Bringing history to life: stories from the First World War
…their machine guns rattled away, and men began to fall. Still we kept on darting from shell hole to shell hole, vainly searching for a target. The first man in the platoon to fall was the runner, a lad of 18. Seeing this the unfortunate lad’s brother, hastened to him, turned him over, carefully examined him, kissed him and silently joined the rest of us.
That moving account of battle at Wancourt comes from the handwritten diary of Captain Lewis John Mead who served with The King’s Royal Rifle Corps.
4 August marks 100 years since the start of the First World War. Here, we take a look at the stories behind some of the fascinating items from the War at Hampshire Record Office.
On 4 August in the Great Hall in Winchester we will be showcasing some of the activities and events at our museums and other venues which commemorate the First World War. Events and activities include: the creation of an Anzac Trail at our Tile Barn Outdoor Activity Centre in Brockenhurst, an intergenerational project involving pupils at Hatch Warren Junior school in Basingstoke and older residents of the town who use Newman Court Day Centre, and, the History Wardrobe show touring our Discovery Centres, which tells the story of women in the War through costume.
Training for the Front
Frank Huggons, an accountant by trade, signed up for four years in 1914, aged 23, and served in the 15th County of London Battalion, London Regiment, Civil Service Rifles. In 1917, he undertook training at Hazeley Down camp in Twyford, just outside Winchester. Some of his papers from this time have been temporarily loaned to Hampshire Record Office by his granddaughter, Pam Fisher, who lives in Kings Worthy.
Pam came across the items of family history in her father’s attic in Hove, Sussex, after his death in 2003. Her grandfather had never spoken of his experiences in the War but Pam was struck by the detail and clarity of the notes her grandfather had made.
The collection is a fascinating insight into the training of men who would lead others into battle at the Front. There’s a text book on map reading and military drawings, copies of exam papers in military law and exercise books, in which Frank made meticulous notes on a host of things relating to warfare. These include: how to give orders, ‘calmly with decision, loud and with pauses’, and how to dig trenches.
Frank lists the pros and cons of digging a trench on the forward slope of a hill. The advantages, according to Frank, are: ‘Moral feeling of superiority over the enemy; great powers of observation both for your artillery and your infantry; and concealment of reinforcements.’ However he balances this with one, important, disadvantage: ‘You will be clearly seen by the enemy who can easily shell you.’
His orderly notes give just a hint of the horrors of war. Frank survived the War and was demobilised in July 1919.
“I don’t think his generation talked about the War – there were too many bad memories for them,” said Pam. “I thought it was fascinating that his notes were so beautifully written and when I realised he’d done officer training so close to where I now live it was that connection with the past which struck me most. I went walking and discovered the memorial to the officers who trained at Hazeley Down: the shapes of the earth banks in the fields there suggest the lines of huts in which they lived.
“I think it’s so important to preserve material like this and to make it available to others to see – it is part of our history.”
Remembering Hampshire’s War Horses
Since Michael Morpurgo’s book War Horse was brought to life so vividly on the stage and on film, there has been a fascination with the role that horses played in the First World War.
One of those was ‘Coal-Box’, a German pony who strayed into the lines of the 2nd Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps at La Clyte, near Mount Kemmel, Belgium, in 1914. He served with the battalion in France and Belgium and returned to Portsmouth at the end of the War, eventually dying in Ireland in 1921.
Hampshire played its part in training horses for the War. The Army Remount Service was established in 1887 to provide animals for military service. It played an important role in the Boer War but faced its major challenge in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War. It dealt with more than a million horses and mules, with around 140,000 being handled by the Romsey Remount Depot, at Pauncefoot Hill on the south-western outskirts of Romsey.
Romsey War Horse Memorial Project plans to honour the horses with a statue by local sculptor Amy Goodman, which will be erected in the town’s Memorial Park.
It is one of many projects that received funding under our Hampshire Commemorates grants programme, receiving £2,000. The statue will be unveiled in spring 2015 – one hundred years after the opening of the camp.
Not everyone supported the War. There were many who held pacifist ideals and a quick scan of the Winchester Prison logs held in Hampshire Record Office show that a number of young men were held there for ‘disobeying lawful orders’.
Men like 19 year old Basil Bunting, a Quaker, who was committed in April 1919 and sentenced to one year and one month. The sentence was later commuted to 140 days.
Being held in Winchester prison did not mean the men ended their dissent. While in prison a newsletter was compiled by conscientious objectors. The ‘Winchester Whisperer’ as it as called, was written on toilet paper and kept hidden from warders and contained articles, sketches and poetry submitted by the inmates.
Letters were welcome
To help morale during the First World War, soldiers were encouraged to write letters to friends and family in Britain, but most decided it was better to leave out the horrors of trench warfare. 12.5 million letters were sent to the Western Front every week, with letters taking only two or three days to arrive from Britain.
The Women’s Land Army
Around three million British men fought in the First World War but British women played their part too. The German naval blockades threatened the country’s food supply and with the men away fighting the War, women were encouraged to work the land to help produce more food and enable the country to be self-sufficient. The efforts of the Women’s Land Army were crucial and thousands of volunteers flocked to sign up as a result of posters like that below. By 1918, there were 20,000 ‘land girls’.
The work was physically hard, with many working from dawn until dusk. The work was paid and for many it was a liberating experience, opening up male-only roles to them.
In 1919, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was brought in which made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their gender.
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