This is a ‘floppy back’ book, published by a small local publisher. It tells the story of every Man (and the one woman VAD) who appears on a Great War Memorial in Dorchester. 1100 men of Dorchester served in France, India, Mesopotamia, Turkey, Russia and at sea. All deaths are included, whether tapeworm, wounds, influenza, suicide, mysteriously being found beside a rail track, or ‘no body found’. Movingly, they include a 15-year old Boy Second Class and a 17-year old Boy First Class. .
The book must have involved massive research, and the list of references is impressive. However, it’s easy to read and includes photos, sketches, a glossary (helpful when I wondered how a Royal Fleet Auxiliary could be serving on the Somme!) and a summary of how the Army was constructed at that time –very useful to a non-military person.
After starting with a chapter on the town as a Garrison during the 19th Century, and the fundraising and political manoeuvrings around the building of the town’s Cenotaph, the book is organised by year. Each year starts with a summary of the key actions fought, and where the Dorset Regiment was involved. For each man there is a description of his home, parents, family and work before he joined up, and a history of his service. The text brings home the effect on families left behind and the huge number of young widows left to rear families alone. Because most of these men were buried overseas, the Cenotaph and memorials were seen as a way of helping the bereaved to grieve. There’s a very moving poem written by a father who lost two sons:
We do not know what pain they had,
And did not see them die.
We only know they nobly fell,
And could not say goodbye.
Buried in a foreign land,
Their grave we will never see.
But deep within our hearts,
We’ll keep their memory.
The book includes interesting snippets about life in a Garrison Town. For example the L/Cpl of Montgomeryshire Yeomanry and the Dorchester widow who were accused of running a house of ill-repute in the town, whilst the woman’s 14-year-old daughter resided on the premises.
Dorchester today is known as the site of the ‘Poundbury Village’, a pet project of Prince Charles on a windy hilltop on the edge of town. In the Great War it was a POW Camp. Today’s soldiers will not be surprised to hear that whilst the prisoners slept in heated huts, the soldiers guarding them slept in tents. The book has several drawings by the POWs and records their deaths as well as those of their guards who succumbed to pneumonia, influenza and other troubles caused by their living conditions.
I learned a lot from this book, as well as that there was a POW Camp in Dorchester. Some Dorsets went to fight for the White Russians against the Bolsheviks (apparently the Government was worried about munitions falling into Communist hands). That there was a ‘death march’ after the Siege of Kut, where the 400 survivors were reduced to 140 by the end of the march, and of those only 70 returned home. And that there were tribunals for people to be excused conscription – one lady with six sons, five already serving, was allowed to keep the sixth at home to work and save her from financial hardship. She was lucky – four of the five serving also survived! And this sensitive and moving piece, written in 1917 by Gilbert Nobbs:
The fighting man looks upon his share of the war with a light heart. Events come too rapidly upon him to feel depressed. He does not feel the gnawing hunger of the lonely wait; the emptiness of the world when the parting is over; the empty chair at the table, and the rooms made cheerless by his absence. There is no one to describe the terrors of the morning casualty list; the hourly expectation and frozen fear of the telegraph boy’s “rat tat”, bringing some dreadful news. There are no crowds to cheer her; no flags or trumpets to rouse her enthusiasm and occupy her thoughts. No constant activity, thrilling excitement, desperate encounter. Hers is a silent patriotism. She is the true hero of the war. And in hundreds of thousands of homes throughout the empire, her silent deeds, her wonderful fortitude are making the womanhood of Britain a history which medals will not reward, nor scars display.
It’s a fascinating social history of a time when ordinary people - grooms, coachmen, labourers, brewers and squires, were thrown together by events far beyond their shores, and did extraordinary things.
Four Wine Glasses – A great book which no self-respecting lady should ignore.
Dorchester Remembers the Great War by Brian Bates published by Roving Press Ltd
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