Tag Archives: aircraft

Letters from the Front, hospitals and Hun Stuff

In this blog article Matt Shinn investigates what it was like for the families left at home during the First World War and the moving way in which one woman’s experience has been re-created in the form of song.

What must life have been like for the millions of women and children who were left at home during World War One – waiting for loved ones to return, waiting for news?

For Kent Fedorowich, who is Reader in British Imperial History at the University of the West of England, one of the stand-out stories from the World War One at Home project is about just this kind of private torment, which must have taken place, behind closed doors, in countless homes during the First World War.

Unusually, this particular World War One at Home story takes the form of a song. ‘Last September’ was commissioned by BBC Radio Bristol from singer-songwriter Daisy Chapman. It is a love song, accompanied by piano and strings, based on letters that were sent home from the Western Front to Lizzy Brain, in Bishopsworth in Bristol. The letters brought news of the death of her husband James, and gave details of his funeral: Lizzy also died a few months later, of what her family said was a broken heart.
‘I imagined her gazing out of her window to the East,’ says Daisy Chapman, ‘trying to pick up a sense of what her loved one was doing.’ The song includes lines from the letters that Lizzy Brain received, and it ends: ‘your coffin wrapped in the Union Jack – I’ll see you on the other side.’

The technological war
While Lizzy Brain’s experience was common to many across the UK, other stories from the BBC West region are more specific to the area. Life in Bristol, for example, was very much affected by the fact that the city was a major manufacturing centre, with new technologies being put to military use.

A facility at Chittening, just outside Bristol, was used to fill gas shells with the blister agent mustard gas, also known as Hun Stuff, which was manufactured nearby at Portishead. Situated in the middle of farmland, the factory needed good transport links, and so it was given its own train line and station to ferry workers and munitions to and fro.

The site also had to have its own hospital. Workers at the factory suffered from extremely high rates of sickness, which resulted in their being given one week’s holiday for every twenty days worked – something that was almost unheard-of at the time. Nevertheless, over 1,200 casualties were reported at the site during the war. As Kent Fedorowich says, ‘the gas shells that were produced at the factory probably did more harm to the people who worked there than they did to the Germans.’ The story is a reminder that it was not just those on the front line who found themselves in harm’s way, during the First World War – and yet now, there is hardly anything left at the Chittening site, to indicate what happened there.

The gas shells did more harm to the people who worked at the factory than they did to the Germans

Other new technologies that Bristol was associated with include motorcycle manufacture (the Douglas factory in the city made some of the best motorbikes in the world, and turned over pretty much its entire production to making machines for the front).
And then there’s the association of Bristol with aircraft. The World War One at Home project includes the story of Frank Barnwell, who developed the single-seat Bristol Scout before the war, as a private racing plane, but then had his design commandeered by the Royal Flying Corps, for use on reconnaissance missions. After serving as a pilot himself on the Western Front, Barnwell was recalled to Bristol to work on what is widely seen as one of the outstanding aircraft of the First World War, the Bristol Fighter. Generally known as the Brisfit, by the end of the war over 1,500 were in service in the Royal Air Force.
And Bristol is still associated with aircraft manufacture today: in 2010, apprentices at Airbus built a working replica of the Bristol Fighter, while in 2013 the company named its new engineering headquarters in Filton in Barnwell’s honour.

The road to recovery

As a busy port, and with excellent road and rail connections, Bristol was also the place that many wounded servicemen were brought to, to be treated. Charles Booth, Associate Professor at the Bristol Business School, points out that the city was ‘at the forefront of medical advances during the First World War, with pioneering surgery and medical technology being developed.’
A number of new hospitals were established in Bristol, with several even being donated by private individuals. One such was Bishop’s Knoll War Hospital which was converted at his own expense by a former Australian wool-baron, Robert Edwin Bush, and which treated Australian wounded servicemen In its own way, Bristol Zoo also contributed to the recovery of wounded servicemen: by the end of the war, some 32,000 had attended morale-boosting events there.

Kent Fedorowich and Charles Booth discussing their research at the World War One at Home roadshow at the Bristol Balloon Fiesta

Kent Fedorowich and Charles Booth discussing their research at the World War One at Home roadshow at the Bristol Balloon Fiesta

The crossroads of Empire

Elsewhere in the region is what for Charles Booth was one of the most extraordinary places in the First World War. Taking up around a ninth of the county of Wiltshire, the army training areas of Salisbury Plain ‘give you a sense of the truly international nature of the conflict. It was here that civilians from all over the Empire – from India, South Africa, Australia, Canada, New Zealand – found themselves, and where they were turned into soldiers.’ Photos from the time show soldiers of many different nationalities passing through.

 Salisbury Plain gives you a sense of the truly international nature of the conflict

With its wide-open spaces lending themselves to large-scale manoevres, Salisbury Plain became the British army’s main training ground. That training itself was hazardous – the area contains the graves of soldiers who were killed in accidents. And you can still see traces of the dummy trenches, built to give recruits an idea of the kind of combat they would be facing in this War to End War – trenches that now sit alongside remnants from more recent times, and subsequent wars.

Aircraft built in Lincoln – the home of the tank

In this guest blog, Dan Ellin considers the places and people behind aircraft of the First World War which were built in a city better known for producing tanks.

In the history of warfare and the Great War, the city of Lincoln has become synonymous with the tank. In 1915 William Tritton, the managing director of William Foster & Co and Major Walter Wilson first began drawing designs of was to become the tank in a room in a local hotel. After unsuccessful trials of ‘Little Willie’, ‘Mother’ the prototype of the Mark 1 tank was tested at Burton Park on the outskirts of Lincoln in January 1916. Shortly afterwards the first 100 tanks were ordered, and tanks were first used in on the Western front in September 1916. Tanks were built in William Foster & Co’s Tritton works in Lincoln, but the city’s other engineering firms also played important parts in the war effort. Ruston, Proctor & Co., Robey & Co. and Clayton and Shuttleworth were all involved in aircraft production, with one in fourteen British aircraft being made in Lincoln during the war. The city was one of the top five aircraft manufacturing centres of the Great War with over 5,000 aircraft being constructed in the city’s factories which employed around 6,000 men and women on aircraft work.

Image 1. 1000th Camel at Ruston works.
1000th Sopwith Camel made by Rustons in the factory with workers in the foreground. Image from John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000).

Ruston Proctor & Co. LTD.

First contracted to build B.E.2c aircraft in 1915, Ruston and Proctor built over 2,000 aircraft and more than 3,000 engines in purpose built factory buildings in the Boultham area of the city. The firm was the country’s largest supplier of engines and employed more than 3,000 men and women in aircraft production.

Towards the end of 1915 the company began building the far superior ‘Sopwith 1 ½ strutter’ aircraft, and in 1917, the famous ‘Sopwith Camel’. The Camel was the highest scoring fighter of the war and it took its name from the hump over the two machine guns in front of the pilot. Rustons built the majority of the 5,500 Camels manufactured during the war; by November 1918 the Lincoln firm had completed 1,600. The thousandth model off the assembly line was painted in an Egyptian winged sun theme and used for publicity.

 

Image 2. Robey Peters fighting machine
Peters in the gun nacelle of the prototype Robey Peters fighting machine. John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000)

Robey & Co. LTD.

Between 1915 and 1919 Robey & Co. built aircraft for the Admiralty, but were unusual in that they also designed, built and flew prototypes of their own aircraft. The firm began with sub-contracted orders to build the ‘Sopwith Gunbus’, a pusher biplane with the engine to the rear of the aircraft, and later ‘Short 184 Seaplanes’. At peak production they produced one seaplane a day.

The first aircraft Robey designed and built was a single seater scout biplane. The prototype was sent to Hendon, but was never tested as the Gnome rotary engine the designer had hoped to use was not delivered. The company’s most successful prototype, the ‘Robey Peters Fighting Machine’ also never went into production, but two were built and tested. It was intended that the aircraft would be used by the Navy for anti Zeppelin and U-boat patrols. It was a single engine aircraft with a crew of three, the pilot, and two gunners. The gunners were to sit in separate plywood nacelles in the wings. The port nacelle was to be armed with a Lewis gun and thirty rounds of ammunition, while the starboard nacelle was fitted with a seven foot long recoilless Davis gun and ten rounds of 2lb ammunition. The second prototype was intended to be armed with two Davis guns.

Robey Peters Fighting Machine 1 plan. Image from John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000).
Robey Peters Fighting Machine 1 plan. Image from John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000).

The first prototype flew from Bracebridge Heath near Lincoln in September 1916. Its first flight, a circuit of the airfield was successful, but it overturned on its second flight. On its third test three days later, the engine overheated, the plane caught fire and crashed causing £50 damage to a hospital building. In April 1917 the second prototype stalled on takeoff and crashed on the edge of the airfield.

Robey Peters Fighting Machine 2 plan. John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000)
Robey Peters Fighting Machine 2 plan. John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000)
Handley Page 0/400 Bomber and Clayton & Shuttleworth workers. Image from John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000).
Handley Page 0/400 Bomber and Clayton & Shuttleworth workers. Image from John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000).

Clayton & Shuttleworth LTD.

The company built aircraft on its 100 acre site on the East side of the city. They first built parts for Admiralty airships, but in 1916 they received orders to build the ‘Sopwith Triplane’ and in 1917 ‘Sopwith Camels’. Lincoln’s long association with bomber aircraft arguably began in 1916 when Clayton and Shuttleworth were given an order to produce ‘Handley Page 0/400’ bombers. Prisoners of war were used to build new aircraft shops in which the aircraft were assembled three abreast. The Handley Page 0/400 could carry the 1,650lb (748kg) bomb, the heaviest bomb used by the British during the war and they were so large they had to be flown directly from the factory’s ‘Handley Page field.’ In September 1918 a force of forty Handley Page 0/400s bombed targets in the Saar region of Germany. An order for ‘Vickers Vimy’ bombers was cancelled after the armistice when only three machines had been completed.

Aircraft built in the city were delivered to ‘No.4 Aircraft Acceptance Park’ on Lincoln’s West Common. The landing ground, impractically built on the hillside, overlooked the William Foster’s Tritton works where the first tanks were manufactured, and was only a mile south of the tanks testing ground. William Tritton has been commemorated by ‘Tritton road’ built in the 1970s. Although some industry remains in Lincoln, the Robeys works is now a builders’ merchant and there is an out of town shopping centre along Tritton road where much of Rustons aircraft industry was located. Much of Lincoln’s aircraft manufacturing industry has been forgotten.

Copyright for images in this post remains with the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology.