Life in Stevenage during the First World War

Extract adapted from "Stevenage" by Margaret Ashby published by Alan Sutton Press

By Viv Birch

It seems that during 1913 and 14 most people continued their usual activities oblivious to the threat of war. Local concerns included damage to the hay crop caused by children trespassing to collect buttercups, the great success of the annual flower show, the “excellent attendance report” recorded by the National Schools, and a series of smoking concerts in the town hall, publicised as promoting harmony. But possibly the establishment of a Stevenage branch of the Navy League whose purpose was to send boys to sea, was a response to the increasingly tense international situation.

When the war was announced in 1914 its effects were quickly felt. There was no conscription initially but many local men volunteered for active service and were sent abroad immediately. Within a month two of them, Henry Forder and Eric Guinness, were wounded though not seriously. Voluntary organizations came swiftly into being. The Stevenage Local Relief Fund and and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association existed primarily to raise money to help the dependents of servicemen, while another led by Mrs Heathcote, knitted garments for the soldiers themselves. A War Workers’ Department was set up at the Grange, where volunteers made bandages and dressings for use on the battlefield.

Initially cheerful and confident

Letters from the war zone were initially cheerful and confident, thanking the public for supplies they had sent out. Later the letters became more sombre. In 1915 several Stevenage soldiers spoke about their experience on the battlefield where they were saved by the Angel of Mons.

As the war continued, shortages and restrictions became commonplace in England. In December 1915 the Home Office issued a Lighting Order for the county of Hertford, requiring buildings to be blacked out after dark. Some bombs were dropped over Stevenage, destroying barns in Bedwell Lane. There were no severe food shortages as many people could grow their own, but there were shortages of other produce and people were asked to consume less, on a voluntary basis.There were also increasing difficulties in obtaining paper and other essential supplies.

As more men went into the armed forces their jobs were taken over by women, many of whom were drafted into the Land Army to do necessary farm work. Others worked for the railway company, or in shops and offices, where previously staff had been entirely male.

Death toll

The death toll was dreadful, but so too was the ordeal of men who were gassed, physically injured or afflicted with shell shock. For those who waited at home there were long silences, when they did not know if their loved ones were alive or dead. If wounded men were sent back to England, they were not necessarily within reach of their families. For a time there was a Voluntary Aid Detachment Nursing Service Hospital at Bragbury End. In 1917 this was moved to Knebworth Golf Club House, but not all Stevenage men were placed so close to home. Some were sent to Rickmansworth, which was not easy to get to on public transport, and some were sent even further afield.

Eventually the War came to an end, but life could never be as it was before 1914. The long list of Stevenage men who lost their lives was inscribed on a gleaming white war memorial erected on the Bowling Green in 1921.

This page was added on 19/01/2012.

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