The Legion continues our celebration of the anniversary of the Great War examining how the war was affecting the village in those early months of 1914 when the full impact of the horrors that were to come had not yet been realised by the whole population. Without a parish magazine of its own, some local Winkleigh news found its way into the Chumleigh Deanery magazine, reflecting the views of our vicar, the Rev. T. Ackland Edmunds. The much loved and respected Rev. Bremridge had died in a London hospital and was buried at Winkleigh on July 3rd, 1913 after 25 years service in the Parish, and 15 years as Rural Dean of Chumleigh. He comes over as a ‘character’, the magazine reporting him in his obituary as ‘a man of kindness and a man of prayer. To a stranger his manner was often startling, but one soon learned there was a real depth of earnestness in his prayer’. His successor, Rev. Edmunds, accompanied by the first curate, Rev. D. Ottley, saw the village through the dark days that were to come, cheering the bereaved, welcoming returning heroes and the convalescing wounded and doing all they could to care for those who were left behind to worry and fret for the safety of their loved ones. Rev. Edmunds was inducted on 30th October 1913 by the Bishop of Crediton, followed by a dinner in the Winkleigh hotel.
In the last years of peace the village continued much as it had done for centuries, a population of under a thousand, the boundaries clearly obvious today. There was enormous diversity of income but even the really poor had the benefit in many cases of a tiny parcel of cottage land to grow vegetables and perhaps keep a pig in the yard. Families in many cases were very large, about one in five of the children dying in infancy but many old folk living to remarkably old age, even into their nineties. Winkleigh was a major centre for the surrounding community, boasting one of the best schools in Devon (certainly since the 1902 education act had taken the school into the care of Devon County Council). It was quite possible to live in almost total self-sufficiency in the village, without the need ever to go further, except perhaps to find a partner, trade in the horse-fairs at Hatherleigh, or for the young to find living-in employment on the farms or in domestic service, where a child’s working life usually began between 13 and 14 years old.
Winkleigh was often described as ‘a town’ (as in Lowertown or Townsend) and indeed the range of shops, services and cultural life would do justice to a much larger settlement. Winkleigh was fast emerging into the modern world: alongside the last 2 remaining carriage builders was the cycle mender and motor agent, a bank, flourishing post-office, telephone kiosk in the Square, both a district and a private nurse, two doctors, a vet, a constable, hotel and 3 inns (with another in Hollocombe). Shops and services included three grocers/ironmongers, a fish monger, five boot and shoe makers (again, another in Hollocombe), a hairdresser, no less than seven dressmakers, two insurance agents, three butchers, a china shop, two coal merchants, a watch and clock repairer and a housepainter. Old trades lingered on; the last glover, a ‘washerwoman’, a rabbit-trapper, while one resident could describe himself as a ‘retired mail-cart driver’, another a ‘journeyman’, another a ‘licensed hawker’. With universal literacy culture could flourish. Winkleigh had a book-seller, a newsagent, an artist’s studio and photographer, a stationer, a private music teacher, a public reading room.
But it was the farmers with their powers over their employees, controlling wages and ownership of cottages, that dominated the economic scene; many were benevolent by the standards of the time, but rules were tight and inflexible - hence the general opposition to their workers being legally empowered to have two weeks paid leave to attend the annual T.A. camp of the 6th Devons. Everyone was dependent on the essential farming services, and again Winkleigh was self-sufficient. There were 5 thatchers (rick-building as well as houses), three wheel-wrights and two blacksmiths, three builders/masons, a rope maker, seven carpenters with a saw-mill, a seed merchant and of course a harness maker. The parish highways were cared for by a local road contractor.
Winkleigh was blessed with this tight-knit community which gave ample opportunity for social life to flourish - dances and whist-drives, concerts, a choir, a brass-band, a bowling green, cricket and football teams, shooting competitions with the 6th Devons, a boy-scouts troop founded by Rev. Ottley, a Company of the 6th Devons that paraded in Winkleigh, Empire Day on May 25th and of course the week-long Winkleigh Fair complete with a Fair Queen, procession, sports and recreations in the square, stock judging and pig-bowling, fancy-dress show, pony races, teas and a ball. It was a holiday for all and the young people from the whole district flooded in to enjoy the fun and the chance of a fresh relationship. November 1913 saw the revival of the Winkleigh Carnival, proceeds given to the village gas-lighting fund (a new wonder) and the Exeter hospital. The gentry played their part; Mrs. Johnson at the Old Parsonage and before 1913 Rev Bremridge with his considerable household of four young children, a cook, a general maid, a laundress, two child-nurses and a governess, with others on a day basis. There was even an occasional contact with the Earl of Portsmouth. It was (and still is) a very caring village, a form of self-sufficiency, looking out for the sick, the aged, and disabled, very mindful of the narrow economic hardships that could so easily strike from unemployment, injury or bereavement. Simple responses were available, often founded and donated to by the well-to-do: a clothing club, 1d a week to join a private nursing scheme, a Christmas club.
Terrible times were ahead and our village would be tested in all its strength and resolve. On August 4th 1914 the news came that Britain had declared war on Germany, the British ultimatum to withdraw from Belgium having expired. The village for many years had had a military aspect to it. The Devon Territorials were popular (as had been their ancestor the Volunteer Militia before them) and people were accustomed to watch the drilling. Quite a number of young men were already serving in the army and navy, and the memory of the Boer War was still very fresh in people’s minds. Indeed, at least one decorated (but still young) Veteran was living in the village, Henry Palmer, who rejoined at once. Shooting competitions, many social events and a brass band enhanced the patriotism and jingoism of Empire Day and Royal event celebrations. The vast majority of residents were born well back into the reign of Queen Victoria and all grew up believing in the superiority of the British Army, the invincible Navy and the vast empire. The newspapers were full of the rising threat from the Kaiser and the Dreadnought arms race.
Yet although Winkleigh went to war with a guarded enthusiasm, contrary to the national myths, in Winkleigh there was not the mass excitement of patriotism, no great rushing to join the territorials or Kitchener’s call for a new army. Some saw an opportunity to break out from a dull routine and join the colours but most thought that war would be something distant, and after all how could the farms survive if they gave up their labour? In spite of growing government propaganda the thought of changing their settled way of life was inconceivable. Slowly, pressure to enlist built up; from Colonel Alexander, who was living at Townsend House before the war and who moved temporarily to live in Barnstaple on becoming the recruiting officer for the whole of North Devon, backed by the sermons in church and chapel, a constant barrage in the press. There was no thought as yet of conscription, seen as a nasty continental habit. All were volunteers and would be until the spring of 1916.
Knowledge of the individual men listed on the Memorial Roll preserved in the church are at best immensely detailed, at worst fragmentary or even non-existent, so that a complete picture is impossible to construct. Usually some clue can be found of their enlistment dates, which reveals a general picture. Some 65% of individual army records were destroyed in the London blitz, pension records survive for a few and medal records for nearly all. For the temporary officers, extensive weeding of records between the wars disposed of much, sometimes whole files, and the medical officers’ records were destroyed altogether. In the earliest days Col. Alexander provided lists of those serving but by November these ceased to be published in the Ashreigney Deanery magazine, though no doubt they were posted by the church door.
The Winkleigh men serving in 1914 fall into three categories; first, those already serving in the regular army and navy, second, the serving Territorials who were immediately embodied for war, and third, those who answered the call to join either one of the three Devon Territorial battalions, the regular army or one of Kitchener’s New Army battalions, the 8th or 9th Devons.
Life in the Services was an attractive option pre-war. Five Winkleigh men were serving in the Royal Navy; Henry Gay on H.M.S. Collingwood, Richard Mitchell on H.M.S. Carnarvon, Gilbert Davey on H.M.S. Marlborough, Guy Ottley on H.M.S. Hannibal, and Philip Bremridge, Commissioned on H.M.S. Chatham.
In the army were John Knight in the Life Guards, Sgt. John Medlock in the Royal Garrison Artillery, George Robins in the Coldstream Guards, Walter Holland and Sgt. Arthur Horner in the 1st Battalion Devons. Territorial Army membership was impressive. Twenty men are listed as members of the 6th Devons, encamped on Woodbury Down as war was declared, taken at once to Plymouth, thence to Salisbury Plain, and by September most were on their way to India to ‘replace’ the 2nd Regular Battalion of the Devons needed urgently in France.
Very few decided to enlist. During the final months of 1914 two men rejoined the army after previous service, Frederick Horne (recalled to 1st Devons), and George Reed who had served in the Royal Field Artillery and now re-enlisted in the Army Service Corps. The two Dulling brothers, Frederick and Sydney, joined together into the Army Service Corps and Herbert Lugg the 8th Devons, Thomas Harris, William Ware and Edward Jarvis the 9th Devons, Lawrence Johnson the Public Schools Battalion, and William Berry the Military Mounted Police. Ernest Western enlisted into the Royal North Devon Hussars and at the same time Frederick William Davey transferred from the 6th Devons into the same regiment. Archibald Molland was already serving with them. Two joined various branches of the Territorial Army in other places; Albert Buzzacott into the 6th Battalion City of London Regiment, John Hammett the TA Royal Field Artillery. Others may have joined whose records have been lost.
The seriousness of war was first brought home to the village by the early death of two members of the 6th Devons before they even left England. Albert Stapleton died from typhoid fever and peritonitis on 31st October 1914, tragically having just been married to his cousin, Elizabeth Ford. Charles Vanstone was 35, an ex-Militia man who rejoined the 6th Devons. He was the village postman, married in 1907 to Mary Ann Bright. He died from leukaemia on 24th October 1914, possibly from the physical strain of the training programme. Albert and Charles both lie in our churchyard and are remembered on the Memorial Cross.
The initial stages of the war were over, but there was a growing realisation that it was certainly not all going to be over by Christmas. The battles of Mons, the great retreat, Cateau, the advance to the Aisne had not directly affected Winkleigh. Trench war had begun, but still unknown were the extent of the losses incurred by the Expeditionary Force and the precariousness of our situation in France. Meanwhile, the village sent Christmas parcels and comforts to India, raised money for the Red Cross and the Exeter hospital, donated garments for Belgian refugees, and joined in the growing awareness that life was already changing.
The vicar of Ashreigney wrote:
‘I fear that we must regard the war as only in its initial stages at present. Defeat on a big scale may come to the enemy sooner than at present seems altogether likely, but the chances are that a long and dragging conflict is before us, and with winter weather the sufferings of the armies, and the losses by sickness will be likely to be very grievous. Let us who are safe at home not be weary in well-doing for those who fight for us, and let us not cease to pray for those who are in anxiety because of them.’