When our first-line division went overseas, the 61st Division moved to Essex to guard the coast against a possible German invasion and to dig trenches. After a short stay at Billericay we moved to Maldon, a small harbour on the river Blackwater. The 2/8th Battalion occupied the top half of the town and the 2/7th Battalion the lower part.
One night when we were watching a film in the local cinema we heard a great roaring, and rushing out into the street we found a huge Zeppelin airship flying very low overhead. Some bombs and incendiaries were dropped round the ironworks near the harbour and a light left burning in Battalion H.Q. brought another shower which fortunately did no damage apart from destroying a wooden carpenter’s shop and killing a blackbird. This was the first of a series of Zeppelin raids and our initial experience of enemy action. A few months later the Brigade was under canvas near Epping and one of the Gloucester battalions was having a guest night. Suddenly over the forest appeared a Zeppelin flying low, and the bomb-dropper must have been surprised to find himself over a large tented camp. Anyhow he forgot to remove the safety pins from the bombs which he let fly, and although several fell and buried themselves deeply in the ground, no one was hurt and the only casualty was the Gloucesters’ mess tent which was set on fire by an incendiary.
As we had only a few antique Lee-Metford rifles and no ammunition – the Gunners were equipped with Crimean muzzle-loading guns – there was no means of retaliation and the Zep flew off unharmed. At this period of the war the East Coast anti-aircraft defences consisted of two Rolls Royce cars each mounting a small pom-pom, and the Zeps which were brought down in flames were set on fire by early night-flying B.E.2c.s – Leefe-Robinson being awarded a V.C. as being the first man to cripple and destroy one of these huge but useless airships. Mersea Island lies at the mouth of the Blackwater and was reputed to be a place where German spies were landed from submarines: So a detachment of the 2/8th was sent to guard and patrol the coast. We had a long and very hot march to arrive at The Strood – a causeway – giving access to the island from the mainland. Pat Barrow – second in command of my Company – and I billeted the troops and decided to accept the offer of a local yachtsman to bed down in his hulk, a converted schooner. Mersea Island was the home of many of the professional crews who were recruited to man the big racing yachts of those days. After a heavy day I was too tired to get out of uniform, but Pat changed into “civies”. We were peacefully relaxing when overhead on the deck we heard the stamping of field boots, and who should appear but our Divisional Commander the Marquess of Salisbury and some of his staff. Too terrified to speak I stood at attention, while Lord Salisbury ticked off Pat for being out of uniform, and next day he was returned to unit! We spent a pleasant month on Mersea – periodically going to the east end of the island to visit another detachment. Douglas Bomford, one its officers, was the proud owner of a Bradbury motor bike which one foggy evening deposited me into a ditch without damage to the bike or its rider. My own Douglas had been left behind at Maldon; it was a horizontally-opposed two cylinder model and a great improvement on its predecessor.
When we returned to Maldon, the Battalion was moved to Epping and later to Brentwood where Dick Stallard, Eric Mitchell and I found a very comfortable billet.
Before we left Maldon the Division was reviewed by the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, paraded in a park near Chelmsford. After a long, hot, and tiring march, the Battalion sat on the grass to relax. Called to attention, we saw Lord Kitchener, mounted on a white horse, ride slowly down the lines while the battalions in turn presented arms. In front of us sat on their steeds our 6 ft. 8 in. Colonel Mat Dixon and Major Checketts, second in command, whose large bay horse had had more experience in the hunting field than on parade.