Nostalgia: Joy of adventure and devastation of death

Images from World War One
Images from World War One

Stories about the First World War are often full of joyful tales of young men as they strode together to sign up to join a great adventure – fighting for King and country.

Reports from local newspapers of the time, tell a somewhat different tale.

Images from World War One

Images from World War One

In March 1916 the Military Service Act was passed, meaning all men aged between 18 and 41 – excluding the medically unfit, clergymen, teachers and some industrial workers – were conscripted to fight.

Until then, it had been a man’s choice whether he signed up, although the Crawley newspaper of the time featured a lot of letters coaxing, shaming and almost bullying young men to march off to war.

One, written by WJ Chalk in December 1914, included the lines: “I suppose now the war cloud is overshadowing Britain and those rights and liberties so dear to the hearts of the British people are being assailed by Germany, almost every man likes to feel that 
he is in some measure contributing to the welfare of his country.

“We should be disposed to look askance upon one who, apparently qualified for the Army, is seen loitering about our towns and villages with no particular interest in anything and with little or nothing to do.

Images from World War One

Images from World War One

“We might ask ourselves: is he so dull as to be entirely insensible to public opinion? Is he all together devoid of that noble sentiment which gives attachments to home and from which springs a love of country?”

A correspondent calling themselves “Patriot” wrote: “This is not the time for hanging back when so many are needed. I read on the list of names so prominently hung up in the church porch two, and even three, names from the same families.

“I take off my hat in honour of those brave young lads, who have left comfortable homes to do what they can.

“But alas! I look in vain for other names. Many families are not represented by a single name, although there are young men in those families.

Images from World War One

Images from World War One

“Rouse up, you young men – you cricketers and footballers and those who lounge at the church corner! Rouse up, and do your duty!”

Recruitment drives became a regular occurrence in Crawley and the surrounding villages.

One report detailed a meeting held at the George Hotel to recruit men for the home service battalion of the 4th Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment.

The Battalion had 365 vacancies – the meeting secured the signatures of two men.

The report read: “Recruits can make their own choice on enrolling as to whether they prefer home or foreign service or whether they desire to serve for the full period of four years or for the duration of the war only.

“All the speakers pleaded for recruits, pointing out the duty of all men who are eligible and hoped Crawley would not be behind in displaying its patriotism.”

Another report covered the launch of a detachment of the Civil Guard.

It read: A Crawley and Ifield detachment of the West Sussex Civil Guard has been formed with Mr A Rossi-Ashton as Commandant.

“What was formerly the picture hall in East Park is being used as the headquarters where drilling takes place.

“The civil guard is for the purpose of patrolling at night and to in other ways assist the police force, which is reduced in numbers by reason of so many reservists having rejoined their regiments and others having volunteered for Lord Kitchener’s Army.”

While informing men and boys that membership was open to those aged 16-60, it warned there was no place for “unmarried men between 19 and 38 who are not prevented by some very good reason from joining Kitchener’s Army” – named after Minister for War, Field Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum.

A soldier’s life has never been one of luxury and riches and the pay for men signing up to one of the bloodiest wars in history was 8shillings 2pence with uniform rations with an allowance to his wife of 12s 6d per week – plus extra for children – up to £1 2s for a wife and four children.

One shilling in 1914 was worth an estimated £2.25 today

To join the forces, a man had to stand at least 5ft2ins and have a chest measurement of at least 33 and a half inches.

While some were cajoling young men into fighting, others were receiving news of the wounding, capture or death of their son, father, brother.

One report read: “The parents of Corpl Ralph Charman of the 1st Life Guards, who live at Spencers Road, Crawley, have received information that he is a prisoner of war in Germany. Fortunately, he is quite well.

“Private Ben Eggleton, 2nd Sussex, whose home is at Crawley, was wounded at the battle of the Aisne, getting shot through the forefinger of the right hand. The bone was shattered and the digit has had to be amputated, the operation being performed by Mr P Wood in the Crawley Cottage Hospital. He is happily going on all right.

“Private Parker, of Ifield, was badly wounded in the arm and is now in Chelsea Hospital.”

But worse news reached the family of Private Albert Payne, of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment. Son of Mr and Mrs Payne, of New Street, Three Bridges, he was killed in action at Poissy, France, leaving a widow and two children.

For some, the great adventure didn’t have a happy ending.