Tuesday, 27 March 2012

TONIGHT'S BLOG MOVES A FEW MILES AWAY FROM WISBECH. It concerns a Fenland Great War hero, Harry Betts, who lived between March and Wisbech. His tale is worth the telling, however. I have put together this account from a variety of sources - The Cambs Regiment official history, the researches of Roger Vanhinsbergh and Cliff Brown, and photographs by Dave Edwards and Chris Harley

Harry Betts was born in Warboys, Huntingdonshire, son of a rail worker with GER. He came to live at Twenty Foot Siding near March before the war and worked on the land. He had apparently attempted to enlist prior to the outbreak of the War but according to his late brother, George, was turned down due to a problem with his toes!! In 1914 he joined the 1st Cambridgeshire Regiment Territorial Force and as a member of "D" Company (March) embarked for France on Valentine's Day 1915.The photo below is of the crossing-keeper's house at Twenty-Foot Sidings.

Harry Betts won his first medal in the late summer of 1917. The British soldiers had a habit of naming trenches and strongpoints after familiar landmarks back home. Therefore, a particular German position near Gheluvelt, in the Ypres Salient was called 'Tower Hamlets' after the district in the East End of London. His bravery here earned him a Distinguished Conduct Medal (D.C.M.) 

On March 21st 1918, the Germans launched a massive offensive against British, French and Commonwealth forces in northern France. The Americans had finally joined the war, and the German high command feared that the influx of huge numbers of fresh American troops would tip the stalemate on the Western Front in the direction of the Allies. In the event, the Americans did not go into action until May 1918, and their commander, General Pershing, was adamant that his men would not be used as replacements for British and French casualties, but would only fight as an independent force under their own officers.

The German offensive shook the British and French, and threw them back from the positions astride the Somme which had been won at such high cost in 1916. Thus it was that the Cambridgeshire Regiment were fighting in the region of Cayeux-en-Santerre, well to the south of the River Somme, and a few miles south-east of Villers Brettoneux. They were part of the 39th Division, and were fighting alongside the Hertfordshire Regiment, and the Black Watch. Colonel M.C. Clayton takes up the tale (extract from The Cambridgeshires 1914 to 1919.)

"We were in the open lying flat, sweating profusely and vainly trying to shovel up soil in front of us. I quite expected we should be annihilated, when suddenly a miracle took place. C.S.M. Betts rose to his feet with a blood-curdling yell and ran straight towards the machine-guns, which ceased as if by magic. We all followed, but Betts arrived first and chased about thirty of the enemy towards a dugout. He laid out six with his bayonet before we arrived, and would have gone for the rest of them if Mr Driver had not arrived and ordered them to surrender. Betts had to comply with this order, and about twenty were made prisoners, Betts relieving the officers and N.C.Os of their field-glasses, which he festooned over his equipment."

The German offensive was eventually halted in the summer of 1918, and after August 8th, which became known as 'The Black Day Of The German Army', the Allied forces began to push the Germans back eastwards. It was slow, and resulted in the highest casualty rates of the whole war, but it was relentless. On August 8th, the Cambridgeshires were in the vicinity of Morlancourt. The trench map below is a German one. It shows the British trenches in detail (red), but only the German front line (blue), in case the map should be captured. 

Colonel Clayton writes, "And so it turned out that both companies soon found that further advance would bring them into direct enfilade fire from the nest of machine-guns firing from the southern end. Without hesitation Betts, who was C.S.M. of 'D' Company on the right, dashed off alone. Taking advantage of a hedge running across the front, he worked his way resolutely forward until 'D' Company had lost sight of him. When he reappeared he was in the rear of the enemy position which was causing all the trouble. There were about thirty of the enemy all engaged in firing at 'C' and 'D' Companies. Superior numbers had no terrors for Betts; practically single-handed he had recaptured a position in March 1918. With a blood-curdling yell he dashed in with his bayonet at the nearest machine-gun crew. This unexpected attack from the rear was the last straw; those who had survived Betts' frenzied onslaught  meekly surrendered and were handed over by him to some men of The Buffs who happened to arrive before the astonished enemy had regained their wits. The success of this whole operation was mainly due to the gallantry and initiative displayed by Betts. A typical Fenman, hailing from near Wisbech, he had served in the Battalion from the commencement of the war. At the age of 21 he was C.S.M. (Company Sergeant Major) and held the D.C.M. (Distinguished Conduct Medal) and Bar, and for his services in this action he was recommended for the V.C."

The Allies slowly battled their way eastwards across the ground which had been won at such a high cost in the summer of 1916. Harry Betts must have thought he was invincible. His heroism was now a byword in the regiment. He had two gallantry awards to his credit. In late August, the Allies were engaged in what became known as The Battle of Bapaume. Just before a vital offensive, Clayton wrote,

"The C.S.Ms of 'A', 'B' and 'C' Companies reported their arrival. All four C.S.Ms were to remain at H.Q. until the situation was clarified to be used if needed to pull together Companies depleted of officers. Betts of 'D' Company had not arrived. Where was he?"
Later, Clayton wrote," I found out why C.S.M. Betts had not reported to H.Q. with the other C.S.Ms. Just as the attack was starting, an enemy machine gun opened up only a short distance in front. Impulsive as ever, he could not resist the challenge, and sprang over the parapet, doubtless intending to work round and take the machine-gun from a flank. He had only gone a few yards when he fell, and with him Cambridgeshire lost one of its bravest sons and the Battalion a devoted and fearless warrant-officer."
Harry Betts is buried in Beacon Cemetery, Sailly Laurette. The official records state:
No 325753. Son of James & Alice Betts, Twenty Foot Sidings, March. Recommended for Victoria Cross for 9/8/18, but awarded MC. Also DCM (26-9-17, Tower Hamlets) and Bar (Acting-RSM, Hill 90, 28/3/18). CSM, Killed in action 22-8-18, age 22.

If anyone needs reminding of how war dehumanises and redefines, compare the two photos of Harry Betts on his enlistment in 1914. This is a young man, strong and enthusiastic, but shy and untried. In the second photograph, there is a  young man who has killed men and seen the death and destruction unleashed by war..

Harry Betts is remembered on several Fenland memorials. On the March Memorial..

 And the memorial at Guyhirn...

And at Coldham and the demolished chapel at Chainbridge..

Saturday, 24 March 2012

A VIDEO ABOUT GROWING OLD, and memories of youth. Just to cheer everyone up. The voice is John Betjeman, reading his own poem.

ON A MORE TOPICAL NOTE, Brian Parkinson has been busy looking at Police crime maps for Wisbech and King's Lynn. He has produced a spreadsheet which I am posting as a graphic (below)

You can link to the actual spreadsheet HERE

Friday, 23 March 2012

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

JUST HOW RUN-DOWN IS WISBECH TOWN CENTRE? Pickwick sent out one of his emissaries for a cycle ride today to record for posterity some of the town's worst eyesores. One of his old colleagues had remarked upon the irony that the Constantine House wreckage formerly bore the name 'BELFAST', and that it did resemble something reduced to rubble by extremists during 'The Troubles'.

Given that some of the ruins are the result of arson, and the absentee owners could clearly not give three-fifths of five-eighths of …..well, very little, Pickwick does not seek to lay blame on our worthy Town, or even District elected representatives. The situation is way beyond their competence, influence, and budget. If the Town Team manages to win its £100K from Mary Portass, that would just about pay for a couple of hours time with a not very high-profile lawyer.

Are there such things as Compulsory Purchase Orders these days? Mr P believes that they must still exist, otherwise how could the controversial new London to Birmingham rail link ever go ahead? Leaving aside the strange notion that anyone should want to get to Birmingham any quicker than absolutely necessary, it must surely be possible for these Wisbech ruins to be bought with public money, and then sold off at a profit?

Wisbech's finest living journalist, the legendary Lord Elworthy of Probing-Deeply loves a good conspiracy theory. No grasping councillor is safe from his gimlet eye, no undeclared back-hander escapes his forensic mind. If things get a little quiet, then he might be advised to investigate this intriguing advertisement. Bon Nuit, mes enfants

Monday, 19 March 2012

TONIGHT'S UPDATE IS VERY SIMPLE. Just a video based on  Eric Gardiner and James Cole, two of the Wisbech men who died in the Great War, and whose stories were told in earlier blogs. The music is a lovely old hymn called 'Only Remembered'. The words were written by Horatius Bonar , an Edinburgh man, and the tune was composed in 1891 by the great American hymn writer, Ira D. Sankey. The hymn has been used in an episode of 'Sharpe' - the one where he goes back to Yorkshire, and meets his long lost brother - and also in the stage version of 'Warhorse'.

Friday, 16 March 2012

AFTER THE NEGATIVE RANT LAST NIGHT ABOUT WHAT SOME SCHOOLS HAVE TO PUT UP WITH, Pickwick is delighted to be able to report on something really positive happening in Wisbech. No committees, no working parties, no high profile press calls or soundbites - just someone actually getting on with a worthwhile activity.

DRAMARAMA is a children's group set up just over a year ago for youngsters aged from 5 to 14 years of age.

The club meets at the Rosmini Centre every Tuesday from 5pm til 6.30pm. It runs throughout the year with a list of social events during August and is ***TOTALLY FREE***.

The group are currently writing their next play - it's all about Pirates invading Wisbech from the River Nene!

They are  recruiting older members from the age of 9 years. Both boys and girls are welcome. For more information contact Annie Appleby at the Rosmini Centre on: 01945 474422 leaving a landline number.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

In reply to a very good man, John Melton, who is a proper parent.
Kind words, John, but let’s be clear about something. You and Joy were devoted and supportive parents who wanted the very best for their kids, and actually believed in the good old-fashioned concept that people could ‘better themselves’. In other words, their children would learn useful stuff from teachers who knew useful stuff, which would mean that said children would not have to struggle like mum and dad did.

Sadly, there are ‘parents’ out there – sorry, I’ll rephrase that – there are adults who are legally responsible for children  - who hate learning, despise teachers, and would be only too pleased if their offspring graduate into the same kind of chain-smoking, work-shy, benefits-dependent apology for a citizen that they are.

Because these people are ‘unwaged’, ‘currently seeking work’ or whatever fancy euphemism you want to apply, they are instantly available during the school day to roar up to school in their nice cars so that they can eff and blind at school staff. How do they know when to come? Well, little ******* has an expensive mobile ‘phone which probably cost more than his form-tutor’s car, so he can let mum and, usually, mum’s current boyfriend know that that nasty Mr ******* has infringed his human rights, and assaulted his personal dignity by asking that he doesn’t eat his roast dinner with his fingers.

In addition, young ******* has to face the personal indignity of sitting a public exam. Your child and mine  probably had to do their homework, learn some stuff, and turn up to some revision classes which may have put you to some personal inconvenience, like picking them up from school. Yourself. No, not in a taxi paid for by local rate-payers, or driven home by the teacher whose car is worth less than your latest game console. Because ******* has been diagnosed as having some obscure ‘learning difficulty’, when he does his exam, he will have someone to read the question, someone else to write the answer, and probably a third worthy to whisper in his shell-like what the answer actually is.

But still, you are a voter. And there are more of you than there are of Mr Hamilton, the kind Geography teacher who gave up his half term to take your son on a school trip to the French Battlefields. And so, those awfully nice politicians who spend every waking hour pushing re-election leaflets through your letterbox respect your opinion. It is gold-dust; it is manna from heaven; they will discard the opposition from teachers, because they are a bunch of left-wing no-hopers who would have voted Labour anyway. No, we will have a continuing drive to castigate and belittle teachers, and we will employ a cadre of failed teachers, call them OFSTED, and give them the power to make or break schools, and to reduce teachers (who are human beings, and, usually care about the children in front of them) to dispirited, depressive wrecks.

As you may gather, I no longer work in education, but I wish my former colleagues all the love in the world – may their adversaries rot in the depths of hell.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

HERE IS A SONG FROM THE GREAT WAR. It is 'Mademoiselle From Armentieres' sung by Jack Charman. The song was widely sung - and rudely parodied - by British soldiers. Click on the media player to hear the music.

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Monday, 12 March 2012

But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.

And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England,
They have no graves as yet.

THE BATTLE, KNOWN TO MILITARY HISTORIANS AS 'SECOND YPRES' was basically a German assault on several points of The Salient, and began with an gas attack on the French lines at Gravenstafel on April 22nd, 1915. While this gas attack was unprecedented and unexpected, it had been clear for some time to the British and French forces that some kind of assault was imminent. Therefore, there was intense activity right along the front line: trenches and breastworks were being repaired, ammunition and supplies were being carried up to the front with great urgency, and rest periods and leave for individual units was drastically reduced. It is obvious from Eric Gardiner's diary that he was having to write retrospectively, several days at a time, as he was enjoying less and less free time.

On the evening of April 20th, Eric, with a small carrying party from his Company, were moving through a communication trench south west of St Eloi. A letter from his best friend, Billy Cooke, tells what happened next.
"Eric and I were together when it happened. We were bringing up the rear of a small party on the way to an isolated little trench when he was hit in the thigh by a piece of shell. I dressed his wound as best I know how and did what I could to stop the bleeding, but it was a dark night and we were under heavy fire from the Germans. His leg was too badly shattered for me to carry him on my way back to a place of shelter, so I just waited with him for the stretcher bearers, but they never turned up…..Then, with the help of some Tommies from another regiment we carried him to the shelter of a little wood. The other regiment kindly lent me their own stretcher to carry poor old Eric on, but before he could be got to our dressing station, the poor chap died."

THIS LETTER WAS WRITTEN BY COOKE TO ANOTHER SOLDIER. He did write to Eric's parents, but spared them the harrowing details of Eric's death. He concluded,

"Eric and I were very much attached to one another, and I miss him very much indeed. When I came out of the trenches yesterday I visited his grave, but as it was in view of the German lines I was admonished for going there when I got back."

Eric was buried in the grounds of Elzenwalle Chateau, where a makeshift military cemetery had been established. The first permanent markers of British and Commonwealth war graves were sturdy wooden crosses, but long after the war ended, these were systematically replaced with the marble headstones more familiar to modern battlefield visitors. Incidentally, there is one of these to be seen inside the church of St Peter and St Paul in Wisbech. It was the grave marker of 1st Lt Anthony Crookham, the son of the Vicar of Wisbech.

The effect of Eric's death on his family was devastating. It was made worse by the fact that many of Eric's letters home had been published in 'The Advertiser' on a regular basis. Over the previous months, Frederick Gardiner, like all other editors across the land, had written a series of editorials in support of the war effort. Now, he had to find the words for the most difficult piece he would ever be called upon to write.
"Our sympathy, all the keener because tempered by experience, goes out to those families whose losses are reported in the casualty lists. The poignancy of such a loss brings the reality of the war to the very home portal, and shatters hopes long nursed..
The tendency is to lose sight of the main theme in the personally jarring note, but gradually one learns to sing the new song, realising that herein lies the important duty.
Also, while we mourn our losses, we can turn to the results achieved and find consolation in the fact that the sacrifice nobly given is not for naught. The fighting in the neighbourhood of Ypres (is) specially interesting in this district because of the presence of the Cambs Regiment, and others in whom we are interested…"

After the war had ended, the French and Belgian authorities realised that there were just too many tiny cemeteries scattered about the Old Front Line, and so the War Graves Commission set about the melancholy task of disinterring many of the bodies from these small cemeteries, and putting them all together in what were called 'Collection Cemeteries' Eric's remains were re-interred in Voormezeele Enclosure No. 3. The inscription on his headstone is echoed, in plural form, on the town memorial in The Crescent.


This account was sourced from a collection of Gardiner documents and memorabilia in Wisbech Museum. It seems that Eric's death made the relationship between Frederick and the older son, Grahame, somewhat strained. Later in the war, Grahame was conscripted to fight, but successfully appealed to the Wisbech Tribunal ( a panel set up to review appeals against conscription) on the grounds that he was running the local paper, and thus his work was too valuable at home.

There is a memorial to the Gardiners in Leverington Road Cemetery. The main column bears the names of Frederick, and his wife Amelia. On one of its kerbstones is a reference to Eric - " INTERRED IN A CHATEAU GARDEN"

Sunday, 11 March 2012

"You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye,
  Who cheer when soldier lads march by, 
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know 
The hell where youth and laughter go."

Eric Gardiner was fighting in what was loosely called 'The Ypres Sector'. The actually city of Ypres was a few miles to the north of Locre, where Eric was still billeted, but its towers and spires could be seen on a clear day over the flat fields.. In early 1915, there was still much of the medieval city still standing. Photos taken four years later would show hardly one stone left standing on another. The British lines to the east of Ypres were in the form of a salient - that is, an oval 'bite' in to the German lines. The result was that soldiers actually in the Salient had the unique experience of being fired on from the shallow ridges to the north, the east, and the south.
The ground where Eric served his time in the front lines was flat. In peace time, it had been kept drained by a complex mesh of drains and dykes which would have been reminiscent of the Fens around Wisbech. Months of shelling had destroyed the drainage system, and it only took a few shovelfuls of digging down to get to the water table. Consequently the trenches were muddy, treacherous and insanitary.

On 15/2/15, Eric wrote in his diary:
"The day opened miserably with rain and mud. Very early (7 o'clock) one of our big guns started shelling the trenches in front of us. Our nerves were tried by the explosions of the big shells. They were so close that we could see the shells hurtling through the air, and felt that if one were to drop short we would be in a sorry plight. Later on, the Germans shelled the supports behind us ….they were mostly 'Whizzbangs' but some shrapnel was fired, and one near K2 killed 2 and wounded 18. We ate what we could, but none of us was very cheerful and could not eat much. The trench we were in was divided in two by a gate known as Hell's Gate, because when the Gordons attacked the wood in front, a German machine gun was trained on this gate, and as they went through, shot them down. They lost 62 men through this. Unfortunately, some of them still lie in front of this trench and can be seen. It was on this night that Kenneth Powell* was hit while on a fatigue in K2. He has since died of wounds."

*This was Private 1832 Kenneth Powell, of the HAC. Aged 29, son of James and Mary S. Powell of Aldersyde, Reigate, Surrey. He is buried in Loker (Locre) Churchyard. (pictured below)

Soldiers down the ages make do with what they are given. Even today, scarcely a news bulletin goes by without some new story of squaddies having 'the wrong kit', or having to be supported by parcels from home. Sadly there is nothing new under the sun. Kipling summed up the ambiguous relationship that civilians and politicians have with their soldiers:

For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!

Despite the cold, the wet, the squalid sanitation and the ever-present danger from shelling, there were clearly moments when the men were out of the line, had time on their hands, and the sun occasionally shone. Memoir after memoir from The Great War reveal that there was one common thread which kept most of the men sane, and able to go about their frightful business with some degree of equanimity. It wasn't patriotism, it wasn't any kind of support for whatever political cause had landed them in the position they were in, it wasn't some vague sense of duty. No, it was a rock-solid conviction that they didn't want to let their mates down. Some of this camaraderie is almost tangible in personal photographs which have survived. In the photo below, Eric is hunched in a cold trench with some of his brothers in arms. Note that they are wearing soft caps. The iconic 'tin hat' which most people associate with Tommies did not come into general service until 1916.

March 1915 came and went with Eric still billeted in Locre. he was in and out of the line, usually at 'the sharp end'. Sometimes his diary entries are unintentionally comic, even reminiscent of Mr Pooter, because they are so formal and understated. Here, he describes a narrow escape while carrying rations back to his unit.
13/3/15 "…and on one occasion a bullet passed through a sack of cheese and bread I was just hoisting onto my shoulder, and took the corner off my water bottle - a close shave. Unfortunately I was carrying the Section rum in my bottle, and had therefore to undergo severe criticism."

In early April, Eric's unit was moved to a hamlet called Elzenwalle, which was dominated by a semi ruined chateau. He was to be part of the fighting at St Eloi, a crossroads village where there had been extensive mining and counter-mining over the winter. While in this sector, Eric bumped into some acquaintances from home-who were serving with the Cambridgeshire Regiment-notably Captain Phillip Muirhead Clayton, who went on to command his regiment, and Jack Ollard, who was invalided home, but went on to be a Wisbech solicitor and Town Clerk.
On April 14th, 1915, Eric wrote:
"We who had not fixed bayonets did so, and just waited for them to come, meaning to give them a hot time, but they came not, and the fire died down. We then came back to the farm. Billy and I went to the Chateau for rations, and after some difficulty owing to people being asleep, got what we wanted and returned to much needed rest."

These were the last words Eric wrote.


Saturday, 10 March 2012

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

The Wisbech Advertiser was first published in August 1845, and continued in one form or another until 1975. It is now the Fenland Citizen. In 1914 the editor was  F.J. Gardiner, and the family had a general printing business based in Union Street. Frederick and his wife Amelia had two sons. The elder was Grahame, who was already involved in the family business, and Ernest Frederick, known as Eric. 

Eric originally attended Barton School, but was sent away to the rather more prestigious Mill Hill school in London. From there, he had qualified as an accountant. The family was home was 'Trevordale', which still stands at the end of Alexandra Road.

Courtesy of Frederick Gardiner having 'a quiet word' with influential friends, Eric was able to secure a position in one of the elite regiments of the British Army - The Honourable Artillery Company. This was the country's oldest Territorial regiment, and dated back to the time of Henry VIII. It was very much a gentleman's regiment.

The first units of the HAC were sent to France in December 1914. Eric missed this first draft, and was able to spend Christmas in Wisbech, but when he returned to barracks in January 1915, he found that his company was preparing to cross the channel in mid January.

Very much against military regulations, Eric kept a diary. It was beautifully written, both in the sense of the flowing, beautifully legible handwriting, and the apt and careful use of English. The diary is tiny - smaller than an audio cassette. It begins:

This diary belongs to
Private E.F. Gardiner

Relates his experiences in The Great European War

Commencing at arrival at Base Camp at Rouen 25/1/15

Eric's unit traveled by train from Rouen to Bailleul, in Flanders. Bailleul was an important railhead, air depot and hospital centre.

Eric's diary entry for 30/1/15 says:
"On arrival at Bailleul heard for the first time heavy gunfire. Many aeroplanes knocking about. It is reported 1 enemy aeroplane brought down. While walking sound of nine bombs dropped heard. Sounded pretty close, and caused everyone to start and look up."

It should be pointed out that the HAC were not, in fact, an artillery regiment - they were infantry, and their name stems from their earliest days when the word 'artillery was given to any kind of mechanical weapon, such as a musket or a crossbow.
By early February, Gardiner's relatively peaceful baptism into soldiering was over. His company had been moved up into trenches near Kemmel and Locre. 
On 14/2/15, he writes:
"All this time, our guns, against their usual custom) had continued firing at night, and both sides were blazing away, lighting up the country all around. We started out feeling here was something doing…and we halted while the German star shells in numbers lit up the sky around us. The order came sharply. "Lie flat down!" and we all went down like one man. I went down on my stomach in mud which covered our boots over the tops…We then proceeded to relieve our fellows in K1 (trench) having negotiated several awkward places where shells and streams had made the ground knee deep in mud and water."


Friday, 9 March 2012

NOW THAT WISBECH HAS BEEN SAVED, AND ALL OUR PROBLEMS HAVE BEEN CONSIGNED TO THE  BIN, Pickwick can return to being his positive and benign self. In this blissful mood, he would like to say how much he enjoys his visits to the town library. In terms of stock, certainly in the fiction section, it is a long way behind Big Sister in March, but P does not want anyone to think that he is complaining about March getting all the attention, because we have been told how wrong that is. Anyway, the ladies in Wisbech library are much more pleasant and helpful, and the library benefits from not having a skate park just outside its door. So, a big 'thank you' to everyone - another big plus for the town, P believes. 

There is one small blemish on the horizon. A mole on the local planning and licensing committee has brought me disturbing news. The library is certainly one of the few premises in the town centre not to have a license to sell booze or lend money, and the brave entrepreneurs who sit in power over us are looking to put that right, as they think the library had become far too elitist anyway, with all those books and things. So here is a sneak preview of the revamped library as it will appear later in the spring.

 PICKWICK WAS OUT AND ABOUT on his trusty charger this afternoon, taking photos of various places and things to do with Wisbech and The Great War. Knowing that there used to be a memorial plaque in the police station, he summoned up courage and knocked on the door to see if he could take a photo of it. A really pleasant officer took him upstairs to where the plaque now hangs in the rest-room.

 WHILE WALKING ALONG TO THE REST ROOM, Pickwick had a heart-stopping moment as he passed an open office door, for who should be sitting at his desk, deep in thought was none other than Inspector Sissons! Now, P had been slightly critical of the Inspector's recent utterances on this blog, and had also written a tetchy letter to the Wisbech Standard on the matter. What if, at that very moment, the Inspector was reading the paper and plotting a savage revenge involving dawn raids on Pickwick Towers, orange suits and extradition to a Guatamalan prison hell-hole?

RESISTING THE TEMPTATION TO CHAT with the affable officer who had shown him the plaque, P made an excuse and left, thanking his maker that his bike was still safely chained to the police station railings. 

WHAT A SILLY OLD BUFFER HE PROVED TO BE, for when he got home and examined the newspaper with trembling fingers, what should he find on the letters page, but ................NOTHING INCRIMINATING! Obviously anticipating problems, the editor had instantly, and very wisely, put the letter straight in the bin!

ON A MORE SERIOUS NOTE, Pickwick will relate, tomorrow, the sad story of the son of a newspaper editor (no, not that one) who had strings pulled to fast-track him into a good regiment at the start of The Great War, and how the story was to end in heartbreak.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

PICKWICK RECOGNISES THAT HIS MEMORY IS NOT WHAT IT WAS. But how could he forget about a whole case of premier French bubbly, brought back from the gite last August? The old duffer was searching in his cluttered music room for something else altogether, and found a sealed box of wonderful fizz from:

TRUST ME,  although it is not one of the 'big names' drunk by overpaid reality TV 'stars', or sprayed about by chav-capped F1 victors, it is the Drink Of The Gods. Ariston Fils are a small volume/high quality vinyard who sell almost entirely to the (more discerning) French market. A pretentious snob...? MOI...?

AND NOW FOR SOME MUSIC and a video that, had he watched it, would have had Spielberg beating his way to Pickwick's door for hints and technical advice. In answer to the obvious question, "This blog is meant to be about the Wisbech Community and how we can solve our issues - WHY ARE YOU POSTING A MUSIC VIDEO?" - Because I can, because I can! ENJOY OR IGNORE!

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

PICKWICK HAS BEEN TRAMPLED UNDERFOOT by the Big Beasts crashing through the Wisbech undergrowth in the last couple of days. The Movers and Shakers have been and gone, leaving their admirers breathless in their wake. Flesh has been pressed, wine glasses have been clinked together on decisions which will shape our future, heads have been nodded gravely, protesters have been cast into the netherworld by howls of scorn, and the world, well at least those in PE 13, waits with bated breath for the full story of How Wisbech Was Saved In Just 24 Hours.

PICKWICK'S IRREVERENT FRIEND, who goes by the name of WOD, has secured international finance, in the way of Five Trillion Nigerian Nairas, for a controversial redevelopment of the Market Place. As soon as the fairground rides have gone, the footings will be dug for a luxury Oasis-style lido-pool and dryside complex. This artist's impression does scant justice to a development which will, undoubtedly, bring Wisbech well into the modern age.

TAKING THE **** IS EASY.  At least it is, if one is lucky enough to live in Wisbech. There are so many easy targets, open goals, fish in barrels - choose your own metaphor. But Pickwick would like to adopt a more serious tone, and take his readers (small in number but high in quality) to Wisbech over 90 years ago. When Pickwick was younger, he wrote a book about three Wisbech men who went off to fight in what was called, optimistically, The War To End All Wars. Here is a very brief story about a Wisbech man who went off to war and never returned.

JAMES COLE was in his forties when the war broke out in 1914. He was married, with young children, and had a steady job with Elgoods. He was old enough to escape the Conscription Act which was brought in to boost manpower after the depredations of 1914 and 1915, but he chose to join up.

WISBECH MEN could choose to fight with many different units, but the two regiments which had a natural claim on the town were the Cambridgeshire Regiment, and The Suffolk Regiment. The Cambs were a Territorial unit - they were not regular full-time soldiers, but most of their strength had signed to say that they would fight abroad if 'the call' came. The Suffolks were a Regular Army Unit, but their volunteer battalion, the 11th Suffolks, recruited in Wisbech. James Cole signed up to fight with the 11th Suffolks.

KITCHENER'S ARMY  was the name given to the huge volunteer army raised as a result of recruiting campaigns  typified by the legendary poster with Kitchener's finger pointing out at passers-by. The great test of Kitchener's Army was to be what we now call The Battle Of The Somme.

IN THE EARLY DAWN  of July 1st 1916, the 11th Suffolks, including James Cole, were poised to attack the German lines just south of Ovillers, a tiny village, east of Albert in northern France. To the east of the untried British troops, on the crest of a gentle ridge were the German Lines. Beneath the German positions was a huge mine - a subterranean cavity packed with thousands of tons of high explosive. The theory was that this mine would detonate, blow the German defenders into oblivion, and this allow the attackers to stroll their way to victory. In reality, there was a gap between the mine detonating and the attack being launched - this time lag allowed surviving defenders to emerge from their deep defensive dugouts and pour withering fire down on the British forces.

THIS SECTOR OF WHAT HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS THE WORST DAY IN BRITISH MILITARY HISTORY saw carnage almost unimaginable in wars since then. The 11th Suffolks were cut to pieces. James Cole's body was eventually recovered, and buried behind the lines in Becourt Military cemetery. Until the early 1920s, his grave was marked with a simple wooden cross.

MUCH LATER, this cross was replaced with a familiar marble headstone, provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

FOR JAMES' WIDOW, SUSANNA, there must have been years of hardship, grief and struggle. She was not alone. Over 700,000 British servicemen and women were killed in The Great War. Susanna and her children survived with little help from the state, apart from a widely-derided commemorative plaque, known as a 'Death Penny'

ALL SHE HAD TO REMIND HER OF JAMES, was his personal effects, eventually returned to her by The War Office.

SUSANNA SURVIVED into what we might call 'modern times'. She raised her children in her little house in Whitby Street. It has long since been wiped off the map by our supreme masters, the town planners.

were brought up to respect the sacrifice of their Grandfather, and when Susanna died, they visited James' grave, and brought back a handful of French earth, which they buried with her ashes in Wisbech cemetery.