When the guns of the Somme were heard in Newham

PUBLISHED: 11:00 01 July 2016 | UPDATED: 11:04 01 July 2016

Tank Day, West Ham Town Hall. 5 March 1918    Picture: Newham Archives

Tank Day, West Ham Town Hall. 5 March 1918 Picture: Newham Archives


Patriotic parades in the streets, suspected foreigners attacked or locked up, hundred-yard queues for basic foods – this was the quite inconceivable Newham of the First World War.

The roaring of the guns

Though about 200 miles from the battle, the people of Newham were not as insulated from it as they might have liked to be.

When writing his history of East Ham, Alfred Stokes explained that it was quite possible to hear the “terrific cannonade taking place in France”.

“The writer first heard the sound in his garden on a Sunday evening about 5.45, when the traffic was usually very light, and afterwards he heard it on many occasions in the quiet fields of Barking,” he wrote.

“Not since 1667 when the Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames had hostile guns been heard in London.”

Though hard to imagine, his evidence was corroborated by many correspondents in the Stratford Express.

A week after the Somme began, one Harry Smith, of Henderson Road, Forest Gate, wrote to the paper to ask if readers “heard the roll of distant big gun fire from 7.40pm to midnight”.

“Some people at Forest Gate feared it was an attempted invasion,” he went on. “I have never in my life heard so persistent and continuous booming of guns.”

The atmosphere palpably changed as editions of newspapers were printed “almost hourly”, according to one contemporary observer, and the appearance of “seriously wounded” men became a common sight.

“A regrettable state of affairs prevailed in East Ham,” Alfred Stokes, mayor of East Ham from 1921 to 1922, wrote of the wartime period.

“People known to be of German or Austrian birth were subject to inquiry, and, if it were considered to be desirable, were removed to internment camps, one of which was at Carpenters Road, Stratford.”

He added: “A German-sounding name was to the mob as a red rag to a bull.”

The guns could be heard hundreds of miles away in NewhamThe guns could be heard hundreds of miles away in Newham

But it wasn’t just at home that the lives of Newham’s sons and daughters were turned upside down.

On July 1, 1916, 2nd Lt CJ Sutton, of Milton Avenue, East Ham, engaged the German army at the Battle of the Somme while serving with a special brigade of the Royal Artillery.

His parents – Mr and Mrs John Sutton – were religious, Mr Sutton serving as a vicar’s warden, while the young officer was long a choirboy at St Bartholomew’s Church.

Like 19,240 other British soldiers, 2nd Lt Sutton was killed on July 1 – the battle’s first day. He was 24.

His death was announced in the Stratford Express of July 15 under the heading, “Killed in the great advance”, which included news of other soldiers.

One was a private from Forest Gate – CH Hudson, BSc – who, like 2nd Lt Sutton, was involved in the opening day of the battle.

The 22-year-old, who lived in Norwich Road, reportedly reached the third line of German trenches with the London Rifle Brigade but, at about midday, came under heavy fire as the British situation turned “very critical”.

His brigade was running out of bullets and bombs and a volunteer was sought to retrieve more ammunition. “Without hesitation”, Pte Hudson embarked on the 100-yard expedition.

Mr C. Goetz's and his family had their pork butchers shop in High Street North and Harrow Road, East Ham. It was damaged during anti-German attacksMr C. Goetz's and his family had their pork butchers shop in High Street North and Harrow Road, East Ham. It was damaged during anti-German attacks

He made it halfway across the exposed ground before being shot by a sniper, the bullet piercing his stomach, thigh and back.

Such was the young private’s determination, however, that he continued to the arms store and returned to his comrades, gravely wounded, with fresh supplies.

Like 2nd Lt Sutton, he was also a choirboy, and his death six days later was commemorated with a service at St Peter’s Upton Cross.

This story was completed thanks to Newham Archives and Local Studies Library

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