Platt During Spring 1917
For the people of Platt living one-hundred years ago, the spring of 1917 must have felt like it would never arrive. The heavy snowstorms that began at the end of 1916 finally came to an end in early April, however temperatures remained at ten degrees or less until well into the month of May.
On the Home Front the number one priority continued to be the production of food. The failure of the wheat harvest in 1916 had contributed to a grave shortage of cereals, and there was now a very real threat of famine. In an effort to alleviate the situation for those who were struggling, a small group of Platt locals opened a ‘People’s Kitchen’ during May at the cookhouse in the old school. The enterprise set out to prepare a nourishing one-course meal every evening five days a week, which was sold at cost price using substitutes for wheat flour wherever possible. It had been estimated that there were a large number of families living in the village who had been consuming 26-38 loaves of bread a week, and whose situation was becoming quite desperate.
Nationwide, various government initiatives had been set up to increase the production of foodstuffs, and locally it was decided in April that the Napps should be cleared for the purpose of cultivation. Applications were invited from small holders or allotment holders who were interested in letting portions of the land rent free for the duration of the war, after which the area would be turned into a children’s playground. Seed potatoes were made freely available, and regular advice on different types of vegetables to grow became a regular feature of the local press.
With a substantial number of local men now fighting overseas, farmers continued to face the problem of labour shortages. Efforts to meet the demand using women was championed in the parish by Mrs Heron-Maxwell of Great Comp, who sat on the board of the West Kent Women’s War Agricultural Committee, and was instrumental in distributing a steady stream of strong and healthy ladies to various Platt farms throughout the spring months. Later in the year these women would be collectively known as Women’s Land Army – an organisation that was famously resurrected during World War Two.
Another challenge facing the community was the upkeep of the parish roads. Considerable damage had been done by timber lorries the previous year (presumably those used to transport wood from Platt Woods) which had been worsened by the harsh winter conditions. Repair work was estimated to last until at least the end of the summer, with the roadmen (of whom only one was of military age), working a 50 ½ hour week for 30 shillings, which roughly works out to be just over £70 today.
On 28th March the Platt branch of the Wrotham War Hospital Supply Depot celebrated its first anniversary with a small tea party followed by ‘entertainment’, which consisted of friends and family being able to watch members prepare wooden splints made from the pine trees felled in Platt Woods and Comp. The group operated out of Platt Common House (then known as Platt Cottage) and for the occasion a notice pinned on the front door proudly declared that “132 splints have been sent out (via Wrotham) to dressing stations at the Front, all made in the last six weeks.” The day closed with the wish that they would not be marking a second anniversary in 1918. It is worth mentioning that this group would eventually become the Platt Women’s Institute in 1919.
Platt school re-opened after the Easter Holiday on 16th April. With 103 children on the books, attendance was recorded as being very good, which was a recurring theme in the school log book until 18th May when the best attendance for the whole year was 97%. Despite this, the attendance officer still found cause to visit the school twice over the next two weeks.
During April and May three more sons of Platt were lost to the war. Thomas Bance, a labourer who lived at Haxell’s Cottages in the Platt Brickfield, was killed when his battalion attacked the Turks on a hill southwest of Gaza known as Samson’s Ridge. His mother received a heartbreaking letter that read:
Your son I regret to say was missing after the battle on April 19th, when the battalion attacked and captured Samson’s Ridge redoubt. I cannot get definite news of his being killed. Many men were buried at night, and should he have lost his identity disc by any chance he may have been buried without being recognised or there is just the bare possibility that he may have lost his way in the dark and gone towards the Turkish lines and been made prisoner, but I do not think this is likely and I am afraid I can hold out little hope of his being alive.
Two months later she would receive another letter reporting the death of her older son James, who was fighting on the Western Front.
The day after Thomas died, Robert James Ellis of the Royal Field Artillery was killed when his battery was heavily shelled during the recently launched offensive at Arras in France – tragically echoing the fate of his younger brother Edwin, who had been killed in the same sector, under similar circumstances, almost a year earlier.
Henry ‘Herb’ Ashdown from Whatcote Cottages had survived some of the fiercest fighting at the Somme but was killed in action whilst carrying despatches at Monchy on 4 May. His commanding officer wrote to his mother:
Your loss is ours also, and the memory of your boy will remain with us always. He was extremely popular with his comrades. There is no man in this battalion who could be more faithful in his duties, or more gallant in action, than your son.
The Battle of Arras came to an end during the middle of May, many men from the parish had been involved in the campaign and of those, a large number were to face an even greater challenge at Passchendaele, which would herald the darkest summer yet for Platt soldiers at the Front.
Scott Wishart, April 2017