Platt During Winter 1917/18

As 1917 drew to a close ‘enthusiasm and marrows’ were said to have been pretty big in Platt. In early December, the Platt Ward Gardeners’ Society held their annual end-of-year show and the first in a series of ‘Win the War and be Ready for Peace’ meetings. Sir Mark Collet, whose opinions after the war concerning the local war memorial would be controversial, gave a keynote speech in which he mooted that the ‘village life of the future depended on the home life of today.’ He went on to say that ‘it was to the homes of the village, that, we must look for the basis of reconstruction.’

Local craftsman Henry Wilson, who spoke on behalf the Arts and Crafts Society and whose knowledge of rural problems was well-known, argued that the foundation of village prosperity was the land and that the villager was the producer, and should be able to produce under the best conditions. Wilson continued: ‘…. the village handicrafts give the cottager that sense of security and freedom not possible when he had to depend solely on the land with its dead season and wet days when he could not earn. I look forward to the time when every cottage has electric power and a workshop suitable for the prevailing industry of the place.

The meeting closed with Collet recalling a story he had heard about the Royal Family’s willingness to share with their people the privations of the war – “A lady had recently been dining with their Majesties. “I am afraid the dinner will be very plain,” said the King, “we cannot have sugar with our pudding, and as I do not like pudding with­out sugar, we do not have one.” It was not recorded what those present thought of Collet’s tale.

At the start of the new year, the Gardeners’ Society stepped up its drive for increased food production, securing ground from landowners in Wrotham Heath for ‘patriotic locals’ to grow vegetables in their spare time. The motto ‘The Unit of National Organisation is the Parish’ was adopted, and the dogma ‘A village society has neither class, creed nor politics; the object of a village society is the improvement of village life’ forming the basis for all its endeavours over the coming year.

Just as 1917 had opened with a prolonged period of cold weather (which lasted until late April), it ended in an almost identical fashion. However, unlike 1916/17, the arctic conditions were short-lived, and severe snowstorms that swept across the parish in the middle of January 1918 becoming winter’s final act before an early spring took hold. Accordingly, attendance figures at Platt School fluctuated throughout the winter months. On one occasion only half of the 109 children on the roll were present, with the majority of those being so wet due to snow the head teacher closed the school and sent them home. The school medical officer visited several times between November and February, examining upwards of 30 children on each occasion, noting that a number had ‘verminous heads’ and one 12-year-old girl rather bluntly recorded as being ‘mentally defective.’

In February 1918, the community said goodbye to William Cuthbert Lewis who lived at Millwood in Wrotham Heath and worked as the Secretary of the West Kent General Hospital in Maidstone. Every day William walked to Borough Green Station, where he caught his usual train, however, on what would be his final trip, he collapsed on the platform and expired in the waiting room several minutes later. He had suffered from a weak heart for some years, and once contemplated retiring, but felt that the war necessitated his ‘remaining in harness’. Born in Chessington 64 years earlier, Lewis served over 25 years in the military in India before moving to the parish. He was a staunch churchman, eventually becoming the Vicar’s Warden at Platt and also founding the Borough Green Church Lads’ Brigade as well as serving as the Chairman of the Platt Conservative Committee. During the war years, he acted as Secretary to the Wrotham Heath War Savings Committee and participated in many local schemes to help the war effort. William’s funeral was held at St. Mary’s, Platt and he was buried in the churchyard.

Following the carnage at Passchendaele, local losses to the war slowed over the winter months with the first Platt casualty of 1918 occurring not on the Western Front, but in Palestine. Lewis (Louis) Hayes lived at 12 Whatcote Cottages before the war and enlisted with the 2/4th Royal West Kents in September 1914. He had seen action at Gallipoli before participating in the Sinai campaign and then the battles in Gaza and subsequent advance through Hebron towards Jerusalem. At the start of December 1917, his unit was based on a ridge just south of Bethlehem and marched unopposed into Jerusalem two days later. The Turkish Army still posed a threat to the Allies, so at dawn on 17 December the West Kents, who had camped on the Mount of Olives, formed part of an attacking force east of the city and took over 100 prisoners. A month later the battalion was tasked with capturing a prominent hill near the Bireh road known as Sheikh Abdallah. The objective was taken with little opposition, however, while consolidating their position, the Turks retaliated with heavy artillery fire, and snipers inflicted a substantial number of British casualties. Among those to lose his life was Lewis, who was killed on 18 January.

Ten days later, William Mount, whose parents lived in ‘Upper Platt’, died in Cambridge General Hospital from acute rheumatic fever. He was serving with the 9th Northamptonshire Regiment and waiting for his 19th birthday to arrive before he would become eligible for overseas service. His body was brought back to the parish and buried in the churchyard.

Although proportional, recent successes at Cambrai in November 1917 may have given communities around the country hope that perhaps the Allies were finally gaining the upper-hand; however, a terrifying German offensive planned for spring 1918 would crush those expectations and in turn, prove costly for the parish. The work of local organisations such as the Gardeners’ Society played a vital role in what were increasingly challenging times.

Scott Wishart, Platt War Memorial Hall