Bicester in the Great War
An army presence in the town and the surrounding countryside was nothing new to the residents of Bicester and the local villages prior to the outbreak of World War I. The local army regiments carried out manoeuvres and held training camps in the district.
The Bicester & District National Reserve was created as a precautionary national defence force should war be declared. The Reserve supplemented the regular army forces of the time. The picture (below) shows the Reserve parading in Sheep Street in 1911. The two central figures in the front row are thought to be the Duke of Marlborough and the Earl of Effingham.
The Declaration of War on 3 August 1914 was greeted with patriotic fervour. Many of those enlisting joined their local regiment, "The Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars". Lord Kitchener's national recruitment appeals saw many men volunteering to serve in the armed forces early in the war. Others were conscripted after January 1916. Army training took place at Blenheim Park and on Salisbury Plain for many of the new volunteers. Most joined the Army although a significant number enlisted in the Royal Navy. Bicester, with a tradition of working with horses through agriculture and hunting interests, provided blacksmiths such as Hector Haynes (below right), to work with cavalry regiments.
Many of the most notable families in the area were to provide volunteers for the forces. These included the Fane family at Bicester House, the Keith-Falconer family at The Garth, the Peyton family from Stoke Lyne and the Cottrell-Dormer family at Rousham House.
The volunteers left the small town of Bicester and a rural landscape that reflected the traditions and values that had held fast for centuries. The economic, social and cultural changes that were to take place at the beginning of the twentieth century would be accelerated by the conflict that was to take place. The character of the market town and the surrounding countryside would change forever. Those returning would note the change.
In 1914, only with a month of training, The Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars received an unexpected telegram posting them to Flanders to help prevent a German advance to the Channel ports. The Hussars became the first British territorial unit to see action in World War I subsequently taking part in actions ranging from Ypres in 1914 to Amiens and the final Allied advance in 1918.
The war impacted on Bicester in a number of ways. At the beginning of the war, Bicester Hall (7 London Road), the present Hometree House, was requisitioned and converted into a hospital with fifty six beds for the treatment of the wounded. The hospital was administered by the Bicester Branch of the Red Cross. The hospital was filled to capacity throughout the war. Additional bedded accommodation was provided when a wooden building known as ‘The Hut’ was built in the grounds in 1916.
Many of the staff at the hospital were local volunteers. The town’s doctors were closely associated with the hospital as the photograph below confirms (Men in the second row from the front, left to right: Mr J. T. Mountain (Chemist from Sheep Street), Dr Hendricks, Dr Long and Dr Montgomery). The nurse on the left in the front row is Miss Dorothy Mountain.
The residents of Bicester were enthusiastic to support the hospital. Charity stalls were one such way in which funds were raised to help with the work carried out there. The left-hand photograph (below) shows a stall situated outside ‘The White Hart’ in Sheep Street in 1916. Mr Morley Smith stands outside his family shop, at 23 Sheep Street, with members of the local scout troupe (below right) in order to raise money for the Red Cross. Attached to the door is a notice advertising a British Red Cross Society concert.
Fourteen wounded soldiers photographed at St Edburg’s Hall (left) after a sale of garden produce staged to raise funds for the Bicester Red Cross Hospital. The soldiers also performed entertainments on other occasions for the same cause.
The Bicester Red Cross Hospital cared for the lower ranks of all regiments. Wounded officers were treated at Somerville College in Oxford.
The wounded were encouraged to take part in physical activity to speed their recovery. At times this involved going out into the town or exercising in the grounds.
Bicester played host to a group of displaced Belgium refugees (below) in 1915 who had lost their homes as a result of the war being fought on the Western Front. The refugees were accommodated at ‘The George Hotel’ at the junction of the Market Square and Sheep Street.
The war brought about an important social transition as women took over men’s jobs on farms and in the factories. Other women were employed in voluntary work which ranged from knitting socks to nursing the wounded and welfare work.
Aerodrome construction to provide bases for the Royal Flying Corps at Bicester, Weston-on-the-Green and Upper Heyford commenced as early as 1915. None of the airfields became operational until late in the war. The aerodromes were designated as training units although they made only a limited contribution to the war effort. The Bicester aerodrome was constructed at Caversfield on the outskirts of the town.
The site consisted of a flying field and domestic site straddling the Bicester to Buckingham road.
118 Squadron was based at Bicester equipped with Bristol Fighter and Avro 504K aircraft (above). The photographs above show members of 118 Squadron. Avro 504, Camel and Salamander aircraft were deployed at Weston-on-the-Green (below).
Upper Heyford aerodrome was officially opened in January 1918. SE5A aircraft of 94 Squadron were amongst the squadrons posted to France from Upper Heyford.
When the war ended with the Armistice on 11 November 1918, local communities were left to count the cost. Well over one hundred service personnel from Bicester were among the fallen. Countless others from surrounding villages had also made the ultimate sacrifice.