Honiton at War

Members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD).

Members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). - Credit: Archant

100 years ago this year, on November 11, 1918, a ceasefire was agreed, thereby ending World War One after four years of bloodshed. It was a war mainly fought on foreign soil but Honiton and its people were heavily involved. Steve Jennings’ recalls Honiton at war!

Members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD),

Members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), - Credit: Archant

On August 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany after German soldiers marched through Belgium. And so started a conflict that would be known in history books as the Great War, though nothing, it has to be said, was great about it.

In 1914, Honiton was a bustling market town. In its streets you would find a branch of Barclays Bank, the manager of which was Mr Middleton. Wilfred Dimond was a hairdresser, also in the High Street, E&K Clarke had a drapers shop in New Street, not far from local solicitors Every & Philips. Mrs Jessie Brazier was a poultry dealer in Queen Street, Elizabeth Dyer a chemist and Eastman’s the local butchers. There were many others, of course.

At the outbreak of war, Honiton Cricket Club immediately cancelled all its remaining fixtures. And Honiton’s men rushed to get signed up to fight for their country.

Honiton was a rich recruitment area for the Devonshire Regiment. The town’s Recruitment Officer was Colonel Hussey of 5 Newlands, most certainly the same William Henry Hussey who fought in the Boer War and at the siege of Ladysmith. Later he was the school attendance officer and secretary of the Honiton YMCA. He died in the town in 1936.

Waving goodbye as the train pulled out.

Waving goodbye as the train pulled out. - Credit: Archant


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It is not clear what criteria was in place for recruitments; there were a number of ‘route marches’ and recruiting meetings held in local parishes. Some recruits were barely men and lied about their age to join up. Eventually 37 Honiton men - 23 volunteers and 14 official soldiers – were waved away at a packed train station. The crowds cheered, everyone was in good spirits. After all, this was a war that they said would be won before Christmas, but it actually engulfed four Christmases, and 140 Honiton men would ultimately lose their lives in the fields and trenches of France, Belgium and Greece.

With the men away it was down to the women of Honiton to ensure things continued as normally as possible. They maintained the family traditions, raised and educated the children and manned the farms and shops. The local economy was supported by agriculture, with most townsfolk employed in food production because, after all, there were still mouths to feed.

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The lace industry effectively died as locals wore more practical clothing in these tough times.

To support the war effort, Honiton had their own Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), a voluntary unit of civilians – primarily female and, it must be said, of a certain affluence - providing nursing care for military personnel. This group operated in various locations within the town, including the present sites of both Boots and The Working Men’s Club and the Mackarness Hall.

Waving goodbye as the train pulled out.

Waving goodbye as the train pulled out. - Credit: Archant

The VAD had some famous volunteers in the war years, including Agatha Christie, who spoke of her time in some of her novels. She had friends in Honiton.

In fact, 70 per cent of Honiton’s firefighters were women in the war years, and later would be involved in helping London during the Blitz in World War Two.

Honiton was a training ground for soldiers, both home grown and a large number of Canadians, whose infantry played an active role in the second Battle of Ypres, the Somme and Vimy Ridge.

These soldiers were housed in various camps throughout the town, sleeping in tents, and they would have helped keep the local pubs busy when they were on downtime.

Training soldiers on the rifle range.

Training soldiers on the rifle range. - Credit: Archant

In fact, one of the Canadian Infantry, Private John Tweed, is the oldest known Honiton soldier to fall. Born in Honiton in 1896, he emigrated to Calgary in 1899 and married Mary Tweed. He died of pneumonia in Honiton on December 29, 1916, aged 50, and is buried in St Michael’s cemetery.

A formal ceasefire was signed on November 11, 1918, a day now known as Armistice Day, and all nations agreed to stop fighting while peace was negotiated. Honiton’s townsfolk celebrated like never before. The war was won, if indeed, anyone could declare victory in a war so horrific. Even the German POW’s, employed to pick fields in Combe Raleigh, celebrated with the locals.

They may not have seen active service but the war was as much won by the town’s women with Juanita Maxwell Phillips becoming the first lady mayor of Honiton soon after. Women had ploughed fields and fought fires but now had to adjust to being housewives again.

Honiton’s surviving war heroes could return, but for many it would take months before the appropriate discharge papers were issued and they were home. It was actually June 28, 1919, when Germany and the Allied Nations signed the Treaty of Versailles, officially ending the war.

Many soldiers faced challenges when they retured.

Many soldiers faced challenges when they retured. - Credit: Archant

Among the returning heroes was Frederick Pulman, born in Honiton on March 8, 1883, he enlisted in the Royal Navy in January 1906 at HMS Vivid, Plymouth, and joined HMS Suffolk in April. He served on other ships before joining HMS Assistance in February 1914, remaining with her for most of the war. He left the Navy in January 1926, and died in 1956.

Two famous Honitonians served their country. Bertrum (Bobby) Dunning, born in Honiton on May 20, 1893, served in the Devonshire Regiment. Ian Lange donated his medals to Allhallows Museum and they are on display. His sister Dorothy served in the VAD. He died, aged 89, in December 1982.

Bobby served in Salonika with Frank Mullins, whose legacy continues via the Frank Mullins Trust which was set up with the objective to promote the welfare of the youth of Honiton to encourage discipline and sport.

And many others thankfully came home. These men also had to adjust to peace with many suffering shellshock, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, none of which, of course, were recognised in 1919.

Canadian soldiers in Honiton.

Canadian soldiers in Honiton. - Credit: Archant

But for everybody involved the world would never be the same again.

There was nothing great about this war, one others called ‘the war to end all wars’ which, unfortunately, it didn’t.

In part two, Steve talks of the brave Honiton men who fought for their country in World War One and never came home.

Bobby Dunning.

Bobby Dunning. - Credit: Archant

Injured soldiers recuperate.

Injured soldiers recuperate. - Credit: Archant

Bobby Dunning.

Bobby Dunning. - Credit: Archant

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