We continue our look back at Benwick During the first world war through the memoirs of Florence Sismey.
We didn’t know very much about the actual war until early in 1915, when German battleships shelled the towns of Scarborough and Whitby, causing damage and casualties. As the spring advanced the fighting hotted up and we were soon seeing the long lists of the killed and wounded in the newspapers.
Benwick had its first losses that year, and there was much sorrow and sympathy for the bereaved families. Two of the village boys were brought home for burial; I think the first was in training. He was William Anderson, and on the day of his funeral we were let out of school early to see it. Just as the cortege was leaving the house it came a terrific rain and hailstorm and lots of people were drenched.
Arthur Sallabanks was the other boy to be brought home.
Late on in the war one of the men from Keyworth Farm was taken prisoner, wounded and afterwards exchanged with others for some German prisoners and sent to Edinburgh. His parents travelled up to see him but he died when they got there. His body was brought home and we farm people attended his funeral.
Work on the farms had to go on; food was scarcer than ever and labour shorter, so I found myself working in the fields regularly doing potato setting, then hoeing the growing corn which was a
pleasant job when the weather was dry.
The German Army was advancing and terrible battles were being fought at Mons, Ypres and other areas with great loss of life. The Cambridgeshire Regiment were in the think of it and hundreds of men form the Isle of Ely were lost.
I remember now the that on quiet still days in the summer, whilst working in the fields, were could hear the distant thunder of the gunfire in Belgium and feel the fen soil shudder beneath our feet. It seemed to bring the war to us and I saw many tears on the cheeks of some women.
Aeroplanes were beginning to be used more, for spying out the moves of the enemy chiefly and the pilots were formed into the Royal Flying Corps. The machines were very flimsy compared to modern ones, being chiefly a wooden frame with wings covered in linen. There was such a demand for fabric that the War Office demanded that supplies of flax should be grown in this
country to produce it. It was a very valuable addition to the war effort as besides the flaxen thread produced, the oil in the seeds was needed for the guns and vehicles – pure linseed oil.
Several aerodromes were established in East Anglia, the one at Upwood being nearest to us. The machines were housed and maintained there and large numbers of men trained to fly and defend them. Powerful searchlights were kept there and it was exciting to see the great beams of light sweeping fenland skies after dark.
The enemy had their Zeppelins and were threatening to bomb the towns and aerodromes, and
eventually they came. I have a page from my sister’s notebook which says “Zeppelins came over and dropped bombs. Jan 31st 1916” I think the raid was over Norwich and Yarmouth.