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World War 1 and the Upper Culm Valley

Love and war in the Blackdowns
New book records local lives before, during and after the Great War

Everyone at home thought John Blackmore must be dead. His sweetheart Lucy Westlake feared she would never see him again.

He had been a machine gunner with the Devonshire Yeomanry, fighting the Turkish Army in Palestine, when he was struck down with malaria. A card to his parents, saying he was seriously ill in a British military hospital, was the last they heard of him.

Then one day in 1919, months after the First World War ended, a horse was heard in the 

lane leading to Lucy’s family farm, Royston House, Churchinford. Her father came out and recognised the rider picking his way carefully towards the front door. It was John Blackmore.

Lucy turned to her sister, working beside her in the barn, and exclaimed: “I am going to be married, I am going to be married after all!”

John Blackmore was one of more than 150 men and women from the remote Upper Culm Valley on the Devon Somerset border who served in the Great War a century ago and whose sacrifices and stories are recorded in The Upper Culm Valley Before, During and After the Great War, a 180-page book to be published on 19 August 2014.

With the help of diaries, letters home and the recollections of family members, local researchers have assembled a vivid picture of how war affected one tiny corner of the West Country.

A total of 68 men from Clayhidon, Hemyock and Culmstock died in the prime of their lives. A further 90 men and women served and survived to tell the tale, although many, like John Blackmore, were reluctant to retell the horrors they had seen.

While Howard Wide, a prolific letter writer, sat in his trench in northern France listening to German soldiers singing and shouting across No Man’s Land, his family sent him parcels of eggs and fresh cream. He was one of the 775 men of the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire regiment who went over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme; 463 of them were listed killed, missing or wounded.

Howard was blown into a trench by a shell but he ran on towards the enemy lines and was the only one of his six-man machine gun team to survive the day unscathed. The former Taunton School pupil and devout member of Silver Street Baptist Church had written, the previous Christmas: “It is difficult to reconcile the Angel’s message of peace and goodwill toward men with this awful struggle of nation against nation.”

He endured many more bloody encounters until a bullet caught him in the leg. He waited 10 hours to be rescued by a party of Australians. Two weeks later the Armistice was signed.

Elizabeth Lutley (third from left) was one of four women from the valley who served abroad. She volunteered to join the British Red Cross as a cook, surviving an air raid in London, which “most horribly frightened” her.

Sailing on an Italian troop ship from Italy to Salonika in northern Greece she was one of only four women among 1,100 men, including an Italian doctor so handsome that she longed to fall ill.

The German naval threat was never far away. “The danger is always at hand,” she wrote to her aunt, “but knowing many precautions are taken it’s no use worrying about it”.

Frederick and Charlotte Bright (pictured left), from Burrows Farm, Clayhidon, lost both their twin sons.  Hubert, who had worked as a servant, joined the Rifle Brigade. His comrades survived gas attacks, saw action on the Somme and fought in the Battle of Arras, where he was killed in 1917 at the age of 20. His name is listed on the Clayhidon War Memorial and also on the memorial in the Arras British Military Cemetery.

Within a year his brother Reginald, who had joined the Royal Navy at 15, was washed overboard from the destroyer HMS Mons in heavy seas in 1918 and never found. He is remembered on the Plymouth Naval Memorial on The Hoe and beside Hubert’s name at Clayhidon.

The poignant class photo of the Hemyock Board School (below) was taken in 1908. It shows the faces of boys who were all to serve in one way or another a few years later, watched over by their headmaster, Mr Baxter. He died suddenly in 1919, no doubt saddened by the 22 young men from Hemyock who had died.

Their stories and many others are told in this unique book, which is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Blackdown Hills AONB and DEFRA.  Copies are available from Hemyock Post Office, Strand Stores, Culmstock  or by emailing info@blackdownarchives.org.uk price £10 plus post and packaging.