The Legacy Of Norfolk At War
A few days ago I found myself reading a letter from Hannah Grayton. Crinkled and hand-written, in a glass display case, it included these lines;
Please excuse me for writing to you but I am very anxious to know if you can inform me of my husband’s whereabouts. I have not heard from him for just 4 weeks. I have sent letters and I cannot get an answer from him and it’s a great worry to me. I have just got a baby, 3 weeks old……..’
I was in Norwich Castle Museum to see the new exhibition Armistice: Legacy of the Great War in Norfolk. I hadn’t expected to find myself in tears.
Over the past five years a dedicated team of twenty-four volunteers led by Kate Thaxton (exhibition curator), have been investigating the stories of the men whose names are listed on war memorials all over Norfolk. They have also created a database of hospitals, airfields and coastal defences producing an interactive map. A call was sent out to ask family members to tell the stories of their grandparents who fought and returned. Their stories have been collated.
As I wandered from one display to another I began to understand more fully the impact of World War 1 upon Norfolk, its landscape, industry and people, and especially its women – including Hannah Grayton.
Women from lower classes were in paid employment prior to the war – but no lower-middle class women, whose feminine clothes reflected their decorative role. Suddenly as the men folk enlisted, they found new opportunities and a new independence previously unheard of. As factories in Norwich began making boots and bombs, wire-netting (6996 miles of it) and aeroplanes, women joined the work force. In 1917 Norwich Components employed 970 women and 250 men to make cast iron fuses and munitions. Then in 1918 came the Representation of the People Act giving the vote to women over thirty. Change had begun.
The landscape too changed. Anticipating an invasion, forty- eight pairs of circular Pill boxes of solid concrete walls were built along the Norfolk coast, with a second line of defence inland. They were manned by regular soldiers. Across East Anglia aerodromes meant miles and miles of runways. Today cracked and laced with weeds, they still link bramble-embroiled Nissan huts and underground bunkers half hidden in a sea of nettles.
The fishing industry was devastated by German submarines and mines. The Norfolk coast is littered with wrecks including the S.S. Fernebo sunk in 1917 when Henry Blogg and his heroic lifeboat crew made three exhausting trips in 24 hours to rescue the crew. The wreck is still visible off Cromer beach at low tide.
But the biggest impact was upon individual families. The Norfolk Regiment alone lost 2685 men in World War 1. Many of their personal stories have been recorded in a Book of Memories.
Arthur Herbert Starling born in Sprowston in 1894 – was a promising footballer who sustained a bullet wound to his leg which became shorter after surgery. He wore special boots to help rectify his limp and used a cane whenever he walked. Arthur would never play football again.He married Beatrix and had five children but more sadness awaited. Beatrix died in 1938 – leaving him to bring up the family alone. Life was hard. His son Michael who has kept the cane, remembers his dad working all night in the shed to make and mend shoes. He died in 1972 – but never talked of the war or his dear wife Beatrix. The deep wounds remained locked within – despite the smiling photo of an old man that accompanied his story.
As the war ended in every town or village memorial crosses or plaques or halls were erected- to remember the fallen – who sadly, were never repatriated. This gave the grieving families a focal point; somewhere to mourn and remember.
As I entered the exhibition I saw an intricate mural of hundreds of tiny photographs, each one of a memorial in Norfolk. It has been painstakingly created by Nick Stone to depict Armistice Day.
The deeply moving ‘Papaver Rhoeas’ (Common Poppy) by Paddy Hartley a London based artist, is of sixteen poppies intricately crafted of lamb’s heart tissue and horsehair. They are both beautiful, yet disturbing, reminding us of Jewish sacrifice and indeed the Lamb of God, Jesus. It brings both an ancient and contemporary feel. The poppies are suspended in blown glass, shaped as artillery shell casings. They are designed to decay as the days pass. One day ‘they will exist only in the memory of those who saw them first hand.’
Armistice: Legacy of the Great War in Norfolk is open until January 6th. 2019.
I left the Castle for the rain-drenched streets of Norwich busy with hurrying shoppers. As I pulled up my hood and walked to the bus-stop I reflected upon all I’d seen. The war years were times of incredible hardship, suffering and loss, but also times of resilience, innovation and energy. World War 1 was devastating sorrow and untold heart-ache yes, but more than that it was a far-reaching catalyst for change in Norfolk and beyond.
Article By Angie Jones