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.’
‘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.’
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.
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
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.’