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The First World War and Eastern England


The Centenary of the First World War is still under the shadow of the 50th Anniversary around 1964. This created powerful stereotypes of lions and donkeys, butchers and bunglers and Oh! What a Lovely War – Joan Littlewood, Alan Clark and A.J.P Taylor were some of the main setters of the scene. The focus was on the infantry experience on the Western Front and mainly on the officers, even on the very select group of war poets.

Already the Centenary is beginning to widen out the picture to the war effort across the UK – the all-class and the working-class war. My book Our Land at War sets out how it was a war of small groups and crews – trawler men dragging up mines, women munitions workers on shell-filling conveyors, rail men with supply trains with heavier loads on the unexpected and little-used routes across London to the South Coast, pilots at 8,000ft on a winter’s night without oxygen and workers making tetanus and typhoid vaccines. The civic history of Leeds paid tribute to the unparalleled endurance of pain and suffering shown by both sides and all classes and the wonderful power of organisation and initiative to meet unforeseen difficulties shown by our own country. Long before the official war memorials from 1915 onwards there were many street shrines made of simple materials carrying the names of local people on active service.

The East Coast of England showed both resilience and innovation. The Zeppelins came in over Felixstowe and the first casualties were in Yarmouth. In Harwich there was the war beyond the tennis court where trawlers for Grimsby swept lanes twice a day to clear some of the 25,000 mines laid during the war. There were large sea plane bases at Yarmouth and at Killingholme on the Humber. Early on there was the bombardment of Scarborough by two giant cruisers while the good citizens were mainly still in bed, early on a Wednesday morning. In Grantham there was the huge training base for the largest new corps – the Machine Gun Corps – at Belton Park. 

Less known is the innovation record of engineering firms up the East Coast. Ransome’s in Ipswich developed the Stokes mortar, a simple and effective weapon named after its managing director Wilfred Stokes.

Greets in Bury St Edmunds made the aircraft part which caused the most problems – the radiator – and managed to produce hundreds working seven days a week during the 1918 emergency. In Norwich Boulton and Paul was a major producer of the Sopwith Camel in a site by the main railway station.

In Lincoln Foster’s designed and produced the first tank in 141 days using the caterpillar track which had been invented in Grantham. The design proved to be the basis for later success and was far better than the Schneider light tanks developed in France. Less well known was the work of Livens, the Managing Director of Ruston Bucyrus in Lincoln, in devising the Livens projectors. With these the 5,000 men of the Special Brigade would cause 141,000 casualties. The projector allowed containers with 50 percent gas content to be fired a few hundred metres to create a highly concentrated cloud could that was far more effective than the 10 percent content gas shells dispersed by the German Army.

The innovation in the East drew on their pre-war record. The Lincolnshire plough in the Fenlands had encouraged the first factory farms using steam tractors. The first lawnmower was developed by Ransome’s in Ipswich. Labour shortage caused by the pull of London was a pressure towards the invention of the first Ivel tractor in Biggleswade. Further back Turnip Townsend and Norfolk farmers had supplied food for the vastly expanding city of London and the East Coast had become a main sea route and training ground for seamen such as Captain Cook with the Newcastle coal trade. The enterprise culture of Eastern England was crucial to the effectiveness of the British war effort.

By Nick Bosanquet


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