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Brand: Jonathon Swan

Chelmsford In The Great War

by Jonathon Swan

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Chemsford In The Great War

By the end of the Great War in 1918, 1,791 Chelmsford men were serving in the army or navy. Three hundred and ninety two of them did not return. Chelmsford in the Great War is the touching story of the people these men left behind: the munitions workers, special constables, VADs, shopkeepers, magistrates, councillors, conscientious objectors, teachers and school children, as well as Mr and Mrs Nathan Smith's St Bernard dog, Brenda, who collected funds for the British Red Cross.

It is also an account of how this optimistic and modern town responded after the outbreak of war in 1914. Army camps and airfields appeared in and around Chelmsford and thousands of men of the South Midland Divisions and the Lowland Division were billeted here during their training for the front line. They had an immense impact on the people and despite the local attachment to the Essex Regiment, friendships were formed with the men with strange accents which lasted long after the war.

The great local firms such as Marconi's and Hoffmann's were taken over for munitions work and the constant demand for skilled labour conflicted with the national need for fighting men. With the arrival of conscription the local military tribunal was hard pressed to find the right balance, until the place of women in the workforce was recognised.

Civic affairs were dominated by a cohort of aldermen and councillors who seemed incapable of leadership in these turbulent times; with billeting, air raids, the blackout, food shortages, rationing and even the genuine threat of invasion the main concerns of the Chelmsford community, the Council responded by forming endless committees and subcommittees. Despite this, Chelmsford survived the war intact, undamaged, and indeed enhanced, and justifiably proud of its solid, if understated, contribution to the nation's monumental war effort.

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Before 1914 Essex's county town Chelmsford was a sleepy country centre. There was a surprising amount of local industry - notably Hoffmann's bearings and Marconi's wireless, but otherwise it was similar to many other places across southern England. Jonathan Swan's comprehensive book tells the history of Chelmsford between 1914 and 1918 and how the war transformed the local economy and the lives of local people, both those who joined up and those who remained at home. In the autumn of 1914 nobody could have been aware of how the demands of the War would affect the town. Hundreds of local men joined up and other troops were billeted in the area. There were concerns about rising prices and what to do in case the Germans invaded. The author shows how the war slowly affected every aspect of local life from the shortage of food to children's schooling and the demands of factories for workers and supplies. There some interesting stories - the town librarian worrying about the theft of books by soldiers, the provision of margarine, developments at Marconi's, and the reception accorded to wounded men recuperating in local hospitals. The research is based largely on council minutes and local newspapers. It would have been useful to include local diaries and memoirs assuming, of course, that any survive. My major concern, however, is that there should have been a conclusion discussing the long-term impact the War had on the town. Overall, this is a fine example of the current spate of local histories about the First World War. Simon Fowler Friends of The National Archives http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/get-involved/friends.htm Friends of The National Archives