TitleOf Our Villages and Villagers in The Great War - Birch Centenary Chronicles 9
AbstractOf Our Villages and Villagers in The Great War

Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History

Centenary Chronicles - No. 9.

Published in Parish News - November 1997

November again and another year almost over! Of all the months of the year this one has the record for the longest continuous commemoration of any single event in our political history - the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Church records down the years have noted the celebration of the preservation of King and Parliament but in the minds of most young people 5th November has been the occasion for collecting "Pennies for the guy" and, on the day itself, the setting fire to bonfires to burn the effigy of the treacherous Guy Fawkes plus the letting off of fireworks every year.

Every year, that is, apart from those between 1914 - 1918 and 1939 to 1944 ..........

November is also the month when we remember the events of the two World Wars and, in particular, on the 11th, or now more usually, on the convenient Sunday, those who failed to return to their homes when War ended. In the last issue of these Chronicles we mentioned that there were some at the Birch School celebrations who could recall the local men passing the school on their way to Colchester to enlist in 1918. Only a few years earlier many had been pupils at the school. Some did not return and for those who did life was never the same again. Now almost all have passed on but their deeds will never be forgotten by those of us for whom many gave their lives. Others spent years far from their homes, often serving in terrible conditions and facing constant danger. To quote a Canadian historian "We think of soldiers of the Great War as grown men, mature in years and experience. In fact, this war was fought to a considerable extent by teenagers. The moustaches, the sunken eyes, the hollow cheeks mask the truth - that many of these youths, trained to kill, would in normal times have still been in high school. They badgered their parents for permission to go until they gave in."

By January 1917 the War, which was to have been "over by Christmas" 1914 had been raging for 29 months and the terrible losses suffered had to be replaced by conscripting men for the first time in our history. The noise of the guns in Belgium and France could be heard in Essex from time to time providing an effective indication of what was happening across the Channel. Belgium and France were merely place names to the men in the fields prior to August 1914. Such places as Gallipoli were even more remote. They would have heard of Palestine from their Bible studies but the context would have been very different for those who found themselves fighting in the heat and dust of the campaigns in the Middle East.

Life at home may have been more comfortable than being in the trenches and mud of Flanders but the families had to "soldier on" just hoping that any news they got would be good news. The Parish Newsletters of 80 years ago provide some idea of how news spread round the Parishes. A certain amount of jingoism was essential to keep spirits up but glimpses of the realities of war creep in from time to time.

Not all was gloom in the War News relayed via the Magazine to its readers. Promotions and awards were noted at all levels, although in some cases such things were "coded". Sergeant Basil Stow was off to an "Officers Training Corps hoping to receive his Commission in the Heavy Machine Gun Corps, which means, we believe, that he will become a Tank Officer".

Some served for the whole War and survived while others, like Horace Burmby, of Layer Marney, who had spent most of his life in Birch, served for less than a month before dying at Aldershot. He was 41 years old and this alone shows the desperate state of things in 1917 so far as replacing losses in the Army was concerned. Conscription had been introduced in 1916 to provide much needed recruits which, in turn, had a knock on effect on the availability of farm labour. As conscription started with the youngest being called up first it is likely that Horace was a volunteer offering to go "before his time". Maybe he like others from rural areas saw little sense in remaining to work on the land at a time when the horses were being taken by the Army. If so he was not alone in following them off to the front. The long term effects of some of the items noted was almost certainly not realised at the time. "Lance Corporal A Fletcher, who received his stripe on the battlefield, has been badly gassed and slightly wounded, and has been home on sick leave after seven months of severe and continuous fighting on the Somme Front". Others were wounded several times, Charles Pooley at least three times, Herbert Potter, wounded in Mesopotamia, was in hospital in India making good progress - both a far cry from Birch.

On the Home Front £8 was made from a Children's Concert and this, together with contributions in money and kind from friends in the parish, enabled 60 parcels of comforts to be dispatched to "our men on the various fronts". It is interesting to note that 3 parcels went to Mesopotamia, 6 to Salonika, 2 to Egypt, 6 to the Fleet, 3 to men in hospital and the rest to France. The contents varied with their destination but most contained "a pair of socks and another woolly - mittens, muffler etc., - handkerchiefs, chocolate, cocoa, soup squares, cigarettes, and a little writing case with paper and envelopes. Some of the socks and mittens were knitted by the children".

People were urged to conserve food and ensure that nothing was wasted as well as paying attention to warnings with regard to air raids. Fragments of bombs were not to be handled as there was the risk of a serious skin disease if one did so. Some items reminded readers of happier times as for example the marriage of Mr Gill, school master at Birch. His army progress had been reported in the magazine which also gave a write-up to his marriage on 4th August 1917 (the third anniversary of the outbreak of the War) to Miss Martin, Head Teacher of Birch School. Mr Gill had been recently promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the Army Service Corps and after a very brief honeymoon at Frinton was straight off to France where he was to serve with a Divisional Supply Train close to the Front Line. He returned to the school as Head master after the War and was recalled by many attending the anniversary this year.

The same issue of the magazine contains news of fourteen local men and one lady! Most of the news was bad, deaths of sons or of those who had been the only support for aged parents. One prisoner of war, who had been captured in 1914, was invalided home again as his sight had been affected. Not all the wounds came from enemy action; Sergeant George Playle suffered a fractured knee cap through being kicked by a horse! The one lady mentioned was Miss Evelyn Luard of the Royal Red Cross who as sister in charge of a casualty clearing station very near the front had been under continual fire but had carried on "under very trying circumstances" - no doubt an understatement! One of the "jingoistic" entries refers to Edmund Palmer and Edward Auger who were both accepted for the Royal Flying Corps, for which there was great competition, due to the fact that they had good records as Boy Scouts - a new meaning to the motto "Be Prepared".

One wonders at some of the items and it would be very interesting to know what really happened for example when Gunner Claude Partner came on leave in 1917. It is said that it was his first leave and that he was "full of enthusiasm about his guns and full of keen talk about his experiences in France". His brother was killed in 1916 and he was to be killed by a shell only two days after he returned to France from leave.

The opportunity to travel was an unlooked for "benefit" of the War for some and an anonymous local man's visit to Jerusalem is detailed in the March 1918 magazine as he had been a member of the force which marched into the city on 4th January that year. The June 1918 issue notes that military service had damaged the health permanently of one man and "he deserves well of his Country. We hope very much that he will grow stronger in the quiet life of his own home".

On a more cheerful note, 40 women and girls in Layer Breton and Birch were invited to a meeting at Birch School at which they were given a wartime tea and addressed by Miss Tritton, of the Essex Women's War Agricultural Association. Mr Bloomfield, as an employer, spoke of the great value of their work and said that the farmers could not manage without them. "Miss Round, assisted by Master Jimmy Round, then gave away armlets and stripes to those who had earned them. Most of those present received stripes for 6 months full time work, and 5 women received 4 stripes each, which represented 2 years' continuous work. A report in the Essex County Chronicle of that time notes that nearly 7,000 were employed on the land in Essex.

In July 1918 the award of the Royal Red Cross, First Class for Distinguished Services in the Field to Nursing Sister Mary Bishop was noted - she was the third Sister from this Parish to received the award (Miss K E Luard and Miss K Smith being the others) Miss K E Luard was awarded a bar to her Royal Red Cross which had only been received by 5 other Sisters to that date.

This Newsletter also refers to the first meeting to consider the starting up of a Women's Institute. The aim was to help women to work together by co-operation in food production and economy. The first meeting was fixed for 10th July and 45 gave their names as members. "It is hoped that the Institute will become a great feature of village life and will be a means of bringing women together for recreation and mutual help and education. IT DID AND CONTINUES TO DO SO AND PLANS ARE AFOOT FOR THE 80TH BIRTHDAY IN 1998!

A rather jingoistic note was sounded in August 1918 as the fourth anniversary of the outbreak of the War passed but it was not until the December issue that the word "PEACE" was used as a heading. We are very fortunate in that the editor of the magazine in 1919 saw fit to summarise the War effort of Birch and Layer Breton - the statistics hide a considerable amount of emotion no doubt but nevertheless they are a measure of the local commitment of our villages and throughout the whole country.

One hundred and sixty persons served in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Nursing Service. Of these 27 were killed or died on service, 37 wounded or gassed, 3 taken prisoner, 14 invalided or discharged, 12 awarded military honours and 3 received commissions. The honours included a Distinguished Conduct Medal (Sergt Major Worsley) a Distinguished Service Medal (Basil Hutton RN) one Military Cross, five Military Medals, and the Red Cross Awards as above.

One thinks of War Memorials being erected after the War but this is not always the case. Many villages set out to commemorate the dead during the War itself and Birch and Layer Breton were no exception when in 1917 a Memorial Cross was presented by Mr & Mrs Round. It was made by Mr Hutton from two beams of the old Layer Breton Church. The Bishop of Colchester attended for the unveiling and dedication of the Wayside Cross, as it was then known, on St Peter's Day 1917. The names of the fallen had been carved into the Cross and those killed after that date had their names added as the War continued. The men of Layer Marney were commemorated on a mural tablet on the north aisle wall of the Church, unveiled on 13th June 1920.

Life slowly returned to a different form of normality and a soldier's party was held on 24th April 1919 which was attended by over 80 returned soldiers - others would still have been serving at that time. Many of us pass the Wayside Cross on our way in and out of the area but our other War Memorial is more often taken for granted - the War Memorial Committee Fund received contributions from many local people and the fund stood at £1,315 by June 1919. More fund raising was needed and it was not until 9th October 1921 that the "Village Hall, beautifully equipped, with every convenience, and free of debt, was impressively opened". The Hall was to be "a Memorial for the Dead and a Thank offering for the safe return of so many of our men, and for the many blessings vouchsafed to the Parish, during the Great War".

We can do no better than remember that aim whenever we use or pass the Hall. They left these fields and workplaces, their families and loved ones - each and every one of them made a sacrifice, some the supreme sacrifice, and it is important that we take time to remember their deeds. They made their contribution just as another generation was called upon to do only 21 years after the "War to end all Wars". Let us hope and pray that no such call is ever again needed.


Unfortunately not all the Parish Magazines have survived and if anyone has those from 1913 to 1916 we would be very grateful if you could let us know so that we can fill in any gaps in the information we have.

PublishedNovember 1997
SourceMersea Museum / Breton Heath