Here’s another post about the first world war. It’s such a compelling period to study: it’s so close in time to us, yet it’s slowly receding into “proper” history.
My earlier post on the subject was about what you don’t find in Britain – about the absence of war graves. This time, I’m writing about the things you can find here. First, I started looking at buildings: the stately homes requisitioned as hospitals, the POW camps, the factories. Then it occurred to me that the real history of the Great War is actually a lot nearer to hand.
Pass it on!
First, because it’s still accessible through oral history: many of us had grandparents and great-grandparents who lived through it. A hundred years isn’t a long period in folk history, and personal stories passed through the family can make history come alive – until the voices fall gradually silent.
When I was a youngster, my grandfather, Jim Maton, told me of his own war-time adventures. A London boy, he travelled out to the bleak Essex marshes as a fifteen year-old, to work as a messenger for the Canadian army. They bivouacked on the marshes prior to embarkation to fight in France.
Probably they were the 99th Battalion (Essex) of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, who went to France in 1917. He told me ruefully that a few friendly soldiers urged him to travel over to Canada after the war and start a new life. They’d help set him up. He went home and excitedly asked his mother. She said no. Priceless oral history!
A picture is worth a thousand words
The second reason it’s closer to hand – the war’s tangible because of photography. It’s the first conflict the British took part in that was widely photographed and filmed. That makes it so much more real to us. It was the first conflict to be filmed, but not the first to be photographed. That honour falls to the American Civil War, the first to have war journalists in the field.
There are also photographs of troops in the Crimean War of the 1850s, but the early state of the technology means the images are very formalised and staged. The Great War was where celluloid imagery came into its own. Photography changed everything.
If you want to feel the power of the photographic image – have a look at this picture of Louis-Victor Baillot. What is his claim to fame? As a young man, he’d fought at the Battle of Waterloo – which took place in 1815, as history buffs will know. What a marvellous thing, a photograph of a veteran of a battle fought over 200 years ago!
Cinematography brings history even closer. If you haven’t already seen it, I’d really recommend Peter Jackson’s (of LOTR fame) documentary called They Shall Not Grow Old. He took 100 year-old film footage from The Imperial War Museum, colourised it and smoothed the jerkiness. (I’m sure there’s a technical name for that process, but I don’t know what it is! )
Then he created a soundtrack of the voices and songs of the men who were there. It suddenly leaps from the screen and stops being history and becomes very immediate – here, watch the trailer, where the black and white images suddenly burst into colour… now, that’s living history.
Letters from the front
And the third reason we feel the Great War’s history is still within reach, is because it’s the first conflict where you can hear the voices of the ordinary soldier. Why? Because they were literate. Thanks to Disraeli’s Education Act of 1870, Tommies in the trenches, as well as officers, could write home and record their experiences.
The National Archives has a lovely collection of letters home. Some mundane, but all very human, and worth an on-line visit. One soldier, who had worked on the railways before going to France, wrote to a work colleague. He likened the noise of shelling to the screech of the train engines at Paddington. Inevitably, he also complained about the French beer sold at the estaminets – bars which civilians set up in their homes – describing it as ‘muc’!
Wounded and back to Blighty
But of course, there are the more traditional reminders of the Great War. The buildings seconded into war use, many of which are still there to be seen today. Stately houses in Britain were often requisitioned for use as hospitals for the wounded who were shipped back from France.
At the start of the war, the government was confident that the military hospital infrastructure they had built up would accommodate the returning wounded. But they had hopelessly underestimated numbers. They had expected around 50,000 patients for the war’s duration. By the end of 1914 alone, over 75,000 wounded had returned.
This caused a frantic appeal for large houses, where temporary hospitals could be set up. If the houses were not offered, they were unceremoniously requisitioned. The Red Cross has a website where you can see, county by county, the auxiliary hospitals set up: 54 pages, listing hundreds of institutions. They covered the country. It’s a sobering read, and worth a look for your own neck of the woods
The white feather
As patriotic fervour warmed up, young men not in uniform were often accosted in the street and sometimes given a white feather, representing cowardice. To prevent such abuse of soldiers whose wounds were not immediately obvious, a Silver War badge was awarded to those honourably discharged.
The badges were worn in the lapel of civilian clothes.They were numbered, to prevent fraud, and they can still be found for sale. Researching the family tree, I found that one had been awarded to my son’s paternal great-grandfather, invalided out of the army by a bullet in the leg.
Not fit to be seen
Worse than being accosted for appearing fit, was the shunning of those who had been terribly wounded. Jeremy Paxman, in his terrific, short and sharp account of the Great War, (if you find the subject daunting, it’s an easy introduction), writes of letters sent to a soldiers’ nursing home in Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex by local residents. They ask the matron to prevent convalescing men from walking around the town, because their injuries upset the civilians who might meet them.
Paxman also writes of St. Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup, where certain benches on the hospital ground were painted blue, to designate their use by convalescing soldiers. That way, others could avoid having to witness their terrible injuries.
Amongst this horror, there were glimmers of humanity. The study of the effects of “shell shock”, or what we would now call PTSD came into its own. Poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were treated in the auxiliary hospital at Craiglockhart, just outside Edinburgh – “Dottyville”, as Sassoon called it. The building is still standing.
There, psychiatrist Dr William Rivers developed the techniques that became the basis of British psychiatry. The story of Craiglockhart, and how it treated shell shocked casualties after the battle of the Somme is brilliantly described in Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy: a great read. With the last book of the trilogy, The Ghost Road, she justly won the Booker Prize.
It has to be said though, that the benefits of such treatments were for officers. The common Tommy wasn’t so lucky. The majority of military doctors at the front had little sympathy for shell-shocked troops, and the treatment of soldiers seen as “shirkers” was harsh. It was hard for a traumatised returner to get any help, and many sufferers were left neglected in mental institutions for years after the end of the war.
A more heartening story, strange to say, is how plastic surgery developed during the conflict. Until the first world war, most injuries had been due to sword or gunshot wounds. Now, more horrific injuries surfaced, due to shell and shrapnel injuries. Pioneering surgeons started repairing and re-shaping horrific injuries, and developing the world-leading techniques we see today. In the forefront of this activity was Harold Gillies, a New Zealander who’s early techniques led the way, and who practiced … at St. Mary’s in Sidcup, where his patients would occupy the blue-painted benches.
For King and Empire
It wasn’t only British soldiers who fought on the western front. Over three million soldiers from the wider British Empire also took part in the conflict. When they were wounded, they were shipped back to Britain, to hospitals specific to their own regiments. There were many such hospitals along the south coast of England, close to the dis-embarkation ports.
Wounded soldiers from the Indian regiments were treated at hospitals in Brighton, including one set up in the Royal Pavilion. Since cremation was required by both the Sikh and Hindu religions, soldiers who died in these hospitals were cremated above Brighton, on the South Downs. The massive contribution of the Indian regiments to the war effort is commemorated at the same spot – the Chattri Memorial. You can still visit it today.
And to end, it’s interesting to research what happened to the Prisoners of War, who were mostly civilians arrested as “enemy aliens”. At the outbreak of war, many German and Austrian shopkeepers and other workers, who had lived peacefully for years in Britain, found their shops and homes attacked, in misplaced patriotic fervour. Male adults went off to POW camps for the duration of the war.
Later, fighting prisoners taken in the course of the conflict were shipped back to Britain and interred. The main camps used for POWs were Wakefield in Yorkshire and “Ally Pally” – Alexandra Palace – in London, as well as a large camp on the Isle of Man. But several stately homes were also requisitioned, such as Donington Hall in Leicestershire, and were used to hold enemy officers.
It’s true to say that the rations for enemy officers were generous, and there was no requirement to do any manual labour. At Donington for instance, there was a menu each day and an apparently good wine list. No wonder some civilians complained that the accommodation for enemy POWs was too luxurious!
The Great Escape
Donington was also the site of the only successful escape by a German POW on British soil. Gunther Pluschow climbed over two 9-foot barbed wire fences, walked to Derby station, caught the train to London, made his way to Tilbury docks disguised as a docker, then stowed away in the lifeboat of a steamer sailing to neutral Holland. He managed to fool a Dutch policeman that he was not German, then made his way back to Germany. He was awarded the Iron Cross.
As a quick aside, are any readers fans of Zoom Pilates classes? (They’ve been a godsend to me in lockdown). They were developed by Joseph Pilates – who was a POW on the Isle of Man during the Great War. He developed his exercises to counter the boredom and lethargy felt by fellow German officers with nothing much to do.
A sad death on the pier
Other German officers and “enemy aliens” were held on three warships, tethered to Southend Pier, of all places. Conditions were quite lenient, and the first Christmas in 1914 many boxes of Christmas decorations, beer, fruit, tobacco and cigars arrived from Germany. Along with several Christmas trees. It wasn’t like that in The Great Escape!
But, I was genuinely sad to read of the death in 1915 of Lt Johann Meiser, who died from ptomaine poisoning, aboard one of the Southend prison ships. According to the German doctor in attendance, it was probably caused by eating a German sausage which had deteriorated during its long journey across Europe to Southend. Lt. Meiser was buried with full military honours at the Roman Catholic church in Southend.
Hiding in plain sight
Once I started looking, it was so easy to find evidence all around us for the Great War. After all, one hundred years is only the blink of an eye in historical terms. In fact, my problem was having too much material to include. (So, they’ll be another post some time soon, about Great War casualties on home soil – through bombings and raids and explosions – more than you’d expect).
But in the meantime, I’d start looking in the attic for your grandparents’ old letters and photographs and artefacts. There’s only a small window before old memories start to fade. So, ask your old loved-ones now of what they remember from their parents and grandparents. And write it down. Your grandchildren – and some future historian – will be glad that you did. And perhaps share them here, I’d love to hear your histories. Pass it on !