Leeds Stories of the Great War

The latest film from the AHRC examines ‘Leeds Stories of the Great War’, a project undertaken by the University of Leeds that has been investigating the experiences of people who were living in Leeds during the First World War.

Leeds as a city was vital to the British war effort. It lost more men than the national average; equally, as a key industrial centre, Leeds factories and industries played an indispensable role in supplying the British troops and civilians during the war. Leeds residents also contributed in other ways: its households took in Belgian refugees; its hospitals cared for thousands of wounded soldiers from Britain (and it’s then Empire).  Today, in the Liddle Collection, University of Leeds, the West Yorkshire Archives (now in Morley), and Leeds Central Library, Leeds houses the most important collections of archival materials on the First World War outside of London.

Leeds Stories of the Great War aimed to bring together community groups with academics to explore all aspects of Leeds life during the war.  One of the ways the project delivered this was to contribute an ‘Antiques Roadshow’ style event in Morley, where members of the public had the chance to bring along photographs, letters and objects relating to the First World War, and have them put into context by academics from the University, and experts from the libraries and museums of Leeds.

For more information on Leeds Stories of the Great War please see the Legacies of War website. ​

BBC WW1 at Home Co-ordinating Centres Research

WW1 research at the Connected Communities Festival, 1-2 July

The AHRC’s Connected Communities Festival gets underway in Cardiff this week. Among the many community research showcases and activities, research into the First World War will be the focus for reflection and community participation.

On Tuesday 1st July in the Motorpoint Arena,  there will be a World War One ‘Antiques Roadshow’ Event which invites the public to bring along their memorabilia. You can drop in from 10am until 4pm.

A screening of Whose Remembrance?, a film exploring how the peoples of the former British Empire were affected by the two World Wars, will be shown at 1.45pm on Tuesday 1st July in the Motorpoint arena. If you can’t make the screening, a stall at Motorpoint Arena on both days will showcase the findings of the film:

The former colonies were an inextricable part of the British war effort in both wars. But what do we really know of the story of military service and of the home fronts experienced in Africa, India and the Caribbean?  What do the present minority communities in the UK – for whom this a part of their heritage – know of this piece of history?

Another stand in the Motorpoint arena on both days will also showcase the five new World War One Engagement Centres, with representatives from each centre keen to talk about their specific research themes and plans for the commemorations ahead. And, a session on Cultures of Commemoration will explore the role of the centres and of commemoration at this time. This session will begin at 11am on Tuesday 1st July in the Motorpoint Arena.

The Festival gives us an opportunity to explore what commemoration means for individuals, organisations and places in
Wales and across the UK. We are keen to hear what Festival participants have to say about the  possibilities of academic and public research collaborations on the FWW.

To encourage discussion, the Centres will bring some recent examples of commemoration, including Joanne Sayner’s 4-minute AHRC film produced by children, ‘Why Commemorate the FWW?’; work with four regimental museums in Northern Ireland; cross-community work based in part on Cymru1914 for Wales and potentially similar work on Ireland; and a Nottingham project on green spaces.

These projects are just one part of a diverse programme of events. Find out more, including the full programme, on the AHRC website.


BBC WW1 at Home

The First World War in Wales – Bring along your memorabilia

The contribution of Wales and Welsh people to the British First World War effort was immense. Some 40,000 Welshmen died during the War while its impact reached into every aspect of Welsh life. Its legacy lives on in countless ways and not least in the memories, objects and artefacts handed down through the generations and still treasured today.

Those objects and artefacts will be the focus of a special free event being held as part of the first Connected Communities Festival at the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff on the 1st July. Three academic experts from Welsh universities will be on hand in a special ‘Antiques Roadshow’-style event to look at First World War memorabilia brought in by members of the public. Objects can include medals, photos, letters, coins, antiques, maps, clothing, jewellery, publications and anything else with associations with the First World War. The academics will explain the context and significance of these objects and outline what they say about the military, domestic, social and political aspects of the War one hundred years ago.

Colleagues from People’s Collection Wales will digitise, preserve for posterity and, with the permission of the objects’ owners, share more widely the objects brought in.

Dr Gethin Matthews of Swansea University, one of the experts on hand during the event, said: “The First World War impacted upon Welsh society and culture in a multitude of different ways, and the evidence for this is often to be found in ‘family attics’. The range of material that families have treasured through the decades is remarkable, and it is always exciting to see ‘new’ material that can give us a fresh perspective on how Welsh people experienced and understood the war.”

Dr Gerard Oram of Swansea University and Dr Lester Mason of the University of Wales, Lampeter will also be taking part in the free event that is open to the public. All three have been supporting BBC journalists and broadcasters through the World War One at Home project in Wales.

This event will be one of many events open to the public on the 1st and 2nd July as part of the Connected Communities Festival. These will include archaeological demonstrations at the Caerau Iron Age hill fort, a talk by National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke, an intergenerational procession of banners celebrating the industrial history of Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil and other places in South Wales and many opportunities to get involved in dance, music, crafts and many other activities.

The free event will begin at 10.00am at the Level 2 Conference Suite, Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff on the 1st. The Festival as a whole runs for two days, on the 1st and 2nd July. For further information, please go to:

BBC WW1 at Home Research

Remembering Elisabethville: The Belgian Refugee “Colony” of Durham

In this guest blog, Caroline Nielsen relates the surprising history of Birtley and the Belgians.

5619167244_9b50ec7fee_z“The World War One at Home” project offers communities a chance to reflect on their histories and discover new, and sometimes surprising elements of their shared past. Few have a history as surprising as Birtley, County Durham*. During the First World War, this small industrial village was at the heart of Allied diplomatic relations when it became a central hub for thousands of Belgian soldiers and their families.

Birtley seems an unlikely place to uncover such a fascinating hidden history of wartime international politics. In 1914, Birtley was fairly typical of most North-East industrial communities of the time. Life revolved around the local mines and heavy industries. There were two small cinemas, the Co-Operatives, and a number of small churches and parks. The outbreak of the war in August 1914 changed Birtley for decades to come. Approximately 3,500 men from the local area enlisted into the armed services. Others left the area to work in other parts of industrial Tyneside. More significantly, the residents of Birtley gained over 4,000 new neighbours. Birtley was chosen as the site of two munitions factories, staffed entirely by Belgian soldiers, their families and other refugees. The resulting community was nicknamed “Elisabethville”, after the Belgian queen Elisabeth of Bavaria.


The outbreak of war in 1914 left many Belgians homeless and penniless. The historian Tony Kushner estimates that over 1 million fled the country, approximately one-sixth of the Belgian population. Of these, he estimates about 200,000 arrived in the UK. They were initially cared for by a series of central and local Refugee Committees, set up by well-meaning individuals and churches. All refugees had to register with their local Police and Committee, and inform them of their personal circumstances and movements. They also had to carry identity papers, or face arrest as German “enemy aliens”. Some were abused in public after being mistaken for Germans. Most Belgian refugees settled around London, although in other large communities formed in Birmingham, Winchester, and of course, in Birtley. At its height, Elisabethville accommodated between 2-3.75% of the entire Belgian refugee population living in the UK!

Elisabethville was the product of a unique diplomatic collaboration between the British and Belgian governments. The British built the munitions factories and the workers’ accommodation, and then turned the entire site over the Belgian government, who then provided the workforce. Most of the workers were injured soldiers and their families, although other refugees also worked there. Many had travelled from London, where some had worked in other Belgian-run munitions factories in Twickenham and Erith (Greater London). What made Elisabethville different from these other factories was the intention behind it. In return for the munitions from the factories, the British government allowed a sovereign Belgian “colony” to be temporarily established in Durham.

Elisabethville was a planned community for the munitions workers, similar to the community built for the “munitionettes” of Gretna. The workers and their families lived in purpose -built accommodation adjacent to the factories. Single men lived in hostels while married men and families lived in small prefabricated houses. More buildings were gradually added to Elisabethville, including an infants’ school, shops, church, and other amusements. It had its own official newspaper, “the Birtley Echo” written in English, French and Flemish. The Belgian authorities also brought over an independent police force and the camp was run according to Belgian law.


Despite their new homes having all the mod-cons (like flushing indoor toilets), life in Elisabethville was neither idyllic nor quiet. Munitions work was dangerous and many were seriously injured or killed in industrial accidents. Political divisions also caused problems. There were tensions between the French- and Flemish-speaking workers, and between the workers and the Belgian authorities. The Belgian authorities were paranoid about the so-called persuasive influence of British trade unionism in their factories. Paradoxically, British trade unions were openly hostile towards the Belgians, accusing them of accepting lower wages and more brutal working conditions. Camp tensions reached breaking point in April 1916 and a riot broke out after one political activist was arrested by the Elisabethville police. The arrest and subsequent removal of the prisoner alarmed the British authorities so much that it caused a minor diplomatic incident. Contact with the locals was discouraged, although it is clear that many local residents developed close ties to their new neighbours. Some married into their new community.

The Belgian government was adamant that all of Elisabethville’s residents had to return to Belgium at the end of the war. By December 1918, the majority of the workers had been repatriated back to Belgium. The locals moved into the Belgian accommodation blocks. Demolition of the site began in 1938. Now two anonymous buildings are all that remain of this once large and diverse community.

Commemorating Elisabethville allows us to consider the remarkable moment in British history when part of County Durham became temporarily Belgian.

The history of Elisabethville and the Birtley Belgians was covered by BBC Newcastle as part of its ongoing “World War One at Home” series.

* Birtley was historically part of County Durham. It is now part of the metropolitan borough of Gateshead, Tyne and Wear. Records relating to Elisabethville, its factories and its residents can be found in the National Archives, Tyne and Wear Archives, Beamish Living History Museum, and Durham County Records Office.

Co-ordinating Centres

Everyday Lives in War launches

There was a strong community focus to the launch event of the Everyday Lives in War centre last week at the University of Hertfordshire. The last – but certainly not the least – of the AHRC-funded World War One Engagement Centres to launch, the event attracted a wide range of community groups to talk about their work and their collaborations, and to find out about how they could get involved in the work of the centre.

Three-minute talks from organisations as diverse as the Herts at War project, the Luton Museum and the University of Reading’s Huntley and Palmer Archive began the day. David Souden from the Historic Palaces spoke about a project to lay red ceramic roses, one for each of the 888,000 British and Colonial soldiers killed in the First World War, in the dry moat around the Tower of London. He and Alastair Massie from the National Army Museum reminded us all of the strong national as well as local links being forged by the Engagement Centres.

A panel session followed, which examined objects and artefacts brought in by members of the public. Fascinating insights followed from members of the panel, such as Alan Wakefield from the Imperial War Museum, Dan Hill from the Herts at War project, Gareth Hughes of the Western Front Association, Mike Roper, Jim Hughes and Rachel Duffett of the Everyday Lives centre, and others. Objects discussed included a Princess Mary box – given to every soldier who fought for the British during the War, including, we heard, soldiers from the Empire – photos, medals and even fragments of a shot-down zeppelin.

Dan Hill from the Herts at War project speaking at the panel session
Dan Hill from the Herts at War project speaking at the panel session

The themes covered by the centre will include food and farming, conscientious objection and military tribunals, supernatural beliefs and theatre and entertainment. To emphasise the last of these themes, those attending were treated to a performance of JM Barrie’s A Well Remembered Voice of 1918.

All in all, the launch was a memorable event with a strong focus on community and public interest in the First World War commemoration, which augurs well for the coming months and years. Good luck Everyday Lives in War

For further information, please go to the AHRC website.

Co-ordinating Centres

Launch of Gateways to the First World War, Friday 30th May 2014

Last week saw the launch of Gateways to the First World War, one of five AHRC-funded centres designed to mark the centenary of the conflict, and to enhance public engagement with it. Gateways is based at the University of Kent and brings together a team of researchers from the Universities of Portsmouth, Brighton, Greenwich, Leeds and Queen Mary, London. The launch was part of a First World War Study day organised by the University of Kent’s German Department. The event was opened by Professor John Baldock, the University of Kent’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor Research, who expressed the university’s pleasure in hosting the Centre and introduced an afternoon of debate and discussion on the First World War and its commemoration.

Dominieck Dendoveen, Dr Suzanne Bardgett, His Excellency Dr Emil Brix and Dr Deborah Holmes discuss how and why we should commemorate the First World War
Dominieck Dendoveen, Dr Suzanne Bardgett, His Excellency Dr Emil Brix and Dr Deborah Holmes discuss how and why we should commemorate the First World War

One of the highlights of the event was a panel discussion on the commemoration of the First World War chaired by the event’s organiser, Dr Deborah Holmes of the German Department, and featuring Dr Emil Brix, Austria’s Ambassador to the UK, Dr Suzanne Bardgett, the Imperial War Museum’s Director of Research, and Dominiek Dendooven of In Flanders Fields Museum, Belgium. The panel led a fascinating discussion of both the problems and benefits of commemorating an event often complicated by ‘contested memories’. Dr Brix expressed his belief in the importance of European collaboration in the commemoration of the war, and Mr Dendooven discussed the ways in which the Flanders Field Museum is attempting to overcome national boundaries through exhibitions focused on individual war experiences. Dr Bardgett outlined some of the exciting centenary projects supported by the Imperial War Museum, including Lives of the First World War, the First World War Partnership, and Whose Remembrance?, the IWM’s project to investigate the role of colonial troops in the conflict. The discussion reinforced one of the key aims of the Gateways project: to encourage academics and the wider public to work together to discover connections between the local and the global during the First World War. As Gateways’ Director Professor Mark Connelly stated, the conflict was, for Kent and the South East in particular, a ‘global event with global repercussions’ which took place ‘on the doorstep’.

Gateways Director Professor Mark Connelly with His Excellency Dr Emil Brix,  Dr Deborah Holmes and Dr Heide Kunzelmann
Gateways Director Professor Mark Connelly with His Excellency Dr Emil Brix,
Dr Deborah Holmes and Dr Heide Kunzelmann

The panel discussion was followed by an illustrated lecture by Professor Connelly and Dr Heide Kunzelmann of the German Department, presenting photographs taken of troop mobilisation and prisoners of war in 1914 by Dr Kunzelmann’s great-grandfather, a medical officer in the Habsburg Army. Comparing these newly discovered sources to photographs taken by British officers in 1914, the pair talked about the connections between the personal and the public, and the similarities between artefacts of the First World War from different sides of the conflict. Through their discussion of the photographs – which focused on the themes of mobilization, violence, vulnerability and reconstruction – they emphasised the importance of revisiting accepted and established approaches to the conflict.

Photographs taken by Dr Friedrich Kunzelmann in 1914
Photographs taken by Dr Friedrich Kunzelmann in 1914

The event ended with a drinks reception and official launch of the Gateways to the First World War centre. Professor Connelly and Dr Will Butler outlined some of the centenary projects already underway, including a collaboration with Step Short of Folkestone on an app tour highlighting the town’s connections to the conflict, and guests were shown the newly-launched Gateways website. After a successful opening event, the Gateways team is now looking forward to developing its work with local groups and organisations on a range of First World War projects across the UK. The Centre aims to encourage and support public interest in the conflict through a range of events and activities such as open days and study days, providing access to materials and expertise, and signposting for other resources and forms of support. Forthcoming events include:

19th July 2014 – 25th January 2015 – ‘Lest We Forget’, an exhibition in conjunction with Portsmouth City Council

13th September 2014 – A Family History Day at Brighton Museum in conjunction with Brighton Museums and Pavilion

28th September 2014Gateways to the First World War Public Open Day, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

12th December 2014 – ‘Representations of the Christmas Truce’, a one day symposium at the University of Kent

More details of these and many other projects can be found on the Gateways website. The Gateways team can be contacted at and via Twitter and Facebook.


The long trip home: medical evacuations from the front

The BBC’s drama The Crimson Field provided viewers with a portrait of life in a fictional field hospital during the First World War. In this guest blog, Dr Jessica Meyer (University of Leeds) discusses how the sick and wounded made it to such hospitals and beyond, revealing the many caregivers they would have encountered on the road, rail and sea.

Medicine and those who administered it were central to a soldier’s experiences of the First World War. On enlistment or conscription, men went through a medical examination. While in the field they would regularly encounter their Regimental Medical Officer and sanitary squads.  Although such medical care was very much a part of everyday life for the British soldier, the most important aspect of the work of the Army Medical Services (AMS) was the evacuation of the sick and wounded from the battlefield.

Clearing battlefields promptly allowed both military actions to continue unhindered, and manpower to be conserved by ensuring that the wounded were treated promptly.  Locating medical establishments along the lines of communication in places that offered both access to transport and sufficient shelter was key to battle planning.  Diagrams such as these (all taken fromW.G. McPherson, Medical Services of the War: General Services, Vol. II, HMSO: 1923):

Diagram of the organization of medical services
Diagram of the organization of medical services
Diagram of evacuation plan - cambrai
Diagram of evacuation plan – Cambrai
Diagram of evacuation plan - Messine
Diagram of Evacuation Plan: Messine

were a standard aspect of Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) battle preparation and illustrate the routes that a wounded man might take from Regimental Aid Post (RAP) through Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) to Base Hospital and beyond.

Battle of Pilckem Ridge 31 July - 2 August : stretcher bearers struggle in mud up to their knees to carry a wounded man to safety near Boesinghe on 1 August.
Battle of Pilckem Ridge 31 July – 2 August : stretcher bearers struggle in mud up to their knees to carry a wounded man to safety near Boesinghe on 1 August.

So what happened to the many men wounded in battle? If he was able, he would probably apply a first aid dressing, with which all men were issued. If he could still walk he would go to a collecting station. If not, he would be carried to an aid post by volunteer regimental stretcher bearers. At the RAP he would have his details taken and an initial assessment would be made.  The first aid dressing would be changed for a more secure dressing, and he might get a drink and a cigarette. These posts were, however, usually extremely hectic places, located near the front lines with comparatively little shelter, so most care was superficial.

From the RAP the wounded man was then taken by stretcher bearers to a dressing station run by a field ambulance. The distance between an aid post and a dressing station could be some miles, often over ground dug up by shellfire. Bearers worked in relays in order to maximise the speed of transport. If they were lucky, they might have wheeled stretchers or even trolleys, but the ground was usually far too uneven for anything other than stretcher transportation.

The dressing stations were located near roads, often in abandoned buildings.  Here again men had their details recorded, their dressings changed and their condition assessed before they were loaded into the vehicles of the Motor Ambulance Corps for transportation by road.  In the early days of the war, horse-drawn waggons were used, but after they were overwhelmed by the number of casualties they were required to cope with at the Battle of Mons, motorized ambulances were increasingly brought into service. Many were adapted from donated private cars, but even when specialized vehicles were produced, the poor condition of the roads meant that the journey was extremely uncomfortable and could be fatal.

The wounded man’s next port of call, the CCS, was one of the most flexible and important establishments in the evacuation process. Originally mobile, by 1916 CCSs had become, due to the static nature of trench warfare, semi-permanent fixtures, located near railway termini or major road junctions.  This meant they were able to grow in size to accommodate up to 1000 patients.  Their staff also grew, mainly to include female nurses, the closest that such women were allowed to the front line. The number of operations carried out also increased, as the importance of forward treatment become clear. As a result, CCSs became increasingly specialised, with units and their staff specialising in everything from skin diseases or gas to particular types of wounds.

The CCS could treat those with less serious injuries and return them to their units via convalescent camps. It could also retain those with wounds so serious that they could not be moved further – one reason for the large cemeteries at former sites. If necessary, cases could be evacuated further down the line to base hospitals.  These evacuations were generally carried out by train, although some were carried out by hospital barges.  Hospital trains were staffed primarily by volunteers, including the St John’s Ambulance Brigade and the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, working under the aegis of the British Red Cross. A number of base hospitals were also run by voluntary units.  These large hospitals were based at the principle army bases, giving access to both railheads and ports.

About 50% of men who arrived at a base hospital would go on to be evacuated by hospital ship to Britain for further treatment or convalescence.  For the remaining 50%, survival rates if they made it this far were good, and most would go on to camps for six weeks of rehabilitation before returning to their unit or being reassigned to alternative duty if their wound or illness affected their medical rating.

Patients lie in beds with Red Cross nurses standing beside them.
Patients lie in beds with Red Cross nurses standing beside them.

For those with a ‘Blighty’ wound, evacuation to a Home hospital meant they would be taken to a hospital run by the RAMC with support from the British Red Cross. Here men with conditions requiring longer-term specialist care received the sort of complex treatment unavailable overseas. Over the course of the war many of these hospitals developed regional specialisms, such as the orthopaedic specialist designation of No. 2 Northern General Hospital (Beckett’s Park, Leeds) after 1917. Following their treatment, men would be sent to Auxilliary hospital for convalescence, the destination of some of those evacuated from Base hospitals as well. Many were located in donated country houses, with the lady of house acting as commandant, although an RAMC officer held a supervisory position as medical officer and the nursing was overseen by a professional matron. These hospitals were designed to ease the pressures on space elsewhere.

From their convalescence, men were discharged either to return to duty with their units or for reassignment for those no longer deemed fit enough for front line duty.  On their journey from the trenches, a wounded soldier would have been cared for by a huge variety of caregivers, not just doctors and nurses, but bearers, orderlies, General Service volunteers, radiographers, anaesthetists, dentists and chaplains. Their varied and important roles continue to be the subject of academic enquiry.