Platt in The Great War (1914 – 1918)

In 1911 the number of people living in the parish was 1150 (a century later it was 1679), and it is fair to assume that by the time war broke out three years later, numbers would have been relatively similar. Platt was primarily an agricultural community; however, there was also a brickworks, flour and paper mills, and an established quarry. In 1912 the local children began attending a new school, which was built along the modern-day Maidstone Road and had replaced an older building situated adjacent to the church.

The summer of 1913 has firmly lodged itself in folk memory as the last ‘golden summer’, with Philip Larkin later writing, “Never such innocence, never before or since.” Rural communities had remained relatively unchanged for almost half a millennium, however many villages had begun the slow progression out of the Victorian age, with Platt locals such as Mrs Heron‑Maxwell, an ardent Suffragette from Comp, among those who promoted new ideas and concepts.

In the years immediately preceding the war, Platt rarely made the headlines; however, when it did, the stories often involved the sudden (and usually tragic) passing of a local resident. One such article reported the demise of Mr George Ernest Hide of Platt Flour Mills, who was found dead in bed at his home in Mill House during early December 1913. A subsequent inquest held at the Brickmakers Arms recorded that next to George’s body, placed upon a chair, was a burnt down candle and a tumbler containing a few drops of pinkish fluid. The nature of this liquid was not immediately identified; however, it soon became apparent that George had died by poisoning from carbolic acid, which at the time was a common remedy prescribed in diluted form for indigestion. The jury gave a verdict of death resulting from ‘misadventure’.

The final mention of Platt in the press before war broke out was on 3 July 1914 and reports a bazaar in the Vicarage Gardens held in aid of the Platt New Church School and the Parish Room. The two-day event was hosted by the Rev. Brand and opened by the wife of the Bishop of Rochester. An unnamed gentleman reputedly came forward and bought the old school for £200 (almost £21,000 today) which was used to settle the remaining balance on the new building, which had cost £1,250 in 1912 (about £129,000.) The following year the school planned to buy back the old building for £400; however, the war appears to have put pay to that idea.

At 11:00 pm on 4 August 1914, Britain entered a state of war with Germany. Within hours of waking the following morning, men from the parish who had previously been in the military, and were now in the Army Reserve, began receiving mobilisation notices and made preparations to rejoin their old regiments. By the end of August five Platt men had already been sent overseas with the British Expeditionary Force, and by the end of September, 22 men from the parish had answered Kitchener’s call to King and Country and enlisted, with the number almost doubling by the end of the year.

By the start of 1915, Platt had sent thirteen soldiers to the Western Front, with one, Alfred Leonard Parris of the Grenadier Guards, attaining the double-distinction of being the first to arrive in France, but also the first to lose his life as a result of the war.

Fifty-seven men from Platt entered all theatres of war involving British forces during 1915, with the majority posted to France & Flanders. A number of those who had rushed to enlist in the early days faced the enemy for the first time at the Battle of Loos in late September, at which two local friends who joined up together, were killed in action. Four others took part in the disastrous campaign at Gallipoli, with three of those falling in later stages of the war, and the fourth, Ernest Saxby who lived at the Brickmakers Arms, eventually returning home in 1919.

Also in 1915, and faced with growing demand for soldiers and the number of men enlisting falling, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith tasked Lord Edward Derby with boosting recruitment into the volunteer army. The so-called ‘Derby Scheme’ encouraged men to voluntarily register their name on the principle that once registered they would be called up for service only when necessary.  As an added incentive married men were advised that they would only be required once the supply of single men was exhausted. However, 38 per cent of single men and 54 per cent of married men publicly refused to enlist, and the idea deemed a failure and eventually abandoned in early December. A large number of Platt men who registered in 1915 were part of this scheme, with a flurry signing attestation forms in the final month before it was shelved and conscription brought into effect on 27 January 1916.

The first local who is thought to have been conscripted was Edwin Ernest Best, a twenty-five-year-old quarryman’s labourer from Wrotham Heath. At least 15 others joined throughout 1916 with numbers starting to fall in 1917, and dropping dramatically to four individuals in 1918.

On 29 February 1916 Wrotham Urban Council held the first Military Service Tribunal in Borough Green. These tribunals were formed to hear applications for exemption from conscription into the Army, and although not recruiting bodies themselves, played an important part in the conscription process. Most men were given some kind of exemption, usually temporary (between a few weeks and six months) or conditional on their situation remaining serious enough to warrant their retention at home. The first man from Platt to face the Tribunal was William Elliot, a tree pruner whose application was supported by his employer, Mr Gardiner, who informed the committee that he had only two men to assist him on his hundred acres of fruit land. William told the Chairman that he had no particular wish to serve in the Army, but he would serve if it was absolutely necessary. His application was refused.

By the summer of 1916, almost all of the men from the parish who were serving along the Western Front were concentrated with their units in the Somme region of Northern France. After many months of preparation, the so-called Big Push was designed to drain the enemy reserves, and break through their line in an effort to end almost two years of stagnant trench warfare. After a ferocious artillery bombardment lasting seven days and nights that could apparently be heard from Platt, the offensive began at 7:30 am on 1 July. Six men from Platt were in action on the first day, with one, Thomas Bennett of the 7th Battalion The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment), being awarded the Military Medal for gallantry during the battle. Thomas, a stretcher bearer, saved many lives that day by repeatedly going out onto the battlefield and bringing back the wounded. During the day he himself was shot but reputedly saved by a Bible kept in his breast pocket that stopped a bullet entering his chest.  After the war, in 1922 Thomas, who lived at Whatcote Cottages, was the first person to lay a wreath at the newly built Platt War Memorial.Albert ‘Boy’ Bowen, a signaller who was in the same battalion as Thomas, found himself alone near the German wire when everyone else in his platoon was killed, and despite the enemy’s best efforts, managed to keep the lines of communication open between himself and the British position for 24 hours until help arrived. After the war, he was awarded the Belgium Croix de Guerre for subsequent actions in Flanders.

Also in the battle was Frederick Pierce from Comp, who was serving with the Royal Engineers and tasked with going out into No Man’s Land during the night to build bridges across ditches and streams, over which the attacking forces could cross, often with shells landing in very close proximity. Later in the war, Frederick decided he had seen enough, and would tell his family that he had walked along the trench parapet in the hope that he would be shot, and relieved of his misery. He survived over three years at the front and died in 1983 aged 88.

During the first week of the campaign, another dozen or so from the parish had arrived on the Somme, with two men losing their lives within hours of each other on the third day. One of them was Peter Piper of the 6th Royal West Kents, who wrote to his sister in Crouch shortly before going ‘over the top’ that ‘in spite of everything I am not downhearted’. Peter was mercilessly mown down on 3 July by machine-gun fire while trying to get through a wire entanglement in front of the German trenches. Richard Andrews from Wrotham Heath had provided covering fire for Peter’s company as they advanced but was killed himself later in the day during an enemy counter-attack.

As the summer wore on, more locals, many of whom had enlisted shortly after war broke out, were sent to the region, and by the end of the campaign in November 1916 over a quarter of all those from Platt who were posted overseas during the course of the entire war had seen action at the Somme.

Although the Somme experience was horrendous, 1917 turned out to be the deadliest year of the war for Platt men, with the majority of the 12 who lost their lives killed at Arras or Ypres. Two brothers, Thomas and James Bance, were killed within a few months of each other in Palestine and France respectively. 1918 followed suit with the loss of a further 11 – several of those during the German Spring Offensive that began on 21 March. In total, at the time of the Armistice, 42 men had perished in battle or died of wounds. Dozens of others had been wounded, both physically and mentally, with the scars of war remaining with them for the rest of their lives.

By the time the Platt War Memorial was unveiled in 1922, seven more had died from sickness and injuries that were attributed to war service, bringing the total number of fallen to about 25% of all those who had seen active service (the national average was about 10%.)

At the outbreak of war Platt Woods was a very different place from the woods we see today, and was dominated by majestic old pines. Trench warfare had created a huge demand for timber that was used in revetting, wooden supports for barbed wire defences (known as knife rests) and in the construction of railways that carried supplies the Front.

As Platt had an abundance of trees to be exploited, the Government bought them all from the landowner and established a lumber yard in the woods, which had at its heart a huge saw driven by a steam engine. Trees were felled and logs hauled off to the yard by Bessie the horse, there to be processed into poles, planks and sleepers. Local families benefited by their young children collecting the small branches from the fallen trees and using them to stoke their cooking and heating fires.

Carine Cadby, who lived at Platt Cottage (now Platt Common House), was a successful photographer of flowers during the early twentieth century and had written extensively for several photographic journals. Along with her husband Willie, who was a professional photographer for Cooks the travel agents, she was a member of The Linked Ring Brotherhood, a photographic society created to propose and defend that photography was as much an art as it was a science. In 1916 Carine, who had recently published two books set in Platt Woods, wrote a thoughtful essay for Country Life magazine about them. In addition to Carine’s writing, ‘A Pine Wood for The Front’ was also illustrated by her husband’s photographs, and eventually published on 2 December 1916.

Carine published several more books after the war, and in 1919 she became the first President of the Platt Women’s Institute, which had started life as a Red Cross working group that met at Platt Cottage and made surgical supplies such as padded splints, swabs, bandages and so on for the wounded.

Another local institution affected by the war was the village stores. In 1895 Mr Pearson bought a small grocery business located in Long Mill Lane, just across the road from the local pub, the Blue Anchor. He had ambitious plans and extended the premises in 1901 and became sub-postmaster, installed a bakery in the rear of the house with his wife opening a haberdashery in the front. However, any further plans were put on hold after the outbreak of war. Mr Pearson joined the Platt Home Guard (Dad’s Army), and his baker signed up for overseas service. Like many small businesses in the area, the running of the stores was left to the women of the family, with Mrs Pearson looking after the bakery and his daughter, Clemmie, with the help of Daisy Stratton looking after the shop.

In 1906 Leonard Job began building a nine-hole course at Comp (later to be known as the Wrotham Heath Golf Club) and was appointed green-keeper and professional to the club. In the war, he joined the Army and posted to France with the Royal Sussex Regiment. While he was away, the army took over the clubhouse and billeted soldiers there until huts were built for them on the fairways. The troops practised trench digging in the surrounding woodland and would assist in the cutting down of trees. Two anti-aircraft guns were installed about 200 yards from the clubhouse, and a searchlight erected on the high ground. Zeppelin airships are known to have passed over the parish; however, there is no evidence to suggest that they caused any physical damage. Leonard’s daughter, Nancy, later wrote:

It was very exciting watching the searchlights trying to find the German planes, but very frightening when the guns started firing. I remember a balloon coming down on the course, and one in Mr. Heron-Maxwell’s field, Mrs. Heron-Maxwell taking refreshments out to the men who landed safely from it.

One of the most charitable characters living in Platt during the Great War was William Bance, who was also known as Nobby Barnes. ‘Nobby’ was born in the village and worked nights at the Basted Paper Mill. He was one of the early pupils at the original Platt School and in 1880 he married Emma Swaisland and had thirteen children with her. Shortly after the turn of the century the Bance family were turned out of their house by their landlord for being ‘too many’ and William, who was clearly well-respected by his employers, was loaned £200 by the proprietor of the paper mill to build a house on ground he already owned. Holly Cottage still exists, and is situated opposite the current (2016) primary school, and at the eastern end of Whatcote Cottages, which were built around the same time.

Towards the end of August 1914, Nobby, who had always taken an interest in local activities and wholeheartedly supported initiatives that benefited the community, attended a meeting in Platt that was held with the purpose of appointing special constables and promoting recruitment. At the meeting he was approached by a gentleman named ‘Lewis’ (probably William Lewis, a pensioned engineer from Millwood in Wrotham Heath who had served with the Indian Government), and asked whether he would be prepared to join the police force? When he explained why he could not, the man called him a loafer, to which Nobby sharply rebuked this suggestion and threw down a challenge in which he offered to give 2s 6d per week, if Mr Lewis gave 5s a week, for 12 months to the Soldiers’ Fund of Platt, to be used as the committee thought best. He also offered to take ‘one child of any man gone to the front and keep it and look after it as my own for 12 months if Mr Lewis will take two – just to see if I am a loafer’. Thus began ‘Nobby’s Fund’ which went on to benefit a large number of men from Platt who were at the Front. Throughout the war, during the day, Nobby would wander around the community collecting pennies in an empty soda water bottle. When full, the bottle would be broken open in the presence of witnesses, and the money collected used to send parcels to the men, many of who sent back letters of thanks. Pte. S. C. French of the 11th (Service) Battalion, Highland Light Infantry wrote from ‘Somewhere in Belgium’:

Dear Nobby, Just a few lines in answer to your letter and the parcel I had sent me through you. It was a good idea of subscribing and sending out a few fags or anything else that would be acceptable. I daresay the other lads were pleased with them as well as myself. I expect you were surprised to hear about me being out here before getting a leave. I can tell you I tried hard to get a pass, but my luck was out. I have been in the trenches twice, and am going in to-night for four days, so you see I am just beginning to get used to it now. It is not to my liking – up to the eyes in mud in the rest camp and over the knees in the trenches, but still we stick it. With this letter you will find a letter of thanks to the employees of Basted Mill, and I must also thank you very much for thinking of me.

The aforementioned Pte. Thomas Bennett wrote from France on 18 November 1915:

Dear Nobby, Just a few lines hoping they will find you quite well at home, as I am pleased to say they leave me, although we are having plenty of rain and snow out here, which do not make the trenches very pleasant, but we are getting used to that now. I can just picture you now. Father said in his letter that no man could work harder for the Platt boys than you, and I believe it, as I know you are the old sort to do it. Remember me to all at home and to old Platt, which I hope to see again soon.

An example of the ‘boxes’ sent out by Nobby to the soldiers can be seen itemised in the pages of the Kent Messenger dated 1 April 1916:

Sir, – Will you kindly oblige me by putting the following in your paper: – Nobby Barnes’ Collection: – Breaking Kent Rag, 18s.; Basted Mill box, £2; Anchor beerhouse box, 18s.; Lyle’s Mineral Water box, £1 5s. 9d.; Curtis’ box, 16s. 8d.; Pearson’s box, 8s.; Nobby selling song papers, 11s; total, £6 17s. 6d. The 11s 1d. I sent to the orphan boy for whom a soldier appealed for shoes; I sent one pair of shoes, 6s. 11d.; two pairs of socks, 1s. 1d.; fags and carriage, 3s. 1d.; and I am sending you, for the “Kent Messenger” Tobacco Fund, 2s. 6d.; that makes £7 in all. – Yours truly, NOBBY BARNES.

By the end of the war Nobby had collected a total of £63 19s. 0d. (according to the Bank of England website, about £3200 in 2015) for the boys of Platt, and £46 12s. 4d. (£2358) for those of Basted Mill. Even after the Armistice he still managed to send out 47 parcels in time for Christmas, however in 1919, as the men returned home, he ceased the operation. William Bance eventually became one of the original Memorial Hall Trustees, and died 20 years after the war ended, aged 80.

In the 1970s, Ivy Bennett, who worked for the Cadbys and was sister of Thomas, remembered that during the war a property called Stone Cottage was occupied by nuns, that a large Cross could be seen hanging in the attic, and organ music and chanting could be regularly heard emanating from the building. Her father did odd jobs for them, a list of which was placed in a box outside their door where he would find payment. One of the nuns kept a bag of sweets for her sister hidden in the folds of her habit, and another was said to be a German spy. During the war, Ivy recollected seeing many troops and cavalry and guns passing through Platt by both road and rail on their way to the Channel ports en-route for France. Sometimes those in military vehicles stopped by the roadside and asked for water, however the only food locals could spare were apples.

Another local heavily involved in the war effort, both locally and nationally, was Percy Minter. The Minters had moved into ‘Staddleswood’ during 1903 and Percy served in the Admiralty between 1886 and 1926. He worked as Director of Contracts during the war, a role for which he received the CBE. During his time in Platt he was a Churchwarden, treasurer of the Parochial Church Council, manager of the primary school, a founder member of Wrotham Heath Golf Club and, like William Bance, one of the first Trustees of the Memorial Hall. He also left King George’s Field for a small sum for the use of the football and cricket clubs.

After the Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919 communities across the country gathered together to celebrate the peace. Platt, Wrotham Heath and Crouch joined with Borough Green for their celebrations in July, which, despite rain in the evening, the event was deemed a great success. The Kent Messenger of 26 July reported:

The inhabitants of the four places, old and young alike, entered wholeheartedly into the proceedings, and the good feeling, which was noticeable among all classes could not but make the occasion a joyous and memorable one. The day fittingly began with a short thanksgiving service in Black Horse Meadow, where the festivities took place. Here a temporary shrine adorned with beautiful cut blooms and a laurel wreath, in honour of the fallen heroes, had been erected, and around this assembled a thousand or more persons, who joined reverently in the prayers and hymn “O God, our help in ages past.” The Rev. A. J. Cross, curate-in-charge at Borough Green, who has recently been demobilized, gave an appropriate address, and prayers were offered by the Rev. J. Brand, Vicar of Platt, and Pastor E. G. Vine, of Borough Green Baptist Church. At the conclusion of the service the amusements began and continued with the short interval for tea, until dusk.

The sports programme was of a comprehensive character, and during the marathon race a military display, consisting of dummy thrusting, tent-pegging, horsemanship was given by Mr. Wickens (late of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars), and Mr. Brooke (late of the 7th Dragoon Guards.) From start to finish in the sports programme there was nothing in the nature of a hitch. The success of these particular events was in a large measure due to the excellent work of Mr. A. Ashton, Clerk of the Course, who was assisted by a hard-working committee.

Tea was provided in Mr. Crowhurt’s Meadow for everyone belonging to the combined district and the guests numbered considerably over 2,000. It was the largest and certainly the most successful tea party seen in this charming corner of rural Kent for many years, and too much praise cannot be given to those who made themselves responsible for so big an undertaking. Every detail was admirably planned, and a glance at the tastefully decorated tables in the huge marquee showed how painstaking had been the work of the ladies. It should be added that the hot water for the tea was boiled by one of Messrs. Chittenden and Simmons’ modern engines.

There was a display of fireworks in the evening, and later a bonfire was lighted in the grounds of Mount Cottage (Mr. Carmichael’s residence), and an effigy of the ex-Kaiser burnt amid the cheers of the onlookers. Mr. A. E. Collings and Mr. Jack Smith were the Chairmen respectively of the Platt and Borough Green committees. Mr. G. Bennett and Mr. A. E. Oxley were the Joint Secretaries, and the Rev. A. J. Cross was the Treasurer.

The following were the results of the sports: – 100 yards, Messrs. H. Walters, Harland and W. Bennett; thread needle races, Mrs. Duff McDermott, Mrs. Pierce and Mrs. Hills, and Misses Green, Larter and Webb. 60 yards (over 60), Messrs. Simpson, Warnett and Larter; mile, Messrs. Cullen, S. Webb and Hayes; long jump, Messrs. Brett and Harland; quarter mile. Volunteers, Borough Green Platoon (prizes given by Mr. G. L. Smith), Messrs. Hills, Allen and Heranden; 120 yards hurdles, Messrs. Harland, Brett and Cullen; tilting the ring on cycles, Messrs. W. Smith, Day and Bellars; relay race, Mr. Harlands team, 80 yards (ladies), Misses Green, M. Broad and A. Pink; ½ mile (ex-Servicemen), Messrs. R Walters, Bance, W. Smith and H. Murphy; obstacle race, Messrs. Pindy, Bailey and F. Elliot; sack race, Messrs. C. Woodhams, E. Bellars and R. Hogben; tilting the bucket (prize divided), Messrs. Durrant, Horton, Kitney and Purdy; tug-of-war, ladies, Mrs. Bance’s team (Platt); men, Mr. D. Crowhurst’s team (Borough Green); marathon, cup and 1, Mr. W. Bennett, 2, Mr. S. Broad, 3, Mr. Hollands, 4, Mr. Neaves; ladies’ egg and spoon race (prize given by Dr. Walker), Miss Larter; pony race, under 14 hands, Messrs. Willards, Stevens and Webb; Brough Green Derby (prizes given by Mr. J. G. L. Smith), cup and 1, Mr. Webb, 2, Mr. Toogood, 3, Mr. Hughes.