Tag Archives: Gateways to the First World War

Over Here: American Aviation during the First World War

Handley Page Aircraft, between ca. 1915 and ca. 1920. Picture courtesy of Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006002611/                                                           Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

In this latest Guest Blog, Professor Ross Wilson, from Chichester University, talks about the visiting US forces that were present in West Sussex and their aviation contribution during WW1.

Ross’ project was funded via Gateways to the First World War, an AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centre. The joy of this project was that it was locally focused.   The Chichester News also featured the project in detail, remarking on technology, training and personal histories.

When the United States entered the war in April 1917 the need to expand their armed services was matched by a pressing issue of modernisation. Whilst the army and the navy could be developed, the nation had fallen behind Britain, France, Italy and Germany in one key area: aviation. Over the course of their engagement in the First World War, new aeroplane designs, engines and services were created that brought American aviation up to speed and sparked a new era of fascination for flight in the post-war era.

This wartime development of military aviation in the United States can be traced to the factories and flight schools that were developed after 1917. Workshops that had been making automobiles, were quick to produce the famous, powerful ‘Liberty’ engine that could outperform its European competitors. American universities and colleges also began training students as the US Government realised the enormous gulf between themselves and their new allies. The Aviation Section, Signal Corps, of the United States Army expanded rapidly with an extensive recruitment drive.

However, the site of these advances in aviation were also located in the American aerodromes that began to be constructed in Italy, France and Britain. These military bases enabled the United States to share knowledge, training and tactics with their allies in arrangements that set the basis of international military alliances during the twentieth century. Contracts were signed between the allies and manufacturers which provides materials and land.

It was the Handley Page Agreement of January 1918 that brought Americans to Sussex. This would offer access to a new development in aviation technology: the Handley Page Bomber. This huge machine, with a wing-span of over 20 metres, was designed to conduct raids into enemy territory. It was regarded as a key part of the development of the United States’s arsenal. The agreement enabled:

“…assembling Handley Page machines in the United Kingdom, of which all the component parts have been manufactured in the United States, and for providing thirty Handley Page Squadrons to be entirely at the disposal of the Commander in Chief of the United States Army in Europe.

This was a highly ambitious plan. Construction and shipment of the parts were to commence immediately with the following targets:

  • May 1918: 50 aeroplanes with 125 Liberty motors
  • June 1918: 100 aeroplanes with 250 Liberty motors
  • July 1918: 160 aeroplanes with 400 Liberty motors

Aerial photograph of Ford Aerodrome in 1918, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “View of Ford Aerodrome taken from the air. Ford [] Aerodrome, Sussex England, Oct. 23, 1918.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1860 – 1920. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-b379-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
The parts would be shipped to a factory in Oldham from the United States and then delivered to training bases in Sussex. Five sites were selected for aerodromes but only Ford, Rustington and Tangmere were constructed with hangars, classrooms and barracks in place by August 1918. Individuals were assigned duties at these locations but delays in manufacturing meant that none of the Handley Page Bombers ever arrived. Instead, pilots, navigators and ground crew trained on two smaller aircraft:

  • Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2
  • Airco DH.4 (De Havilland)

A strict regime of training was set out at these bases. Many of the pilots had been avid aviators before the war and the thrill of this new and precarious technology attracted the free-spirited and brave. Therefore, instruction focused on discouraging any techniques unsuitable for military purposes:

“All pilots are warned that “stunting” over hangars, diving over troops, transports, camps, villages or towns is expressly forbidden.”

Picture Courtesy of Library of Congress: By Louis D Fancher 1844-1944.  A poster for recruiting for the Aviation Section, Signal Corps “Over there! Skilled workers On the ground behind the lines” – In the Air Service / / Louis Fancher. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/93502849/

 

 

The arrival of Americans in Sussex was warmly received by local residents and social events were arranged to welcome the newcomers whilst baseball games and music shows were used to develop good relationships with locals. An ‘American Club’ was founded in North Pallant, Chichester, in the summer of 1918 to make servicemen feel at home and romantic relationships saw a few local Sussex women go to the United States after the war.

This was a period of experimentation and aviation was a very dangerous area of military development. As such, a number of American aviators sadly lost their lives at the aerodromes in Sussex. For example, Second Lieutenant Carlton Merrill Bliss (1895-1918) from Massachusetts, died at Tangmere in November 1918, in a crash probably caused by a malfunctioning control. He was buried at Brookwood American Military Cemetery in Surrey.

Brookwood American Military Cemetery in Surrey – Photograph Courtesy of Professor Ross Wilson

Whilst the aerodromes in Sussex were quickly decommissioned in November 1918, the legacy of the expansion of American aviation can be witnessed in the interwar development of the United States Air Force as the Signal Corps was found to be insufficient. This history highlights how the conflict can be measured in the physical construction of factories, aerodromes and military capabilities, but also the social relationships that were formed between people away from the front who would never have met save for the conditions of wartime.

 

The Silent Cities, 10s 6d

In this guest blog Professor Mark Connelly (University of Kent) discusses The Silent Cities, a 1929 publication by Sidney C. Hurst on the cemeteries and memorials of the Great War. This post was originally posted on the Gateways to the First World War blog.

When I first visited the battlefields in 1986 I found that my military history interest was very quickly matched, if not surpassed, by a new obsession with the memorials and cemeteries of the Western Front. The first Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery I visited was Dud Corner at Loos, and despite seeing many photographs of those neat and tidy corners of a foreign field forever England, I was totally amazed by actually stepping into one. Just like everyone else I found the cliché was absolutely true: the peace, quiet and dignity of the place were truly remarkable. On returning home I quickly managed to find a copy of Philip Longworth’s official history of the Commission, The Unending Vigil, published to mark its fiftieth anniversary in 1967.  I read it avidly and was particularly interested in the references to a book called The Silent Cities by Sidney C. Hurst published by Methuen on behalf of the Commission in 1927. Deeply curious as to its contents, I searched my local libraries with no luck and then put in an inter-library search request. In those days everything was done by filling in paper forms and acknowledgement came in the form of a prepaid postcard. After a good few weeks that postcard duly arrived and told me the book was ready for collection. Having no idea of the nature of the book other than the fact that it was obviously about the work of the IWGC, I had no insight as to what I was picking up.

Opening the book for the first time I was stunned. First, it was printed on beautiful, glossy art paper. Used to the yellowing and foxed pages of inter-war books I had purchased in my local second hand bookshop or read in the library, nothing had prepared me for opening a volume that seemed brand new. Then there was another huge shock. Rather than pages of text, which I had expected, there were photographs of cemeteries; not just a few photographs to break up and illustrate the text, but page after page of photographs. The book was a gazetteer of each and every cemetery and memorial. Under each cemetery was a short description with details about the graves they contained and map references to aid location. Suddenly I was teleported back to the world of the original visitors to the Western Front or those who longed to go, but with perhaps neither the means nor time who, instead, purchased the book as some kind of permanent souvenir of their lost loved one thus providing a fitting domestic reminder. The book was also a world of liminal spaces for many photographs showed the cemeteries incomplete or in transition. The original Graves Registration Unit crosses could be seen in some rows with others seemingly sprouting up their new crop of pristine white IWGC Portland Stone headstones. Close examination of the landscape around the cemeteries also revealed a world permanently caught in a moment of drastic transition. Look beyond the cemetery and it could have been a shot of the prairie with far, far horizons: the war had destroyed everything and so there was nothing to punctuate the background or immediate hinterland. Most of all, it was a world of saplings carefully planted by the IWGC in the cemeteries or some farmer to help define his field boundaries beyond. Mature trees seemed so rare that their total number could easily be accounted across the entire 407 pages of the book. It was impossible not to play the ‘then and now’ game as I thought about the cemeteries I had seen on my trip and compared my photographs to those contained in the book. Houses, roads, and above all, trees, had appeared in the intervening years.

The next great discovery was turning to the back of the book and seeing the index of cemeteries. Having been on the trip I had some inkling of the wondrous range of names used, starting with the severely utilitarian, through the humorous and ironic and on to the elegiac and iconic. But here was a whole new thesaurus of memory and commemoration. Cemetery names tumbled out and rapidly fused in my head a connection with Blunden’s poem, Trench Nomenclature, which I have never since escaped, particularly in that most wondrous of concoctions, ‘Perth Cemetery (China Wall), Zillebeke’. Pouring over the photographs and delighting (that may seem an odd word to use in this context, but I genuinely can’t think of another one which better describes my sensations) in the cemetery names, I saw veterans in tweed jackets, smoking pipes and doffing their caps as they visited the graves of old chums and cloche-hatted women with young children searching for solace in at least seeing daddy’s grave so nobly marked and beautifully maintained. As you’ll know if you’ve read any of my other pieces, that vision is one I have never since managed to shake off and has become an important component of my professional career.

Of course, the time came for me to return the book. I dreaded that moment, for I realised then that The Silent Cities was a book that I wanted to own. At that stage I knew absolutely nothing about the workings of the second hand book trade other than the fact that there was a good, rambling second hand bookshop in the London suburb in which I grew up. I did know that I had a rarity on my hands and I was highly unlikely to find a copy in my usual haunt. Aching with the misery that only a teenager can muster, and a teenager at the height of ‘The Smiths’ fame at that, I wondered what I could do. Looking at the library stamps in the book, I saw that no one had taken out since the late 1950s! From this fact I deduced that the library from which it originated might not be that interested in retaining it. Using what I thought to be politely cunning (or cunningly polite) skills I wrote to the library (I have a vague feeling that it was in East Sussex somewhere) and asked whether I might be allowed to buy the book from them, especially as it was clearly not the hottest volume on their shelves. Needless to say that offer was declined with equal decorum and politeness (and perhaps cunning, as well). Skip forward a few years and I was now on the mailing lists of a few second hand book dealers who sent me their quarterly catalogues. Then, one magical day, I saw the book listed in one of the catalogues. I phoned immediately terrified that it might have been snapped up by someone else, but no, I was fortunate and managed to purchase it for let us say a not inconsiderable sum for the early 1990s. Receiving the book felt like having a scoop of soil from every cemetery in Belgian and France; it felt like some holy relic was now in my possession. Something far more than a simple catalogue was now on my shelves.

You might therefore imagine the amazing frisson that overcame me, when, about a year later, I purchased a copy of a collection of R.H. Mottram’s essays titled Through the Menin Gate. Among the short stories, autobiographical sketches and snatches of journalism was a review of The Silent Cities. I made straight for the essay and felt an odd sensation as I realised that Mottram had expressed many of my own thoughts some sixty years earlier. ’The real end of the War came, so far as I am concerned,’ he wrote, ‘on the day that a volume entitled The Silent Cities, an illustrated guide to the War Cemeteries in France and Flanders, 1914-1918, was put into my hands for review. That was the end, there is no longer anything to be done.’ For me though, Silent Cities was not the end but the end of the beginning.

Gateways to the First World War is an AHRC funded centre for public engagement with the First World War centenary. It is managed by the University of Kent in partnership with the Universities of Brighton, Greenwich, Portsmouth, Leeds and Queen Mary, London, and supported by a range of other institutions. The aim of the Gateways team is to encourage and support public interest in the conflict through a range of events and activities such as open days and study days, providing access to materials and expertise, and signposting for other resources and forms of support.

The Arrival of the Belgians at Folkestone

In this guest blog post, Dr Will Butler (University of Kent) reflects on how Belgians crossed the English Channel in the first month of WW1. This post was originally posted on the Gateways to the First World War blog.

The outbreak of the First World War only had a very limited impact on the town of Folkestone during its opening weeks. Despite the fact that many of its summer visitors had left in a flurry of panic in its opening days, many did not, and the town had also begun to fill with British soldiers ready to embark for the front. However, by the middle of August allied forces had suffered a series of setbacks and its armies were on the retreat along with many thousands of refugees. Many fled westwards, but others attempted to reach the ports of Calais, Boulogne, and Antwerp in an attempt to cross the channel.

Belgians on boats
Belgians on boats

Initially, penny packets of Belgian soldiers began to arrive at Folkestone. The first boat from Calais brought 72 men from 12 different regiments. These men had fought at Namur and Liege, and the fact that they had come from so many different regiments shows just how much the Belgian army were in disarray. Within a few days, a conveyor belt of civilians began to arrive from the Continent, many of them in commandeered fishing boats. An extract from an article written by the Folkestone correspondent of The Times perhaps best illustrates the scene:

‘Gradually at first and very rapidly during the last week or ten days there has been a great change. The town is full, hotels and boarding-houses are crowded, and there is a constant stream of people walking along the Leas. A huge crowd gathers daily outside the closed gates of the Harbour Station and stands there for hours to watch the thousands of people landed every afternoon who pass out to take up their temporary abode here. But it is not the usual holiday crowd which Folkestone knows so well. These sad-faced people, who walk soberly about or gather in little groups and discuss solemnly topics which are evidently of intense interest to them, are not happy rollicking, holiday-makers, nor is their language ours. There is far more French than English heard on the Leas in these days, for Folkestone is becoming a town of refugees’.

It was estimated that by 5 September, as many as 18,000 refugees had arrived in Britain through Folkestone Harbour and there was no sign that the numbers would fall. A Folkestone War Refugees Committee was quickly formed in the town and a Belgian Relief Fund was instigated by various newspapers around the country. Each refugee was given a medical examination by a doctor before they left the Harbour, some were then sent on to London, and others were found jobs locally, such as hop-picking. Above all, free meals were provided to all who required feeding: as many as 6,000 meals each day.

All classes of people had made the journey across the Channel. Many ‘smartly-dressed’ people of the middle classes stayed in the larger hotels and boarding houses surrounding the Leas. The poorer visitors, described as ‘terribly poor’, with little or no luggage were put up around the town in rooms volunteered by many of the townspeople. The Refugee Committee was praised very highly for its endeavours. Described as displaying ‘untiring zeal, cheering drooping spirits, feeding the hungry, helping the helpless, and directing and advising all who stand in need’.

The stream of refugees continued almost every day until the middle of October. By this time the town was as full as it would be at the height of the tourist season and few unoccupied rooms could be found anywhere in the town. Over 100,000 Belgians had passed through Folkestone in only a few months and as many as 15,000 had taken up residence. As a result, more funds were required to ensure that they could be cared for over the winter months. Many of the shops had put up signs in their shops advertising in French and a specific paper was printed, Le Franco-Belge, which could keep those who wish to be informed of news from the front. All effort was made to make the refugees feel welcome and comfortable. For many it would be at least another four years until they could return home.

Belgian-refugees
Belgian refugees

The citizens of Folkestone clearly embraced the presence of the new residents. In July 1915, the town celebrated ‘Belgian Day’, to coincide with the Belgian national holiday. The Town Hall and other businesses flew the black, yellow, and red flag, and many Belgian children were seen selling them in the streets. A ceremony was held at the Roman Catholic Church and the Mayor of Folkestone spoke of England’s admiration for ‘gallant Belgium’.

Other events regularly took place throughout the war, and the town was visited by many dignitaries as a result of its hospitality to the Belgian people, including the King and Queen of the Belgians who were warmly received. Famously, Signor Franzoni painted a portrait which depicted the arrival of the first Belgian refugees at the Harbour, which can still be viewed in the town. A tablet was erected outside the Town Hall in testimony of the work carried out by the townspeople. Finally, a message was received by King Albert at the end of the war, when a Mausoleum was erected at nearby Shorncliffe Military Ceremony, who stated that ‘Folkestone had earned the admiration not only of the Belgians, but also of the whole world: yes, the whole civilised world knew how the town of Folkestone had received them with such cordiality which would never be forgotten’.

Belgian recognition of service
Belgian recognition of service

Gateways to the First World War is an AHRC funded centre for public engagement with the First World War centenary. It is managed by the University of Kent in partnership with the Universities of Brighton, Greenwich, Portsmouth, Leeds and Queen Mary, London, and supported by a range of other institutions. The aim of the Gateways team is to encourage and support public interest in the conflict through a range of events and activities such as open days and study days, providing access to materials and expertise, and signposting for other resources and forms of support.

Find out more about Belgians in WW1 on Beyond the Trenches: “Remembering Elizabethville: The Belgian Refugee ‘Colony’ of Durham”