Part one of a look back at Benwick during the First World War from the memoirs of Florence Sismey.
By the spring of 1914 the troubles in Europe were spreading and a great recruiting campaign was begun, with posters everywhere and meetings in every town and village. On August 4th, England founds itself at war.
News of the outbreak of war came to the village by Telegram to the Post Office and the following
evening Officers of the Territorial Army came to call up their men.
A meeting was held in front of the Boot and Slipper where they made speeches, practically promising the young men they would be home by Christmas and the war would be over. I think about 40 men left that night, in traps and on bicycles, leaving very sad mothers, wives and sweethearts.
The corn harvest had started and with the men away all available labour was called in. My mother was asked to go tying I the fields and said she would try it, and of course I went with her.
One of the saddest things I remember about that year was the requisitioning of the farm horses for war purposes. I remember that the day they came to Keyworth the head horsekeeper watched the horses do with the tears rolling down his cheeks.
They left enough of the older horses to get the harvest in. After the corn, it was time for the potato harvest which was very hard work; especially when we had to lift the baskets full of potatoes high over the side of the cars. We girls were exhausted, working 7:30 to 3:00 most days.
It was whilst having our ‘dockey’ in the fields that year that I saw my first thermos flask. We had read about them, but never thought of owning one – let alone taking one into the fields. It was amazing to see the steaming tea poured and although it only held about three cups it was always shared. I enjoyed lunch times as the women were friendly and we shared many jokes and talks.
The village seemed very quiet without all the young men but when news came that they were digging trenches to live in and fight from, various organisations started working parties and collected wool for knitting them socks, scarves and gloves and to send out parcels of useful items.
A party of young Methodists met at The Limes every week to exchange news from our friends and to renew supplies of wool for our knitting. The wool came in large hanks and had to be wound into balls, and the menfolk were set to wind whilst we got on with the knitting!
There was a great demand for bandages for the wounded, and we tore old sheets into required widths and rolled them tightly. The old clean rags that were of no use for bandages were scraped with knives to make soft lint swabs to save cotton wool. You must remember there was no man-made fibre at the time and all cotton had to be imported – and the German submarines were already at sea.
Various foodstuffs were soon in very short supply, especially sugar as we didn’t grow any of our own then, and large quantities of cheese, bacon, dried fruits and grains for bread flour all came from abroad.
Rationing was introduced and seemed very inadequate at first. In the village we were a little advantaged compared to the towns as we could get plenty of good potatoes cheaply and could grow greens and other vegetables in our gardens.
We could get eggs too at first, although as feeding stuffs got scarcer, so did the number of hens. Milk was obtained from the farmhouses, or out of tins, condensed or dried. The shortage of sugar and fats was the biggest worry, as without these it was impossible to make the large
puddings which were the mainstay of the farmworkers.
Some villagers already kept a pig, and now many more did too, feeding them on waste potatoes, vegetable scraps and any leftover crusts. All grain on the farms had to be accounted for to the Food Office, but it was a poor master who would let his worker’s pig starve and I saw many a wheelbarrow load moving after dark!