In this guest blog post, Professor Mark Connelly reveals how the South East of England was transformed by the First World War and the impact this had on local industries, the influx of new inhabitants and women’s contribution to work previously dominated by men such as felling trees and collecting timber.
‘Being so close to the continent, the South East saw enormous transformation during the First World War,’ says Mark Connelly, who is Professor of Modern British History at the University of Kent. ‘But often that transformation was temporary – that’s what makes it so fascinating to revisit the area, and those times.’
As the World War One at Home project shows, the First World War was a time when the local could be very closely connected to the global. ‘You might have a soldier from your village sending back a postcard from Baghdad,’ says Mark Connelly, ‘or you might know someone who’d gone to serve with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, and ended up in Malta. And even when you’d got used to the strange circumstances that the war brought about, there might be a sudden change – you might have government agents turn up in your sleepy backwater, and the place could be transformed overnight.’
Take for example the town of Richborough in Kent: ‘it was a fairly minor inland place, and then all of a sudden the Royal Engineers take it over, building from scratch a secret port on the river Stour, to load barges with ammunition and troops. Before long there were millions of tons of armaments being dumped there in crates.’ The hidden port was built right under Richborough’s Roman fortress and Saxon walls: from 1916 it was the embarkation point for almost all of the hardware that was shipped to France, as well as being the place where the salvage of war – the spent shell casings and damaged vehicles – was brought back to. And here as elsewhere, the demands of the war were a stimulus to innovation: it was at Richborough that roll-on, roll-off ferries were first developed, to speed up the process of loading and unloading.
Like other parts of the UK, the South East saw an influx of people from overseas. But as Mark Connelly says, ‘the World War One at Home project shows that the kind of enforced cosmopolitanism brought about by the First World War wasn’t just due to people coming to the UK from abroad. There was also a great deal of internal migration, with displaced people having to move around the country. The First World War marked the death knell of the Kent fishing fleet, for example, as the Channel was too dangerous for it to put to sea. Much of it was moved to Cornwall, and stayed there.’
Being the part of the UK closest to France and Flanders, Kent was naturally the site of a great deal of activity centred around the treatment of wounded soldiers, with many hospitals in the area overwhelmed with the numbers of troops returning from the Western Front. Mark Connelly points out the irony in the fact that Tunbridge Wells was chosen as the location for one huge hospital encampment – ‘this was originally a spa town, built on much older ideas of health.’
On the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, the focus was more on aviation, with Eastchurch being used for pilot training, and Leysdown airfield being turned into a base for Short Brothers, for manufacturing and testing aircraft. Security was so tight that civilians needed a special passport to get on to or off the island.
In Sussex, meanwhile, there were female ‘lumber Jills,’ who were working as part of the Women’s Timber Service, which did for forestry what the Women’s Land Army did for farms, filling in for the men who were away fighting. Women came from as far away as Canada, to work in the local forests. It was unusual, certainly, to see women in these roles, but as Mark Connelly points out, ‘what’s really different about a lot of the war work that women were doing is the number of middle class women who were doing it – many working class women were already working in factories and in the fields before the war.’
Traces of the past
Many of these changes didn’t last much beyond the end of hostilities, and we’ve lost the last of the direct eyewitnesses to the First World War. But as Mark Connelly says, ‘we’re still left with that final and most enigmatic witness, the landscape.’ For example, from the air you can still see the trench lines that stretch across Kent, built in case the Germans invaded. The Isle of Sheppey in particular was turned into a heavily fortified position during the First World War, given its strategic location at the mouth of the Thames and on the approaches to Chatham, and given that it was a possible landing area for invading forces. So robust were its defences that Sheppey became known as Barbed Wire Island, while surviving relics of the First World War include a series of gun emplacements that were designed so that the guns could swing round to fire inland, in case the Germans got in behind them.
That final and most enigmatic witness, the landscape.
‘The South East is now so closely associated with the Second World War,’ says Mark Connelly, ‘that the footprint of the Great War has tended to be overlooked. People tend to think of the Battle of Britain, and of Dad’s Army units defending the beaches – parts of Kent are even called the Spitfire Coast in publicity material for tourists. People tend to think, too, that it was in the Second World War that the line between soldiers and civilians was obliterated: they forget that there was a massive precursor for this in the First World War.’
The centenary of the Great War provides an opportunity, then, to remember what happened in the South East in this other global conflict. And for Mark Connelly, ‘here more than anywhere, it’s appropriate to use the First World War commemorations to think about how we stand in relation to our modern European partners, and how we are all to get along, in a Europe that has so often caused misery to itself.’