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1983: War Memories on display at Cuckfield Museum

West Sussex County Times, Friday November 11 1983


Cuckfield may be a quiet Sussex town now, but it livened up quite a bit in the two world wars. 

At its museum until January 18, there is an exhibition called “Cuckfield at War”, which is a record of people’s personal experiences of the two conflicts.

Curator Nicholas Smith had the idea for a collection of village wartime memories when someone brought in an article for the museum’s collection. On the back it had an appeal to anyone with a wartime gas mask to hand it in. I wondered if anyone had anything else and the exhibition was born, she said. She also borrowed materials from Warnham War Museum and the Records Office. “I didn't want to reflect national events, but things which might show details of people’s day-to-day domestic life”, she said.

The First World War did not have quite so many exhibits as the second. In the First war, everybody joined the local regiment, which was the Sussex regiment first battalion, said Nicola.

"They were decimated in France".

Cuckfield lost 81 young men.

One family lost three sons in three successive years, and another lost five cousins. It's also interesting to see how the tone of newspaper reports changes between the wars. In the First war, they were much more patronising and commanding.

She quoted an example of a stern leaflet proclaiming. ‘If you are spared, you and yours will be pleased to see your name on our role of honour’. 

One poignant exhibit was a book of letters home from George Eric Stevens, a pacifist to enlisted as an ambulance driver after seeing wounded unloaded at Brighton Station. “He was killed digging someone out after an attack’” said Nicola.

During the First War, Cuckfield Museum was a hospital and Cuckfield Park a supply depot. Strangely enough there were more food rations in the First War, each person was given a bigger weekly allowance. The Second World War was more dramatic for local people, mainly because of the doodlebugs and other bombs, and the widespread use of the civil defence Corps and home guard, so more people were involved.

The second doodlebug or flying bomb to fall in this country hit Cuckfield.

It fell in a field of wheat and mowed 18 acres of it.

Mrs Lena Gray, now living in Chatfield Road, Cuckfield, remembered the distinctive harsh screaming of the bomb going over and then the explosion.

“We didn't know what it was and someone came round to tell us we must not say what we had heard or seen.

After awhile when we were allowed to look at the wheat field where the bomb fell, it was completely flattened”. 

“In 1940, a large incendiary bomb fell on Brook Street. It made a hole you could drive a double-decker bus into”, said Robert Petitpierre of Whitemans Green, commander of the electricity unit in the Home Guard.

He also remembered when villagers thought he had a German spy in the house. A policeman came round to see me about it.

“But it was my priest brother who had just been over to the church to give mass and still had his cloak on”.

Raymond Foord-Brown who lived in Haywards Heath in the last war, became a messenger at 15 years old.

His memory of the war was mainly the tedium of night duty after night duty. “We saw the German planes going over and watched dog fights in the sky for the Battle of Britain and after, he said. We also saw the first flying bombs to come into this country full near Balcombe Viaduct.

Nicola Smith said the exhibition had quite a good response from residents, but they were still bringing things in.



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