Sunday, 11 November 2012


On a day when the nation remembers its dead, it is appropriate to think once more about Wisbech and what was to be 'the war to end wars' - The Great War. Earlier blog posts looked in particular detail at men from the Wisbech area who died in the war, such as Eric Gardiner and James Cole. We looked at the eventful war of March hero, Harry Betts, and reflected with sadness on the many young men from Barton School who lost their lives. Today's post is rather more random, but hopefully still relevant.

The War Memorial itself was officially dedicated  on July 24th 1921. Crowds lined the streets, and family members of the fallen grieved again, before trying to get on with their lives in the harsh economic climate of post-war England.

Crowds little smaller had turned out six years earlier to pay their respects to Wisbech's first war victim - young Daniel 'Dick' Walker, who had been wounded in Flanders, sent home, but died of his wounds on May 13th, 1915. He was interred with full civic honours in the town cemetery, where his grave can still be seen.

Another well-known local name was William Burall, a member of the Burall family who until recently were businessmen in the town. He was a despatch rider, and was killed near Arras in August 1918.

It is right and proper that Remembrance Sunday focuses on those who died, but it is important to remember that many men survived the war and came back to Wisbech to try to resume their lives.
The last known survivor of the wartime Cambridgeshire Regiment lived out his final years in a Wisbech nursing home. I had the pleasure of meeting George White on several occasions, and in March 2000 he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur by the French Government.
Another survivor was Bill Matthews. Years ago, his son lent me his father's diaries and a collection of photographs. Bill, like so many young men locally, joined the Cambridgeshire Regiment. He was a member of 14 Platoon, pictured here 'somewhere in France'. Bill (inset) is on the far left of the back row.
Bill's diaries are an insight into the day to day world of a Great War infantryman - described elsewhere as boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. He rarely waxes lyrical, but has a Fenman's wry views on those in authority. In one of his earlier entries he describes The Cambridgeshire's nastiest encounter of 1915 - at a place called Fosse Wood, near Ypres, on May 5th. Dick Walker, mentioned earlier, was a casualty of this attack, as was Percy Kitchen. Percy died at home, and was buried in the Leverington Road cemetery, but his grave is now lost. 
Bill was injured just before what many consider to be The Cambridgeshire's finest hour in the war - the attack on the formidable Schwaben Redoubt in October 1917. His diaries end in late December 1916, and his son believes that he may have returned to action in 1917, but may have been gassed at Passchendaele, and finally invalided home. Bill married his childhood sweetheart, Annie, and went on to have a successful career in horticulture.
My favourite photograph of the collection is of Bill taking his son, resplendent in Wisbech Grammar School uniform, on a trip to France to retrace his steps. 
What memories this trip must have re-awakened, one can only imagine, and I remember the beautiful lines from a poem written before the war, but so, so appropriate, by Geoffrey Winthrop Young.

"There will be voices whispering down these ways,
The while one wanderer is left to hear,
And the young life and laughter of old days,
Shall make undying echoes."

Some years ago I put Bill's diaries, along with the stories of Eric Gardiner and James Cole, into a book called 'Three Men Went To War' It was self published, and I no longer have copies for sale, but there are copies in local libraries.