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.