FEATURE: Weston at war

PUBLISHED: 10:00 10 August 2014

Weston-s-Mare National Reservists of the 1914-18 War. Copy of a photograph in the Borough Museum collection.

Weston-s-Mare National Reservists of the 1914-18 War. Copy of a photograph in the Borough Museum collection.

Archant

THIS year the nation is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One and Weston is paying its respects with a number of tributes and vigils.

Although many things have changed in the past five decades, our ancestors in 1964 also looked back to honour those who lost their lives, 50 years since the conflict began.

The Round About Somerset feature in the Weston Mercury and Somersetshire Herald was used to remember the events of the Great War.

Describing the August bank holiday of 1914, it said: “It was a carefree holiday – the last England was to know for four years.

“Immediately the Weston scene changed. Soldiers mingled with Weston’s holiday visitors, many of whom, when the significance of the Declaration of War sank upon their bewildered senses, packed their bags and returned home.”

The Mercury, like so many other newspapers, printed a recruitment poster encouraging young men to join Kitchener’s Army. More than 200 local lads responded, rallying on the Beach Lawns in mid-August.

In 1964 the paper recollected the event and wrote: “With what superb patriotism these men of Weston responded to the call.

“They little knew of the horrors ahead, and that before Christmas many of them would be lying in corners of foreign fields.

“They went to war light of heart.”

When the initial patriotic excitement faded, public alarm and talk of a possible enemy invasion of Weston crept in.

A bullet-proof shelter appeared on the seafront and two 40lb guns were mounted on Knightstone Island, pointed out to sea – although these were later removed to ensure Weston was not viewed as a militarised town by potential passing enemies.

Weston families took soldiers into their homes, with many residents woken by an early morning bugle as a grand announcement of the troops’ arrival.

Some returned injured, some did not return. When a local boy was injured he was sent home to die, which often they did, for a burial which the whole town would attend.

There was no television or radio to keep families up-to-date, instead they had to rely on the heavily-censored news reels screened at the local theatre.

The war had only been going for two months when the first major tragedy struck Weston.

On November 23, 1914, the Mercury published a special edition with the front-page headline ‘Disaster to Somerset Yeomanry: Well-known Westonians Killed’.

The boys, many of whom had never fought before, had been rushed to the frontline in Ypres and were outnumbered and outgunned. Seven lads died immediately and several others died later from their wounds.

A huge memorial service was held in the town.

By 1915, Weston was occupied by troops, with the 4,000 men of the 57th Infantry Brigade billeted in the town over Christmas.

By February that year, steps had been taken to protect the town from air raids, with the lights on Marine Parade switched off and all lights facing out to sea turned inwards.

Tram cars had curtained windows while shops, bars and restaurants turned off all their exterior lights.

The public were told they would be warned of an imminent attack through a siren, at which point they were to switch off the gas supply to their houses.

In the summer months, the Grand Pier housed a new sideshow, in which holidaymakers had the pleasure of knocking over an effigy of the Kaiser.

Recruitment continued and young men continued to drill on the Beach Lawns and on the sand in a vain attempt to 
prepare them for life in the Army.

Most of these young men drilled in their own clothes with sticks or brooms in the place of a rifle as the military could not afford to equip them.

The Mercury on August 7, 1964, reminisced: “Gone was the high-spirited optimism, but the people had not become pessimistic.

“Popular sentiment and courage were buoyed up by the patriotic entertainment of the period.

“Meanwhile, the lifeblood of England was being spilt on the battlefields of the Somme.”

Although public morale was good back home in the seaside town, every day families were struck by the news of a lost loved one.

Spy scares were frequent, there were often horror stories of German submarines being spotted from the shoreline and the Cable Office in Richmond Street was sandbagged, covered in barbed wire and had its own guard.

The Grand Pier pavilion was used as barracks, the railway bridges and reservoirs were patrolled in case of enemy attacks and by 1917 Weston grew increasingly weary.

Billeted troops had mess rooms in Knightstone Pavilion, the High Street’s Drill Hall, Woodley’s Restaurant and Wreford’s Restaurant.

Weston was asked by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to fund 24 planes for the war effort at a price of £60,000.

Roger’s field, now the Winter Gardens, became a large allotment and many were employed there to plant peas.

As the autumn of 1917 merged into the winter, the food shortages became more acute and Christmas was not filled with the meat shows and fruit deals the locals had come to expect and welcome.

At long last, by September 26, 1918, the tables had turned and the Allies started their offensive, eventually ending in the Germans calling for an armistice.

The telegraph explaining the signing of the peace treaty came through to the Mercury office at about 11.30am on November 11, 1918.

Mercury reporter John Bailey looked back 50 years later, and said: “It is a salutary experience to feel the pulse of past years, especially in the story of events in one’s home town in times of trial and challenge.

“If looking back stirs not only remembrance but compassion, it has done good.”

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