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Swavesey and The Great War Part I - Swavesey Will Remember


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Contributed by Philip Curme (philcurme@netscapeonline.co.uk)

Swavesey Will Remember

On the 1st July 1996 the flag will be flying in front of the Memorial Hall in remembrance of those men who lost their lives during the Battle of the Somme. On the 1st July 1916 - 80 years ago 57,000 men were killed or wounded - most within 30 minutes of the opening assault. To quote a contemporary diary "line after line of men were knocked down like tin soldiers swept with a stick".

The people of Swavesey paid a heavy price for this folly. Of the 85 Swavesey men who served in The Great War of 1914 - 1918 no fewer than 26 never returned. This sad tally included young Jim Prior and Jonas Dodson both of whom lost their lives during that awful half hour on 1st July.

James William Prior (aged 22) and Jonas Dodson (aged 39) both answered Kitcheners' call in November 1914. The Cambridgeshire Regiment was fully subscribed so keen to serve, they, like 1400 other men from Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely joined the Suffolks. Initially billeted in Bury St. Edmunds after a couple of months the Cambs contingent were placed in their own Battalion (The 11th) housed in the Cambridge Corn Exchange before transferring to France after a period of training in Yorkshire.

Jim Prior learnt quickly and was promoted to Lance Corporal - He was not yet married and his father was well known as a local chimney sweep. Jonas must have found the move to France difficult - he and his wife had 10 children, 7 of whom were below 14 years of age. Jonas's father had died before the war but in his time Charles Dodson had been an accomplished skater and had worked as a bricklayer in St Ives.

The Battalion records show the Cambridgeshire lads behaving true to form during their stay at Renescure in France - en route for the front.


"They spend a great deal of their time in inspecting and passing professional judgements on cattle,poultry,and the like.... one stalwart got up two hours before reveille today to admire the way the french women milk. The country is just like the fens near Cambridge".

By January the Battalion had moved to the front line - arriving at night.

"The darkness was continually illuminated,for a thousand very lights hung from the black velvet sky. Rifle shots and the traversing fire of machine-guns startled the air; monstrous rats came to life from behind the sandbags, scampering boldly... through the mud. A door opened or a sackcloth curtain swung aside,revealing a candlelit dugout.... Gradually imperceptibly, the black and white pictures of the night were coloured by the sun. A dark phantasmal mass became a hooded farm wagon, derelict. For a space the war slept. By day there was stillness, broken now and then by a sniper firing suddenly ... or by a bombardment scattering men and things. Day was appallingly prosaic but night was beautiful and romantic. When the lights shot up into the sky the trenches became like fairyland."


"Though only a thousand yards away from the German trenches, this spot seemed far away from the war. The undergrowth round the chateau was a riot of wild and garden flowers. Dogs barked at the guns, the vagrant cuckoo called to its mate and nightingales sang through the hours of darkness."

After moving to the Albert sector (ready for the "big push") all was to change for July 1st was a grand and terrible occasion. At the appointed hour a mine consisting of 80,000 lbs of explosive was blown up under the German positions near La Boiselle and the 11th Battalion followed the 10th Lincolns into an inferno of blood,smoke and iron. Lads from Willingham, Over, Swavesey, Lolworth, Elsworth...... following the Grimsby pals. The machine guns in "sausage valley" chattered and "men were spun around and were dropping everywhere."

James and Jonas were killed together. The former died immediately whilst the latter died in the arms of another Swavesey man - Lance Corporal Alfred Linford. (Alfred subsequently lost his life almost a year later during an attack on the chemical works at Roux). Of those Cambs men who survived a handful fought through to the vast crater left by the mine whilst others died storming the Heligoland redoubt.

The Cambridgeshire Independent press reported the news on the 21st July 1916 under the banner "Heroes Of The Suffolks Great Charge:"

"...Yet the heavy artillery of the Allies reduced the first German line to rubbish heaps and enabled a considerable amount of ground to be gained at comparitively small cost."

Reading through the obituary columns of that same paper exposes the truth which is very different to the official report. Of the 750 Cambridgeshire men of the 11th Battalion who climbed out of their trenches at 7.30am 1st July 1916 no less than 691 were killed or wounded on that awful day... So much anguish in Willingham, Over, Swavesey, Lolworth, Elsworth.....

Today at the Lochnager mine crater the fields are still full of the detrius of war. The narrow country roads twist and turn past a myriad of memorials and cemeteries and amongst the fallen are row after row of boys from the fens who gave their lives for King and Country.

We should respect them still.

Phil Curme
Cambridgeshire (Population in 1916: less than 1800)

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