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The History Press blog

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    Last month, I drove my eldest son up to York where I left him, with a duvet and minimal cooking skills, to embark upon three years of university education.  We both shed a tear as we said goodbye, and, as I drove back down the A1, I felt the inevitable emotions no doubt experienced by countless parents leaving their children to fend for themselves for the first time.  But a month has already flown by and I am pleased to report he is alive and well.  I can call him, text him, Skype him and if the urge took either of us, it’s a short, two hour train journey up there or back down to London.  There is no real hardship in this separation.  He is safe, warm and studying maths, which, much to my bemusement, he enjoys.   Before I know it, it will be early December and he will be back at home for Christmas, filling our laundry basket, raiding the biscuit tin and lying in bed until the early afternoon.

    From one (small, personal) landmark event to another, when I began to think about the importance of commemorating the centenary of the Great War, I could not help but wonder on how different this scenario may have been 100 years ago. What if, instead, I was the mother of an 18-year-old son then?  It is likely that instead of depositing him in a cosy, historical city to study calculus, equations and statistics, I would be waving him off at a London railway station where he would be bound for an Army training camp and from there, perhaps, for France, Belgium or another seat of war.  I would have to say goodbye to him, not knowing if I would ever see him again.  The relief of seeing him home on leave would always tainted by the anguish of having to say goodbye again and I would worry incessantly that he was cold, hungry, homesick, or, worst of all, frightened.   I would spend my days waiting for letters and postcards from him, dreading they would suddenly, ominously stop to be replaced instead by the knock of a telegram boy at our front door.  I would have to live daily with the fear that he, my clever, lazy, easy-going, affable, lanky, gentle boy, might be snuffed out by a sniper’s bullet, a hail of machine gun fire or worse.  I would have to accept that I might never know how he died.  And if I did, it might not be the truth.  Perhaps he would return, but be wounded, shaking with shellshock, limbless, blinded, or facially maimed.  Perhaps he might survive the war intact, unharmed and complete. Perhaps he would go on to live a long and happy life. Perhaps.

    Soldier on leave returning home during World War I  © Mary Evans/Robert Hunt Collection/Imperial War Museum

    It is hard to know what my son would have made of the war if he had been an 18 year old then.  He is privately educated, a scholarship boy, but was cynical about the traditional aspects of independent school life.  The OTC was not for him, and he only showed a mild interest in sport in what was an intensely sporty school (though his fondness for fencing may have been a useful transferable skill in 1914).  His extra-curricular activities amounted to philosophy club, maths club and the odd bit part in school drama productions.  Apart from his academic ability, there was nothing to distinguish him at school as ‘officer material’.  What sort of person would he have been had he been born 100 years earlier – in 1895 rather than 1995?  Britain was a different place then and yet, oddly, the voices from that period do not seem so different from our own.  We can, to a certain extent, understand and recognise them, which is why I felt compelled to identify with the wartime mother of a century ago.  But there is also plenty to set us apart and the values and beliefs of society in 1914 can also seem bewilderingly naïve and narrow-minded.  It is a moot point considering how military technology has advanced over the last century, but the notion of hundreds of thousands of civilian men today rushing to volunteer as soldiers ‘for Queen and Country’ without truly questioning whether the cause is just, logical or within their country’s best interests, seems unimaginable.  I can no more envisage my son trooping off to  ‘join the colours’ than I can imagine myself becoming a munitionette. 

    But, 100 years ago, I think it’s likely my son would have had a very different outlook on life.  He would have been brought up and educated to believe in the might and paternalism of the British Empire and his childhood reading would have included rousing tales of derring-do in the best tradition of Boy’s Own.  His school would have instilled a military discipline in him, and he would have no doubt gone through Officer Training Corps drills with the rest of his peers.  There was less room for individual thought and no place for dissension.  The minority who protested against the war were called ‘peace cranks’ in the press, a name suggestive of a defective eccentricity of thought not suffered by the majority of the population.  In 1914, any principles a middle class, educated man was likely to have would have most likely manifested themselves through a sense of patriotism and duty.  Failing that, my son’s taciturn nature might have meant that he simply resigned himself to the inevitable. And so I think the most likely scenario is that my firstborn child, with his education and background, would have been granted a commission and would have crossed the Channel as a Lieutenant with his regiment.  Ninety-eight alumni from my son’s school lost their lives in the Great War.  There was a very strong probability that he could have been among them, killed, quite possibly leading his men in an attack as so many young officers did.  And I, as his mother, would have had to sit at home, knitting comforts, while it all happened.  I can’t even knit. 

    If my son read this today, he would no doubt find it overly dramatic and a tad sentimental.  He might even laugh.  But I make no apologies for some of the clichés emerging from my imagination.  These scenarios were, for hundreds of thousands of mothers, a horrible, stark reality.  No parent wants to outlive their own child but between 1914 and 1918, that is exactly what hundreds of thousands of parents did.   As historians, we juggle around with facts, evidence and retrospection, but what we really want to do is get to the heart of a particular period in the past.  We want to understand what people thought, and how they felt, what they wore, what they wrote, whom they loved and what they feared.  Surely it is the best way to engage other people with history – to get them to immerse themselves in it and to imagine what it would have been like for them?   As publishers, press, television, museums and archives focus activity on commemorating the Great War, the centenary will offer up multi-faceted ways to engage with its history.  There will surely be, something to appeal to everyone. 

    Ettie, Lady Desborough, one of the great Edwardian society hostesses, who famously lost her two elder sons in the First World War © Illustrated London News Ltd Mary Evans

    In the course of researching my book, Great War Britain, I trawled a number of society magazines including The Tatler and The Sketch, in which, each week, the rolls of honour listed those officers killed or missing in action.  It makes sobering reading and although the men featured were from society’s elite upper classes, the mournful tally of their deaths is affecting (though no more or less tragic than those from other social classes).  It led me to read further into the lives of some of the families.  I read Nicholas Mosley’s biography of Julian Grenfell, whose mother Ettie, Lady Desborough lost her two elder sons in the war.  I dipped into The Asquiths by Colin Clifford and read how the death of the ex-Prime Minister’s son Raymond affected the family, and Catherine Bailey’s recent book, The Secret Rooms, tells of how the future 9th Duke of Rutland was kept safe from harm with a staff position for the course of the war, due to the string-pulling by his well-connected mother, Violet.  These are stories that can be pieced together with the benefit of archives, painstakingly collated and preserved.  For the vast majority of families whose ancestors fought in the Great War, there is little, or no documentary evidence of a life that once was.  But by reading about the experiences that were documented, it gives some sense of the emotional devastation that touched so many families across the nation. The Imperial War Museum’s ‘Lives of the First World War’ project aims to ‘bring material from museums, libraries, archives and family collections from across the world together in one place, inspiring people of all ages to explore, reveal and share the life stories of those who served in uniform and worked on the home front.’  By the end of the centenary, they estimate they will have built a digital memorial to 8 million men and women from Britain and the Commonwealth who served in the war.  It is a huge task, but one that they hope will help people ‘understand the impact of this global conflict and how it shaped the world we live in today.’ It is a project that addresses the issues of our collective past. According to The Guardian this week, ‘New research, published a week before Remembrance Sunday, shows that most British people regret not having done more to record the first world war stories they were told by their families. A YouGov poll of 2,000 people for the autobiography service LifeBook UK found that 64% had had stories about the war related by a parent or grandparent but only 8% had recorded them; 62% of those who had been told stories regretted not having written them down for their children and grandchildren.’  It is down to us – galvanised by that centenary looming on the horizon – to piece together what is left into a meaningful story for future generations.  It is also a valuable lesson, in an increasingly throwaway society, to preserve our own memories for the future.   

    So while remembering the Great War allows us to educate, inform and build a strong picture of our national past, there is, fundamentally, our strong desire to demonstrate correctly a respect for the people who lived, fought and died through the conflict. 

    First Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, as reported on the front page of the Daily Sketch. ©John Frost Newspapers/Mary Evans Picture Library

    This week in the news, the University of London Students’ Union announced they would not be attending the Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph in an official capacity.  Their president stated this was a political stance and in no way represented a wish to forget or dishonour the dead.  Not all students at the university agree with their president, and nor do I.  Surely the purpose of Remembrance Sunday is not only to remember those men and women who gave their lives in service to their country, but to also gather together in peace and in harmony.  It is a time, quite simply, to reflect and to remember, not to settle scores or make political statements.     

    Whatever the reasons for war, it is only right and proper that we do not forget those who died fighting it.  My youngest child has just started school this year.  I realise that for her, the Great War will be far more distant in the memory when she gets to secondary school than the Boer War was for me.  Why should we continue to commemorate and still give prominence to an event that is receding further back into history?

    The First World War marked a sea change in centuries of warfare, and a turning point in world history.  For the first time British citizens were called on to participate and to do something that previously had been only the responsibility of career or reserve soldiers.  And they did so in enormous, unprecedented numbers.   This is more than Lord Kitchener’s finger pointing out from that poster.  This was a war with a huge human cost felt in every town and village across the warring nations.  These were men who were clerks, doctors, shopkeepers, factory workers, teachers, farmhands and salesmen - who found themselves in muddy, flooded trenches for days on end, on sinking battleships in the frozen North Sea, men who saw death at first-hand, ordinary people who often carried out extraordinary acts of bravery alongside many who were no doubt, very, very, forgivably petrified.  These were people like us.  One hundred years ago may seem like ancient history to kids of today, but that should not dilute the importance of recognising the huge sacrifice made by an earlier generation.  The centenary will revisit, revive and restore the study and understanding of the Great War to a wider audience and, we hope, create a legacy of knowledge that will ensure it will not be forgotten.

    And if there are still those that need persuading that this is an event that deserves such widespread attention; if they wonder why the carved names on the memorials around Britain and in France or the annual Remembrance Day service is not enough.  If the staggering statistics of the dead and wounded feel increasingly irrelevant with the passage of time, the reasons for the war cloudy and confused, or the four years of programming planned by the BBC verging on overkill, then they might simply think of this. 

    Imagine it is your son marching off to war.  If you are not a parent, imagine it is the person you love most in the world.  Now imagine receiving a telegram one day, informing you in sparse, chilling words, that they have been killed in action.   After the shock, the anguish, the grief and the irreplaceable sense of loss, you might hope for one thing - that his life should be remembered, even after you are gone, and that the circumstances of his death are understood and acknowledged.    

    Letter of condolence written by a scribe from King George V to E. Camells' mother during the first world war. © Mary Evans/Robert Hunt Collection

    Lest we forget, we owe them – and their mothers – this at the very least.    

    You can read more of Luci’s writing on the First World War at the blog, Picturing the Great War:

    All images courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library (

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  • 11/07/14--04:15: The Friday Digest 07/11/14
  • THP Friday digest

    This week's update features the first photograph of a human being, medieval chess pieces and luminous balloons in Berlin.

    The Belgium refugees who made their home in Baildon during the First World War.


    * The Belgium refugees who made their home in Baildon during the First World War

    Britain to repay £2bn First World War debt

    The UK is taking steps to repay the £2 billion debt it originally borrowed to finance the First World War.

    Princess Royal Harbour, Albany, is where many Australian soldiers left, never to return (c) Anmdrew Halsall


    One hundred years on, the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) sacrifice during the First World War is to be commemorated with the process starting in Albany, one of Australia's most remote towns.

    German Vice Admiral von Spee's cruiser squadron, leaving Valparaiso, Chile, circa 3 November 1914, following the Battle of Coronel.

    Coronel: an unlikely naval battle remembered.

    Deaf Munitions Workers  (c) Action on Hearing Loss

    The untold stories of deaf people in the First World War

    Treatment in the Red Cross Hospital in Villach. Austrian National Library, Public Domain

    A day at a hospital during the First World War

    A cinema queue

    * The First World War film that over 20 million people went to see


    * Robert Fisk asks 'Do those who flaunt the poppy on their lapels know that they mock the war dead?'

    'Remembrance Day poppies should be white' (c) Alamy


    * Should Remembrance Day poppies be white?

    While the First World War was the first modern war, as the Somme kit illustrates, it was also primitive. Along with his gas mask a private would be issued with a spiked ‘trench club’ – almost identical to medieval weapons.

    Inventories of war: soldiers' kit from 1066 to 2014.

    Images via Bauderfilm


    * Berlin is commemorating twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall with 8,000 luminous balloons

    Josephine Butler, though hardly known, is one of the great British feminists

    ‘Victorian’ sexual exploitation of poor girls isn’t history

    A woodcut from 1864 depicts King John and the barons at Runnymede. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Un/REX

    * Recognition for the Magna Carta, 'England's greatest export' 800 years on

    A photo of various bones in an archaeological pit. Archaeologists have been examining hundreds of bones from two skeletons in Buckinghamshire © MOLA Northampton

    * An 'amazing' Bronze Age burial in Buckinghamshire has been found to contain skeletons of two children, say archaeologists

    A genome taken from a 36,000-year-old skeleton (skull pictured) has shed new light on the period of interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans. The study of DNA  shows that the genes of the earliest inhabitants of the continent survived the Ice Age, helping sow the seed for the modern-day population

    * Fossil DNA has confirmed interbreeding between humans and Neanderthals, claim experts

    Medieval chess pieces and postholes, Northampton (c) MOLA

    Medieval chess pieces have been found in Northampton dig.

    c1500: a medieval friar preaches to congregation (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

    * A brief history of how people communicated in the Middle Ages.   

    Joan of Arc (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty)

    * The truth behind ten big historical mysteries.

    Hereford Mappa Mundi (Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)


    * Seven maps that changed history

    Victorian children collecting apples (Culture Club/Getty Images)


    * Nine strange facts about the history of apples


    Llangoed Hall

    * Send postcards from your mobile with the new British History Breaks app. This new app (iPad and iPhone only) looks brilliant, it's definitely time to bring back the humble postcard! 

    'The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot and the Taking of Guy Fawkes' by Henry Perronet Briggs, circa 1823

    * Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot


    1838 The first photograph of a human being


    1838: the first photograph of a human being

    London, United Kingdom, England

    *  Win a free ebook of Tunnels, Towers & Temples: London’s 100 Strangest Places with Global Site Plans

    The 40 books every woman must read

    * The forty books every woman should read


    Netflix To Adapt Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series Of Unfortunate Events’ (c) Harper Collins

    * Exciting news for all Lemony Snicket fans as Netflix announce that they are to adapt A Series of Unfortunate Events as a drama series.

    Jeff Bezos

    * Jeff Bezos has been named as the best boss in the world this week.  

    Image from Some rights reserved by

    * Interested in getting into publishing? Follow the #insightintopublishing hashtag on Twitter

    * A Q&A with George Berkowski, a FutureBook keynote speaker

    * Why giving books means more at Christmas. (Make sure you follow the discussion on Twitter here as there are some very interesting points made.)

    * The top eleven distractions that keep writers from writing.

      Which history and publishing stories have you enjoyed reading this week?

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    Cambridgeshire Folk Tales


    Maureen James will be at Wisbech Library on Tuesday 18th November from 7-9pm signing copies of her new book, Cambridgeshire Folk Tales

    Modern-day Cambridgeshire is a county of diverse landscapes: from the elegance of the university city and the rural delights of the old county of Huntingdonshire Isle of Ely, each district has its own identity and its own stories. Explore the antics of the inhabitants of the past, including Hereward the Saxon hero; the Fenland giant Tom Hickathrift; the pious Bricstan of Chatteris; the raconteur and skater Chaffe Legge; and Mr Leech, who was carried off by the Devil. You will also discover the hidden history of the area, including how the secret Brotherhood of the Grey Goose Feather helped King Charles I, and what really happened to King John’s treasure. These entertaining tales will delight readers both within Cambridgeshire and elsewhere.

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    Alice Pugh, Lucy Adlington's great-grandmother

    At 11am on November 11
    th I was sitting at the window of a Victorian farmhouse looking out over a village duck pond.  I wondered how people ninety-five years ago had felt, hearing of the armistice in 1918.

    I do not want to commemorate war. 

    In 2014 I will not only be mindful of those who engineered the slaughter, those who suffered it and those who patched up the wounded afterwards. In 2014 I will also be commemorating the lives of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times.

    There are six people in this photograph.

    One of them is my great-grandfather.  He fought.  He was gassed.  He came home.  That’s all I know.  Family history reveals even less about my great-grandmother, beyond her slightly harassed expression.  My grandfather is the little chap on the left.  He had memories of Zeppelins that were quickly superseded by his own experiences of war later in the century.

    Unremarkable lives perhaps.  No grand heroic deeds, no political machinations, no pioneering cultural contributions.

    There are some who say we should get 'out of the trenches' and see the Great War as history, not a collection of individual stories, as if there is some grand 'proper' history that should take precedence.  A wide perspective is important of course.  We have a need to analyse and understand how such a catastrophe came to pass; to make sense of how our society and systems have evolved since then.

    However, as we look at the big, bold pattern of history we must acknowledge that the pattern is a weave.  Like any fabric, history is made up of a multitude of threads, some warp, some weft, some embellished, some invisible. The patterns can only be seen as a whole by stepping away from the minutiae, but, in the words of historian Barbara Tuchman, 'the material must precede the thesis' - the whole bold pattern cannot be understood unless there is a real appreciation for individual threads.

    We need all the stories - of combatants, conchies and clippies.  Of housewives and members of the House of Lords.  Without these single threads there would be no fabric and no grand pattern. 

    The late twentieth century has seen a vital surge in interest in micro history – the focus on the 'small'.  We research history on a community level. We track our own ancestors.  We are also learning to appreciate that those who seem passive in history are still part of it, whether of a racial or cultural minority, or of the gender not usually associated with war.  No housewives went 'over the top', debated in Parliament, or designed weaponry, but their existence is most certainly part of the pattern.  This is not only in relation to the war, as consumers, war-workers, or moral support.  Their everyday experiences were as vital to them as any number of reports of battles and treaties only read about and felt from a distance. 

    Four years of conflict happened to all six people in my family photograph. A century later we reflect on the Great War and its aftermath.  In 2014 I will commemorate the survival of the ordinary in extraordinary times. 

    Great War Fashion: Tales from the History Wardrobe


    Lucy Adlington runs the delightful History Wardrobe series of costume-in-context presentations which span 200 years of women’s history through fashion and the author of Great War Fashion: Tales from the History Wardrobe.

    More from Lucy Adlington can be seen at and on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • 11/09/14--03:00: The sound of remembrance
  •  A sea of red ceramic poppies fill the moat of the Tower of London to commemorate the fallen of  WWI ahead of the 100th anniversary of the First World War. 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' by Paul Cummins at the Tower of London, London, Britain - 03 Aug 2014 The artwork,  'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' by Paul Cummins features thousands of ceramic poppies pouring into the moat will officially be unveiled on 5th August. 'The sheer scale has turned out to be a good thing. It’s become a living thing. People are coming to the Tower just to watch other people – all volunteers – plant poppies. It’s an on-going performance,’ says Tom Piper  Photo: REX FEATURES

    The last time I wrote on the theme of remembrance I wrote about how Remembrance Day can be a rare moment to reflect on those who have lost their lives in conflict, to think about loss in our own lives; a quiet personal moment amidst our busy day-to-day existence.

    Yet, this year, it seems to be that the personal is very much public; the silence filled with sound. Everywhere we turn, the theme of remembrance is present, and rightfully so. This year the private reflection importantly merges with the public commemoration. A powerful symbol of this is the reaction to the poppies on display at the Tower of London. Last week, the public were warned that crowds at the art installation were reaching dangerous levels and people were advised not to go; this week Boris Johnson called for the poppies to become a permanent feature, so that this symbol of remembrance remains to remind us beyond this year, beyond this day. I visited the poppies a few days ago and it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by their beauty and by the sheer scale of the display – its size being the most poignant and breath-taking element of it. The First World War, more than any conflict before or after it, was interpreted and defined by the art that flowed from it, so it feels right that it is art again that is reaching out beyond the battlefield. As the crowds around the Tower showed, people from all over the world and from every generation wanted to visit, many almost felt it a duty – a way in which they could pay homage to the dead, but more than that – a way in which they could reach out and touch history, in a most historic of all locations.

    Inevitably there are those who find the public crowds and the noise of these commemorations too much – those who feel that remembrance should be a private affair. Yet, all this sound seems to come from history itself. The way in which these past conflicts: the centenary of the First World War, the 70th anniversary of the Second World, the coming bi-centenary of Waterloo – have come together to remind us of the importance of remembrance. Perhaps this year it is less important that we stand still quietly and reflect, and more important that we stand still and listen to the voices of history itself, as it speaks out from these terrible conflicts to remind us that this overwhelming loss of life should never happen again. In a world where peace is still a far distant hope, we should allow the Last Post to ring out across the soundwaves in remembrance that men across the world on all sides have fought and still fight for a vision of a future without fighting and to them we owe our remembrance past and present.

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    Scottish Urban Myths and Ancient Legends


    Grace Banks and Sheena Blackhall will be at Books and Beans, Aberdeen on 13th November signing copies of their new book, Scottish Urban Myths and Ancient Legends

    Monsters, lunatics, vampires, werewolves and evil dolls, stones entombing bodies, faces appearing in walls, curses and meetings with the Devil – all this and more are contained within this book of myths and ancient legends. Well-known storytellers Grace Banks and Sheena Blackhall recount a range of intriguing tales from the top to the bottom of Scotland, from ancient times to the present day. Folklore embeds itself in a local community, often to the extent that some people believe all manner of mysteries and take them as fact. Whether they’re stories passed around the school playground, through the Internet, or round a flickering campfire, such legends are everywhere. Scottish Urban Myths and Ancient Legends is a quirky and downright spooky ride into the heart of Celtic folklore. 

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    Great War Britain Norfolk: Remembering 1914-18


    Steve Smith will be at N&N Mill Library, Norwich on 13th November 14 from 6-7pm holding a launch for  his new book, Great War Britain Norfolk: Remembering 1914-18

    The First World War claimed over 995,000 British lives, and its legacy continues to be remembered today. Great War Britain: Norfolk offers an intimate portrayal of the county and its people living in the shadow of the 'war to end all wars'. A beautifully illustrated and highly accessible volume, it describes local reaction to the outbreak of war; the experience of individuals who enlisted; the changing face of industry; the work of the many hospitals in the area; the effect of the conflict on local children; the women who defied convention to play a vital role on the home front; and concludes with a chapter dedicated to how the city and its people coped with the transition to life in peacetime once more. The Great War story of Norfolk is told through the voices of those who were there and is vividly illustrated with evocative contemporary images. 

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    Cambridgeshire Folk Tales


    Maureen James will be at Cambridge Central Library on Wednesday 26th November from 2-4pm signing copies of her new book, Cambridgeshire Folk Tales

    Modern-day Cambridgeshire is a county of diverse landscapes: from the elegance of the university city and the rural delights of the old county of Huntingdonshire Isle of Ely, each district has its own identity and its own stories. Explore the antics of the inhabitants of the past, including Hereward the Saxon hero; the Fenland giant Tom Hickathrift; the pious Bricstan of Chatteris; the raconteur and skater Chaffe Legge; and Mr Leech, who was carried off by the Devil. You will also discover the hidden history of the area, including how the secret Brotherhood of the Grey Goose Feather helped King Charles I, and what really happened to King John’s treasure. These entertaining tales will delight readers both within Cambridgeshire and elsewhere.

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    Great War Britain Derby: Remembering 1914-18


    Miker Galer will be at Waterstones, Derby on Saturday 15th November 11.30am-2pm signing copies of his new book, Great War Britain Derby: Remembering 1914-18

    The First World War claimed over 995,000 British lives, and its legacy continues to be remembered today. Great War Britain: Derby offers an intimate portrayal of the city and its people living in the shadow of the Â’war to end all wars‘. A beautifully illustrated and highly accessible volume, it describes local reaction to the outbreak of war; charts the experience of individuals who enlisted; the changing face of industry; the work of the many hospitals in the area; the effect of the conflict on local children; the women who defied convention to play a vital role on the home front; and concludes with a chapter dedicated to how the city and its people coped with the transition to life in peacetime once more. The Great War story of Derby is told through the voices of those who were there and is vividly illustrated through evocative images from the archives of Derby Museums. 

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    Great War Britain Guildford: Remembering 1914-18


    Dave Rose will be at the Guildford Institute on Monday 24th November launching his new book, Great War Britain Guildford: Remembering 1914-18

    The First World War claimed over 995,000 British lives, and its legacy continues to be remembered today. Great War Britain: Derby offers an intimate portrayal of the city and its people living in the shadow of the Â’war to end all wars‘. A beautifully illustrated and highly accessible volume, it describes local reaction to the outbreak of war; charts the experience of individuals who enlisted; the changing face of industry; the work of the many hospitals in the area; the effect of the conflict on local children; the women who defied convention to play a vital role on the home front; and concludes with a chapter dedicated to how the city and its people coped with the transition to life in peacetime once more. The Great War story of Derby is told through the voices of those who were there and is vividly illustrated through evocative images from the archives of Derby Museums. 

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    The Peterborough Book of Days


    Brian Jones will be at Waterstones, Peterborough on Tuesday 25th November 14 signing copies of his new book, The Peterborough Book of Days


    Taking you through the year day by day, The Peterborough Book of Days contains quirky, eccentric, amusing and important events and facts from different periods in the history of the city. Ideal for dippin g into, this addictive little book will keep you entertained and informed. Featuring hundreds of snippets of information gleaned from the vaults of Peterborough’s archives and covering the social, criminal, political, religious, industrial, military and sporting history of the city, it will delight residents and visitors alike. 

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    Cold War: East Anglia


    Jim Wilson OBE will be at Jarrolds of Norwich on Tuesday 25th November from 6.30pm signing copies of his new book, Cold War: East Anglia

    This is the story of how the Cold War impacted on the people of East Anglia. Had nuclear conflict broken out, the region would have found itself as the target of a Soviet strike for the simple reason that it housed the launch pad for not only the British deterrent, but also America’s first line of defence. The book also examines the early development of the UK’s nuclear arsenal, with ballistic and environmental testing of nuclear bombs at Orford Ness and storage and maintenance at one of the country’s most secret sites, Barnham. Cold War: East Anglia reveals the secrets of the years of confrontation, and looks at what life might have been like had the Cold War turned ‘hot’. 

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    The People of Devon in the First World War


     David Parker will be at Torquay Museum  on Wednesday 26th November from  signing copies of his book, The People of Devon in the First World War.  


    Thematically divided, this fascinating study explores the experiences of many of Devon’s people during the First World War: soldiers; aliens and spies (real and imagined); refugees; conscientious objectors; nurses and doctors; churchmen; the changing roles of women and children; and finally the controversies surrounding farming and agriculture. It provides a moving tribute to the price paid by Devon and its people during the War to End all Wars. 

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  • 11/14/14--05:35: The Friday Digest 14/11/14
  • THP Friday digest

    This week's update features the controversies of remembrance, the importance of heritage and why the humanities matter.

    Scale of British war effort in World War One


    * A fascinating look at the scale of the British war effort in the First World War.

    Aby Bevistein

    * The teenage soldiers of the First World War.

    The sun comes up over Ypres

    Does the First World War tourist trade exploit the memory of the fallen? 

    Remembrance (c) Getty Images


    * How do we remember the First World War?

    Poppy wreaths at the Cenotaph.  Photograph: Terry Scott/Demotix/Corbis

    * 'Remembrance isn’t only about those who fought, but also those who refused' - do you agree? 

    British troops in silhouette march towards trenches near Ypres at the Western Front during the First World War. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

    Lest we forget: the 306 'cowards' executed in the First World War.

    Hall of Memory, Birmingham  Designed by S.N. Cooke and W. Norman Twist. Grade I listed © Brian Clift

    * Six remarkable First World War memorials.

    Tower of London Poppy display (c) Reuters


    * Thousands of the Tower of London poppies are to go on tour to enable more people to see parts of the popular artwork.

    (c) AP


    * The history of the remembrance poppy

    HMS Monmouth, armoured cruiser (Navy Photos)

    Edward and Harry Turner, the Gloucestershire twins who were casualties of the Battle of Coronel in November 1914.  



    * We spent a lot of time talking about this in the office this week, but would love to know your thoughts?

    Berlin Wall then & Now


    * Meet the losers from the fall of the Berlin Wall - it may have been twenty-five years since the Berlin Wall came down but many in Schwedt still mourn the Communist regime, but why?

    * How Berlin has changed since the wall fell


    The Draisienne (1817) Arguably the most important development in the early history of cycling, Karl von Drais’s two-wheeled wooden bike featured iron tyres and a steerable front wheel – but no pedals. Photograph: © Joachim Köhler/PR


    Ten bikes that made history – in pictures.


    The 1791 great mail robberies


    * How the queen's portrait has changed on our coins over the years


     The Audience. The Crown is based on Peter Morgan's West End hit The Audience, starring Helen Mirren. Photograph: Johan Persson


    Netflix has confirmed 'epic drama' The Crown, about No 10. and Buckingham Palace

    Reagan and Thatcher

    * Newly released White House tape transcripts reveal how Ronald Reagan sought to mollify an angry Margaret Thatcher after the US invaded Grenada without giving her advance warning.

    In this June 2, 1955 file photo, actress Marilyn Monroe, right, dressed in a glamorous evening gown, arrives with Joe DiMaggio at the theater. Associated Press

    Lost love letters belonging to Marilyn Monroe are to be sold at auction next month.

    Jesus 'married Mary Magdalene and had children', according to ancient manuscript

    Jesus 'married Mary Magdalene and had children', according to an ancient manuscript unearthed at the British Library.

    Turing led the team at Bletchley Park that cracked the World War II Nazi Enigma code, allowing the Allies to anticipate every move the Germans made


    *  Joan Clarke, the woman who cracked Enigma with Alan Turing.

    The Krogers' bungalow in Ruislip, 1961

    * The spies in a suburban bungalow

    Three lads on a council demo, 1986

    The English city that wanted to 'break away' from the UK.

    Petticoat Lane

    * Home Life - where do you think you live?

    An old building in disrepair

    * The fight to save one of Italy's oldest cities from crumbling away

    Sydney Opera House


    Sydney Opera House - one man's love affair with this iconic building.  

    1800 Market as seen in 1984. Photo: David Glass

    San Francisco then and now.

    Renamed Tube stations


    Londonist renamed all 270 tube stations and some of the suggestions are brilliant.

    The value and impact of heritage and the historic environment.

    * The value and impact of heritage and the historic environment



    Why Stephen King's road to hell is paved with adverbs ... 


    Peter Pettigrew


    * The original Harry Potter creature concept art is utterly breathtaking.

     Image from Some rights reserved by


    Publishers 'must do better' on diversity as publishing is still largely white and middle-class and no major UK trade publishing house has either a woman or a person from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background in the role of CEO.

    Amazon has knocked Tesco off the entertainment sales top spot with the ecommerce giant selling almost a quarter of all films, games and music in the UK

    * The Bad Sex In Fiction Award 2014 shortlist has been announced and you can read passages from the offending books here

    * The Imperial War Museum library is threatened with closure.

    * Sarah Churchwell: why the humanities matter

      Which history and publishing stories have you enjoyed reading this week?

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    Old fashioned who-dunnits are far from defunct...

    It is the twenty-first century, the time of iPhones and iPads, yet the traditional English detective story is as popular as ever. The whole of Agatha Christie's oeuvre is available in various shapes and forms including first edition facsimiles, Kindle, comic strips and, even, electronic games. One can buy chronological omnibus editions of the novels of Ngaio Marsh and there are regular gatherings of the Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion appreciation societies. And as though that were not enough the British Library Publishing Division has started bringing out forgotten gems of 1930s detective murder mysteries with nostalgic period covers and titles like Mystery in White and The Santa Claus Murder.

    No matter what its detractors say, the old-fashioned whodunit is far from defunct – in fact, it is thriving – and I wonder how much of its current success could be attributed to the 'Downton Abbey trend': our latest preoccupation with a certain aristocratic way of life, never-to-be-admitted hankering after feudal fixities and longing for the kind of Technicolor, picture-postcard version of an England that surely only existed in some parallel universe.

    All of my nine published murder mysteries masquerade as contemporary crime fiction thanks to references to wi-fi, CCTV, the Harry Potter phenomenon, debates over the the social acceptability or otherwise of the Duchess of Cambridge, the practicalities (or otherwise) of the 'Boris bike' and so on – but the truth is that they all  follow the general rules and strictures established by the Golden Age of Detective Fiction – if not quite Father Ronald Knox's Decalogue. Despite the fact that they are central to a form that has been endlessly reduplicated, original sin and skulduggery among the upper classes continue to cast their spell unabated. Schadenfreude probably comes into it too – the kind of gloating over the discomfiture, inconveniencing and humiliation of those whose lifestyles are more exclusive and more privileged than ours. For most readers there exists a fascination about the incongruity of murder and mayhem in a grand setting, among people with illustrious names who have a position to maintain and for whom keeping up appearances is an intrinsic part of life. 

    Do high society dramas drive our love of English murder mysteries?

    Even though readers have become much more sophisticated than they were eighty years ago, the puzzle that is at the heart of the whodunit still accounts for its chief appeal. Every reasoning person  enjoys matching  their wits against the detective's and most aficionados will gladly suspend their disbelief in order to play the game of wits – so long as the story's plot is complex and intricate, yet 'manageable', the characters interesting and unusual, though realistic enough to be taken seriously – and there are enough suspenseful twists to drive the story forward.

    In my latest murder mystery, The Killing of Olga Klimt, there is a valet who is even more manipulative and Machiavellian than Downton's footman Thomas and a hereditary peer of the realm whose feeling of family honour is so extravagantly monumental as to border on madness. Of course one can't write such stories without being tongue-in-cheek post-modern – it would be laughable – therefore, I invariably have my two detectives, Antonia Darcy and her husband Hugh, display a sense of amused awareness that what happens to them has happened before to others like them – to Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, Nick and Nora Charles, Inspector Alleyn and Agatha Troy, to name but a few. Antonia and Hugh still say things like, 'Oh no, not again! Must we really get involved this time?' – though I believe they have now stopped wondering why circumstances keep forcing them to act like a pair of amateur sleuths in a dated roman policier

    I find that most of my readers enjoy the realisation that the author is in fact playing a game with them. The Killing of Olga Klimt by R.T. Raichev

    R.T. Raichev is the author of  The Antonia Darcy and Major Payne Mystery series. His latest book is The Killing of Olga Klimt. Olga Klimt knew that there might be a high price to pay for playing with the hearts of powerful men but when jealousy, obsession and deception come into play the stakes are higher than she ever could have anticipated. In this ninth investigation of Antonia Darcy and Major Payne, they are drawn into the most baffling case of murder and intrigue where nothing—not even the identity of the victim– is certain. R.T. Raichev’s post-modern twist on Victorian London and his penchant for composing the most intricate of murder mysteries means that nothing is ever quite what it seems ... 

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    Manorialism word cloud

    Some of you may have heard the term 'Lord of the Manor'.  Manorial Counsel Limited will be writing a series of blogs explaining the realities of these titles and their importance in English history.

    The title 'Lord of the Manor' derives from a piece of land legally called a manor. Owning a manor gave certain rights one of which was the title 'Lord of the Manor'.  There is confusion over there origin, with some claiming that lordship titles date back to 1066 and were set up by William the Conqueror. This is incorrect as it was the Romans who first created the use of titles relating to land ownership.  It was back in the first century BC that the Romans invaded Britain. The film industry tends to portray the Romans as invaders however they never explain why the Romans had such a large empire. The answer is simple it was to generate wealth from these annexed countries. This was done by taxation.

    As most of us know the Romans were a highly developed race and introduced efficient ways of undertaking the collection of taxes among other things. Instead of collecting tax off of every land owner they decided to appoint one person with the responsibility to not just pay their own tax but also for others within a given area. This innovation reduced the labour involved in tax collection many fold. The appointed person had the responsibility of collecting a level of tax from the other land owners under his responsibility. The reality was that the 'seigniory' as he was to become known would charge more than his Roman masters wanted in order to cover the cost of collecting the taxes, and to give him a profit.  So whilst the farmers owned their farms the 'seignior' also had an overriding right granted by the Romans. If a farmer was not forthcoming with his taxes his farm could be seized and granted to another. Over time the person who was responsible for the taxes was regarded as a very important person in their area. Whilst all professions come with a name, the role of Roman tax collector served two purposes, firstly denoting the profession but also to represent the authority and power they wielded.  This early term of 'seignior' now translates to our modern term of lord.

    The framework of managing the taxation of land set up by the Romans continued after their withdrawal from Britain in the fourth century. The Saxons took over the country and had the same issue as the Romans of collecting taxes in the most effective way possible. The Saxons were nowhere near as sophisticated as the Romans and they therefore retained the system set up previously. There is also some evidence that the actual estates that Britain had been divided into were also retained by the Saxons. The popular saying of 'If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it' was just as appropriate back in the fourth century and the Saxons left a working system alone.

    In 1066 the Saxons lost Britain to the Normans who invaded under the leadership of William the Conqueror.  He once again kept the same system and estates as the Romans, but as the Normans were more sophisticated than the Saxons they changed and improved the system. William introduced a management structure called feudalism. Instead of having thousands of lords paying taxes directly to the Crown he appointed Barons to manage groups of lords and their manors. Some of the Barons dealt with the Crown direct but many were subordinate to an Earl who would have an assigned county. As with the introduction of the 'seigniories' by the Romans each layer of management would be responsible to the Crown for a level of taxation, but what was charged to their subordinates was higher in order to generate income to cover the costs of tax collection and to give a profit.

    The manorial and feudal systems lasted through to the twentieth century however their decline started as early as the thirteenth century. Whilst the systems are no longer required the titles that assisted in the operation of them have not changed. When the titles were first created in law they were made to be continuous and legislation has never changed this.  Whilst they no longer support the taxation process they are a key part of English history.

    Whilst most lordships have lost their proof of ownership (you need a complete, correctly executed and concurrent set of deeds from the time the Crown granted the lordship title or Time Immemorial - 1189 whichever is earliest) and therefore their rightful owners. Manorial Counsel Limited have the exclusive rights to legalise the use of lordship titles so that they can continue to be part of our living history. Manorial Counsel Limited has devised a method of creating a new legal right (working with barristers and solicitors) so that lordship titles can be legally owned and used today. 

    In our next blog we will discuss the history surrounding lordship titles and manorial law. For more information visit our website at

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    Northumberland Folk Tales


    Malcolm Green will be at Prior Hall, Hexham Abbey on Thursday 27th November from 7pm signing copies of his new book, Northumberland Folk Tales. 


    These folk tales reflect the wild and secret character of between two countries and two worlds. The book other magical characters such as the Netherwitton worm who guards a secret well and the Hedley Kow that plays audacious tricks on humans. Accompanying these, there is the sound of human feet; saints seek refuge, ancient kings fight for land and salvation, and border folk pit themselves against one another with both wit and sword. Illustrated with thirty beautiful and evocative drawings by Rachel Edwards, this panoply of characters, together with ghosts, witches and the land itself, is brought to life by professional storyteller Malcolm Green. 

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  • 11/17/14--01:30: The soldiers of Ypres
  • In 1914 there was optimism and enthusiasm for war when men left for France. By the latter years, when the rush of volunteers had dried up and conscription had been introduced there was grim acceptance that the departure for the Western Front might be a one way trip

    From the perspective of the early twenty-first century – 100 years after the First World War it can be hard to comprehend the background, motives and character of soldiers in the Great War. In Britain, the Edwardian period that preceded the outbreak of the First World War was one of stability and a clearly defined social hierarchy, and this was reflected in the character of the national armed forces.

    The Territorial Force, which would fill the gap left after the destruction of the BEF and its army of career soldiers, reflected the society from which it was drawn, with officers from the squirearchy or management and soldiers from the manual labourers or factory staff. One Territorial Force (TF) formation, The Civil Service Rifles, was formed largely from the ranks of the Civil Service and The Post Office Rifles was likewise composed of Post Office employees. It is easy to understand why career officers and soldiers in the British Regular Army viewed the TF with a mixture of suspicion and contempt – however it was a Territorial formation that would hold Ypres at the outset of the fighting and one prewar TF soldier William ‘Bill’ Slim would rise to the rank of Field Marshal in the Second World War and command the Fourteenth Army in Burma.

    Social cohesion and lack of mobility meant that county and city loyalties were very strong. The volunteer Kitchener armies drew on this, forming Pals, Sportsmen’s or Public School battalions. Men went to war with their mates and often with their manager and foreman as company commander and company sergeant major. Whereas, in Germany and France officers were career soldiers who had sometimes begun their military training as school age cadets. Soldiers saw themselves as something of an elite dividing German society into two classes ‘soldiers and swine’. While the French Army had its quota of aristocrats it was a more democratic force than that of Imperial Germany which had royal and titled officers. Soldiers in both armies were conscripts and could therefore include a cross-section of society, including well educated and mature men as well as simple peasants or industrial labourers.

    Two things were true of almost all these soldiers. Many had deep-seated religious convictions. If you had lived a good life, repented on your death bed for sins committed and received absolution from a padre, you were destined for a happy afterlife. The trenches would test the men’s faith to the limits and many would find that it would fail under the terrible strain. Closely linked to religion was patriotism – French, British or German soldiers believed in the right of the cause for which they were fighting and were proud to be citizens and soldiers of their mother or fatherland. This led to a curious exchange on Christmas Day 1914 when British and German soldiers emerged from their trenches to mingle in no man’s land. A British officer observed the words ‘Got Mit Uns’ on the belt buckle of a German soldier and asked what it meant. The English-speaking German officer confidently replied ‘God with Us’. ‘Oh no’, came the equally confident reply, ‘He’s with us’. The British soldiers couldn’t resist punning the motto, explaining to their German counterparts that they were quite happy and their hands were warm because they had ‘Got mittens’.

    The other feature that marks out the soldiers or ‘Tommies’ of the First World War is that they often came from very tough backgrounds. The lives of those drawn from the great cities were marked by overcrowding, poor sanitation and poor diet. Those from the country fared little better with agricultural labourers earning little and often dependant on their employers for housing. They entered the army with no great expectations and indeed before the war it was not the first choice of many young men.

    However, men who had been conscripted changed during basic training – a regime of good food, exercise and discipline saw them build up muscle and become fitter and stronger. In barracks many had access to decent sanitation for the first time and with it enjoyed improved health. However their grim urban or rural childhoods and youth would be something of a preparation for life in the trenches. Lice and other pests and vermin were not a novelty to the rank and file – to officers the first encounter must have been repellent. In quiet times at the front men would kill off the eggs laid by the lice in the seams and folds of clothing – one method was to run the flame of a candle over the area. Since lice were known colloquially as ‘chats’ a group of men sat around talking and de-lousing their clothing were ‘chatting’. Even men from these hard backgrounds could be ground down by the stress of combat. Soldiers today would recognise what Lieutenant Colonel C.K. Burnett, the commanding officer of the 18th (Queen Mary’s Own) Hussars saw in the faces of infantry at Ypres in 1914:

    'We... noticed how weary the infantry was with its incessant fighting, the men seemed to have that faraway look on their faces which betokened general inability to realise the horrors which were surrounding them... the war had left them now with just a fixed determination to go on until they dropped, without notice of other events beyond what occurred in just their immediate front; one could too plainly see that the limit of human endurance had almost been reached.'

    Men broke and the punishment for military crimes was severe. The military penal code had grown to deal with an army drawn, as the Duke of Wellington observed a mere century before the First World War, from the ‘scum of the earth’. It was a harsh code and reflecting the fact that the breaking of military law could mean death or disaster for one’s comrades. Cowardice, casting away of arms in the face of the enemy, striking an officer and desertion were all death by hanging; the army executed soldiers in wartime by firing squad. These executions, the majority of them for desertion, were almost exactly 10 per cent of those actually condemned; of the just over 3,000 soldiers condemned to death between August 1914 and March 1920 the vast majority had their sentences commuted to hard labour or penal servitude. In most cases of those actually executed it was for a second or third offence. At least half of the of the 306 men executed for military offences by the British Army during the First World War were serving in the Ypres Salient. Today some of these men would be treated as psychological casualties, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, some however were guilty of criminal acts and it is a luxury to judge the conduct of the past from the secure standpoint of today. In the grim league of death by execution in the First World War, France and Italy executed the largest number at about 600 each, while New Zealand executed five. These numbers should be regarded in the context of the many millions who served, of which they make a sad, but minuscule, number. Tragic as some of these deaths may have been, after the war the British authorities still recorded the names of those executed on memorials such as the Menin Gate.

    For lesser crimes there were a range of Field Punishments. If a soldier was sentenced to Number 1 he was tied to a wagon wheel spread-eagled with the hub in his back, and his ankles and wrists secured to the rim. Private W. Underwood of the 1st Canadian Division was given seven days Number 1 – he did ‘two hours up and four hours down for seven days, day and night’. And, he recalled years later ‘the cold!It was January 1915... And the only reason I was there was because I missed a roll-call’. Old soldiers regarded Field Punishment Number 1 as a mild inconvenience. Frank Richards of the Regular 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers recalled that, while out of the line at Houplines, fifty-eight soldiers undergoing Field Punishment Number 1 were tied to railings when not doing fatigues. They did not mind the punishment but were outraged that French civilians could see them One of the ironies of trench warfare was that as it developed, frontline soldiers often felt a greater bond with the enemy a few hundred yards across no man’s land, than they did with the civilians and politicians at home with their ranting and angry patriotism. In 1915 Sergeant John Grahl of 1st Battalion Highland Light Infantry recalled a German shouting ‘Hang on until October and you can have the damned war’, the British would shout back ‘Come on over, Fritz you **** ***’ or ‘Gott strafe the Kaiser!’ to which the reply came ’strafe the King!’. A policy of live and let live often developed and moving fresh troops into the line prior to an offensive was in part to ensure that the attack was pressed home with aggression and drive. 

    Ypres was a medieval town known for its textiles; however, it became infamous during the Great War with trench warfare, poison gas and many thousands of casualties. As the German Army advanced through Belgium, it failed to take the Ypres Salient. On 13 October 1914, German troops entered Ypres. On looting the city, the Germans retreated as the British Expeditionary Force advanced. On 22 November 1914, the Germans commenced a huge artillery barrage killing many civilians. Today the battlefields of Ypres contain the resting place of thousands of German and British soldiers. Battle Story: Ypres explores the first and second battles of Ypres through narrative, eye-witness accounts and images.

    Find out about the tactics at Ypres here

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  • 11/17/14--05:00: Tactics at Ypres

    The British had learned hard lessons in the Boer War at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Boers were natural riders, hunters and marksmen equipped with excellent German Mauser rifles that fired smokeless ammunition. The British soldiers who had fought ill-armed native armies in colonial wars suffered heavy casualties until they learned the lessons of camouflage, field craft and marksmanship. The British Expeditionary Force that went to France in 1914 brought these formidable skills to bear against the German Army at Mons and their accurate and rapid fire from their excellent SMLE rifles did much to slow the German advance.

    Britain declared war on 4 August 1914 and when by mid-August the Belgians had been mauled by the German Army only one intact force stood in their way – the British Expeditionary Force. The BEF fired its first shots of the war on 22 August. Next day the advancing German infantry were pulled up short near Mons as the withering rifle fire of the British caused them heavy casualties, two days later at Le Cateau the story of Mons was repeated, only on a bloodier scale. Once again the Germans attacked in tightly bunched waves and again they were met with rifle fire so intense that they thought the British were equipped with machine guns. Tactics changed during the war and what might now be called SOPs – Standard Operating Procedures had emerged by the end of the conflict.

    At the beginning of the war the French particularly were keen to press the attack. In part this was a philosophical concept based on the desire to regain the territory lost in the Franco-Prussian War. The French theorist Colonel C.J.J. Ardent du Picq believed that morale was the winning factor while Marshal Ferdinand Foch expressed the belief that it was impossible to lose a battle until the general believed himself defeated. In 1914 even though the first trench warfare had been fought in the RussoJapanese War and even in parts of the American Civil War, few theorists imagined it would happen in Europe where a conflict would surely be one of manoeuvre.

    In 1914 a German Army battalion had six Maxim MG Model 1908 machine guns, while in contrast a British battalion initially had only two Vickers Mk Is or Maxims. However, from the outset of the fighting the Germans tactically concentrated these already coordinated battalion teams into batteries and thus gave the appearance, and effect, of having even more machine guns than they actually did. This  appeared the case at Loos when German machine gun crews opened fire at 1,400 metres on the  advancing British infantry on the afternoon of 26 September 1915. They inflicted 8,000 casualties (50 per cent) on just two British New Army divisions (21st and 24th). One single German machine gun crew is said to have fired 12,500 rounds.

    In 1917–18 the British and Germans made a change from a defensive to a more offensive role for the machine gun. The British had established the Machine Gun Corps to undertake highly coordinated offensive and defensive tactics, including barrages. The infantry then concentrated on the deployment, with much success, of the lighter Lewis machine guns at the platoon level. In many ways the infantry platoon in the latter part of the First World War with its specialist ‘bombers’ – men carrying bags of grenades, Lewis gunners providing fire for the riflemen and bombers to manoeuvre would be familiar to a platoon commander on operations in Afghanistan.

    As early as 1914 Erwin Rommel, who would gain fame as the commander of the Afrika Korps in the Second World War, noted in his training manual ‘Infantry Attacks’ that though his platoon was under heavy fire from French positions they broke down into small groups and advanced in rushes. In what reads like current infantry tactics each group provided covering fire for the other. When they reached the French position the enemy had fled and the Germans realised that the reason their casualties were so low was that the French had not adjusted the sights on their rifles and were aiming high. As can be imagined Rommel was the exception in 1914. At the time the British, French and Germans all believed that offence was the war-winning tactic and if supporting fire was concentrated correctly the impetus of the assault would succeed. The British 1914 manual ‘Infantry Training’ stated that casualties decreased with a steady advance because of the morale effect upon the enemy; in other words his fire would become erratic as he began to panic at the sight of his enemy closing with the position and because the range would be changing. The tactics favoured by Rommel worked only if the platoon or company had good junior NCOs who could ‘read the battle’ and lead or drive the men under their command. Men like this could be rare in mass conscript armies, such as that at the beginning of the First World War, and consequently attacks were often made one British soldier recalled, resembled ‘a swaying football crowd’.

    Terrain could shape the theory and practice of tactical formations. Edmund Priestman of the 6th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment described how in training his platoon adopted ‘artillery formation’ for advance across country. In this formation the platoon formed a loose column four abreast to (in theory) present the minimum target for artillery:

    Across the first field we kept this formation beautifully. Then we met a second hedge and then a wet ploughed field. On switching my attention from the ground to the platoon in front I found (by some unexplained means) they had disappeared and left no sign of themselves!At this point a head poked over a hedge and saw me – and wanted to know ‘What the **** I thought I was doing?’ To which I replied that ‘I was under the impression that I was advancing in artillery formation’. On closer examination I found my formation was more like a Mothers’ Meeting out for a walk... the Colonel (for the head belonged to no less!) cursed me and my Mothers’ Meeting most vilely for ten minutes and then went in search of the Major to repeat the best bits over again to him... (from Haythornthwaite, The World War One Source Book)

    Priestman’s experience of the failure of command and control was in training; on the Western Front, shell and small arms fire would be the lethal addition to the mud, craters and barbed wire. Barbed wire, which had been invented in 1867 in the United States, was first used as an obstacle in the Spanish-American War during the siege of Santiago and extensively in the Boer War, where it played a strategic role in bringing areas under control, at military outposts and also in holding the captured Boer  population. At the turn of the century it was used in the Russo-Japanese War, a conflict that was almost a proving ground for weapons, tactics and equipment used in the First World War. Military barbed wire oser together than a hand’s width. While it was thought that artillery fire could cut wire for localised breaching a more reliable system was the Bangalore torpedo, which was first devised in 1912 by Captain McClintock of the Madras Sappers and Miners, part of the British Indian Army and based at the military depot at Bangalore, India. The Bangalore torpedo consists of interlocking explosive filled tubes that can be pushed into a barbed wire belt. When it explodes shards of metal cut the wire while the blast pushes it to either side. A soldier can crawl forward and slide a Bangalore torpedo into place without enemy troops being aware that an attack is about to be launched. Wire cutters were the other way of breaching wire. Though they were heavy and rather cumbersome they could be issued widely and consequently gave soldiers their own individual breaching kit.

    The commanders and soldiers at Ypres were to face all of these problems during the year 1914–15: coordination of artillery fire and infantry, the difficulties of overcoming terrain and barbed wire, as well as the horrors of chemical warfare – the German tactic that caused such devastation during the Second Battle of Ypres. The experience of all these elements which culminated in the realisation that the days of offensive warfare and full-on assaults with rapid movement were gone, to be replaced by a draining and demoralising existence of static and entrenched warfare that would characterise the Western Front.

    Ypres was a medieval town known for its textiles; however, it became infamous during the Great War with trench warfare, poison gas and many thousands of casualties. As the German Army advanced through Belgium, it failed to take the Ypres Salient. On 13 October 1914, German troops entered Ypres. On looting the city, the Germans retreated as the British Expeditionary Force advanced. On 22 November 1914, the Germans commenced a huge artillery barrage killing many civilians. Today the battlefields of Ypres contain the resting place of thousands of German and British soldiers. Battle Story: Ypres explores the first and second battles of Ypres through narrative, eye-witness accounts and images. 

    Find out about the kit at Ypres here.  

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    East London Suffragettes

    In popular accounts of the outbreak of the First World War in Britain, mention is sometimes made of the fact that the Women's Social and Political Union suspended their militant campaign for the vote to take up an intensely nationalist, pro-war agenda.  Sylvia Pankhurst and the radical East London Federation of the Suffragettes - where they are mentioned at all - are simply said to have opposed the war. But this obscures a complex and fascinating period in their history, and also in the suffrage movement as a whole.

    In 1916 the Federation adopted an openly anti-war stance, and suffered the consequences in the form of violent attacks, censorship, police raids and imprisonment. But in the early years of the War the Federation adopted flexible, practical strategies to support their community in crisis, and also used it to continue and extend their campaign for the vote.

    The East End at War

    Within a few weeks of the outbreak of War many East End factories had closed and unemployment rose sharply. At the same time that many found themselves suddenly out of work, prices for food, cloth and other goods began to spiral, due to panic-buying and - Sylvia believed - war profiteering.

    As men on the Army reserves list were called up and others enlisted, many women were suddenly left alone to provide for their family, sometimes with just a few hours' notice. While separation allowances and pensions to provide for soldier's wives and children were introduced, they were inadequate, were often paid late and could be suspended for weeks at a time. Marriage and birth certificates requested as proof cost money to acquire, and were frequently lost by the administration.

    Within weeks of the outbreak of War many families in the East End were facing starvation. People began calling at the suffragettes' Women's Hall at 400 Old Ford Rd Hall seeking help.

    The Federation in Wartime

    Despite Sylvia's deeply held anti-militarism and her belief that the war was set to be an imperialist bloodbath, the Federation didn't openly oppose the war from the start. This was primarily because virtually everyone in the community had a husband, son, brother or father who had enlisted.

    At a special committee meeting, Sylvia proposed three options: to go on as if nothing had changed, to try and alleviate the suffering of those affected by the war, or to make political capital out of it. The committee chose the second option, and over the next two years they launched a raft of progressive relief initiatives, from milk distribution centres to a health clinic, an employment bureau, a toy factory and several 'cost price' restaurants.

    Although the Federation's relief work took up most of their time and resources, they never stopped agitating for long term, structural change as well.


    Feeding the East End

    The Federation started fundraising for a milk distribution drive, and soon they were giving out milk, eggs and barley in Bow, Canning Town, Stepney and Poplar. They also raised money to open a clinic to treat the children worst affected by malnutrition and disease. This was housed in a former pub in Bow called the Gunmaker's Arms, which they symbolically renamed the Mother's Arms when it opened in 1915.

    Members of the Federation tackled starvation among adults in the East End by opening three canteens serving nutritious food at 'cost price', anticipating the Government's National Kitchens. Again these canteens were supported by donations of food, cooking utensils and crockery from those who could afford it in the local area.

    Cost price restaurant by Norah Smyth

    Barring a handful of upper and middle class women (who admittedly tended to be in leadership positions) the women running these relief projects were the neighbours, colleagues, family and friends of those they were helping. Many worked the same punishing hours and faced the same hunger, which makes their achievements even more extraordinary.

    While the Federation worked to try and meet the need in their streets, they also lobbied for policy changes to reduce the suffering on the home front.

    Equal pay

    The Federation took issue with some popular charitable efforts which they believed contributed to the unemployment crisis. The most prominent of these targets was Queen Mary's Needlework Guild, who at the outbreak of war launched an energetic drive to produce garments for soldiers. The Woman's Dreadnought pleaded with them to stop: 'We would put forward a very special appeal to leisured people not to start sewing for the soldiers and others whilst women who hitherto have earned their bread by such tasks are left to starve.'

    Although she is unlikely to have been a Dreadnought reader, the Queen seems to have been considering the same problem. Soon after Needlework Guild branches up and down the country began their furious muffler-making, the Queen's Work for Women Fund was created to provide employment for women who had lost their income through the war.

    When it was announced that the Fund workrooms would pay just 10 shillings a week, Sylvia christened them 'Queen Mary's Sweatshops'. Although they were closed in February 1915, she felt the damage was done, as 'they had set the common standard for women's war relief wages.'

    Putting their principles into practice, in October 1914 the Federation opened a cooperative toy factory at 45 Norman Road in Bow, providing work for East End women who had lost their jobs through the war. The workers were paid a living wage of £1 a week and encouraged to learn the toymaking trade, with art lessons to help them produce their own designs. The toys were very well-received, and praised for their quality and attention to detail. In a pioneering move, the East London suffragettes opened a day nursery attached to the factory, where women could leave their children at a cost of 3d a day, including meals.

    Toy Factory, Bow by Norah Smyth

    Sadly, women's factory work for less ethical employers than the suffragettes was dangerous, exhausting and very poorly paid. After several months of lobbying for equal pay, including a series of letters between Sylvia Pankhurst and David Lloyd George, in April 1915 the government agreed to pay women the same 'piece rates' as men. That is, the same pay according to output. But no such 'special conditions' were laid down for time rates, where pay was calculated by time spent to produce the outputs. This left a big loophole for employers to continue to pay women lower wages, by switching all their work to time rates, and for the most part that is what happened.

    In addition to supporting small groups of women workers by offering advice and publicising their situation in the Dreadnought, the Federation struggled to raise awareness more widely of women working for 'sweated' wages on Government contracts. In May 1915 they held a 'Women's Exhibition' in Caxton Hall in Westminster which exposed the terrible pay and conditions of women who were being exploited in the name of 'the war effort'.

    The Vote

    Where is the vote in all this? Rather than rooting their appeal in the principles of fairness and justice, the East London Federation of the Suffragettes presented the vote largely as a means to an end, grounding their campaign in the everyday reality of working women's lives. The Federation focussed on the concerns of their community and emphasised the extra leverage that the vote would give in the struggle to improve pay and working conditions, secure decent housing, and protect children's health.

    While Sylvia and the rest of the Federation were always clear that their work in the East End was not about charity – it was about building a strong, mass movement of working women who could and would demand their rights – the sheer scale of the suffering triggered by the outbreak of war forced them to adopt new strategies.

    Their relief projects were a result of and a testament to their local focus. Responding to a crisis in their community took precedence over opposition to the War, but it also presented them with new opportunities to show what women could do with a vote, with a voice.  While the East London Federation of the Suffragettes didn't view their  practical, politicised, community action as a contribution to the 'war effort', it saved lives nonetheless.

     East London Suffragettes


    Sarah Jackson is the author of Voices From History: East London Suffragettes with Rosemary Taylor. This post was originally delivered as a paper at the Women’s History Network Home Fronts: Gender, War and Conflict conference in September 2014.

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