When our men came home

It’s tempting to imagine that when the Armistice was declared on the 11th November 1918 that our soldiers, seamen and airmen all came home straight away.   Sadly this was not the case and for many of them the journey home would take a year of more.

We don’t have accurate records about the individual men of our villages, but an analysis of the Norfolk Regiment records shows three distinct patterns of arrival.

  • Prisoners of War (POWs)
  • The wounded
  • Demobilisation

The first concerns Prisoners of War (POWs).

The treatment and eventual return of prisoners of war was very different depending on the theatre of war they had been involved in.

In most areas the return was best described as chaos with inadequate record keeping and organisation left to individuals or groups.

Of the 1,406 Norfolk Regiment POWs, 376 were captured by the Turks following the surrender at Kut. 237 of the these men, including the men of the 8th Battalion died in captivity either during forced marches; forced labour on the Baghdad railway or through malnutrition and ill treatment.

The Armistice with Turkey came into force on the 30th October. However, there were no immediately available ships or transport and the Turks did not always obey the terms of the Armistice, putting their own men before the needs of the often sick and hungry British. Eventually most were transported or walked to ships organised by their officers to bring them home over the next two months.

694 Norfolks were taken prisoner in European campaigns. British soldiers taken prisoner in France and Belgium were usually moved to Germany and placed in a POW camp although some were retained near the battlefields to provide manual labour. Again at the end of the war most were simply released or abandoned by the Germans.

Around 75,000 British prisoners reached our own lines within 1 month of the Armistice and a similar number reached ports in Germany and surrounding countries and made their way back to England. It was reported that in January 1919 there were still 36,000 POWs yet to come home.

The second concerns the wounded.

The treatment and care of the wounded had evolved during the war as the weaponry and the muddy terrain posed new challenges. One aspect remained clear – that survival depended on being evacuated and getting treatment as soon as possible. More importantly it meant that soldiers could be returned to the battle front quickly to maintain an effective fighting force.

The ‘Evacuation Chain’ as it became known consisted of a relay of events and personnel that men from our villages would have experienced- some staffed by medical professionals and some staffed by civilian volunteers. The ‘Chain” worked as follows for a wounded soldier –

It is likely therefore that any wounded at the end of the war would be treated in the same way and either returned to England as a casualty requiring hospital treatment or returned to their units to await demobilisation.

  1. The casualty would receive initial treatment at an aid post near the front line, staffed usually by a medical officer, orderlies and trained stretcher bearers. Basic medical supplies were available along with comforts such as brandy and cocoa.
  2. The casualty would then either walk or be carried to a Collecting or Bearer Post and then onwards to an Advanced Dressing Station where limited medical care was given and men returned to their units if possible.
  3. The next stage was a move to a Main Dressing station usually around a mile from the front. The casualty would be further assessed and labelled and prioritised as to treatment. He would remain there until able to be evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station by horse down ambulance or lorry.
  4. These were usually several miles from the front and positioned near to railways or canals for easy connection to Base Hospitals. The Casualty Clearing Station usually consisted of a minimum of 50 beds and could cater for around 200 men – increasing to up to 1,000 later in the war. The position of these stations are often marked by large military cemeteries reflecting the serious nature of the wounds suffered by the men arriving there.
  5. Next was a move, usually by train, ambulance or barge to a Base Hospital nearer the coast. The chances of survival on getting this far in the ‘Chain’ were much higher. Here the casualty would remain until fit or sent to hospital at home for further specialist treatment.
  6. On leaving the base hospital our casualty would be transported to the coast and then by boat to England where they would be allocated to either a military or civilian hospital.  On discharge they would be sent to a Convalescent Home for a period before either being discharged for the army or returned to the front.

The story of John ‘Jack’ Pestell, born and raised in Irstead, who was injured on service during WW1, returned home to bring up his family on a meagre pension having had his arm amputated.

The third section concerned demobilisation.

In August 1917 the government created a Ministry off Reconstruction charged with the task of rebuilding national life once the war was over. One of the issues it considered was the impact of returning soldiers on the existing civilian workforce. Apart from the logistical problems there were fears that returning soldiers could be rallying point for labour unrest.

The first mobilisation scheme called for the early release of the men involved in key areas of industry. However such men were invariably those called up as last resorts towards the end of the war. This meant that the men with the longest service records would be the last to be demobilised.

The original scheme was therefore the source of much unrest involving small scale mutinies and a large demonstration in London. In early 1919 Churchill changed the system to give priority based on age; length of service and the number of times wounded.

The scheme reduced the number of British men at arms from 3.8 million in November 1918 to 900,000 a year later and 230,000 by 1922.

Reports suggest that the process was relatively trouble free and the extensive post war turmoil envisaged in 1917 over occurred.

Soldiers returning from the battlefield to their home countries across the empire had further challenges as they had to wait for ships and travel much further.

The experience for the individual Norfolk Regiment soldier would have been the same as for all soldiers as follows –

  1. The soldier was assessed against the criteria for early release or otherwise
  2. He was medically examined and given a form to allow him to make a claim for any disability
  3. He received another form entitling him to civilian clothes
  4. He would receive a Certificate of Employment and a Dispersal Certificate
  5. The soldier would then be transferred to a Transit Camp near to the French coast
  6. On sailing home he would be moved to a Dispersal Centre – usually in huts or tents.
  7. He then was given a Protection Certificate / Identity Certificate and a rail warrant home.
  8. In addition to his final pay he was also given an Out of Work Policy which insured him against unavoidable employment of up to 6 months in the 12 months following demobilisation. He also got a Demobilisation ration book.
  9. He would then go home, still in uniform. If he returned his greatcoat with 28 days he was paid £1!

Most men were then placed on Army Reserve and could be called up in event of a national emergency.