show and tell

Kent during the First World War

Obviously Kent didn’t suffer anything like the terrible destruction that was wrought on France and Belgium during the First World War. Our towns and cities were barely affected and our population went about their lives in much the same way as normal. However, as the closest part of the UK to the battlefields of Flanders, Kent did get drawn into the conflict more than other regions of the country. Whilst men from all over the UK went to fight, and women entered professions that had been closed to them before the war, it was the county of Kent which was most physically affected by World War 1. In the first instance, we received a great number of visitors from Flanders!
Belgians in Kent!
The Channel ports of Dover, Folkestone, Ramsgate and others started to receive boats from the continent of Europe quite soon after the war started. Our local newspapers from the time report that Belgian refugees began arriving in Kent as early as October 1914. At first it was a trickle, with three fishing boats laden with Belgian refugees arriving in Dartford, and accommodation being found for them by the local school master, but soon that trickle became a wave.
In one week, 25,000 Belgian refugees arrived in Folkestone. The Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate and Cheriton Herald, a newspaper of the time, stated that,
“practically every street in the town is housing Belgian people. Although the majority of the refugees have been entrained on to London, a considerable number have chosen to remain in Folkestone. The old Harvey Grammar School house, in Foord Road, has become a centre for the local War Refugees Committee. The classrooms are being used as reception and registration halls and also as fitting rooms, where the refugees are provided with clothing. Rooms in the building have been turned into dormitories, providing accommodation for about 60 refugees. During the day, large crowds of refugees gather together in the area around the Town Hall.”
Life for the refugees settled down into normality, and some element of routine was established. Two refugees, Monsieur Francois Bollemans and Mademoiselle Alice Jansonne were due to be married in Belgium when they were forced to flee as refugees. They settled in Ramsgate and were married at St Augustine's Church in December 1914. The ceremony was performed by Father Paul, who was also a refugee.
A large number of Belgian refugees found work in the hop gardens in the Bridge area, near Canterbury. The Belgian community was so large, particularly in Folkestone, that they began to produce a daily newspaper, the "Franco-Belge de Folkestone". The newspaper was printed in French and published by F J Parsons Ltd at the Herald offices in Folkestone. The price of a copy was 5 centimes or 1 halfpenny.
The Belgian King's Feast Day was celebrated in Tunbridge Wells in November 1914, at St Augustine’s Catholic Church. The church was filled with Belgian refugees and wounded soldiers for a special Mass offered for King Albert and his people. At the request of the Mayor, public buildings in Tunbridge Wells flew the Belgian flag.
As a prelude to the main service, two Belgian patriotic hymns, "Naar Wyd en Zyd” and “De Vlaamsche Loeuw", were sung, with solos given by members of the Sisters of Mercy of Malines. A special choir of refugees was conducted by M. Jef Denyn, a well-known musician and bell-ringer from Malines. After the service, the Belgians marched in procession down Upper Grosvenor Road singing “La Brabanconne” under the leadership of M. Denyn.
In the afternoon the Belgian visitors gathered together in a large room lent by the Congregational Club to celebrate King Albert’s birthday. The acting President of the local Belgian community, M. Krumps, made a speech thanking the people of Tunbridge Wells for their hospitality, and acknowledging the telegram of congratulations sent by the Mayor and Corporation to King Albert.
At a later ceremony at the Great Hall, Belgian exiles presented a bronze bust of the Mayor of Tunbridge Wells as a token of thanks for the town's hospitality.
The life-size bust of Councillor Charles Emson was created by the Belgian sculptor Paul van de Kerckhove, who arrived in Tunbridge Wells with a party of refugees in September 1914. Paul van de Kerckhove's work was cast in bronze in London and the cost was met by the Belgian community in Tunbridge Wells.
Obviously, the residents of Kent wanted to do their bit, by raising funds to support the soldiers at the front. The Ladies Hockey Club of Staplehurst organised:
Musical, humorous and dramatic performances in aid of the Fund for Belgian Soldiers at the Front.
Two performances were arranged for Wednesday 30th December and all Belgians and National Reservists currently living in the village were invited to attend the afternoon performance. Amongst those taking part were two Belgian artistes, Monsieur Henusse, pianist, and Madame Nonwelaerts, operatic singer. The whole event raised over £10!
Whilst in November 1914, at Blue Town Council School in Sheerness, schoolgirls knitted gloves, mittens, helmets, & bonnets for the Belgian refugees.
Casualty Evacuation
Obviously as the fighting continued and intensified, Kent also began to receive the wounded from the front line, and this included Belgian soldiers. A group of 10 wounded Belgian soldiers were taken in at the London Convalescent Hospital in Tankerton, near Whitstable. The group arrived with a large party of Belgian soldiers at Canterbury Military Hospital. They were driven from Canterbury to the Tankerton Hospital in a Royal Army Medical Corps wagon. Their arrival in Whitstable provoked much curiosity and a number of local people followed the wagon to the hospital. The Matron at the hospital issued an appeal for suits, underclothing and boots for the wounded Belgian soldiers.
30 wounded Belgian soldiers were sent directly from the trenches at Dixmude, to be cared for at Bidborough Court, Speldhurst.
On October 14th, Quex House, which was the home of Major Percy Powell Cotton, his wife Hannah and their 3 young children, was quickly converted into a VAD hospital to receive a group of wounded Belgian soldiers. Shortly after the outbreak of war, the family offered their home as a Red Cross hospital and moved out into one of the staff cottages on their estate at Quex Park.
In the house, the drawing room was fitted out with beds. In the museum, where Major Percy Powell Cotton had created a display of  natural history specimens and cultural objects which he had brought back from expeditions to Asia and Africa, 2 galleries were fitted out as wards. In 1915, a Belgian patient painted the background for a large diorama in one of the galleries.
The hospital remained open until the end of January 1919. During its time as a VAD hospital, 1,641 patients were admitted.
Of course, not all of the injured could be saved. In October, Lodewijk Marx had been sent with other wounded Belgian soldiers to be cared for at Tonbridge School Sanatorium. He died from his wounds and complications which set in. He was 24 years old. The young Belgian soldier was buried with full military honours at Tonbridge Cemetery.
By the end of the war over one million injured men had been brought through Dover and into the UK for medical treatment.
Terror from Above
But the First World War did have a physical effect on Kent and its inhabitants, and of course, the nature of these effects gave a terrible idea of how the weapons of war would develop to inflict ever increasing suffering on a greater number of innocents in the decades to follow. The people who lived in the towns and cities of Kent were amongst the first to suffer terror bombing delivered from the air.
The first bomb ever to fall on British soil landed in Dover. The bomb, dropped from a German aircraft, landed in a cabbage patch in a garden next to the Rectory of St James' Church.  The gardener, James Banks, was knocked out of a tree and bruised. The bomb left a crater 5ft deep and smashed windows in the Rectory.
At the start of the war, it was the Zeppelin airships which ranged over Kent. One flew over East Kent, dropping bombs, causing damage to buildings and leaving large craters in open countryside. Another flew low over Herne Bay pier and then over Whitstable, Canterbury and Ashford, where it dropped a number of bombs, causing some damage to buildings.
Then one early evening, a Zeppelin flew over Margate and dropped 10 bombs. Four of the bombs landed on the beach without causing harm, but the other 6 dropped on residential areas in Cliftonville, where 2 women, Agnes Robins and Kate Bonny, were fatally injured. In addition, 2 men, 3 women and a 4-year-old child were wounded.
A further Zeppelin bombing raid on Otterpool Camp near Lympne killed 15 Canadian soldiers and injured 21 others, whilst in Walmer a 16-year old boy was killed and another seriously injured when they were hit by debris from a bomb dropped from a German plane. The 2 boys, George William Castle and Cecil Pedlar, were out walking on a Sunday morning near the beach in Walmer when the plane approached at speed above them, coming from the direction of the sea and dropping bombs onto the ground. George was killed instantly when he was hit on the head by bomb debris. Cecil was also hit by flying shrapnel and badly wounded, but later recovered from his injuries.
Four German seaplanes bombed Dover, Deal, Ramsgate and Margate, killing 9 people, including 5 young children on their way to Sunday School in Ramsgate. The children were killed when a bomb landed on a car outside St Luke's Church, Ramsgate, also killing the car's driver, Mr H Divers.
Bombs were also dropped on Dover Harbour and on Northfall Meadow, falling on a hut being used by men of the 5th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. There, 4 men were killed and 11 injured.
The following night there was a meeting of townspeople at Ramsgate Town Hall to insist on better protection for the town against attack by aircraft. Local people were angry because the warning siren did not sound until the danger was practically over.
The next day, a train load of motor wagons with anti-aircraft guns, search lights, motor cycles and about 60 soldiers arrived at Ramsgate. 2 search lights and guns were placed on Warre's field near Ramsgate Station, and on Government Acre on the Westcliff.
On the 8th May 1915, the Royal Naval Air Service Station at Capel-le-Ferne, near Folkestone was opened. Airships from Capel carried out patrols along the coast and escorted shipping across the channel. In addition, early in 1916, Manston landing site opened and six aeroplanes were based there.
A Zeppelin airship was hit by shellfire from the Dartford anti-aircraft battery and became the first Zeppelin to be destroyed over Britain. 5 Zeppelins passing over the Thames Estuary were spotted by searchlights in the Dartford area. The anti-aircraft battery based at the top of Brent Road, Dartford, fired at the airships. Eventually the lead airship was hit near its tail. The airship turned for home but, shortly afterwards, started to descend from a great height and then crashed into the sea, coming down near the Kentish Knock Lightship, about 15 miles north-east of Margate. One German crew member drowned, whilst the other 17 surrendered when they were approached by patrol vessels.
Despite this success, bombing raids on Kent and on London continued and the casualties mounted. In one raid on Folkestone, over 70 civilians and 18 military personnel were killed, with many more injured. 32 bombs were dropped on Sheerness Naval Dockyard, killing 11 and injuring 5 others including a 9 year old boy, whilst at the Shorncliffe Army Camp, bombs killed 18 military personnel. In a raid on Margate 3 people were killed and over 700 houses were damaged.
Eventually RFC aircraft were recalled from France to defend Kent and 56 squadron was based at Bekesbourne near Canterbury. However, the rids continued and in one night time attack, over 130 naval ratings were killed instantly and many more received terrible injuries when 2 bombs were dropped from a Gotha plane over the Drill Hall of the Royal Naval Barracks, Chatham, which was being used as overflow accommodation. 900 ratings were either asleep or resting at the time of the air raid. One of the bombs was dropped directly over the thick glass roof of the Drill Hall, shattering it into thousands of pieces and the heavy falling glass and debris cause horrific injuries. The bombs dropped on the Chatham Naval Barracks caused the greatest number of deaths from a single air raid during the whole of the 1st World War. However, the raids continued, with civilians being killed and injured across the county.
Naval Attacks
The residents of Kent’s coastal towns also suffered during the war, because German ships often shelled them from the Channel. Over 40 shells were fired onto Margate in one attack, while in Broadstairs, a mother, her 9-year-old daughter and her baby daughter were all killed when their cottage was shelled. Two more children in the family are injured. Dover itself was attacked as were the ships sailing from the port. 89 lives were lost.
Guncotton Factories
Kent also contained a number of munitions factories, or gunpowder mills as they were known. One of the largest was at Faversham on the North Kent coast. It had expanded enormously to cope with the demand for munitions from the front. Unfortunately, on Sunday, 2nd April 1916, three consecutive explosions at Faversham Guncotton Factory killed over 100 people and injured 97 more. The magnitude of the explosions was so great that they were heard in many parts of Kent and Essex and even as far away as Norwich in Norfolk.

The Unknown Soldier
The first anniversary of the Armistice was observed as Remembrance Day by people throughout the UK. Above town halls, churches, schools and other prominent buildings, the flags flew at half-mast. In accordance with the King's suggestion, people stopped what they were doing at 11 am. Traffic pulled in to the sides of roads and businesses everywhere stopped for two minutes.
In 1920, the body of the unknown soldier arrived back in the UK. The body of one soldier, whose identity was not known, was exhumed from the battlefields of Flanders, brought back across the Channel and arrived at Admiralty Pier, Dover, on board HMS Verdun. The body was then escorted to London and interred at Westminster Abbey on November 11th 1920.

 

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