This week, exactly 109 years ago, after just three months of war with Germany, Britain was waking up to news of its second significant naval defeat of the war - of which more below. The first loss was six weeks earlier, when three cruisers - HMSs Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue - had been torpedoed by one submarine - U-9 - inside an hour whilst patrolling in a predictable fashion off the Dutch coast.

This was a great shock to the nation, as it was generally believed that, like the Titanic, the Royal Navy was invincible. Sadly, it was the first on many shocks that the British people would endure, as the technology of warfare enabled slaughter on a mammoth scale. As Philip Larkin wrote when describing the lines of men eager to enlist in August 1914, “Never such innocence again”.

The loss of the three cruisers was a particular shock to one family in Sidmouth, that of 19-year-old Stoker John Ackland Smith of the Hogue. He was the adopted son of Fanny and Benjamin of High Street, and before the war, he had been a fisherman. Young John was the second man of Sidmouth and district to die in WW1; the first was 30-year-old Gilbert Francis Burrows, a career sailor, who was killed when his ship, docked in Zanzibar, east Africa, was bombarded by the German cruiser Konigsberg. Gilbert’s mother lived at Core Hill, probably the Sidford end.

Sidmouth’s casualties in those last four months of 1914 were relatively light, just nine men. However, a third of them had resided in the High Street. Just before Christmas, two privates of the Coldstream Guards, Alfred Oliver and William Slade, who almost certainly joined up together, were killed together on 22nd December near Givenchy in France. Neither’s body was found, so it is likely that both were in a trench or vehicle or on an attack when they were hit by an artillery shell. Alfred had worked in his brother’s ironmongery, whilst William, whose parents, George and Clara had probably also kept a shop, had been a waiter at the Bedford.

Four months of war, three residents of High Street dead. Two weeks later, on 13th January, there was a fourth. Alfred Hodson, adopted son of Charles and Bessie Denner of High Street, was killed at Neuve Chappelle. His body was never found. On the same day, boy sailor Frank Taylor of Bridge Street, Sidbury, was killed when HMS Viknor was lost without a single trace off the coast of Ireland. His parents, Frank and Augusta would suffer more grief.

Of the first dozen men of Sid Vale to fall in WWI, one third of them had lived in Sidmouth High Street.

In that second heavy naval defeat of the war, on 1st November, three more Sidmouth residents, two of them neighbours and colleagues, died together on the far side of the world. James Spiller, 47, and Lewis Adlam, 44, had been in the Royal Navy as young men, and were probably reservists - who were all called up on 4th August. ‘Probably’, because both were residents of Glenisla Terrace, which back then was a row of coastguard quarters. The price of having such a relatively easy job, with housing, was to remain on reserve. The story of how they - and carpenter/shipwright Robert Searle of Winslade Road - found themselves in the near obsolete cruiser HMS Monmouth off the coast of Chile is an interesting one.

It begins in March 1889 when James Spiller was a young sailor aboard HMS Calliope in Samoa. He found himself in the company of a man of the same age, Midshipman Frank Brandt. The Calliope was there to keep an eye on the tension between naval forces of Germany and USA. Along with a number of merchant ships, the warships were anchored in Apia harbour when a tremendous hurricane blew up, and the Calliope was the only ship to survive it ….. by sailing out into it. This deed was very well-known in the Victorian Navy, and it is safe to say that despite one being a rating and the other an officer, the experience would have bonded James and Frank.

Frank Brandt retired after a fairly successful career in autumn 1913, but he was also on the RN’s reserve list. For as yet unknown reasons he came straight to Sidmouth. He rented accommodation here for a number of months, and engaged with the newly established Sidmouth RN Old Comrades Association, attending their second Trafalgar Dinner. There is little doubt that he renewed his acquaintance with James Spiller, and it is likely that the reason that Spiller, Adlam and Searle found themselves on the far side of the world in the Monmouth, is because Frank Brandt had been called up and was its captain. One speculates that all men suspected that war was coming and that reservists would be called back into service; and so Spiller persuaded Brandt to fix it for him, and his two mates, to be posted under his command.

Sidmouth Herald: HMS Monmouth

Sadly, things turned out badly. HMS Good Hope, Monmouth, Glasgow and Otranto were one a of number of small forces assigned to hunt down the powerful German East Asia Squadron that had caused havoc in the Pacific after war broke out. They came together in heavy weather off the coast of Chile, but sadly the meeting occurred before the arrival of a RN battleship to reinforce the cruisers. The ageing Good Hope and Monmouth were no match for the much more modern, bigger gunned and better drilled German ships, and both were sunk, with losses of 1,700 British men and boys - the two other ships had been ordered away. Because of the big seas, the men in the water could not be rescued.

Sidmouth Herald: Sidmouth Herald, November 8 1914

On 31st May 1916, a huge sea battle occurred in the North Sea, off Denmark. The Battle of Jutland involved 151 RN warships and 91 German. In the early hours of 1st June, after a series of utterly thunderous actions, both sides withdrew. The German navy had sunk 14 RN ships and killed 6,000 men, suffering losses of 11 vessels and 2,500 lives, and so they had technically won the day - but they had not achieved their principal aims of sinking dozens of ships and breaking the British blockade. The Germans returned to their ports, never to emerge again, prompting the New York Post to write: “The German fleet has assaulted its jailer, but is still in jail”.

Drôle, but the reality was that amongst the 6,000 dead, four men with local connections had been killed. All four were career RN-men: three in HMS Defence, William J Mutter, born in Beer, but with family living in Water Lane; George Russell whose wife Alice lived in Western Row, and Harry Street, son of John and Louisa of Burnt Oak, Sidbury. In HMS Tipperary, Lt. Eustace Maton was lost.

A year later, Eustace’s older brother, Captain Leonard Maton of the 1st Bn. Devonshire Regt., who had won the Military Cross, was killed leading from the front at Fresnoy. The Matons were actually Wimbledon people, the Sidmouth connection is the brother’s mother Mary, who was a member of the well-known Carslake family - one of whom had fought at Trafalgar with Nelson. When they were in Sidmouth, Leonard and Mary lived at Harston in Church St. Incidentally, Leonard Sr was the man responsible for codifying the laws of rugby union, and was the RFU’s third president - almost certainly he would have watched games at the Blackmore.

Of the 161 Sid Vale men lost in WWI, some 82 per cent were engaged with the army. Roughly 20 per cent of them were killed in two mammoth months-long battles, of the Somme (16) in 1916, and Passchendaele (15) in 1917. In recent years, the films All Quiet on the Western Front, 1917, Journey’s End and They Shall Not Grow Old have revived interest in WWI and given us a picture of the carnage, filth, brutality and senselessness of the conflict. One cannot watch them without asking what one might have done in those soldiers’ position, and by any measure, one suspects that we would have all come up short.

What the films do not reveal though is the effect of losses on individual families. Each and every death meant that where there had been a father, son, brother, husband, friend or colleague, a hole now existed. Imagine the grief of Emma Solman of Church Street, Sidford. On 6th July 1916, her 18-year-old son Ernest died on the Somme with the 8th Bn Devonshires; then a month later, her 39-year-old husband George, a bricklayer, died of dysentery in Mesopotamia - now known as Iraq.

Two other women lost both their husband and a son. Kate Gaut of Fore Street, Sidbury lost her husband Percy, a gardener, when three battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment were decimated on 30th June 1916, in an attack designed as a diversion for the main assault on the Somme the next day. Her son Herbert, a King’s School Ottery boy, had joined the RAF from school in 1931. When war came again, he was a sergeant pilot in 102 Sqn Bomber Command, and died when his over-loaded plane crashed on take-off at Catterick. Herbert and Bernard Blake were Sid Vale’s first losses of WWII, when both were killed on 18th October 1939. Bernard was a petty officer of the armed merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi, which famously, and courageously, attacked the powerful battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, with absolutely zero chance of success.

Sidmouth Herald: 1st Bn. Devonshire Regt. - Burma - 1944

Lottie Hodge of Arcot Park lost both her husband and son in WWII. Arthur, her 48-year-old spouse, was a member of the 23rd Light Ack-Ack Regiment, RA, based in Hampshire. He was killed in what was probably a training accident in summer 1941. Her son, also Arthur, was killed in fighting Burma with the 1st Bn. Devonshire Regt. in autumn 1943.

Frank and Augusta Taylor of Sidbury lost three sons, 17-year-old Frank we have mentioned. Three months later, his brother John, a 27-year-old carpenter, was killed in France with 1st Bn. Coldstream Guards. Then, on 6th September 1916, Arthur, a 22-year-old farm worker, lost his life on the Somme. Another Sidbury Taylor, Edwin, was killed in Sicily in July 1943. His parents were Robert and Elsie of Greenhead. Perhaps they were related.

The Boyces of Livonia Road also lost three sons/brothers: the eldest Arthur, who had emigrated to Canada and enlisted over there, was killed at Passchendaele in November 1917. His brothers Leicester and Frank were lost in WWII; the former, who had run a cake and confectionary business in Seaton died in HMS Charybdis in autumn 1943, then Frank was killed when he stuck his head out of a train window in Sicily in late 1944.

So yes, not all of those who died did so in combat. Even in war, life’s variable odds still operate, and people are taken in accidents and with illness - and naturally, these odds increase in foreign lands. In late August 1915, Marine Edric Richards, who lived at Sand Cottage, Sidbury with his wife Elizabeth, died of typhoid on the Greek island of Lemnos during the Dardanelles campaign. A few months later, in the same theatre, Walter Gosling, son of John and Mary of Trow, died of hypothermia. In 1916 the second of three George Selleys to die in WWI was taken by smallpox in Egypt. This George had been a council labourer and was the husband of Elizabeth who lived at Brewery Lane; Henry Williams of Harcombe died in Karachi (of illness or accident); whilst in 1916, Sidbury boy Percy Richards of Greenhead died of sunstroke in Mesopotamia, with the Royal Warwickshires.

Only one Sid Vale man of the RFC/RAF lost his life in WWI, and this was Cyril Shute, who was taken by malaria whilst serving at Taranto in Italy. Cyril was was a golf professional, and had lived with his wife Amy in Chapel St.

As the war dragged on into 1918, more men began to die of illness on English soil as the unequivocally deadly influenza pandemic of 1918-20 emerged. Among them, on 24th October, was 18-year old William Darke, whose parents William and Elizabeth lived in Holmdale. A few days later, William Sanders, of Temple Street, who had joined the RN in 1906, after working at Trumps, died in hospital in Scotland from flu.

Sidmouth Herald: Best Bitter

After the Armistice, just before Christmas 1918, flu took the oldest son of a very well-known and popular man in Sidmouth - 18-year-old George Vallance was an officer cadet under training in Plymouth. His father, also George, was the owner of Sidmouth’s best-known brewery. By all accounts a gentleman, George’s popularity was enhanced because he was generous with his family’s product, particularly so with RNOCA boys. When ‘old’ George died in 1935, the death of ‘young’ George would hold serious consequences for the business, for, he had but one heir - William, who was also an officer in the RN. In spring 1942, he was aboard the heavy cruiser HMS Cornwall when it was hit by nine 250-500lb bombs delivered by Japanese aircraft in part of what became known as the ‘Easter Sunday Raid’ on Ceylon, today Sri Lanka. The Cornwall was at sea with HMS Dorsetshire, both were sunk and William was one of the 424 killed - some by sharks as they awaited rescue. This left only one Vallance alive, old George’s brother John, and when he died in 1944, there was nobody left to run the business. The executors of the estate sold it to the London brewers Woodhead’s in 1946.

Accidents were likely to be more common in WWII, principally because of aircraft development. After Herbert Gaut, two other men were lost in plane crashes. In early 1941, having already survived two training crashes, Robert Houchin of Woolbrook died when his 248 Sqn Bristol Blenheim crashed in Aberdeenshire; and in November 1942, John and Faith Dore of Redlands Road, lost their son Maurice when his Lockheed Ventura was lost in training near Lakenheath, Suffolk.

In late May 1940, air-gunner Reg Brown, a former Trump’s employee and son of Bigwood and Elizabeth of Sid Park, died in a 613 Sqn Hawker Hector biplane - just a few days before the obsolete aircraft was withdrawn from combat ops. The previous day, they had attacked German positions at Calais in support of the Dunkirk evacuation. Returning the next day to drop supplies, they were damaged by enemy fire, and whilst the pilot managed to get back across the Channel, he crashed in fog onto Shakespeare Cliff near Dover. The pilot survived, but was lost in a Wellington bomber in July 1941. Reg is buried in the Sidmouth Cemetery.

Finally, perhaps with a rather macabre inevitability, one of the very last Sid Vale men to lose his life in the two wars had lived in the High Street. Peter Newbery was a young Fleet Air Arm pilot under training up in Scotland. The winter of 1944-45 was a bad one, all over the country, hundreds, perhaps thousands of training flights were cancelled. Perhaps on 6th January 1945, the weather was acceptable for take-off, but closed in during the flight. Peter and his two crew members were killed when their Fairey Barracuda crashed into the sea. Peter was the son of William and Ethel who ran the Sid Vale Bakery on the High Street.

Britain’s 1914 population was about 46m, and nearly 4.25m men were mobilised to fight. Of these, over 750,000 were killed - about one in six - and nearly 1.75m were wounded - one-in-2.5. Of those who survived - particularly the soldiers - surely, the physical and mental health of almost every single one - would have been impaired by wounds and what they had seen, done and experienced.

About 250,000 troops of the Empire were also lost, but a total of 1m military fatalities pales in comparison with the losses of 2.1m Germans, 1.7m Russians, 1.4m French, 1.3m Austro-Hungarians. Deaths as a proportion of national population: Serbia lost 16%, Turkey 13.5%, Romania 9%, France 4.24% and Germany 3.75% - including 2,000 civilian deaths, Britain lost 2.2% of its population.

The years after the Great War were marked by controversy concerning the war dead and memorials. Since 1915, for both reasons of practicality and economy, the government had refused to repatriate the bodies of lost servicemen. There was a national debate that raged on and off until 1921 and beyond. The authorities decreed that it was egalitarian for the bodies of all fighting men, whether wealthy or poor, be interred in the same manner, as close as possible to where they had succumbed.

Families, both wealthy and poor, protested vigorously. Out of the controversy the 1914 Graves Registration Commission became the Imperial War Graves Commission - now Commonwealth - and eventually, the British people were persuaded to accept the principle of the creation of hundreds of cemeteries with geometrically ordered lines of graves with uniform headstones.

Throughout the 1920s, the people of France, Belgium and in many countries across the world watched as work on these cemeteries, and the monuments that surround them was carried out. Monuments and memorials were created on English soil too. It is estimated that across the nation, there may be 100,000 memorials in thousands of cities, towns, villages, churches, schools and places of work.

On 20th February 1921, Sidmouth’s memorial was unveiled. It had been designed by R W Sampson, constructed by Easton & Co. of Exeter and paid for by public subscription. The war memorial project had proceeded in tandem with the proposed recreation club for war veterans and the families of dead servicemen. In early 1920, The Retreat, an 1825 property opposite the church where had curates lived, was purchased and modified - again to Sampson’s design - by public subscription, and became Sidmouth War Memorial Club.

Across the nation, the strength of feeling about servicemen’s sacrifices was so intense that, in today’s money, some £87m was donated for the purposes of commemoration. It is little wonder then that when the prospect of another war with Germany emerged in the mid-1930s, people, politicians and the media closed their ears to any talk of it. Even King George V expressed himself in forcible terms, “I will not have another war. I will not!” he shouted after Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. “I will go to Trafalgar Square and wave a red flag myself sooner than allow this country to be brought in.”

After meeting Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgaden in September 1936, former prime minister David Lloyd George, who had led Britain 1916-22 and helped construct the Treaty of Versailles, returned to Britain gushing enthusiastically about meeting Hitler, seeing his ‘new Germany’ and reported his peaceful intentions, calling him “…the George Washington of Germany…..a man of supreme quality….the greatest German of the age”.

At the Imperial Conference in London late spring of 1937, the Commonwealth countries made it clear that they would not support another war in Europe.

So, in September 1938, when Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich with his ‘peace in our time’ message, the British public inundated Downing Street with 20,000 letters of thanks and support, and many hundreds of gifts: flowers, Champagne, cigars, cakes, clotted cream, meat and also knowing that he was a fly-fisherman, fishing rods, the French even offered to give him a country house with its own chalk stream.

However, as we know, bullies must be challenged not placated, and so a second world war was inevitable - but one can completely understand why the British and French were so desperate to avoid one. History repeated itself, but mercifully, for Sid Vale - and most other places in Britain - far fewer servicemen would lose their lives. Poignantly though thanks to the aeroplane, the civilian death toll was to be much higher. Fortunately, Sidmouth escaped the bombing, and in terms of servicemen’s deaths and broken families, WWII did not affect Sid Vale families as badly as the first had, for casualties were 40 per cent fewer - nevertheless, 72 local men gave their lives.

We shall remember them.

The information about individuals and their families comes from ‘Sid Vale Roll of Honour’, a document researched and published by local history enthusiast John McCarthy - who commenced the project during the period of C-19 regulation. His completed work is now available to read at Sidmouth Library and the parish churches of Sidmouth, Woolbrook, Sidford, Sidbury and Salcombe Regis.