Witley – 1917

Whereas the tone of the reports in 1916 was introverted and maybe reflected the general shock felt by the duration of the war and the harsh realities of the news from the trenches, this subtly changes again in the New Year of 1917 when it becomes brisker and more practical. It is as if some resolution has been made to be more positive and supportive of the parishioners as times become harder, as they did. January 1917 begins with a new Roll of Honour, but this is now a list of those who have died or are missing in action, 20 in all, rather than one of those serving.

Click here to see a transcript listing all the names and to download a pdf (PDF) copy of the page.

WIT_16_36 Jan 1917 RoH SGW

Roll of Honour from the January 1917 Witley Magazine. SHC ref WIT/16/36.

In February there is a detailed account of two Parade services with the deposit of the colours of two battalions of Canadian Infantry, the 123rd and 124th, at the church. The next month details the declaration of a National Lent with severe restrictions on the consumption of bread, meat and sugar, with this powerful exhortation ‘Each one of us has been placed upon our honour. We know the sacrifices the Boys at the Front are making. What sacrifice have you made?…Are we in England alone to live on as if there were no war?…It would be appalling if the glorious sacrifice of life so freely made by our Lads was rendered vain and useless, and they were robbed of Victory by the greed and gluttony of the Stay-at-Homes’. In the same month the vicar reports with justifiable pride the award of two Military Medals to Witley boys, Lance Corporal Percy Windybank of the Machine Gun Corps and Corporal Bert Davis R.A.M.C. Salonika Forces.

Below are two images of All Saints church, interior, dated 1917, looking east with flags of the 185 Battalion Cape Breton Highlanders on the left and 85 Battalion Nova Scotia Highlanders on the right with Roll of Honour on left also, SHC refs 6316/6886 and 6316/6887.

On the home front at Easter the schoolchildren collected over 300 eggs to take to the wounded soldiers at the War Hospital in Warren Road, Guildford and more Canadian colours were deposited at the church for safe-keeping, but the Press Bureau forbade the publication of the name of the battalion.

In June there is a report of another medal, a Military Cross, for Lieut. C.A.S. Mathias of the East Surrey Regiment, who was killed in action in May and another death, that of Percy Windybank, just lately the recipient of the Military Medal. The next month some cheerful news is given prominence, with the return home of Private Albert Ford, wearing the ribbon of the Military Medal awarded for gallantry at the Somme whilst ‘carrying messages between trenches, bombing a dug-out and capturing a machine gun…He seems to have had a very busy day on July 1st!’

From now until November there is very little mention of the war effort, other than details of a service on the third anniversary in August. The entries are brief and of local interest and the sense of exhaustion creeps back and the absence of any war news is quite telling, was is it so unremittingly bad that the vicar preferred not to report it? In November there are some details of a parochial memorial day on All Saints Day to remember those who have fallen and ‘to give thanks for their noble lives and splendid sacrifice and heroism’. There is also a longer report of a memorial service given for 2nd Lieut. Gerald H Swann R.F.C. aged 18, killed in action in a ‘plucky’ fight with 10 Hun aeroplanes, attended by a large number of officers and men from the Camp; followed by a rather plaintive ‘I wish other parents and friends would ask me to arrange similar Services’. Were the villagers on the home front who so gladly provided teas at the Institute for the soldiers, donated money to war bonds, rationed their food and knitted socks and balaclavas for Christmas parcels now too exhausted by communal grief to engage with their church?

The next month the Vicar reports on the Christmas parcels for the Witley men at the front, 200 this year, double that of 1915. Many of these extra men would have been conscripted by the Military Acts of 1916 and the village life would have been harder and the fears for their survival sharpened by the reality of the previous three years. There is also mention of ‘half-empty’ shops and a ‘serious shortage of food’ and other supplies, as well as the greatly increased shipping difficulties caused, in part, by the bringing to Europe of many thousands of American troops, ‘whom we welcome so gladly as brothers in arms’. In December the Vicar reports that at the request of the Local Food Control Committee he is getting together a Committee, ‘the majority of whom it is hoped will be women who know by actual experience the difficulties of the present time’. One of the first things they will consider is whether they can help by organising hot dinners for school children at a small charge.

Written by Carole Garrard, Surrey History Centre based on information from the Witley Parish magazine.

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