The county of Devon was unusal, but not unique, in that not a single village survived the First War without loss. In this article, Stephen Roberts takes a look at where some of these men came from and where they fought, as well as describing some of the changes Devon went though as a result of the War. This article first appeared in the November 2018 edition of Devon Life.
Devon: its part in the great land-war, 1914-18
After more than four years of war, the guns fell silent at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was November 11th 1918, 100 years ago, and the First World War was finally over after more than 1,500 days of attrition. What did the war’s prosecution and its end mean, however, to the people of Devon?
You begin to comprehend the carnage of WW1 when you learn that there is not one Thankful Village in the county. These were the fortunate communities that lost no servicemen in the war, when all around them did. Not one village or town in Devon was spared.
The Devonshire Regiment raised 25 battalions during the war, fighting on the Western Front against Germany and in other theatres against Germany’s allies, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. The regiment was awarded 65 battle honours and two Victoria Crosses by war’s end, plus 1,265 other gallantry awards and mentions in despatches.
The 1st and 2nd Battalions took part in that famous Christmas truce on the Western Front in 1914. That was scant respite, however, from a long slog that included most of the major Flanders’ battlefields: the Ypres battles (including Passchendaele), Loos (the major British offensive of 1915), the Somme (ditto, 1916), and the costliest battles of all in 1918, as the Allies finally pushed the Germans back.
The 1st Battalion landed in France on August 21st 1914, just 17 days after Britain’s entry into the war. It served on the Western Front throughout. At 1st Ypres (October-November 1914), the battalion lost ⅔ of its officers and ⅓ of its other ranks. The 8th and 9th (Service) Battalions went into action on the first day of the Somme. The 8th was committed within three hours of the commencement of the offensive and suffered 639 casualties on that first day. The 9th meanwhile was one of the few British units attaining its initial objectives on the first day (but lost 463 dead or wounded out of 775 who went over the top). There is a dedicated Devonshire cemetery at the Somme. The memorial states, ‘The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshires hold it still.’
The Devonshire Regiment was involved in the fighting from virtually beginning to end and the human cost was high, over 6,000 men killed and about three times that number wounded. The volunteer army of 1914-15 included many Devonians, who didn’t all serve with the Devonshire Regiment. There was also the Royal 1st Devon Yeomanry and Royal North Devon Yeomanry, both of which fought at Gallipoli, against the Turks.
In total over 11,500 Devonians were lost, some with the Devonshires, but others with numerous, disparate regiments. What bound them together was a determination to fight for King and Country. Sometimes they were groups of mates who lived and worked together, such as the eleven Devon-born Great Western Railway (GWR) footplate men, who all died. Their ages add some credence to the oft-quoted mantra that a generation of young men was wiped out by war. Three of them were just 19, including Reginald Connett, who died on the first day of the Somme, the worst single day in the history of the British Army. Another six were aged 21-23. The oldest was just 31. The initial enthusiasm for war soon faded as casualties mounted: conscription was introduced in 1916.
Devon began collecting its roll of honour from September 1914, recording the names of the dead. The original idea was for a memorial inscribed with all the names in Exeter, but the sheer volume made this impracticable. In the end a 396-page book was used to record the names of 11,601 men and women.
Devon was spared the horrors of bombing during WW1, being safely out of range of German Zeppelins and Gotha bombers, however, that didn’t mean there was no danger. Only last year a 25lb shell from the Great War was detonated on a farm at Bovey Tracey, after workers found the monster embedded in a wall they were demolishing. Bomb disposal experts confirmed this was not unusual: it was posited that the bomb came from old wartime firing ranges on Dartmoor. How the bomb ended up on the farm remains a mystery, but it was reputedly once used as a hefty (and dangerous) door stop!
The county was directly impacted in other ways. The enormous war effort needed supporting: this was arguably the first ‘total war’, in which the whole nation mobilised. The Heathcoat fabric factory in Tiverton, the town’s largest employer in 1914, was one of many switching to munitions production. As an exporter, it had little choice with the loss of continental markets, however, those war contracts more than made up. With many men away fighting it was women making up the shortfall by working the machines.
Devon, with its mix of industry and agriculture, also saw the advent of the Women’s Land Army. One of the key figures in advocating women’s land work was Miss Sylvia Calmady-Hamlyn, a member of a long-established Devon family, based on Dartmoor’s edge, who was heavily involved in creating the new Women’s Land Army and became a governor of Seale-Hayne College, three miles from Newton Abbot, where a training course was established. One big idea was the ‘women-only farm’, proving to sceptics that ladies could do every job required. The first of these was at Great Bidlake Farm, close to Sylvia’s own home in Bridestowe. A forewoman and three other girls were established there. The farm took on college duties too when Seale-Hayne’s buildings were needed for a military hospital.
One village, Silverton, some eight miles from Exeter, lost 39 men, including 7 at the Somme, from a village of around 1,000. There were familial tragedies, for example, one household losing two sons in a fortnight. With so many men away, the impact on the village was manifold, as women worked on local farms and munitions in nearby towns (including presumably Exeter). It is just one illustration from many.
There was a mood after the war, of course, to honour the fallen and support the survivors. Virtually every one of Devon’s myriad of parishes has a memorial, dedicated originally to the dead of WW1 (but sadly with other names added subsequently).
This November Devon’s war memorials will once again be the focus for Remembrance, with added poignancy as we recall the end of a shattering conflict that finally ground to a halt 100 years ago after levels of death and destruction that would inhabit people’s worst nightmares for years to come. Some people may still venture to ponder why we bother remembering a war from so long ago: if you could count the 1914-1918 names on all Devon’s war memorials you’d find over 11,600 very good reasons.
DEVONSHIRE REGIMENT DURING WW1 (Western Front – selected)
1914 – La Bassée, Messines, First Ypres.
1915 – Neuve Chapelle, Second Ypres, Loos.
1916 – The Somme.
1917 – Vimy, Third Ypres (Passchendale).
1918 – The Aisne, Albert, Battles of the Hindenburg Line.
DEVONSHIRE REGIMENT DURING WW1 (Other Theatres – selected)
1917 – (v. Turkey) Third Battle of Gaza, Second Battle of Kut, Fall of Baghdad.
1917 – (v. Bulgaria) Doiran.
1918 – (v. Austria-Hungary) Vittorio Veneto
DEVONIAN GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY FOOTPLATE MEN
Casely, Henry (died May 1915, aged 19)
Comer, Lewis (July 1917, aged 23)
Connett, Reginald (July 1916, aged 19) – 1st day of the Somme
Howard, Frank (February 1917, age unknown)
Leaman, Henry (December 1916, aged 31)
Revell, George (July 1917, aged 23)
Revell, Henry (September 1915, aged 21) – brother of George
Snell, Percy (March 1918, aged 22)
Thorne, Albert (December 1915, aged 19)
Tremlett, Albert (February 1917, aged 21)
Western, Harry (April 1917, aged 21)
VICTORIA CROSS WINNERS (DEVONSHIRE REGIMENT)
Lance Corporal George Onions VC (1883-1944) – August 1918, with one colleague (Private Henry Eades) caused 250 Germans to surrender. Aged 35 at the time. Died aged 61.
Private Theodore Veale VC (1892-1980) – July 1916, at Battle of Somme, for rescuing a wounded officer from No Man’s Land under fire. Aged just 23 at the time. Died aged 87. Born in Dartmouth.
Forces War Records (www.forces-war-records.co.uk) – for Devon Regiment.
Keep Military Museum (www.keepmilitarymuseum.org)
Devon Heritage (www.devonheritage.org)
Devon WW1 Roll of Honour (www.devonhonour.org.uk)
Open University Local History (www.open.ac.uk/blogs/localhistoryshowcase) – for the war’s impact on Silverton by Dr. John Kirkaldy
BBC (www.bbc.co.uk) – for Heathcoat’s story.
The Women’s Land Army (www.womenslandarmy.co.uk) – for Devon Land Girls story.
The Author: Many thanks to Stephen Roberts for his article. He has many such pieces published today and we hope to bring you some more of his excellent work in the near future. His website is: http://www.steveroberts.org.uk/ His Twitter handle is @SRChristchurch.
The following is a list of units raised by Devon in the Great War. It might surprise readers to see how many were formed, some of which were almost private militias, and some of which never went out to the Western Front but were retained for the defence of the UK as well as garrison duties in places such as Ireland. The list is typical of the numbers and types of battalions raised by many counties in WW1, but was matched by the larger cities, such as Manchester whose men filled over 35 local battalions.
Devonshire Regiment, battalions of the Regular Army
1st Battalion: August 1914 : in Jersey.
2nd Battalion: August 1914 : in Cairo, Egypt. Returned to England 1 October 1914 and came under orders of 23rd Brigade in 8th Division.
3rd (Reserve) Battalion: August 1914 : in Exeter but moved to Plymouth on 8 August, returning on 28th of the same month. Moved to Devonport in May 1915. A training unit used as the garrison for the defences of Plymouth, it remained in UK throughout the war.
Battalions of the Territorial Force
1/4th Battalion: August 1914 : in Exeter. Part of Devon & Cornwall Brigade, Wessex Division.
1/5th (Prince of Wales’s) Battalion: August 1914 : in Millbay, Plymouth. Part of Devon & Cornwall Brigade, Wessex Division.
1/6th Battalion: August 1914 : in Barnstaple. Attached as Army Troops to Wessex Division. On 16 September 1914 came under orders of Devon and Cornwall Brigade.
1/7th (Cyclist) Battalion: August 1914 : in Exeter, unallotted to a higher formation.
2/4th Battalion: Formed at Exeter in September 1914 as a Second Line battalion. Became part of 2nd Devon and Cornwall Brigade, 2nd Wessex Division.
2/5th (Prince of Wales’s) Battalion: Formed at Plymouth in September 1914 as a Second Line battalion. Became part of 2nd Devon and Cornwall Brigade, 2nd Wessex Division.
2/6th Battalion: Formed at Barnstaple on 16 September 1914 as a Second Line battalion. Became part of 2nd Devon and Cornwall Brigade, 2nd Wessex Division.
2/7th (Cyclist) Battalion: Formed at Totnes in October 1914. Remained in UK throughout the war.
3/4th, 3/5th and 3/6th Battalions: Formed at Exeter, Plymouth and Barnstaple respectively on 25 March 1915. Moved to Bournemouth in August 1915.
3/7th (Cyclist) Battalion: Formed in late 1915, possibly only as a depot rather than a fully-fledged training battalion. Disbanded March 1916.
15th Battalion: Formed on 1 January 1917 from what had previously been the 86th Provisional Battalion of the TF.
16th (Royal 1st Devon & Royal North Devon Yeomanry) Battalion: Formed at Moascar in Egypt on 4 January 1917 from two dismounted Yeomanry units.
8th (Service) Battalion: Formed at Exeter on 19 August 1914 as part of K1 and attached as Divisional Troops to 14th (Light) Division.
9th (Service) Battalion: Formed at Exeter on 15 September 1914 as part of K2 and attached as Divisional Troops to 20th (Light) Division.
10th (Service) Battalion: Formed at Exeter on 25 September 1914 as part of K3, coming under orders of 79th Brigade, 26th Division.
11th (Reserve) Battalion
Formed in Exeter in November 1914 as Service battalion, part of K4.
12th (Labour) Battalion: Formed in Devonport in May 1916.
13th (Works) Battalion: Formed in Saltash in June 1916. Moved to Plymouth. April 1917 became 3rd Labour Battalion.
14th (Labour) Battalion: Formed in Plymouth in August 1916. October 1916 : landed in France and joined to Third Army.
2nd (Home Service) Garrison Battalion: Formed in Exeter in July 1916. Moved to Plymouth and Falmouth.
Stephen’s work focusses on the land-battle, but of course Devon is one of Britain’s pre-eminent maritime counties. Devonport, at Plymouth, was a major Naval Base and TMT intends to cover that aspect of the county’s military history in a future article.
If you would like to submit a similar article about a county of interest to you, please do get in contact with TMT. We would be delighted to consider articles about any topics that might be of interest to our readers.
Some info courtesy of The Long Long Trail website: https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk