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Robert Bailey: an ordinary soldier's march to the Somme

When we last saw our Somme soldier, Robert Bailey from West Norfolk, he was about to leave his home village of Pockthorpe, to join the ranks of 8th battalion, the Norfolk Regiment. Don't worry if you missed it, just click here to catch up with his story so far.

Robert Bailey. Credit: Royal Norfolk Regiment

When Lord Kitchener appealed for volunteers to fight the Germans in the first world war, it prompted an extraordinary response.

By the end of 1915, two million men had signed up. Ordinary men from across Britain and the Empire.

Robert Bailey was one of them; son of William and Louise Bailey from the tiny village of Pockthorpe in West Norfolk. Robert was a farm labourer and one of 13 children. Five of his brothers fought in the war; two of them - George and Ernest - joined Robert in the 8th battalion Norfolk Regiment.

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

I've been talking to military historian and author Neil Storey about their likely mood in the months leading up to the Battle of Somme in 1916 when they saw action for the first time.

The idea was that if you joined together you served together, so you'd have lads from villages and towns and businesses going along together to serve with their mates.

There were lots of tragic stories and great sacrifices but everyone I've spoken to has said 'it was hell that war but I wouldn't have missed it for the world'.

– Neil Storey, Author
By the end of 1915, two million men had signed up. Credit: Pathe

Even the sight of badly wounded soldiers being brought back by the trainload to hospitals in our region when the war began in 1914, didn't appear to put the volunteers off.

"It was just the way it was at the time," said Neil. "There was no conscription, they were volunteers to a man. It was their patriotic duty to King and empire."

While Kitchener's army took shape, another significant part of the effort was developing on the Elveden estate on the Norfolk\Suffolk border. It was chosen as the location for training on tanks, used for the first time in the Battle of the Somme.

Those tanks - built at Lincoln and in the Midlands - were transported amid huge secrecy to Elveden. Temporary tracks were put down so they could be rolled off the main railway line and onto the estate.

Roger Pugh's written a book about this and gave me a fascinating insight into what took place here, chosen because of its isolated location in the hope the Germans would never get wind of Britain's secret weapon.

His book is called 'The Most Secret Place on Earth' in recognition of the estate being the training ground for the world's first tank force.

Roger Pugh's book.

"The army took over 25 square miles of land here. They created an exact replica of a World War One battlefield," he said. "Three thousand men worked for six weeks, digging miles and miles of trenches. They used more than a million sandbags; incredible amounts of barbed wire. Everything you'd expect to find if you were fighting in Belgium and France."

They managed to keep it secret. Those working in factories making them were told to tell anyone who asked that they were building water tanks for Mesopotamia where there was a water shortage. That's how they got the name tanks!

Tanks built at Lincoln and in the Midlands - were transported amid huge secrecy to Elveden. Credit: Pathe

Meanwhile, Robert Bailey was assigned to the machine gun section in his battalion. He did his basic training at Britannia Barracks in Norwich, then went to Shorncliffe in Kent, the Meeanee Barracks in Colchester and onto Salisbury Plain before sailing from Folkestone to Boulogne on July 25th 1915.

It would have been quite a culture shock for the young recruit.

"He was a hard working farm worker but nothing would have prepared him for what he faced after signing up," said Dick Rayner, who's spent more than 20 years studying the Norfolk Regiment.

When he went to Shorncliffe, there were no barracks, just tents - just rows and rows of Bell tents. They were each designed to hold eight but actually they slept twelve. They would've had one blanket and a bucket if they were caught short during the night. All they did were drills, more drills and route marches.

Lord Kitchener came down to inspect the soldiers at Shorncliffe on September 20th 1914 but he was only interested in the officers, not the riff raff from Norfolk!

– Dick Rayner, Norfolk Regiment enthusiast
Shorncliffe Camp. Credit: Pathe

Riff raff or not, the 8th Norfolks were an important part of the 18th Eastern Division which was heavily involved on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st 1916. What happened to Robert Bailey? I'll let you know closer to the 100th anniversary.

You can hear more about Robert Bailey on ITV News Anglia tonight at 6pm, when we broadcast the second piece in our series following "The Somme Soldier". And don't forget to come back for my next blog update.

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