Armistice Day 90th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 10:33 20 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:35 20 February 2013

A group of officers from the First Battalion Berkshire Regiment in service dress in France in 1915

A group of officers from the First Battalion Berkshire Regiment in service dress in France in 1915

Ninety years ago this month the Great War ended. Matt Dean rediscovers the great sacrifices made by the people of Berkshire and remembers those who have given their lives in more recent conflicts...

Most people will be able to tell you that the conflict that broke out August 1914 would be "over by Christmas." Four long years later, on November 11th 1918 at 11am, Germany signed an armistice with the Allies and the First World War was over. As we commemorate 90 years since the end of that "war to end all wars" with services throughout Europe in honour of the millions who died, it's worth revisiting the marks that it left on our counties at home, too, and in particular in Berkshire.

In rural West Berkshire the toll on small communities was huge with 20 per cent of East Woodhay and Woolton Hill never returning from the battlefields and 14 deaths from Eastbury that sent ripples through the community of only 300.

The war effort was classless and Berkshire saw huge losses from country squires to the humblest agricultural labourers. John Trigg, author of A County At War - Berkshire says, "Archer-Houblon, owner of the Welford estate served along with the five sons of his gardener. Death would show no respect for wealth or class."

Officer training corps from universities and public schools had a three-week life expectancy in France with one in five public school officers killed. Old Etonians suffered 1157 deaths of the 4852 who served and the Royal Berkshire Regiment lost 300 officers.

Despite this, people were patriotically eager to volunteer and in 1915, a granite memorial cross was offered by a newspaper to the village with the highest percentage of men sent to serve. In Berkshire East Hendred sent 115 of its 726 inhabitants. Such community involvement put great pressure on eligible men such as Albert Syms (killed 1st July, 1916) to step up to the hastily assembled Kitchener Battalions.

Over 2.4 million men had volunteered before conscription was introduced, which had detrimental effects on community life. With over 50 per cent of Berkshire's teachers on the battlefield, many smaller county schools had to be closed.
One such teacher was Owen Attewell, master of Welford village school. He won the military cross fighting for the Royal Berkshire Regiment before returning to school life as Hungerford Elementary School master.

So desperate to fight for Britain were these young men that Newbury emigrant, John Botsford came back from Australia. Having been rejected for having hammer toes, he had the toes amputated to pass the medical tests so he could fight.
As men started coming home with horrific wounds, the hospitals were forced to cope with vast numbers. Newbury Hospital had just 24 beds for war wounded in early 1915. Other buildings were soon modified for hospital duties such as Englefield House and St Katherine's School, Wantage. By the time King George and Queen Mary visited the Reading war hospitals in August 1915, there were 1500 military beds in the borough.

As our boys went off to fight, Germans living in Britain faced frequent abuse. Six-hundred were encamped at Newbury Racecourse in 1914, rising to 1,400 later in the war. They entertained local onlookers with music, dancing and races.
Another significant local contribution was the Reading biscuit company, Huntley & Palmers. Required to supply army biscuits, orders rose rapidly from £84,000 in March 1915 to £653,000 in November 1918. Their packing facilities were also used for tea, sugar and Oxo totalling 250,000 tins. They also felt the effect of war with 1,500 male employees away fighting by 1917. Like so many industries, it was the women and children who had to step in and keep the production going.

Another severe effect on the home front was rationing and not least, that of beer. By December 1914, Newbury pubs were shut by 9pm and the King made this a national rule. Worse still, with millions of tons of food being sunk in transit by German U-boats, Britain was seriously low on vital foods and queuing for basic rations became a common event.

It is hard to imagine what these young men from the peaceful Berkshire countryside had to endure during these years. The rush of fear and adrenaline when the whistle urged them over the top and into no-mans land. But without the hard work of those at the Home Front, the war would have been lost, so this month, as every November, let us remember this huge collective effort and terrible loss of life that affected everyone, not only across Berkshire but in Britain and the free world.

Salute to a veteran

Berkshire resident William Stone is one of only three survivors from the First World War, and the only one who served in both world wars. He turned 108 in September.

William recalls: "My three elder brothers were all navy men. Then two weeks before my 18th birthday my call up papers came for me to join the army. 'Not likely,' I said, 'I'm a Navy man and I'll be on the next train to Plymouth!'

"I was still training at Plymouth when we heard it was all over. The Armistice was signed and then soon afterwards I was struck by the great flu pandemic that killed millions. I collapsed over dinner and woke up in Naval Barracks.
It very nearly killed me.

"I finally got to serve on HMS Tiger as a stoker and stayed with the navy right through to the end of the next war. I was one of the lucky ones."
William went on to serve with the Navy until the end of the Second World War and took part in the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in 1940. "Dunkirk was the worst part of my life. One of our sister ships, Skipjack, was bombed and all crew were killed."

William lived on his own until he was 106 when he moved into the Lord Harris Court at Sindlesham, near Wokingham. He is a keen supporter of the Royal British Legion and is seen here selling poppies in Watlington in 2005.

Today's fallen heroes

Here we list the names of some of the Berkshire soldiers who have died serving their country on active service in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afganistan

Rifleman Paul Donnachie, 2nd Battalion The Rifles, aged 18, from Burghfield, near Reading. Killed in a small arms fire attack in Basra, April 2007.

Lance Corporal of Horse Matty Hull, aged 25, of The Blues & Royals, Household Cavalry Regiment, based in Windsor. Killed in southern Iraq.

Captain David Hicks, C (Essex) Company, 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, aged 26, from Wokingham. Killed in Afghanistan.

Marine Benjamin Reddy of K Company, 42 Commando, 22, from Ascot, died in Helmand province.

South African-born Second Lieutenant Ralph Johnson, 24, Household Cavalry Regiment from Windsor, served with the Household Cavalry Regiment and died
in Afghanistan.

Lance Corporal Peter Craddock, from 1st Battalion The Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment, from Newbury, died in Helmand Province. 2006.

The Festival of Remembrance

An event presented by The Royal County of Berkshire and the Vale of the White Horse British Legion with The Woodley Concert Band at The Bearwood Theatre, Bearwood College, Winnersh, on Saturday 25th October at 7.30pm.
For information tel: 0118 976 1551

To volunteer to sell poppies call 0118 976 1255, or send a donation to RBL County HQ, Eversley Road, Arborfield, Berkshire RG2 9PR.

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