Wednesday 8 April 2020

What the Centenary of the 1918 Armistice meant for Clevedon, North Somerset

At 11:00am on Sunday, 11th November 2018 a maroon was fired from the end of Clevedon Pier as part of a moving service of remembrance.  This has been an annual event (with some breaks) since 1918 when Captain Rowles – the piermaster at the time - fired two rockets upon hearing news of the signing of the Armistice on the morning of the 11 November 1918.

In 2018 it was 100 years since Marshall Ferdinand Foch (for the Allies) and Matthias Erzberger (for Germany) agreed to end what is now known as the First World War at the end of a hurried negotiation conducted in a railway carriage deep in the Forest of Compi├Ęgne, France.

'There But Not There' on Clevedon Pier

Over the course of the previous four years the Great War had hugely impacted Clevedon. Aside from the thousand or so men who served in various capacities, many local women had devoted their time to looking after wounded soldiers at the Oaklands Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital (Elton Road) and supplying garments to the fighting troops. Others helped in the Prisoners of War Food Depot in Hill Road and elsewhere. Young and old were involved – this was a community effort. For example; a few dozen fourteen year old girls were kept busy learning practical skills at the Clevedon Girls’ Patriotic Club in Old Street. There was even a series of events for the RSPCA Fund for Sick and Wounded Horses.

Despite local men leaving the town to enlist in the Somerset Light Infantry, The Gloucestershire Regiment, the South Wales Borderers and other units, in 1915 the town’s population swelled from 6,000 to 9,000 with the arrival of the 56th Infantry Brigade of Kitchener’s Army. These men – predominantly from Lancashire - were billeted in the large Victorian houses around Marine Hill, Princes Road, Chapel Hill and Linden Road at a cost of 2/6d per man per day.

Men of the 56th Infantry Brigade - The Triangle, Clevedon

We should of course remember the 208 Clevedonians who gave their lives for their Country in the First World War. Indeed, on Clevedon Pier  every one of these brave individuals was commemorated over a 100 day period through sensitively placed There But Not There silhouettes. Reading through these names one is struck by the scale of the overall loss and the variety of capacities and theatres in which the men served. Many of the names on Clevedon’s four main First World War memorials (All Saints, St Johns, British School and St Andrews) are recognisable even today as they belong to families with long local associations. 

For the ninety per cent of serving men who returned to Clevedon from the frontlines at the end of the war each had a unique story to tell – everyone had their own motivation, experience and memories. For some the return was incredibly painful for themselves and their loved ones because their lives were blighted by physical disability or mental illness. Others - perhaps the majority - quickly re-integrated into civilian life and played a part in making the town what it is today.

Armistice Day - The Triangle, Clevedon - 1969

Many historians had hoped that the centenary of the Armistice would encourage a broader public discourse about the legacy of the First World War. Sadly however the notion of ‘pointless sacrifice’ based on a perception that those who went to war were naive ‘victims’ lead by incompetent generals with the cynical support of conniving politicians has endured.

It is surely time to take a more nuanced view of the First World War’s legacy. A generation of young men whose life experience was shaped by their experiences in the trenches, on the high seas and in the air were instrumental in reshaping our society in later years.  For those at home, many would retain a pride in what they had contributed – and for women the forced involvement in work away from the confines of domestic drudgery had an emancipatory effect which certainly transformed society for the better.

Therefore, on the 11th November 2018, as people gathered in various locations around the town to mark the 100th anniversary, it was a time for all to reflect on the Clevedonians who were involved in the First World War and remember, with pride, their enduring legacy.

Note: With thanks to the late Rob Campbell whose book ‘Clevedon’s Own’ was a valuable source of information and to whom this article is dedicated. Pictures from the Jane Lilly collection.