The Book

The book ‘A Village at War’ came as a result of further studies based upon the text of the original play reading.

Says John Callcut; ‘Every year, on Remembrance Sunday, the thirty two names on the Newdigate War Memorial are respectfully read out. When Mabel Whiffen died in 2004 the last village connection with the First World war was severed so I was determined that these brave men should not be forgotten. I set out to discover their background …. where did they live? what did they do? what did they look like and what did they think?… and then set their story into context with events happening in the war.’ Adds John ; ‘The study took me to research offices, libraries, museums and the homes of descendants throughout the country. These men gave their lives so that we can live in a free society ….. they should not be forgotten’.

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A selection of reviews:

vill1This is a book on the Great War that avoids the regular themes – the leaders, the men, the battles and the poetry. Newdigate – A Village at War is that rare thing – a book detailing the impact on a small village in Surrey, Newdigate. Extremely well researched, the book ranges from showing the comfort and certainty of pre-war England to the challenging post war period as well as the balance between the increased tempo of the war in Europe and the traditional rhythms of the Surrey countryside. Like many villages, Newdigate’s social structure was dominated by the landed gentry, it had its paternal vicar, who urged all to duty until his own son was killed in 1915, and a matriarchal villager concerned that village boys had nothing to fill their spare time. The author shows how things changed as the village sent a succession of young men to war. No less than 32 failed to return; one a lad who had to be force-marched back to his train to his unit. At the station, weeks before he was killed, he foretold his death.

The author spent twenty-five years researching the book, travelling the country to ensure accuracy, and it shows. The stories highlight the impact of ‘their’ boy’s death or wounding on village families. The book also contains many original and unpublished photographs (including unique images of Gallipoli taken by an officer the morning he was killed and found in his camera long after his death). The impact of the war in the village and the stories of the men at the front are woven into the story of the war in a number of theatres, contrasting the urgent need for sandbags and bandages with the suffering of those at war and the impact on the community they left behind. Highly recommended.

This review first appeared in the Western Front Association ‘Stand To!’ magazine no. 94 in May 2012.

I’ve just come back from a trip abroad and discovered the book on Newdigate in WW1. Thank you so much for going to the trouble of sending me a copy. I love these books because they are an absolute labour of love, and normally no effort is spared by the author to find out all he can about the local lads who died: this book is no exception.

I am fascinated by the story of the Boy Soldiers in WW1 and I immediately picked up on two lads who died. There’s Aubrey Hudson, aged 15, and Roy Goldstack who had enlisted at 16 and died three years later. Aubrey is of especial interest having enlisted at the age thirteen. His age is not given on the Commonwealth War Graves’ website so his name had completely passed me by, sadly his enlistment papers do not survive.

Many, many thanks for your kindness again and if you do happen to bump into John Callcut then please pass on my warmest regards and admiration for his work.

All best

Richard Van Emden


The author with Major & Mrs Holt

Whilst many books about the effects of the First World War on local areas tend to focus on those who lost their lives, A Village at War manages to combine this with a complementary narrative about the effects of the war on the village itself. Adopting a chronological approach the narrative is anchored by extracts from the monthly parish magazine, supplemented by stories from the local paper and research from a wide variety of other sources.

Details of the 32 men who lost their lives are well-researched and interesting in themselves, with detailed biographies and pictures of many of the men. A broad spectrum of ranks and units are represented, although unsurprisingly many of the locals joined either the East Surrey Regiment or The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. Coupled with the additional information about how the war was perceived by those at home, the social composition of the village and the effects of the war on the local families are really brought to life.

Life back at home was by no means easy, and through the parish magazine we see the initial patriotic calls for men to enlist turn into ongoing fundraising campaigns to send the men home comforts and more practical items, most notably sandbags. The birth of the women’s labour force and the debate that this caused is also seen through the eyes of the local people and their experiences. One also gets the sense of loss as the local casualties start to mount (including the son of the rector, the author of many of the patriotic ‘call to arms’ editorials featured in the parish magazine), and the impact this had on the individual families and the village as a whole. As the war drags on the justness of the cause is a common theme in the parish magazine, as are thinly veiled comments about those men not seen to be playing their part.

Comprehensively illustrated with many pictures of the area and the people, A Village at War offers a window onto a microcosm of rural England during the war years. Meticulously researched over 25 years, it has obviously been a labour of love for the author and also benefits from the reminisces of some of the locals who lived in the area during this time. Required reading for anyone with an interest in Newdigate or who wants to know what the effect of the war was on a typical rural Surrey village.

This review first appeared in the journal of the East Surrey Family History Society, June 2012