Exeter Local History Society 

Jurys Inn, Western Way, Exeter


Exeter and the Great War

A talk by Tony Lethbridge on Thursday, 14 April 2016

Tony explored the First World War from an Exeter viewpoint, starting with the memorial in Exeter to solders who went to war in 1914.  He pointed out that the Biggles story books illustrated the “romantic” and “adventurous” expectations of the period but the reality for the soldiers turned out to be very different.


100,000 soldiers were needed and on 2 August the first reservists were called to Salisbury Plain for training.  Many trains from Exeter were fully loaded but returned empty.  Devon reservists went from Salisbury to Portsmouth and Southampton to sail to Le Havre in France and then continued up to Belgium. 


The first British shot (since Waterloo 100 years earlier) was fired at Mons on 22 August 1914. The 1st troop of the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards charged first on horseback with sabres.  Then the 4th troop dismounted and prepared their rifles. That first shot was fired by a Corporal Thomas.


At Nimy Bridge the 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers suffered 250 casualties.  An officer (Lt Dease) with a machine gun kept German soldiers at bay while the main British force escaped.   He was shot more than once but stayed at his post until eventually he was killed.  Pte Frank Godley took over and held the bridge for two hours.  When he ran out of ammunition he dismntled the gun, threw the bits into the canal and crawled away, terribly wounded.  He survived the war and for his valour he was awarded the Victoria Cross - as was Lt Dease, posthumously.

On New Year's Eve 1914 the fleet was gathered for exercises off Berry Head near Brixham when HMS Formidable was hit by a German torpedo.  She lost 500 of her 700 crew and Captain Loxley, in true Naval tradition, went down with his ship.  His faithful dog, Bruce, refused to leave him for a lifeboat and drowned in his master's arms.


The weather was terrible and many crew members died, even those in those lifeboats which could be launched.  Anything wooden in the ship was broken up – even the piano – to provide something for the seamen not in lifeboats to hold on to.  One lifeboat suffered the storms for 22 hours before eventually washing up at Lyme Regis.  The survivors were taken to the Pilot Boat Inn and the corpses were put in the basement.  The landlady’s dog, Lassie, would not leave one particular corpse alone, sniffing and licking it.  Suddenly the corpse “woke up” – the dog had saved his life.  This led to the first Hollywood film of that name with many others to follow.

Tony then showed us photographs of the many memorials which were erected to remember the dead of the First World War.


First there was Sanctuary Wood - Hill 61 - which is now a protected sanctuary where no entry is allowed. There is also a museum with a collection of truly horrific photos.


At Ypres, the Menin Gate in Belgium displays the names of 54,000  missing soldiers.




Erected in 1917, Tyne Cott at Passchendaele displays 30,000 names and has 12,000 graves.



The Lutyens Memorial at Thiepval, Picardy, commemorates over 72,000 who died in the Battles of the Somme.

The “A” company of  9th Devons fought under Captain Martin at the Somme near Mametz Village.  He was concerned that the planned attack across 400 yards of an open valley toward the German Front Line would be a disaster. He made a plasticine model showing the field of fire that a German machine gun based in the cemetery would have.  But the attack went ahead and Captain Martin was one of the many Devonshire officers to be killed by the ferocious German machine gun fire.  He is buried, one of 163 dead, in the Devonshire Cemetery on the Somme Battlefield.

One survivor of the war was local boy Jack Bovey  who played, as a teenager, in the Salvation Army Band.  He joined up – lied about his age – was seconded to the Royal Army Medical Corps and served in a medical post in France.  But the  post was destroyed by enemy gunfire  so he was transferred to a new  location but, arriving in the dark, he slept in the wrong field and was caught by the enemy.   A prisoner of war for the duration he was eventually released and arrived at Queen Street Station where a band was playing.  He immediately went home, collected his trumpet and joined the band!

John Gorman was born in Newton Poppleford, emigrated to Canada, came back here with the Canadian army and at first was sent off haymaking!  He made it to France where he was wounded and then, returning to the the battle front, was killed on 7 May.   It is not known where he is buried but his name is on the Nimy Memorial and the Memorial at Ottery.


In October 1917, Thomas Henry Sage from Tiverton lost an eye.  He had thrown his coat, then himself, onto a grenade to save his companions.  Miraculously he survived and was awarded the VC for his bravery.  Two more VCs were awarded in Devon to soldiers named Sage.

In 1915 George V and Queen Mary visited the wounded in the hospital now known as the Magdalen Chapter. 

At Widdicombe there is a memorial comprising a 15” naval shell.  This was a gift to the people of Widdicombe for their great efforts in collecting sphagnum moss from the Moor.  This was sent to France to dress wounds (sphagnum moss is more absorbent than cotton and is known to immobilise bacterial cells).

Back in England the shortage of men during the war meant that women were called up to work in factories and the St Thomas  Exeter Collar Factory therefore employed only female staff.  Tony told us that on 25 April 1917 these women struck for equal pay with men and marched to Ottery and back (25 miles). 


In 1917 there was a potato famine in Exeter. In Cathedral Yard there were long queues for potatoes.  Whether this famine was due to a U-boat purge or farmers holding back their produce is not confirmed.


The infant Royal Air Force also suffered serious losses and there is a memorial to the pilots who died in the Higher Cemetery - but that's another story.







All talks are now on the second Thursday of alternate months (February, April, June, August, October & December).                                          All meetings start at 7 pm and are held at JURYS INN, Western Way, Exeter EX1 2DB.                                                                  Free parking is available from 6pm in the Triangle Car Park at the rear of Jurys.                                                                                Walks/visits are usually on the second Wednesday of alternate months (January, March, May, July, September November). 

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