Friday, 15 August 2008

Revd Edward Reeve. Chronicler of The Great War

Edward Henry Lisle Reeve (1858 - 1936) was Rector of Stondon Massey in Essex from 1893 until 1935. In his spare time he researched and published from 1900 what many regard as a model parish history. His last volume was published in 1914, on the eve of the First World War.

While researching for an historical event at Stondon Church (‘Through Changing Scenes’ – see earlier entries on this blog), I discovered that Reeve did not stop recording events in his parish on publication of his work but kept notes through to 1929. (His notes are held in Essex Record Office: ERO T/P 188/3). We therefore have a fascinating and unique local insight to the First World War (1914 – 18) as events unfolded.

Reeve lived with his sisters at the Rectory (now Stondon Massey House) where he penned the local history. I understand that his father, whom he succeeded as Rector, forbade him and his sisters to marry. He died, a bachelor, in 1936.

On Tuesday, 4th August 1914 at 11pm Great Britain declared War on Germany. Very quickly soldiers were called to arms. With an invasion of England anticipated Reeve wrote in October that, “Artillery and Engineer Officers have been busily surveying the district during the past three weeks with the purpose, I believe, of deciding on the best method of obstructing a possible raid on London. An outer line of defence appears to run through Ongar, Stondon and Doddinghurst: and my little field has received attention. Field guns I think would, on necessity, be brought here, and would range eastward in the direction of Chelmsford”.

In November Reeve observed that, “It would hardly be too much to say that Stondon is becoming honeycombed with trenches, and the Church, owing to its being set upon a hill, is a prominent centre. The slopes declining from the Hall to the brook contain a network of passages, giving shelter to riflemen who will give, if necessary, a stern reception to the enemy coming down the opposite hill from Paslow Common. Flanking trenches face toward the Rectory, while others are taken southward along the course of the brook to the village. In adjacent parishes the same work is observable. On the slopes of High Ongar, and on the confines of Blackmore and Doddinghurst towards Swallows Cross bodies of men are busily engaged”.

Huge numbers of men were billeted in Stondon and the neighbourhood. “Some 600 navvies arrived on the morning of November 2nd, some by railway to Ongar, and some by road in motor omnibuses. The plan being somewhat unexpectedly adopted, little or no preparation had been made in the locality for the reception of the men. Some 400 were to commence work at once in Stondon. In the event, at the cost of considerable discomfort, the first few days were successfully surmounted and then tents were erected here and there for the accommodation of the men, or they contrived to find themselves temporary billets. A canteen was put up at Brook’s and Cannons Farm, which to some degree supplied the place of shops. This was afterward moved to a centre at Hooks End, Blackmore. The appearance of a canteen was hailed with delight by the villagers, publican, and all: for it was becoming a real difficulty to know how to meet the wants of the invaders”.

December’s rains caused the trenches to become saturated and caved in. A different strategy was adopted in early 1915 due to the changed nature of warfare in France. “A Guardsman whom I met lately told me that constantly our trenches in France had been no more than 30 or 40 paces distant to those of the enemy: and it had been possible to throw hand-grenades from one to the other. My Guardsman acquaintance told me that Germany is a beaten nation; and it is recognised that an invasion in force becomes daily less likely”.

We know the War to be far more protracted than thought at the time. Men up and down the country joined. Reeve comments in July 1915, when 44 year-old Ernest Baines signs up, that “he hopes that his example may lead some of the single men who are still holding back to come forward and enlist. So far the Government have procured the services of a vast army without conscription”.

Looking in retrospect, we know that conscription was introduced in 1916 and the events of the Somme caused a tremendous loss of life: the Government deliberately understating the number killed or wounded. Reeve describes the opening day of the Somme offensive (1st July 1916) thus: “As I write, the reverberation of the great guns and explosion of mines are shaking the windows of the Rectory and of all the other houses, I suppose, in the southern and south-eastern counties of England. There is evidently a very heavy bombardment in progress”.

In his privileged position as community leader Reeve learns of letters home to families. Reading his notes one wonders whether this was a cathartic release of all he had learnt. We learn the names and professions of the men of Stondon who went to War. For example, “Mr John White, lately serving as butler and valet at Stondon Place is with the Fusiliers and writing to his wife reports that he is well so far but that a party to which he belonged were lately all but “wiped out”, two officers being killed out of four, and two wounded. This is an astonishing experience for a man not fashioned for a soldier’s life either physically or in temperament”. The gardener at the Rectory, William Penson, was “drafted from Gosfield to Wendover where he will join a class for practice in “bombing and bayoneting”! Strange work for a peaceful citizen!” In all, six Stondon men were killed in the War including three Hasler brothers. Two of the men died after the end of hostilities from the effects of gas inhalation.

The “enemy” never made an assault on England on the ground, but carried out a number of air raids, firstly by Zeppelin and later by aeroplane. Reeve describes these in some detail.

“On August 17th [1915] at 10.15pm a Zeppelin was heard overhead, making its way from the coast in the direction of London. It passed apparently over that part of Stondon which lies nearest Paslow Common, and made its way over Stanford Rivers and Leytonstone. There a number of bombs were dropped, killing five persons, and doing extensive damage to property. On the return journey, about 11.45pm, a vessel with fuse, containing petrol, was dropped in the fields lying between Hallsford and High Ongar, not far from Castle Farm at Ongar. Expert opinion inclines to think that this was not a “bomb”, but a petrol can being dropped by accident from the Zeppelin. Under the supervision of experts the liquid contained in the vessel was burned on the spot.”

Reeve also saw the craters of bombs which were dropped over Blackmore on 31st March 1916. He provides the location of the dropped bombs: “between the Soap House and the corner of Blackmore between the Church and Miss Barrett’s house” (see entry ‘Bombs Over Blackmore’).

As allies gained air supremacy there was success in defence from attacks. Reeve, on 3rd September 1916, witnessed the end of the Zeppelin shot down over Cuffley as the “whole sky for miles around was illuminated with a pink glow which grew brighter and more brilliant as the vessel neared the earth in her fall of some 2½ miles”; and the aftermath of another at Great Burstead (23rd September 1916) when “the numbers of sight-seers was so great that it was difficult, even on foot, to get within distance”.

Reeve witnessed the daylight air raid of 13th June 1917 on London which killed 162 civilians, the highest death toll from a single air raid during the whole war. “They came over Stondon from the North East at a great height, so as to be practically out of view. Some, however, saw three, and some as many as ten, like little glittering silver fish against the blue sky. They filled the air with a rumbling as a huge traction engine. About ten minutes after their passing over our heads we heard the bombs dropping in the direction of London, and the visitors shaped a more southerly course, and the droning died away in the direction of Rochford and Southend. It was possible, however, as they swerved round on their return journey, to hear the quick firing of machine guns, indicating that a struggle was proceeding at great height between the invaders and our gallant airmen.

“The accounts tell us that many lives were lost through the raid, and many terrible injuries inflicted. A Stondon woman (Mrs Skinner) and her child were travelling to London that day, and, with other passengers, brought back word of sad scenes in the Great Eastern Company’s terminus at Liverpool Street. One or two trains narrowly escaped wreckage, and in one at least several persons were killed. It is felt that every effort must be made to give timely warning of such visits in the future, and to prevent the concourse of persons in the streets”.

Reeve also saw the aid raid over London on 7th July 1917 which official reports said killed 57 and injured 193 people. “A few minutes past ten (summer time) this morning a Fleet of hostile aeroplanes was heard approaching from the East, and at 10.30 they were in our near neighbourhood. I counted 24 myself, flying compactly, and very much remembering a body of rooks flying westward towards Kelvedon Hall on an autumn evening. The German aeroplanes appeared from the Rectory to extend from ourselves towards Kelvedon Hatch and Stanford Rivers. They flew unopposed till apparently over North Weald and Epping when firing commenced, and seemed to scatter the formation. They rallied however, and then appeared to make rapidly westward, over the Loughton and Chigwell district for N London. The firing and bomb-throwing circled more and more to the south until at last the fleet was again visible over the Romford quarter, and the sound of machine guns was plainly audible. The aeroplanes were now at a much greater distance. They were lost in the haze, in little over ¾ hour from their first appearance, as they vanished in the direction of the mouth of the river Thames and Southend.”

Eventually the might of the Americans was brought to bear and the War, which seemed “a draw” in 1917, according to sportsman Capt. Fred Fane, ceased with an Armistice on 11th November 1918. In days before radio, the village learnt of events by “the hooting of sirens and the noise of maroons. Some in Stondon heard the distinct bells at Brentwood. But it was not till the afternoon that definite tidings reached the villages and then it filtered through chiefly the form of private messages. News came to Stondon that flags were being hoisted on the Military Hospital at Ongar, and that the veteran Field-Marshall Sir Evelyn Wood VC had visited the place and communicated the splendid message to the wounded men. As soon as I had this official intelligence the Stondon Church bells were chimed with all the old vigour by Ernest Baines, our sometime sexton”. In one sense the War was over.

The book, 'Revd E H L Reeve: Chronicler of the Great War' (64 pages) may be purchased, price £1.50, from the bookstall at Priory Church of St Laurence, Blackmore; St Peter & St Paul Church, Stondon Massey (on open afternoons); and, Megarry's antique shop, The Green, Blackmore. Alternatively, to purchase via the website E mail the contact address.
Andrew Smith

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