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Interview with Brian Bates, Author of Dorchester Remembers the Great War

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Brian Bates is a historian and author who has lived in Dorchester for the last 41 years. His latest book, Dorchester Remembers the Great War, is a vivid account of the impact on Edwardian Dorchester of one of the most devastating conflicts in human history.

The launch of the book was held last week at the Keep Military Museum, and we got in touch with Brian afterwards to ask a few questions about his work on this incredibly fascinating period of Dorchester’s history.

What made you decide to write the book?

I have been interested in the history of Dorchester since I moved here in 1971 and have written and given talks about our town in the seventeenth century. I am also keen on military history and wrote a couple of wartime biographies, one of which was about Harold Swain, a well known local man who served in bomber command during WW2.

My inspiration for this book came on a remembrance day a few years ago when I stayed behind after the service at our war memorial casting my eye down the list of names of those who died as a result of the Great War. Some surnames were immediately recognisable, like the Popes. Others were repeated, which led me to wonder if they were related. It occurred to me that each name on the list must have a unique story to tell. Who were their loved ones, where did they live and how did they die? This set me on a path which four years later resulted in this book.

What was Dorchester like on the eve of the Great War?

Dorchester was a typical market town mainly driven by the needs of agriculture. Carries entered the town with their goods on market days and sheep auctions were held regularly by Dukes and Ensors.

Socially, it reflected the national picture with a strict hierarchy, with families like the Popes and Aclands at the top, a large middle class of shopkeepers and professional people and an even larger number of working class people at the bottom. These included shop assistants, tradesmen and, of course, domestic servants. The new century brought with it a big expansion, with the development of areas like Victoria Park.

One thing that Dorchester did have, which was missing from most market towns, was a large military presence. The town had both an infantry and an artillery barracks, which had quite an impact on the town, not the least of which was marriages with local girls and a number of retired soldiers who settled in the town after their retirement.

Someone reading the County Chronicle a month before the outbreak of war got little indication of the debacle ahead. People were going about their everyday business, the usual horticultural shows were taking place as usual and people were looking forward to the harvest. On the 4 August events would begin that would change the town forever more.

What impact did the War have on Dorchester, and how did it change the town?

The folk of Dorchester were used to seeing men go off to war. But in August 1914 things were different. Now it was not just professional soldiers boarding trains at our railway stations; it was sons, fathers and husbands, some of whom would not be seen again by their loved ones.

The impact of the declaration of war on our town was immediate. Thousands of men passed through the Keep of the depot barracks to sign up and groups of soldiers of many regiments came to the town and were billeted in schools, halls and houses.

Soon, the emigration of men in the town began to have an effect and women stepped into the fray, making parts for gun carriages at Lott and Warne, working in the shops and acting as post women.

The town also saw the establishment of military hospitals at Colliton House and in Acland road. Over 2000 soldiers were treated during the course of the War. Another impact on the town was the housing of thousands of German, Austrian and Polish prisoners at the artillery barracks and on Poundbury Hillfort. In the spring of 1919 Dorchester, with a population of under 9000 was entertaining 4500 prisoners.

Few communities could shrug off the legacy of the First World War. For Dorchester, a priority was to commemorate those who died, which resulted in our various war memorials. Arguably, the War was also to some extent a leveller. Those listed on the cenotaph have no social order, with agricultural labourers listed alongside solicitors and businessmen.

The prospects for women in the town certainly changed, with the election of the first woman councillor coming soon after the war and it no longer being unusual to see a woman working in a shop. Other impacts of the War would take longer to materialise. It was several decades before the slums of Mill Street and The Grove were replaced by ‘homes fit for heroes.’

How did you go about researching for the book and collecting the photos? Was it a major challenge?

Having done a great deal of military and family research previously, I knew my way around the usual resources, which gave me the basic data about the families and the service records of the casualties. What turned a list of facts into over 250 fascinating stories were the personal details, which came from local newspapers, letters and the testimony of local families, many of whom have become friends.

Of the letters, many are heart rending. Walter Hill, for example, was the only son of the Rector of Holy Trinity Church and when war came joined up straight away, gaining a commission on the South Staffordshire Rgt. He regularly wrote to his mother, expressing his eagerness to be sent to the Front. In September 1914 he got his chance and lasted just a week, when he was killed at the Battle of the Aisne.

Another Dorchester soldier, Reg Dabinett, regularly wrote to his parents from his posting in India. He complained about the terrible heat and stated that he often slept outside his tent. Unfortunately, that was to be his undoing. One night he was bitten in the face by a jackal and died of rabies.

Photographs for the book have come from diverse sources, including the internet, schools (one came from a school in South Africa) and, of course, personal collections.

One of the most poignant photographs is probably that of a mother carrying her infant child. Olive Tweedie lived in Icen Way with her parents and married Arthur Caruthers-Little, an officer in the Dorsets. Soon after their marriage, Arthur left for the war and was killed in Gallipoli by a sniper. Olive gave birth to a daughter, Kitty, who grew up never knowing her father.

Researching and writing the book was not a major challenge, in the sense that it was a daunting task. I knew from the beginning where I wanted it to go. The challenge came in verifying the information and keeping everything organised.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope that people will understand that the history of ‘ordinary people’ is every bit as important as that of kings and queens and countries. I also hope that some people will see the names on our war memorials differently the next time they stand before them on Remembrance Sunday. Lastly, I hope the book adds to the rich history of our town.

Dorchester Remembers the Great War is published by Roving Press (01305 321531, www.rovingpress.co.uk), priced £12.99. Author royalties are being donated to the charities Sense and Sightsavers.

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