The Importance of the Local in Engaging with World War One

In the latest Blog post, Dr Katherine Cooper from the School of Literature, Language & Linguistics at Newcastle University and New Generation Thinker 2016 talks about the importance of ‘the local’ and their engagement with WW1 history.

As a Geordie, I have always had a real sense of the local. Newcastle and the North East play a real part in my identity as both a British citizen and as a researcher.

For me, many of the narratives around the centenary of World War One, from BBC documentaries to memorial events can often seem very London-centric or focussed on the South-East.

Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland
Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland

Yet the narratives that I have found most interesting and most engaging in thinking about the war and my own relationship to it, have been those that I have uncovered in the archives of Newcastle and Northumberland.

Tyne Bridge Newcastle
Tyne Bridge Newcastle

My interest in this war is longstanding and I, like many others always associate it with the soldier poets, with the Cenotaph in London, with mile of graveyards in France. Even in terms of my academic work, it often it seems very far away, both historically and geographically.

It was fascinating, for me, then to find the stories of men (and women) who had grown up in the places that were familiar to me.

To imagine the nurse, who lived two streets away from my current home in Newcastle itself, who shipped out to Salonika and to read her diaries and hear of her journey, her excitement and the hardships of new wartime life.

Captain John Evelyn Carr (Photograph: Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn)
Captain John Evelyn Carr (Photograph: Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn)

To read about the adventures of Captain John Evelyn Carr who grew up in the same suburb as I did and who kept meticulous diaries of his service in France, collecting cuttings from newspapers, adverts and other ephemera as he travelled through France.

To examine the letters of the couple, William and Barbara, from County Durham, who wrote to each other almost every day, right through William’s training at Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire. Their correspondence even includes letters from their two children to their father in a prisoner of war camp in Germany.

Even to flick through local men’s light-hearted responses to the war in the magazine of the 16th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, The Growler, which, much like its famous contemporary the Wipers Times, satirises commanding  officers and mocks those behind the lines for their ‘cushy’ safe jobs.

The Growler c. 1916 (Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn)
The Growler c. 1916 (Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn)

What made a real connection – rather than thinking of the war as something that happened to other people – was thinking of people who had walked through the same streets as me, visited Tynemouth beach or done their shopping in the market towns of Northumberland, shipping out to war and taking these memories and these places with them.

And, I think, for many people these events can seem far away in terms of both locality and time, and this can make them seem alien or even irrelevant.

Although we all know that men from all the UK and, indeed, all over the world, fought in World War One, it brings the whole experience very literally closer to home to learn of the experiences of those from, well, closer to home.

When Carr writes of his experiences on the first day of the Somme, it seems incredible that there was a man from the leafy suburb of Gosforth there at the front, on that day (and there were many more besides, and from all over the North-East, as his account testifies).

He describes helping to evacuate the wounded from the frontline describing ‘I spent I think quite the busiest day in my life, the wounded began pouring in about 11am & continued coming all day, in the 2 stations we had approximately 4000 cases, I evacuated 2 trains including 966 cases, many being terribly mutilated, the sights and agonies of the men are too awful for words.

‘It is a sight never to be forgotten seeing there splendid men lying like helpless babies, & one poor fellow died while I was putting him into the train & I had to take him back’.

Carr’s experiences certainly struck a chord with me because of this local connection and I wanted to see if this was a way of helping others to connect with or commemorate the war, particularly during these centenary years.

In 2014 I won an AHRC Collaborative Skills Development Award to run a project with the Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn. The project aimed to use local stories, like that of Carr, to help local school children to engage with the experiences of World War One.

Working with a group of archivists, film-makers and postgraduate students, we made two films documenting the school students’ responses.

The sense of locality, of recognising the familiar names of Morpeth, Newcastle, Durham, Ponteland, Alnwick in these letters and photographs really helped these local sixth formers to relate to their experiences. The local accounts helped to bring the war home to students who were surprised to hear about the roles people from towns and villages they knew had performed during the war.

Bringing the war closer to home, in this instance, served as a really useful way of helping to promote these connections to a new generation.

Moreover, as local archives and libraries are increasingly threatened with cuts and closures, this can mark out a great way of demonstrating the value of their collections and even bringing in some much-needed financial assistance.

The local, whether in Devon or Dumfries, Dunston or Dublin, can help us all to identify with the events of the past and to connect with them more meaningfully in the present.




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