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First World War exhibition an eye-opener to life in Broadland during the conflict

PUBLISHED: 14:54 17 April 2018 | UPDATED: 14:54 17 April 2018

Nicola Hems, curator at the Museum of the Broads in the First World War exhibition. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Nicola Hems, curator at the Museum of the Broads in the First World War exhibition. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Copyright: Archant 2018

A new exhibition looks at life in Broadland during the First World War. Items on display include a photo album of a museum volunteer’s family, letters written from the home front, a bayonet and sword from the time, posters from the home front, knitted poppies, and a display of a Broadland family at home at the time, Reporter DAVID BALE went to the Museum of the Broads to speak to curator Nicola Hems and find out more.

Fragments of leather and a heel from a British army soldier's boot, found at the site of the 1916 battle of Delville on the Somme, and on display at the First World War exhibition at the Museum of the Broads. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYFragments of leather and a heel from a British army soldier's boot, found at the site of the 1916 battle of Delville on the Somme, and on display at the First World War exhibition at the Museum of the Broads. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

All visitors to this new exhibition will take something different from their experience. Whether it’s the poignant letters sent from soldiers, life on the homefront, or the propaganda used to encourage men to go and fight in the ‘war to end all wars’.

What grabbed my attention more than anything else was the sheer number of men from small villages that died.

A bronze Memorial Plaque, given to the family of private Owen Charles Fuller from Trunch, who was posthumously awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal, which is on display at the First World War exhibition at the Museum of the Broads. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYA bronze Memorial Plaque, given to the family of private Owen Charles Fuller from Trunch, who was posthumously awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal, which is on display at the First World War exhibition at the Museum of the Broads. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

It seems that no village, however small, escaped the bloodbath. Many of the soldiers had never been out of the county, let along abroad, before the conflict, but they were suddenly thrust into a life or death struggle on foreign soil.

Flanders and northern France, the main battlefields, may have seemed the other end of the world to many lads, but it was not so far as the crow files. Percy Hales remembered sitting on his sister’s front door step in Catfield and hearing the guns from the Battle of the Somme.

Being close to the continent, Norfolk was considered an invasion risk. The coastline was defended by the 6th Battalion Norfolk Cyclists, pillboxes were built and trenches dug.

What also struck me was a German field book, believed to have been exchanged on the frontlines during the Christmas Day Truce in 1914.

A souvenir Peace Handkerchief from Stalham, featuring a poem by Walter Fitch, from the national celebration day of peace, July 1919, on display at the First World War exhibition at the Museum of the Broads. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYA souvenir Peace Handkerchief from Stalham, featuring a poem by Walter Fitch, from the national celebration day of peace, July 1919, on display at the First World War exhibition at the Museum of the Broads. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The soldiers on both sides shared the same experiences and many came from similar backgrounds.

Many young men in Broadland joined up to fight.

Farm worker Edward Whitwood enlisted with the Norfolk Regiment at North Walsham in September 1914, aged 20, He was awarded the Military Medal for bravery at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Aged 21, Edward Allcock joined the 3/1 Norfolk Yeomanry as a cyclist in November 1915. He was posted to Salonika, now Thessaloniki, in Greece, in September 1916. He was awarded the British War Medal and returned home to take over his late father’s butcher’s shop in Stalham High Street.

Broadland in the First World War exhibition. Pictures: Museum of the Broads. Soldiers church parade 1915.Broadland in the First World War exhibition. Pictures: Museum of the Broads. Soldiers church parade 1915.

But many men never came home.

Soldiers were buried near to where they died. Cemeteries were established near to every area of conflict. In total, 11,771 men and women from the county lost their lives.

Curator Nicola Hems was particularly taken with the letters sent home to his family by 2nd lieutenant Percy Bird, of 10th Battalion, Norfolk Regiment.

His parents were the Rev and Mrs Bird of Brumstead Rectory, near Stalham,

He was an avid letter writer. One letter home written on February 1, 1916 from Alexandria, Egypt, read: “You should see some of the places and the women some men will go with. It’s absolutely damnable to think that such things are allowed to go on. Of course they get a lot of diseases and you can’t keep them all away, however you guard them.

“They are cruel to their animals, these natives. When I see someone beating or cruel to his animal, I beat him with a good stick as do most of the others here.”

He was killed in action in Falahiyah, Mesopotamia on April 5, 1916, aged just 23.

Those at home were encouraged to work as the men left the front.

Many women worked in munitions factories and firms also employed women.

Olive March, of Stalham, became the town’s first female driver, delivering bread.

One Land Army girl, Blanche Garman, from Martham, died of a heart attack in 1919, age 21, when her tractor caught fire.

Some women joined the uniformed services as nurses and auxiliaries. Ingham Old Hall was an auxiliary war hospital from October 1914 to January 1919.

The exhibition was made possible thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘Then and Now’ programme. It enabled them to employ a local film maker to work with students from Stalham High School to record on film the stories of local people. Those stories formed the basis of this year’s exhibition and the unique film is being shown in the Wroxham Room.

The exhibition will be on display until the museum’s last day of opening in 2018 – Sunday, November 11, the centenary of the Armistice.

The museum is located at Stalham’s historic Staithe and is open Sun to Fri. www.museumofthebroads.org.uk/

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