World War One, from 1914 to 1918, affected the Essex panorama to a degree out of all proportion to its four year time span. Warfare on an unprecedented scale meant a massive expansion in manufacturing and supply. Factories, ordnance works, railways and roads all grew to keep pace with demand. Army camps sprang up out of the fields; military hospitals multiplied. A new generation of warships, including submarines and fast torpedo boats, required specialised facilities at the dockyards. Airfields and anti-aircraft gun sites added their new shapes and dimensions to the Essex landscape.
Essex was on the main route for German Zeppelins and bombers on their way to drop their lethal loads on London. Air raids became a regular occurrence, sometimes by as many as forty aircraft. Fighter stations were set up in their path including one at Suttons Farm (later RAF Hornchurch) from where Lt. William Leefe Robinson took off in his BE 2c biplane to shoot down the giant German SL11 airship, the first Zeppelin to be brought down on British soil. At Stow Maries, south of Maldon, one of the WWI fighter stations still survives with many of its original buildings still intact.
The Royal Gunpowder Factory at Waltham Abbey had been manufacturing explosives since the 17th century and now was an obvious target for German bombers. In 1914 anti-aircraft gunnery was in its infancy and most of the deployed guns were simply field pieces mounted to fire skywards. Nevertheless, the gunpowder factory was deemed one of the most important sites in the country and every means of defending it had to be employed. At the beginning of the war, the site was protected by just two one-pounder pom-poms. As technology and supply grew so did the depth of the factory’s defences until by 1918 the site was ringed by gun emplacements on the surrounding hills. Not only does the Gunpowder Factory still survive – it is now a protected site – but so do some of the gun emplacements.
At sea, the British and German battle fleets faced each other with a prodigious weight of firepower. But, as the ships grew larger it was seen that they could be vulnerable to attack by small, fast boats, difficult to hit as they skimmed across the waves. In April 1917, Coastal Motor Boats proved their worth in an attack on German destroyers off Zeebrugge and by the end of the war five CMB stations had been established around Britain. The biggest of these was at Osea Island, on the River Blackwater, where, in its isolation, many of the original features and buildings still remain.
© Fred Nash, ECC