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Changing Times | Many young lives lost over 100 years ago

During this month, around the world there will be commemorations held to mark the 100th year since the end of the First World War.


I mention, around the world, but of course the events affected us here in Bognor Regis.


Currently, there are events being held in churches and village halls to remember the men from each parish.


Each event is looking and recording in their own way. There are two books, available from Bognor Regis Museum, by Cliff Mewitt, that recall and record the men and events affecting us.


It is difficult for us today to understand and appreciate how thousands of men, whole families and villages took the call to arms seemingly so readily.


I had the privilege of laying a wreath at the Menin Gate in Belgium on behalf of the Bognor Regis U3A at the commemorations for the start of the First World War, and to stand in just a few of the cemeteries to even try and understand the numbers involved was very difficult.


We took crosses for some of our Bognor men, naively thinking we would place them on their grave, while in each case it was to be at the base of a very large monument, listing thousands of men.


One piece I have read states that in the Bognor Regis Observer, local girls were urged to ‘give the cold shoulder to all the men till they don the khaki and show what stuff they are made of.’


I can recall seeing a postcard showing horses in Waterloo Square but did not realise the significance of this.


Here, men of the Sussex Yeomanry were based, and their task was to requisition horses from around Sussex.


At one time, over 50 horses were in the vicinity of the Pier and Waterloo Square awaiting transportation to the front.


The story and film ‘War Horse’ tells this story in more detail.


I was told about a family member who reported to the Queens Hall (today it is the Picturedrome) to sign up for the army, who said, ‘I will go home for my dinner now’ and was allegedly told, ‘you are here and, in the army, now’.


Did the war affect the town? Yes, of course it did. In 1914 there were a number of refugees arriving in the town to be housed in some of our main seafront buildings like the Princess Mary Memorial Home. Here were families, some with young children, who had left all their goods behind.


There was fundraising held to raise money to buy them clothes.


It was not only the army involved, there was the Royal Navy Reserves and there were well over 100 men locally involved.


Army Reservists were also recalled. Around 1914 there were many service personnel at various camps around Sussex and Hampshire. It is impossible here to tell you all the stories, events and information about the town in the First World War, but Cliff Mewitts have full details.​


One of the first men to be killed in action was Private A.T. Yeatman. He had left his home in Essex Road and eventually joined the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment, 1st Division, after a period serving in India.


The Battalion had captured several Germans but were intercepted by other Germans and he was subsequently killed in the skirmish and died on September 14, 1914.


The call for men to sign up was met with a surge of young men eager to serve their country and sometimes, below the correct age. One such may well have been Sergeant J.C. Boniface, who was the eldest son of a town police constable.


He also enlisted in to the Royal Sussex Regiment. He was involved in numerous battles but was killed on September 28, 1915, and his age was recorded as 17 years.


Another young man, Private S.E. Brown, from Highfield Road, joined 2nd Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment.


he had been employed as a printer at Webster and Webb in the High Street. He enlisted in May, 1915, he was seriously injured at the Battle of Loos and was eventually sent back to Bognor to convalesce.


When he recovered, he re-joined the regiment and was involved with the Battle of the Somme. Sadly, he died during this action, aged just 22.


His brother, Horace, was also killed during the war. This was repeated across the town and country where numerous family members joined up and died leaving areas where almost a generation of young men did not return to their homes.


The son of the Bognor station master, Second Lieutenant R.G.W. Gillham, joined and became a member of the Royal Sussex Regiment. He was killed in action in September, 1917, when he was just 22.


Rifleman A.G. Allen left his home in Nyewood Lane and joined the 1 st Battalion of the Kings Royal Corps, 2nd Division as soon as he reached his 18th birthday.


He was wounded in August, 1918, but died on August 29. The captain of the regiment wrote, stated that their son had been killed, while involved in the taking of 900 prisoners.


On reading through the Roll of Honour, there are two main features – the young age of so many of these men and their addresses.


One was Essex Road. The terminology of the press is interesting. In the Bognor Observer of June, 1916, they reported that ‘this Bognor thoroughfare has done splendidly in giving its manhood to the Colours. Out of 60 homesteads in this road no less than 70 men replied to the call.’ Many families involved had six or seven sons involved with the action. This is a very small snapshot of our Bognor involvement in the First World War and it is so difficult for us today to fully appreciate the mood within the town during this period.

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