Tag Archives: Scotland

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 sound of pipes on the Western Front

In this guest blog, Professor Trevor Herbert (Open University) considers the role of military music both at home and on the front. Trevor Herbert will be sharing more of this research at Cheltenham Music Festival on the 6th July 2014.

By 1914 British military music had been in existence for a century and a half. The military was the largest employer of musicians in Britain and their role was unambiguous: they were the private, mess-room bands of the officer class, and they engaged with the populace and other ranks in ways that were deliberately strategic.  Public concerts and the integrated deployment of bands in military display and ceremony were so conspicuous as to have become essential. Lessons had been learned from the shambles that ensued from bad planning of state ceremony in the mid-Victorian period, and resources and training were put in place (not least the establishment in 1857 of a Royal Military School of Music) to ensure that the sight and sound of marching musicians was so impressive that they would be immediately understood as symbols, not just of the army, but the British state itself.  Put somewhat differently, the well-choreographed image of soldiers marching to step to inspiring music conveyed a potent sense of invincibility to everyone who witnessed it.

In 1914 it was necessary to deploy every propaganda device the state could muster to promote patriotism and to legitimize a conflict that few ordinary people properly understood and of which yet fewer could have predicted the grim consequences.  The heady atmosphere of the almost continuous parades that marked the departure of troops to the continent always had military bands as their soundscape, creating as they did a mist of optimistic pride, romance even, that made it all seem worthwhile.

For those left behind, military music was routinely deployed to sustain half- understood notions of a ‘virtuous war’ and engender hope through the apparently abstract but nevertheless potent meanings that music can convey. Georgina Lee, a mother with a nine-month-old child, wrote in her diary of the ‘five or six thousand’ outside Buckingham Palace on 9 August 1914, who watched as ‘these splendid fellows filed past to the strains of The British Grenadiers’.

WW1 piperIn the trenches of course, it was different. Military musicians famously act as medical auxiliaries in fields of conflict; also, and to great effect, they actually perform – not military marches, but popular and often romantic tunes, to attentive audiences whose sense of mortality could hardly have been more heightened. In 1914 it took little time for them to be rendered silent; many were killed, and there was an unrelenting need for bandsmen to carry comrades to the field hospitals. However, one sector of the military’s music was indomitable.

One soldier, resting with his battalion near Arras, wrote in his diary of Scottish troops, who were sent into battle as the advanced force, and who had retained their pipers even when other regimental bands were lost or had given away to medical duties – ‘The 51st Division had just come out and I used to hear their bagpipes in the morning.’ There are many accounts of these pipers, and several were cited for astonishing acts of bravery.  Behind the front line, on route marches and in rest camps, their piping maintained morale and raised spirits – ‘The bagpipes have a wonderful effect if you feel tired’ wrote one young lieutenant.  One wonders what the effect of this music was on those who lay on the other side of the line, equally exhausted and contemplative of loved ones far away – did it intensify their fear, or did they perhaps share something of the sustenance offered by the pipers who walked behind the British lines?

Professor Trevor Herbert

Trevor Herbert is Emeritus Professor of Music at the Open University and was the principal investigator of the AHRC-funded project ‘Military sponsorship of music in Britain in the nineteenth century and its relationship with the musical mainstream’. One of the outputs of the project, the book Music and the British military in the long nineteenth century (co-authored with Helen Barlow) is published by Oxford University Press.

World War One at Home – Tuesday 25th February across the BBC

Radio Jersey have been sharing tales from a German Prisoner of War camp on Les Blanches Banques on Jersey. There were successful escape attempts, and one German prisoner would return to the island as island Commandant in World War Two.

On BBC Radio Scotland’s John Beattie Show, Dr Catriona Burness revealed the forgotten radicalism of Mary Barbour, a Govan based woman who opposed war time rent increases imposed by Glasgow landlords, and organised militant protests summoned by Mary’s football rattle.

On Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle in Northern Ireland, it is the story of the cyclist company of the 36th Ulster Division. A local bicycle shop in Omagh received an urgent order for bicycles fitted with rifle slips and the soldiers cycled through rural Northern Ireland recruiting for the war effort. Dr Timothy Bowman from the University of Kent explained.