Tag Archives: Lincolnshire

Mass movement, Pals and trawlers

​Matt Shinn looks at the eastern coastal counties of Britain where many major events in the First World War took place, but which few of us now are aware of. 

Nick Evans is Lecturer in Diaspora History at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull. For him, one of the previously overlooked things that the World War One at Home project has helped to uncover is a story of mass migration.

‘Up to the outbreak of war, Britain had been an increasingly isolated island nation,’ he says. ‘But the influx of Belgian refugees in the first four months of the war was bigger than any other wave of immigration in British history. And more people moved between and within parts of the British Empire than they had ever done previously.’

Robb Robinson
Robb Robinson

‘A third of the Tommies weren’t white, and many of them had travelled great distances to reach the front lines.’ As Nick Evans says, ‘we tend to think of the First World War as involving home regiments just hopping over to France from the South East of England. But even some of the British regiments – those from Scotland, for example – had already travelled hundreds of miles, before they embarked for the Western Front. And soldiers were often treated as aliens in the places where they were stationed. “One Scot, based in Lincolnshire, even put an ad in the local paper inSkegness, saying “I’m not foreign – I’m from the Western Isles of Scotland.”’

The threat of invasion

The reason why Scottish regiments had travelled down to Lincolnshire, and were stationed there, was to counter the threat of invasion. This is another ‘forgotten story,’ according to Nick Evans: the fact that Scottish troops were kept near the eastern coast of Britain, protecting the home front in the early years of the war, is a good example of what the World War One at Home project has been able to unearth. ‘There’s hardly anything in the archive about this,’ says Nick Evans. ‘We wouldn’t have known much about it without going to local sources.’

We forget how close we were to the conflict in France and Belgium, and how the prospect of invasion must have loomed in people’s minds

Indeed, the entire East coast can be seen as a front line in the war, and it is clear that the threat of invasion was taken very seriously: ‘in Skegness, instructions were even provided on what to do when the Germans invaded.’ The bombardment of Scarborough by German warships, meanwhile, was described in the press as a ‘failed invasion.’ Once the German army had captured Ostend in Belgium in October 1914, says Nick Evans, ‘we really were next.’

East Coast War Channels

 Popular prejudice

 The World War One at Home project has also revealed real patterns of prejudice.  Hull saw the most serious anti-German riots in the country, especially after Zeppelin  raids on the city, in which civilians were killed (according to Nick Evans, ‘often what  we think of as aspects of the Second World War – air raid shelters in British cities,  for example – were also there in the First World War’). Many Jewish people who had  settled in East Yorkshire, and had been the subject of prejudice before the war, now  also found themselves targeted because of their German-sounding surnames.

 Street shrines

 Urban areas in East Yorkshire also saw the formation of many so-called Pals  battalions, in which men who had enlisted together in local recruiting drives were  able to serve alongside their friends, neighbours and work colleagues. What this  meant, though, was that entire communities could be devastated in a single battle. A  sign of the way that towns and districts could be changed forever is the shrine in Sharp Street in Hull, which commemorated the men from the surrounding area who were killed serving with the Hull Pals. An impromptu affair made of wood, the shrine is now lost, but surviving photos show how the grief of local communities could be given visual expression.

The war of the little ships

Robb Robinson is a Lecturer at the Maritime Historical Studies Centre, University of Hull. ‘When you think about the maritime dimension to the First World War,’ he says, ‘most people think about the big battleships, and the Battle of Jutland. But the maritime war also involved many hundreds of small trawlers, with fisherman clearing mines and attacking German vessels.’ The Western Front didn’t really end in Flanders, in other words: ‘it continued right up the East coast of Britain. This is another aspect of the war which is very much under-explored: the war at sea as it was carried on month after month, by armed trawlers.’

A shipyard in Beverley was the centre of the production of trawlers for the North Sea fleet: one such vessel, the Viola, was

The Viola Bell
The Viola Bell

requisitioned by the Admiralty to become one of the first ships to use depth charges, and during the course of the war it was involved in the sinking of U-boats. ‘Go round the world now,’ says Robb Robinson, ‘and you can still find the bones, the wreckage of these trawlers.’ Having been involved also in the Falklands War, the Viola, for example, is now in South Georgia.

The coastal communities of East Yorkshire made a significant contribution to the trawler fleet. ‘I come from a fishing family myself,’ says Robb Robinson – ‘my grandfather worked on minesweeping duties in the First World War.’ Up and down the East coast of Britain, this was an aspect of the war that many thousands of people were involved in, directly or indirectly.

But it’s the little details in the stories, which the World War One at Home has unearthed, which for Robb Robinson give the project its particular power. The fact that the wife of the Viola’s skipper, for example, was involved in collecting sphagnum moss in the Shetlands during the war, for use as surgical dressings (other dressings, developed for the Allied forces by Hull-based Smith and Nephew, helped the company to grow into the multinational manufacturer of medical equipment that it is today).            

‘This was the first total war,’ says Robb Robinson, ‘which affected every aspect of society. And it’s only by assembling the little facets that you begin to see the bigger picture.’

The Beechey letters: Community history and commemoration

During the First World War, all eight of Amy Beechey’s sons enlisted in the British Army, but unfortunately only three survived the war; Barnard and Harold were killed in action, Frank, Charles, and Leonard died of wounds, and Christopher was invalided from the army after being badly wounded. In April 1918, aware that two of her sons were still in danger, Mrs Beechey was presented to the King and thanked for her sacrifice. She is reported to have told the Queen ‘It was no sacrifice, Ma’am. I did not give them willingly.’ The Beecheys regularly wrote home to their mother and their five sisters, and over 400 of their letters survive in the Lincolnshire Archives. Together with their sister Edie’s unpublished memoir held in the local library, and Michael Walsh’s history of the family, Brothers in War, these letters were recently used as the basis for community history projects, ‘Leaving Home’ and ‘The Last Post’ to commemorate the war’s centenary.

Beechey family memorial
Beechey family memorial ©Dan Ellis

‘Leaving Home’ was a collaboration between BBC Radio Lincolnshire and the University of Lincoln’s School of Performing Arts. To mark the beginning of the war, a radio play concentrating on the story of the eldest son ‘Bar’ was recorded and broadcast. Local children played the roles of two of the Beechey children in early life. This was followed by two concert performances which were also broadcast on local radio. The concerts, in Lincoln’s Arboretum and the village of Friesthorpe where the family lived, were accompanied by the Royal Anglian Regimental Band, and a Military Wives Choir. As well as engaging with a broad spectrum of the community, the location of the performances in places important to the Beechey family helped to create an emotional attachment and a poignant geographical connection with the past. Rather than focusing on the impersonal stone of traditional war memorials, the everyday became sites of remembrance. In ‘Leaving Home’ and ‘The Last Post’, local audiences were reminded of the humanity of those who walked the same streets a hundred years ago.

Written and directed by members of the Lincoln Mystery Plays Company, and with a large cast of local people, the play ‘The Last Post’ was performed in Lincoln from 11 November. The play used Edie, the youngest Beechey girl, as a framing device. In the opening monologue set in 1968, the character of ‘Old Edie’ directly addressed the audience and discussed the foibles of memory. She explained that while many believe that memory is unchanging ‘like a cine film’, she had edited her memories of her brothers over time, and only the letters she kept from them were unchanging. The letters represent a fixed point in time. Like ‘Leaving Home’, throughout ‘the Last Post’, actors spoke the men’s words as if they were writing the letters, and through them we know more about the men at the front than those who remained at home. Apart from one example when ‘Bar’ had replied on the back of a letter sent to him because he had no paper, letters to the brothers were not saved.

© BBC Radio Lincolnshire
Members of the cast of Leaving Home © BBC Radio Lincolnshire

The letters are eloquent, detailed, and highly descriptive; although the correspondence includes the inevitable Field Service Post Cards, with ticks acknowledging ‘I am quite well’, because the eldest brothers were well educated but served as privates and NCOs, they reveal details of life in the trenches from the perspective of those in the ranks. In one letter ‘Char’ extols the virtue of the sandbag, as ‘the one and only really useful thing… [they were] supplied with’ and explains its many unintended uses. Through the letters, the play reflected the different characters of the brothers, and their changing opinions of the war, particularly as their siblings euphemistically ‘went under’ and they learned of their deaths.

The tone of some earlier letters is optimistic and full of jingoism, while bitterness and fears can be discerned in later correspondence. In 1915, Chris wrote from Gallipoli: ‘Tell all the women and girls you know to send their men… I would rather perish or hang than live under the German Kultur’, and Harold told those at home: ‘This is worth it. We shall finish this affair up finally this time.’ However, the experiences of being ‘a bit crook’ at Gallipoli and wounded at Pozières, changed him. In November 1916, Harold complained about the ‘miserable spitefulness’ of the military, and asked his mother to write to his commanding officer in the hope that he would be granted leave before being returned to the front.

Through the letters and imaginatively reconstructed characters of Mrs Beechey and Edie, both projects focused on the loss and grief the Beechey family suffered, but their ‘messages’ about the war remained open to interpretation; it is likely that watching them reaffirmed whatever opinions about the war the audiences took with them. The plays about the Beechey family successfully engaged people with their local history, and the commemoration of the First World War, but also the functioning of memory. ‘Leaving Home’ and ‘The Last Post’ were imaginative and effective examples of community history projects, and as ‘history from below’, it was the human story of life and death that was important and resonated so strongly with the people of Lincoln. All those involved, both those who participated in the performances, and those in the audiences, experienced a new connection with their history and others in the community.