gathering of older members of the Ancient Order of Foresters in their regalia. A local hero, Major William Charles Maskell, D.S.C., M.C., was home on a brief leave at the time, and at the conclusion of the Church Service was asked by the Officer Commanding to take the salute as the troops marched back to camp. This was a gesture noticed and much appreciated by the villagers. However, on one occasion, two young Tollesbury men in hospital blue were standing on the corner of the Square when the O/C went past on his charger, and presumably failed to salute him. They were taken to the Guardroom by "Red Caps" which was formerly the old Co-op and Post Office on the Square, and later taken to Battn Hdqrs at Albany Villa where they were released. This was not an isolated incident, as on one occasion one of the original Tollesbury volunteers home on leave from the front in war stained uniform was detained as an "Absentee Without Leave". Fortunately he was able to give a good account of himself, and told the sergeant where he should be.

The great influx of troops presented problems in the village, but the local churches played their part nobly, and regular entertainment and dances were organised at The Institute and Parish Room. Furthermore, many of the soldiers were talented artistes and the village benefited a great deal.

Many of the older men and women, young and old,, were employed on making kitbags and "nettles" for hammock lashings. At this period there were five public houses situated within the village, "Plough and Sail", "Hope", "King's Head", "Victoria" and "Ship Ahoy". Len lee a local sailmaker at Gowen's, Woodrolfe, compiled an apt jingle "We plough and sail, and we hope the King will be Victorious - Ship Ahoy". The soldiers held many a concert in the local hostelries, and usually on a Saturday evening a portion of the military band played on the Square and accompanied Church services on Sundays.

For the benefit of the soldiers a canteen under the title "Home Defence Comforts Welfare Fund" was established at the corner shop Enterprise Buildings and staffed and organised by the Countess de la Chapelle and her Red Cross nurses. The canteen was officially opened although somewhat secretly, as only a handful of sightseers adults and children were present, when this act was graciously performed by H.R.H. Princess Alice (Countess of Athlone). The first occasion the village had been honoured by a visit from a member of the Royal family.

As the war progressed other specialised training was established in the locality. Two aeroplane hangars were erected at Gardner's Farm, Goldhanger (the guardroom is now a bungalow, and one hangar can be seen at Sadd's Depot near the Great Eastern, Maldon). On occasions the Sopwith Pup bi-planes force landed at Tollesbury and caused some excitement. An M.T.B. base was also established at Osea Island and named H.M.S. "Osea", the ship's badge unofficially was a "chick in an eggshell using a paddle". The drone of the motor torpedo boat engines on the River at night mingled with that of the Taubes and Gothas proceeding overhead for targets in London, but not so much as that of Zeppelin L33 returning from a raid on London, began to lose height over the Estuary, jettisoned portable equipment over Wick Marsh, and grounded at Copt Hall Little Wigborough at 2.a.m. on Sunday 24th September 1916. The two officers and nineteen men disembarked, set fire to the Zeppelin and surrendered to a special constable. The glare from the fire lit up the countryside, and it is said that one-could have read a newspaper in Tollesbury Square. Tollesbury coastguards mounted guard over the remains of the airship, which were visited by the Prime Minister (Lloyd George), other notables, and thousands of villagers from the countryside within the next few days.

Although the local doctors, Drs. Salter and Spink, possessed motor cars, and Mr. George Fisher at The Garage owned several, the military did not use mechanised equipment, and on one odd occasion when mobile anti-aircraft guns went down Wycke Lane they became bogged.

Most operations were carried out on foot, bicycle or horse drawn transport. Mr. James Frost who had relinquished his job as a bargemaster was extremely busy breaking in horses and mules on Beecham's meadow and Woodrope Green. It was a time of full employment in the village, but the impact of war had already been tragically felt by many. On odd occasions military funerals were held accompanied by band with muffled drums and escort with reversed arms. There was also a most impressive Fire Brigade funeral of a local man killed in London.

In their leisure time, which was not too frequent, soldiers went out fishing and oyster dredging with the local fishermen, also gave a hand on the farms for German prisoners-of-war in their brilliantly patched uniforms were being employed to replace those called to the colours. The soldiers, mostly from the Midlands, and miners by profession, reveled in the delights of rabbiting with ferrets or guns. Local tradespeople and farmers had joined the Local Defence Volunteers and regularly carried out drills under a sergeant in the stackyard of Hunt's Farm, causing much merriment amongst us children who delighted to watch their antics. Some of the older yacht skippers had become Special Constables, and so far as we children were concerned appeared to be more zealous than P.C. Brown who kept us on the move constantly with a flip of his gloves which were believed to have small pebbles in the finger tips.

With the introduction of food rationing, the trials and worries of tradesman and housewife alike were increased. "No meat without coupons" was Mr. Albert Brand's constant cry, it was our first introduction to frozen meat. The quality of food generally had not decreased, bread and flour were grey in colour, but Mr. Ponder's sausages were still of excellent quality, never to be surpassed. Stone Brothers were still brewing in The Chase, but under the "Defence of the Realm Act" (DOHA) all off-sales of 'beers, wines and spirits had to be signed for by the recipient. However, in spite of the enemy blockade, food ships were still arriving. The American steamship "Piave" was torpedoed in the Estuary, and hundreds of bags of flour, also large crates of bacon, were floating in the sea and salvaged by our fishermen, who in spite of restrictions were still going on their lawful occasions. Alas, much of the food salvaged had been polluted by fuel oil. Lifeboats and rafts from the wreck of the "Piave" were brought up to Woodrope loaded with merchandise. Under the cover of darkness some of the bags of flour found their way into the village, and it was most unfortunate that some of the bags split, and allowed a trickle of flour to fall on the road disclosing the route followed. Naturally brooms were soon brought out to disperse the traces of flour. [Note 1]

During the sojourn of the troops in our midst, a number of romances flourished and in some cases enduring and happy marriages followed. Others were rudely and tragically shattered later by the misfortunes of war. By the end of 1917 most of the troops had departed, the last to go were units of the Oxford and Bucks who had their band to play them off at the Railway station. It was a sad day for Tollesbury as the soldiers had entered wholeheartedly into the life of the village and brought colour and brightness into what could have been a very dull and uninspiring time.

Events were rapidly reaching a climax, successes were reported most every other day. America had entered the war on the Allies side and was giving most valuable support. Little was it known then that a man, who had spent his boyhood at Tollesbury, was playing a most important part in America's role of supplying the larders of Europe. He was Mr. Frederick E. Hasler, who had wide interests in shipping, banking and mining, and was an adviser and consultant of the American government. He was later to become a great friend and benefactor to this village of Tollesbury.

On St. George's Day, 23rd April 1918, some Tollesbury men serving in the Dover Patrol were at the storming of the Mole at Zeebrugge and later at the blockade of Ostende harbour with H.M.S. "Vindictive".

In the summer which followed there was greater activity in the pea fields. The pea pickers went on "strike" demanding a rate of 1/- per large bag. In the autumn we were encouraged to pick blackberries which were bought by Mr. Harrington at the Post Office.

On Monday, 11th November 1918, Mr. Harrington came down to the school and told the school teachers that Armistice was being declared at 11 a.m. Some children played truant in the afternoon with painful results. The war was over, but another enemy struck the village, a malady under the name of "Spanish Flu" many of the villagers and children suffered.

Note 1
Online sources say PIAVE was completed in December 1918 for the U.S. Navy. She was wrecked on Goodwin Sands 29 Jan 1919 en route from New York to Rotterdam and was a total loss.

AuthorDouglas J. Gurton
Published16 January 1975
SourceMersea Museum / Cedric Gurton