In this blog post, Jonathan Black, Senior Research Fellow in History of Art at Kingston University and Dan Todman, Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London look at the impact of the war on London and how it is being commemorated in the city.
As the World War One at Home project shows, the experience of Londoners during the conflict was distinctive, partly because of the sheer size of the city. ‘Often during the First World War,’ says Jonathan Black, who is Senior Research Fellow in History of Art at Kingston University, ‘things that were taking place elsewhere in the UK were concentrated and magnified in London. Everything was on a bigger scale, as the capital acted as a magnet for people, money and development.’
There were munitions factories all around the country, for example, and accidents took place in many of them. But the explosion at the Silvertown factory in West Ham created one of the loudest man-made noises that there have ever been. Fifty tons of TNT were detonated, the bang could be heard over 100 miles away, and the resulting fires could be seen for 30 miles: 73 people were killed.
And while Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart is now the place most closely associated with the treatment of shell shock, it was London’s Maudsley Hospital that saw by far the largest number of cases of this newly recognised condition. Craiglockhart looked after officers like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon; the Maudsley dealt primarily with the ordinary soldiers. And it was here that experimental treatments were first tried out – everything from massage and talking cures to electric shock therapy. ‘The lack of understanding of shell shock is shown in the variety of terms used to describe it,’ says Jonathan Black – many in the medical profession preferred to use the terms ‘neurasthenia’ or ‘Not Yet Diagnosed (Nervous).’
Record numbers of women were working in London factories, too. And London being what it was, women there were able to fill some unusual positions, left vacant by men in uniform – Maida Vale on the Bakerloo Line, for example, was the first Tube station to be entirely ‘manned’ by women. At the time, London was the only city in the UK with an underground network.
The civilian war
For Dan Todman, who is Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London, it was the German bombing campaign against the city that really made Londoners’ war experience distinctive. ‘I was struck by stories of the raids by Zeppelins and German aeroplanes, many of which were to be echoed in the Second World War. And I was struck by the language that was used about those people who had died in air raids – that theirs was a sacrifice that had to be redeemed by victory.’ With London the principal target of the raids, anti-German feeling ran high among the civilian population: many Londoners continued to refuse to buy German products long after the war had ended.
One possible victim of the Zeppelin bombing in London was the cricketer WG Grace, who suffered a heart attack after one raid. The German airships had made him agitated: when asked why he allowed them to unnerve him, when he had stood up to countless fast bowlers undaunted, Grace replied: ‘I could see those beggars: I can’t see these.’
I could see those beggars: I can’t see these
As Dan Todman points out, though, it’s surprisingly difficult to gauge the impact of the First World War on the majority of working class Londoners. ‘Life during the war was very hard for many of them, and so they didn’t have much time to write about their experiences. It was members of the middle classes who tended to keep diaries, with a sense that they were writing partly for the historical record.’
The World War One at Home project has helped, though, to shed some light on the war experiences of ordinary civilians in London. It has led, for example, to the rediscovery of archives held by the London County Council, which had sent out investigators during the conflict, clearly concerned that the war was leading to social breakdown in the metropolis. Subjects that the investigators looked into include unrest among the cabinet-makers of Hoxton, after the war had put them out of work, and whether women in Lambeth were drinking too much, now that so many of them were alone, with their husbands overseas. ‘We don’t have a baseline for any of this,’ says Dan Todman, ‘to show how much had changed since before the war. But it gives us an idea of what the authorities were concerned about. And the fact that we have such records here is a sign of how well-developed municipal government was in London, compared to other British cities.’
London’s role as the centre of Empire is epitomised, meanwhile, in the story of Joe Clough, who was one of the first people to settle in London from the Caribbean. He became the first black London bus driver, in the face of discrimination – including one false, racially-motivated claim that he had been speeding (at 28 miles an hour). He went on to drive field ambulances for four years near Ypres on the Western Front.
Another distinctive feature of London is the role of the City. Volunteer battalions were raised in the Inns of Court, and among the stockbrokers of Lombard Street. As Dan Todman points out, ‘this was a distinctive feature of the First World War – the voluntary involvement of so many members of the upper middle class professions (many of which were based in London).’
The place of memory
Finally, it is London, of course, which is home to many of the national war memorials that were constructed after the conflict had ended. And so for art historians like Jonathan Black, the war memorials of London hold a special interest: ‘of the 54,000 or so World War One memorials in the UK, only around 300 have figurative sculptures on them, largely because they were expensive. But London has a much higher concentration of sculpture on its memorials than other places in the country.’
Among the memorials that are distinctive to London are the National Submarine War Memorial on the Victoria Embankment, which includes the first attempt to depict the inside of a submarine in sculpture. And round the corner, there is one of the first representations of a camel in a British city, on the memorial of the Imperial Camel Corps, which served in the Middle East.
With the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Cenotaph, and now the field of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, the capital remains the focus of remembrance in the UK.
For further information, please go to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01nhwgx