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Benjamin Armstrong: Warfront musings of Norfolk vicar

Benjamin Armstrong was the diary-keeping Vicar of East Dereham in Victorian times, born exactly a century and a year before the armistice between the Allies and Germany. His diaries, which were later compiled during his time in Norfolk, include news and views on international strife, and he began his career as Vicar of East Dereham in 1850. Throughout his time there, he made frequent references to international conflicts and the involvement of Dereham men on the front lines, expressing horror at the carnage of wars such as the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War.

Armstrong’s diaries also demonstrate his affection for Dereham and the district, as he frequently made mentions of visits to London and a lively report of a family holiday in Paris. He had a keen eye for historical detail, sharing stories of an old parishioner who stood behind Lord Nelson’s chair when the messenger came to summon him for Trafalgar. In addition, he was heavily involved in commemorating Jean de Narde, a French prisoner-of-war who was shot dead when found sheltering in a tree after escaping from the bell tower in Dereham church.

His diaries include personal reflections, such as a confession in which he expresses his preference for the Army as a profession, and a love for his people and diligence in ministering to them, despite being viewed as “a dangerous man” by the diocesan authorities due to his old-fashioned Tractarian theological outlook. The first volume of extracts from Armstrong’s diaries was published in 1949, featuring a foreword written by his grandson, the Rev. Herbert B J Armstrong of King’s Lynn.

Throughout his diary entries, Armstrong demonstrated a capacity to see beyond Norfolk horizons, to weigh the possible implications of global affairs, and to hold a much closer interest in international conflicts, particularly those in which his younger son was involved. His affection for Norfolk and its worthies, as well as his proactive efforts to commemorate and honor the memory of a French prisoner-of-war, illustrate his dedication to his role as Vicar of East Dereham and his commitment to justice and remembrance.

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