At home during the Great War

Writer Craig Armstrong.'REF 2905143586
Writer Craig Armstrong.'REF 2905143586
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Much will be written about the First World War in this centenary year of its outbreak, but what was life like back home while the troops were fighting? Historian Dr Craig Armstrong has been finding out as he pens a new book, Morpeth in the Great War.

On August 4, 1914, Germany invaded Belgium and Britain entered what was to become the First World War. The conflict would last four years, involve more than 30 nations and leave some nine million soldiers dead.

In Morpeth, the war memorial lists 233 men who left to fight and never returned. A further 60 to 70 from the town are named on other memorials.

But away from the stark figures, what was the war like for ordinary people?

Dr Craig Armstrong, a lecturer and history consultant at Newcastle University, has been tasked with writing five books for publisher Pen and Swords, looking at the impact of the war on Newcastle, Tynemouth and North Shields, Berwick, Alnwick, and Morpeth.

“I’m particularly interested in the history of North East England, having been born and bred in Northumberland, so my book focuses on the social aspect of the war and the home front,” he said.

“I’m looking at life in and around Morpeth during the war and the impact on industry, farms and shops. Any major event at the front affected people’s lives.”

When war was declared, there was strong support in the town and queues formed to sign up for action.

Dr Armstrong said: “Academic research shows that the war was popular in certain urban areas, especially London, but in rural areas it was much less popular. In Morpeth though, the declaration of war was met with quite a riot of enthusiasm.

“When the signal went out to mobilise the Territorials and Yeomanry battalions, the Northumberland Fusiliers and the Hussars, straight away men were trying to get into the Drill Hall at Copper Chare. They thought they were needed immediately, but they were told to go back home and report first thing in the morning.

“The next day huge crowds lined the streets to cheer them and at 12.30pm they marched down Newgate Street and stopped at the Market Place, where the Mayor delivered a short speech. They then set off along Bridge Street, across the bridge to the train station. They were gone by 2 o’clock that afternoon, and a lot of them didn’t come back.”

The impact of the departure was felt immediately.

“The town came to a halt,” said Dr Armstrong.

“Businesses were closed because they had lost virtually all of their staff and a lot of schools were closed for a few days because teachers had volunteered. There was a huge impact on the life of Morpeth pretty much straight away.

“Swinneys ironworks closed down production for a week, but it was very supportive of the war. It even went so far as to promise that it would continue to pay half the wages of all of its workers who had joined up. It was very keen to be seen as being as patriotic as possible, but that happened across Morpeth. A lot of the bigger companies did make an effort to support families.”

Fear of invasion was rife and the War Office took over the Queen’s Head Hotel as headquarters for the northern defences, with some 60 officers quartered there. In addition, 60 men from the Northern Cyclists Corps were based at St James’s National Schools.

“There were soldiers on the streets all the time,” said Dr Armstrong.

“There was a big fear of invasion and bombardment. In 1914 Hartlepool and Whitby had been bombarded and also zeppelins flew over Morpeth and dropped a bomb just two miles away near Hepscott so there was a great fear that people would be on the front line.”

Despite that, there was a determination to try to go on with life as normal.

Older men and women were employed in businesses, and while women had previously worked on farms, the numbers increased. There were also changes in the division of labour, with workers taking on more diverse duties.

And army recruitment remained strong.

“Morpeth was slightly unusual in terms of recruitment,” said Dr Armstrong.

“There was criticism from Newcastle City Council that rural areas weren’t doing their bit and that labourers and farm workers weren’t as quick to volunteer as the urban workers. In Northumberland, we can see evidence of that, but in Morpeth there is a burst of recruitment. It might be to do with the tradition of military service in Morpeth going back before the First World War.

“In fact, the North East had the highest recruitment of anywhere. The Northumberland Fusiliers during the course of the war recruited enough men to create 50 battalions.”

However, despite the continuing support for the war effort, life was getting tough.

There were food shortages and while wages largely remained low, the cost of living was soaring.

Dr Armstrong said: “Morpeth was still on pre-war wages, but the cost of living had increased three or four-fold. People tended to have large families and they had lost their main breadwinner to the army so it created a lot of very tough conditions.

“The war did create a boom for shopkeepers. There were huge food shortages so grocers did pretty well. That led to a lot of tension in Morpeth and other places in Northumberland because people believed they were profiteering.”

Despite the hardship, people were still willing to donate to the troops and a fund-raising Tank Week, where a tank was driven around for people to fill with money, raised more than £6million in the North East, more per capita than any other region.

By 1917, Dr Armstrong says a war weariness was setting in, but it did not diminish support for the troops.

“From 1917 onwards you can see a shift in attitude. You can see in Morpeth numbers of people trying to avoid going into the army and you see slightly more complaints in the papers from people regarding how the war is being run.

“What we don’t see is anybody really saying that the war shouldn’t be taking place. At the time the vast majority of people believed that the war was just. There is a great support for the war because people don’t want the casualties to be in vain.

“The army is so huge that everybody knows somebody who is serving and virtually everybody knew somebody who had been killed so it becomes a duty to support them.”

Among the individual stories, Dr Armstrong has discovered William Anson Grey and his wife Annie, who lost three sons within four months in 1917, Isaac and Rachel Armstrong, who lost two sons in seven months in the same year, and James William Smyth and his wife Susannah, who lost two sons in July 1916.

There is also the tale of heroic Frenchman Victor Amlett. Before the war, he was a partner in a firm of general dealers and pawnbrokers at Bell’s Yard, had married a local girl and lived at Hood Street.

On August 3, 1914, he wrote to the Herald to thank his customers and ask them to continue supporting his wife as he was setting off to join the French army. But when he disappeared, rumour spread that he had been a spy for the Germans.

In fact, he had been true to his word and was mentioned in French dispatches three times in 1914 for his gallantry. He was killed in action in December 1914 and was awarded the Medaille Militaire — the French equivalent of the VC. In 1921, a ceremony was held in Morpeth to present it to his widow. Mr Amlett is among those listed on the Morpeth memorial and is believed to be the only Frenchman to have received the Medaille Militaire to be named on a British memorial.

Morpeth’s heaviest losses were at the Somme in 1916, Ypres in 1917 and in the last 100 days of the war. The armistice was a great relief.

“The celebrations of the armistice were riotous in Morpeth,” said Dr Armstrong.

“News spread the night before that the war was over, which was slightly premature, and it is reported that the pubs, which were supposed to close at 8pm, did a roaring trade. The next morning there were massive crowds as the Mayor announced that a cease-fire was to take effect from 11am.

“Everybody in Morpeth was on the streets. There were huge cheers, people were ringing bells and the schoolchildren were given two days off. All day crowds were waving flags and the volunteer pipe band gave an impromptu concert marching up and down Bridge Street.

“People were incredibly relieved that the war was coming to an end.”

However, that was not the end of the story, and Dr Armstrong is already planning another book looking at the aftermath of the war, and particularly the injured.

He is due to finish Morpeth in the Great War by July, but he is still eager to hear from anyone with photographs, documents or stories about the town during the period.

Anyone who can help should email