On 10 February, Kurt Taroff and Michelle Young from the Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded “Living Legacies 1914-18” engagement centre, led a full-day workshop in the Brian Friel Theatre at Queen’s University Belfast. Continue reading Performing Commemorations Project: Dramatic Responses to the Legacies of the First World War
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.’
The Scottish experience of the First World War and its aftermath was different, in many ways, from that of the rest of Britain. Among other things, it was in Scotland that Britain probably came closest to having its own version of the Russian Revolution.
Billy Kenefick is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee. As he points out, ‘Scotland in many ways was highly patriotic in the First World War: some 63% of eligible men in Dundee were in uniform, for example – that’s a very high proportion. And the “tank campaign” to raise money for the war effort in 1917/18, which involved battle-scarred tanks touring towns and cities to drum up sales of War Bonds and Savings Certificates, saw several Scottish cities vying to outdo each other. Dundee raised £4.5 million in one week.’
Yet several Scottish cities were also leading centres of the anti-war movement, with many of them having anti-conscription fellowships. Scottish cities also saw significant industrial and civil unrest, during and immediately after the war. The Independent Labour Party in Scotland grew from 3,000 members to 10,000 by war’s end – a rate of growth that wasn’t replicated elsewhere in Britain. And ironically perhaps it was Glasgow, seen by many as the second city of the British Empire, which became the focus of political radicalism, and effectively found itself under martial law during what became known as the Red Clydeside era.
Glasgow and the surrounding area was home to a significant amount of heavy industry, but many factory and shipyard workers lived in conditions of extreme poverty. During the war, the government introduced a number of laws that were met with hostility by the trade unions, while at the same time, living and working conditions became worse. This led to a campaign for a 40-hour week, and other improvements in working conditions.
Then on 31 January 1919, a huge rally was held in George Square in the centre of Glasgow, organised by the trade unions. The gathering turned into a riot, and the Red Flag was raised by the crowd. Barely a year after the Russian Revolution, the government in Westminster panicked: fearing a Bolshevik-style insurrection on the streets of Britain, they sent troops and tanks into the city to quell the unrest, making sure that the troops weren’t Glaswegian (the local regiment was locked inside its barracks), and that few of them were veterans of the war, lest they prove too sympathetic to the aims of the protestors.
Poetry and rare finds
Another Scottish location that is famously associated with the First World War is the Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh, where officers suffering from shell shock were treated with ‘talking cures’ and other newly developed therapies (enlisted men were subjected to altogether less enlightened regimes, in other locations), and where the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon first met, inspiring each other to write some of the poetry that continues to shape the view of the war that so many of us have.
Alistair McCleery is Professor of Literature and Culture at Edinburgh Napier University, which now includes the old Craiglockhart buildings, as well as housing the specialist archive of materials relating to Owen, Sassoon and others – the War Poets’ Collection. The Craiglockhart site is still home to a rare form of moss, found in Northern France, which presumably arrived on soldiers’ boots.
‘With the War Poets being an important part of the school curriculum,’ says Alistair McCleery, ‘we get a lot of school groups making visits to the campus. World War One at Home has led to the creation of learning resource packs that we can give to them: it’s a lasting legacy of the project.’
And according to Alistair McCleery, the summer roadshows that have been organised as part of the World War One at Home project, including one in Dundee, have been ‘like the TV programmes Cash in the Attic, or the Antiques Roadshow.’ Among the original material that has come to light, as members of the public have brought it in, has been a concert programme from Craiglockhart during the war: the evening’s festivities described in the programme, and put on by the patients, began with the national anthems of the Allies, including Russia’s old Tsarist anthem. Another person at the roadshow came forward with rare copies of The Hydra, the magazine produced by patients at Craiglockhart, which Wilfred Owen edited, and which features the first appearance of his poetry in print.
The real Miss Jean Brodies
According to Alistair McCleery, the World War One at Home project has helped draw attention to some Scottish writers who should be better-known, including the Dundee poet Joseph Lee, and Christine Orr, whose novel, The Glorious Thing, describes ‘ordinary lives during an extraordinary time.’ But then, ‘this was an experience that engulfed everyone. The First World War wasn’t a remote conflict, like the Boer War – no-one could escape its effects.’
The Morningside area of Edinburgh, for example, used to be famous for its spinsters – real-life Miss Jean Brodies. ‘But behind the type is a sad reality – so many women were forced to turn to the teaching profession after their fiancés were killed. You need an empathetic imagination, to picture what life must have been like for them, in the Twenties. The life that was mapped out for them, all gone.’
A diaspora in reverse
Other distinctive elements of the Scottish experience of the First World War include the sense of martial tradition. ‘The kilted soldier really was the poster boy of Empire,’ says Derek Patrick, Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee. The exploits of Scottish regiments in conflicts like the Peninsular, Crimea and Boer Wars, had cemented the place of the Scottish soldier in Britain’s consciousness. ‘National, religious and military traditions all came together. It says something about Scotland as a nation. Military achievements helped Scots identify with the imperial project – the Scots saw themselves as Empire-builders, and as defenders of the Empire in adversity.
There was also what amounted to a ‘diaspora in reverse’ during the First World War, with first or second-generation Scots returning from Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, to fight in Europe, either with Scottish divisions, or in kilted South African or Canadian regiments.
And this story of the movement of Scottish soldiers around the world led to some interesting cases of cultural cross-over. The famous Scottish regiment the Black Watch, for example, had a long association with the Indian subcontinent, and its second and fourth battalions served with Indian divisions during the War. Several Indian regiments incorporated pipe bands and tartans, while long periods stationed in India rubbed off on Scottish soldiers, affecting their language (military slang of the period is full of words of Indian origin, including ‘pukka,’ ‘cushy’ and ‘doolally’, which blended with the Franglais slang popularised by men of the New Army) and their taste in food – curry was offered by army cooks from influence of the Indian army, and introduced more widely as a result of the War. The newspapers in Dundee, a city whose jute trade was closely linked with India, used to delight in showing photos of Scottish soldiers rubbing shoulders with troops of many different nationalities, knowing that their readers would find them interesting.
Commemoration in Scotland
The Great War Dundee Commemorative Project aims to co-ordinate a city-wide approach to the centenary commemoration of the First World War, bringing the local community together with Dundee’s museums, archives, libraries, universities, schools and businesses, through a programme of activities that encourage the broadest possible public participation and collective reminiscence. These activities include the opening of a hundred-year-old time capsule, located in Royal Mail’s Dundee East Delivery Office, which is thought to contain a large number of letters from soldiers on various First World War battle fronts, and photographs of Dundee men and women, as well as stamps and coins from the time. The aim is for events in Dundee to serve as a focus for a specifically Scottish commemoration of the war.
Scotland has a particular culture of remembrance, too. According to Billy Kenefick, that can be seen in the cathedral-like Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh: ‘there was a sense that the Cenotaph in Whitehall wasn’t good enough – there was a national desire to commemorate Scottish soldiers in their own way, to see them as fighting the war for Scotland as well as for Britain. But then, Robert the Bruce had been used on recruiting posters, while others used to say “we cannot allow the sons of the rose, the leek and the shamrock to get ahead of the sons of the thistle”.’
Find out more about what research reveals about WW1 and its legacy in the AHRC’s Beyond the Trenches publication. Read it online or order a free copy here.
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’.
In 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.
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.