Life During World War One
History tells us that the men from the small, quiet town of Cuckfield had always shown patriotism for their country, and their response to the call to enlist in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War was no less enthusiastic.
No sooner was war declared in August 1914, than a Roll of Honour could be seen in the porch of Holy Trinity Church, listing the 56 men who had already enlisted into active service in the Army, Royal Navy and Territorial Force. During the course of the war 460 men enlisted, and the majority of residents had at least one relative fighting. Those men who were left behind were either too old, medically unfit to go to war, or held vital positions such as running farms producing food. This left the women of Cuckfield to fill the huge gaps in keeping the town functioning. The local shops were run by women, even the mens’ barbers shop where Mrs Reeve, wife of Private P. Reeve, kept the business running for fourteen months until her husband returned having suffered rheumatic fever.
There was established in Cuckfield a branch of the Hove War Hospital Supply Depot. Groups of ladies met in Ockenden House in the afternoons and evenings of Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to make such things as bandages, dressing towels, hospital bags, mufflers, operation stockings, swabs, shirts, night shirts and socks. As early as June 1915, 8,559 articles had been sent to Hove from Cuckfield and the workers themselves had also met the cost of the materials. This work continued for the duration of the war.
Since 1913 there had been a Detachment of the Red Cross in Cuckfield. In November 1914 when the English Military Hospitals were filled to overflowing by the influx of Belgian as well as English patients, the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Eastern General Hospital in Brighton accepted the offer of a Red Cross Hospital to be set up in the Queen’s Hall. The Hall was turned into a V.A.D hospital and ladies from the town trained especially as nurses to staff it.
On 2nd January 1915 the hospital closed for six months whilst the Post Office Rifles, who were billeted in the town, needed the Hall. However it opened again, and from July 1915 until 18th December 1918 the hospital never closed for a single day and 1,295 patients were treated in the 45 beds. The commitment shown by the nurses who all lived locally was praised nationally.
While the wounded Belgian refugees were cared for in the hospital, other Belgian refugees were sheltered in various houses around Cuckfield. A Committee of ladies ensured that they were well looked after. Those who owned properties loaned them for free or for a very low rent, and collections were made around the town for furniture, bedding and other household requirements.
The four churches and chapels in Cuckfield at that time played a large part in the life of those left at home while their loved ones were away. Holy Trinity Church was the large Parish Church, while two small chapels at opposite ends of the town, St John’s Chapel, Ansty and the Mission Rooms, Brook Street served local residents but were still a part of, and were administered by, Holy Trinity Church. Despite the lowered number of residents, the church had a strong choir and a full compliment of bell ringers.
The Congregational Chapel in Broad Street also held regular services. Besides the many Memorial Services for those fallen in the war, services of Intercession were held and services for Thanksgiving and Celebration when the war ended.
Reports show that the Boy Scout Group helped in many aspects of town life and supplied a guard of honour on many occasions.
Despite the great sorrow felt when 81 of the soldiers failed to return home, there was great joy when many returned and could join in special celebrations. Life gradually returned to some sort of normality, although the impact the war had on the town and many Cuckfield families, especially those who had lost two or three of their sons in the war, should never be forgotten.
With thanks to Shirley Bond, who wrote this especially for Cuckfield Compendium. Shirley is the author of a new book about Cuckfield, “Cuckfield Remembered”