Beer's sailors marched off to war together

Posted by - 3 years ago

Beer's sailors marched off to war together

Beer 1914_1_jp

A village on the Jurassic Coast of Devon, Beer is well known for its cliffs and picturesque beach, from which fishermen still ply their trade in small, colourful boats. Beer stone has been prized for centuries, and the Beer Quarry Caves have produced limestone used in both Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral.

It is said that many men from Beer served with English naval legend Sir Francis Drake, and their descendants continued to earn their living from the sea, many as fishermen. In any event, in the early part of the last century, many Beer fishermen were members of the Royal Naval Reserve.

And so it was that on August 3, 1914, the day BEFORE war was declared, men from the village marched off together to an uncertain future following a call-up of reservists by the Admiralty.

That moment was captured on film by a photographer, and the resulting picture shows the men, most in uniform, being waved off by their mothers, wives, sisters, sweethearts and daughters, while young boys walk alongside them as they are led by a brass band through the streets of their home village.

Most, fortunately, were to make it home after the war ended, as were many of their brothers, cousins and friends who subsequently went off to serve in the Royal Navy, in the Army or in the RFC or RAF. Indeed, the only recorded member of the Royal Naval Reserve on the Beer war memorials is Norman Franklin, who was born in the village in 1889. He appears to have been working in Cardiff at the time war broke out, so it is unlikely he was in the Beer photograph.

Also in Wales at that time was Robert Woodgate, born in Beer in 1866. He was 48 years old when war broke out, and served in the Royal Naval Reserve skippering armed trawlers, civilian fishing boats adapted for military use, starting with the Koorah in Milford Haven. He was demobilised at the beginning of 1920. So he holds two local records: the first as the oldest man from Beer known to have served in World War I, the second as the reservist with the longest wartime service.

Sadly, not all men from Beer were to be so fortunate as Mr Woodgate, and more than two dozen are remembered with honour on the village’s memorials. Overwhelmingly, those who served on land bore the brunt of the fatalities: of the 26 men from Beer who died in the war, 19 were in the army.

Of those killed at sea, four died on the same day, and three – Norman Franklin, William Mutter and Robert Orley – were serving on the same ship, HMS Defence. She sank in the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916, as did HMS Invincible, on which Walter Abbott served.

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