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The Somme 100 years on - The story of Private Bailey

By Malcolm Robertson

I'd really loved to have met Private 12966 Bailey.

Robert Bailey served in the machine gun section of the 8th battalion, the Norfolk Regiment and responded to the call to fight for King and country in the Great War.

I've chosen him to be the focus of our series of features leading up the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st 1916.

On ITV Anglia (East) we'll be following Bob Bailey preparing for that day; a day when the British forces suffered some 57,000 casualties. Nineteen thousand of those were killed. It was the biggest loss of life in a single day in battle.

Robert Bailey was a very interesting character. He was one of 13 children born to his parents Louise and William. There were nine boys; six of them fought in the war. Robert, Ernest and George all served with the Norfolks' and were involved on that first day.

Private Robert Bailey who fought in the Battle of the Somme Credit: Royal Norfolk Regiment

He was born in the Norfolk village of Thursford, well known today for its highly acclaimed Christmas show that attracts thousands of people from around the country. The family moved a few miles to a small hamlet called Pockthorpe and the children attended the local primary school at East Rudham.

There were nine boys; six of them fought in the war. Robert, Ernest and George all served with the Norfolks' and were involved on that first day.

It seems most of the boys all worked on the land but were happy to sign up to the Army when the call came for volunteers.

The Bailey brothers who fought in the Battle of the Somme Credit: Royal Norfolk Regiment

"Most of that is organised at a fairly local level," says Dr Richard Maguire, a senior lecturer in public history at the University of East Anglia.

Dr Richard Maguire, University of East Anglia Credit: ITV News Anglia

"They were encouraging people to join on the basis it's their duty and the people who join in 1914/1915 are people who have decided 'yes, I am concerned about the defence of my country and I think I can contribute to the defence of it.' There were never enough volunteers to cover the country's needs, which is why conscription came later in the war."

– Dr Richard Maguire

It's thought Robert and his brothers would have undergone medicals in Norwich to check they were fit for warfare, It could well have been they were late enlisting.

"Because harvest was late due to the rain and agriculture in Norfolk in those days was very labour intensive, they kept working to get the harvest in," said Dick Rayner, a keen student of the Norfolk Regiment. "Perhaps there was peer pressure; perhaps there was a desire to get away from Norfolk and be part of a great adventure."

Robert Bailey would have begun his basic training at the Britannia Barracks in Norwich. From there he went to Shorncliffe Barracks in Kent; then to the Meeanee Barracks in Colchester before being sent to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire for final intensive training in readiness to sail from Folkestone to Boulogne on July 25th 1915.

The nation was grateful for the Baileys' sacrifice. A letter on behalf of the King, was delivered to the family home in Pockthorpe.

"I am commanded by the King to convey to you an expression of his Majesty's appreciation of the patriotic spirit which has prompted your six sons and son in law to give their services to the Årmy at this time. "

Over the next few weeks, I'll update you on what happened to Private Robert Bailey as the final preparations for the Battle of the Somme unfolded.

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