1st December 2016

Peterborough during World War I – by Stuart Orme

Peterborough in 1914 was a bustling mid-sized city, dominated by both its ancient Cathedral and by the railway, which was the biggest employer. It had been a small medieval market town until the coming of the railways in 1845, but had then expanded rapidly, its population multiplying tenfold in the next half century to 35,000. Other industries locally had benefitted or arrived here as a result of the railway, including the manufacture of bricks and a number of engineering companies.

As soon as war was declared in August 1914 there was a rush of volunteers to a recruiting office established on Cathedral Square, with 161 recruits signing up in the first week. Men from Peterborough joined local regiments like the Huntingdonshire Cyclists Battalion. Volunteers from the same town or factory were recruited into ‘Pals’ units so that they could serve together. One of these, ‘Werner’s Own’, was formed of men who worked for Werner, Pfleiderer & Perkins (now Baker Perkins). ‘Whitsed’s Light Infantry’ was formed of Peterborough recruits. Both formed part of the Northamptonshire Regiment.

Within days of the war’s outbreak rumours circulated that German families living in Peterborough were traitors, particularly the Frank family, who owned a butcher’s shop on Westgate. On 6 August 1914 crowds rioted outside the shop, forcing the Mayor to invoke the Riot Act to get the mob to disperse. In contrast many Belgian refugees who had fled the German army were welcomed in Peterborough.

By July 1915 1,997 men from Peterborough had joined up, although the number of volunteers fell as stories filtered back about what was happening in the trenches. Conscription was introduced nationally for the first time in 1916 to help fill the shortages in manpower. The Mayor of Peterborough closed the Roll of Honour commemorating those killed at this point, as he did not believe conscripted men were worthy of inclusion.

Peterborough companies produced munitions during the war. Werner Pfeiderer & Perkins changed its name to “Perkins Engineers” and made cordite mixers, tank parts and artillery pieces. Peter Brotherhood manufactured torpedoes, motor boat engines and depth charges. Frederick Sage & Co in Walton made seaplanes for the navy. Whilst men were away at war these companies employed women to fill the vacancies, but they were paid less and as soon as the war ended often were made redundant.

Many soldiers from across the country passed through Peterborough by rail on their way to war or home on leave – many of these left their mark in the visitor’s books on the refreshment stall at Peterborough East Station which is the focus of this project. Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses played a huge part in caring for the injured troops on trains passing through Peterborough stations, as thousands of wounded men were evacuated to England to recuperate. Soldiers were cared for locally at temporary hospitals locally at Milton Hall and at the Bishop’s Palace in Peterborough.

Most Peterborough men served in the trenches on the Western Front, where conditions were poor. In winter, trenches flooded or froze and teemed with lice and rats. It was often impossible to bury the dead due to the risk of shelling. New weapons caused carnage. Sergeant Samuel Yerrell from Woodston wrote in May 1915: “We went out to meet the dreadful fire of machine guns and rifles amid a constant rain of bursting shells, which decimated our men…” Men dealt with the war as best they could, many simply accepting the fact that they could be killed. ‘If the worst comes to the worst, so be it, I am ready. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst and take what comes, that’s my motto…’ Corporal Eric Bunyan from Peterborough, August 1916.

Hardships were felt at home too. As the war went on civilians endured blackouts and rationing, thanks to the threat of bombing and attacks on food convoys. Food rationing was introduced in 1917, reducing queues as people got their share. Peterborough fortunately never suffered any actual air raids from zeppelins.

The war created heroes of women like Edith Cavell. She was a Norfolk-born nurse, educated at Laurel Court School in Peterborough. She was executed by the Germans in October 1915 for helping allied servicemen escape.

At the armistice in November 1918 the streets were full of celebration and church bells rang out. However, over a thousand men from Peterborough had been killed. War memorials were erected to commemorate them including the Memorial Hospital, opened on Thorpe Road in 1928.

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