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Co-ordinating Centres

The Silent Cities, 10s 6d

In this guest blog Professor Mark Connelly (University of Kent) discusses The Silent Cities, a 1929 publication by Sidney C. Hurst on the cemeteries and memorials of the Great War. This post was originally posted on the Gateways to the First World War blog.

When I first visited the battlefields in 1986 I found that my military history interest was very quickly matched, if not surpassed, by a new obsession with the memorials and cemeteries of the Western Front. The first Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery I visited was Dud Corner at Loos, and despite seeing many photographs of those neat and tidy corners of a foreign field forever England, I was totally amazed by actually stepping into one. Just like everyone else I found the cliché was absolutely true: the peace, quiet and dignity of the place were truly remarkable. On returning home I quickly managed to find a copy of Philip Longworth’s official history of the Commission, The Unending Vigil, published to mark its fiftieth anniversary in 1967.  I read it avidly and was particularly interested in the references to a book called The Silent Cities by Sidney C. Hurst published by Methuen on behalf of the Commission in 1927. Deeply curious as to its contents, I searched my local libraries with no luck and then put in an inter-library search request. In those days everything was done by filling in paper forms and acknowledgement came in the form of a prepaid postcard. After a good few weeks that postcard duly arrived and told me the book was ready for collection. Having no idea of the nature of the book other than the fact that it was obviously about the work of the IWGC, I had no insight as to what I was picking up.

Opening the book for the first time I was stunned. First, it was printed on beautiful, glossy art paper. Used to the yellowing and foxed pages of inter-war books I had purchased in my local second hand bookshop or read in the library, nothing had prepared me for opening a volume that seemed brand new. Then there was another huge shock. Rather than pages of text, which I had expected, there were photographs of cemeteries; not just a few photographs to break up and illustrate the text, but page after page of photographs. The book was a gazetteer of each and every cemetery and memorial. Under each cemetery was a short description with details about the graves they contained and map references to aid location. Suddenly I was teleported back to the world of the original visitors to the Western Front or those who longed to go, but with perhaps neither the means nor time who, instead, purchased the book as some kind of permanent souvenir of their lost loved one thus providing a fitting domestic reminder. The book was also a world of liminal spaces for many photographs showed the cemeteries incomplete or in transition. The original Graves Registration Unit crosses could be seen in some rows with others seemingly sprouting up their new crop of pristine white IWGC Portland Stone headstones. Close examination of the landscape around the cemeteries also revealed a world permanently caught in a moment of drastic transition. Look beyond the cemetery and it could have been a shot of the prairie with far, far horizons: the war had destroyed everything and so there was nothing to punctuate the background or immediate hinterland. Most of all, it was a world of saplings carefully planted by the IWGC in the cemeteries or some farmer to help define his field boundaries beyond. Mature trees seemed so rare that their total number could easily be accounted across the entire 407 pages of the book. It was impossible not to play the ‘then and now’ game as I thought about the cemeteries I had seen on my trip and compared my photographs to those contained in the book. Houses, roads, and above all, trees, had appeared in the intervening years.

The next great discovery was turning to the back of the book and seeing the index of cemeteries. Having been on the trip I had some inkling of the wondrous range of names used, starting with the severely utilitarian, through the humorous and ironic and on to the elegiac and iconic. But here was a whole new thesaurus of memory and commemoration. Cemetery names tumbled out and rapidly fused in my head a connection with Blunden’s poem, Trench Nomenclature, which I have never since escaped, particularly in that most wondrous of concoctions, ‘Perth Cemetery (China Wall), Zillebeke’. Pouring over the photographs and delighting (that may seem an odd word to use in this context, but I genuinely can’t think of another one which better describes my sensations) in the cemetery names, I saw veterans in tweed jackets, smoking pipes and doffing their caps as they visited the graves of old chums and cloche-hatted women with young children searching for solace in at least seeing daddy’s grave so nobly marked and beautifully maintained. As you’ll know if you’ve read any of my other pieces, that vision is one I have never since managed to shake off and has become an important component of my professional career.

Of course, the time came for me to return the book. I dreaded that moment, for I realised then that The Silent Cities was a book that I wanted to own. At that stage I knew absolutely nothing about the workings of the second hand book trade other than the fact that there was a good, rambling second hand bookshop in the London suburb in which I grew up. I did know that I had a rarity on my hands and I was highly unlikely to find a copy in my usual haunt. Aching with the misery that only a teenager can muster, and a teenager at the height of ‘The Smiths’ fame at that, I wondered what I could do. Looking at the library stamps in the book, I saw that no one had taken out since the late 1950s! From this fact I deduced that the library from which it originated might not be that interested in retaining it. Using what I thought to be politely cunning (or cunningly polite) skills I wrote to the library (I have a vague feeling that it was in East Sussex somewhere) and asked whether I might be allowed to buy the book from them, especially as it was clearly not the hottest volume on their shelves. Needless to say that offer was declined with equal decorum and politeness (and perhaps cunning, as well). Skip forward a few years and I was now on the mailing lists of a few second hand book dealers who sent me their quarterly catalogues. Then, one magical day, I saw the book listed in one of the catalogues. I phoned immediately terrified that it might have been snapped up by someone else, but no, I was fortunate and managed to purchase it for let us say a not inconsiderable sum for the early 1990s. Receiving the book felt like having a scoop of soil from every cemetery in Belgian and France; it felt like some holy relic was now in my possession. Something far more than a simple catalogue was now on my shelves.

You might therefore imagine the amazing frisson that overcame me, when, about a year later, I purchased a copy of a collection of R.H. Mottram’s essays titled Through the Menin Gate. Among the short stories, autobiographical sketches and snatches of journalism was a review of The Silent Cities. I made straight for the essay and felt an odd sensation as I realised that Mottram had expressed many of my own thoughts some sixty years earlier. ’The real end of the War came, so far as I am concerned,’ he wrote, ‘on the day that a volume entitled The Silent Cities, an illustrated guide to the War Cemeteries in France and Flanders, 1914-1918, was put into my hands for review. That was the end, there is no longer anything to be done.’ For me though, Silent Cities was not the end but the end of the beginning.

Gateways to the First World War is an AHRC funded centre for public engagement with the First World War centenary. It is managed by the University of Kent in partnership with the Universities of Brighton, Greenwich, Portsmouth, Leeds and Queen Mary, London, and supported by a range of other institutions. The aim of the Gateways team is 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.

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BBC WW1 at Home

The Other War Dead: Asylum Patients during the First World War

In this guest blog, Caroline Nielsen describes how vulnerable patients were displaced from hospitals to make way for the casualties of war.

In a recent post for this blog, Dr Jessica Meyer discussed how wounded and sick soldiers were evacuated from the frontlines to large specialized hospitals in Britain. Images of these war hospitals and their military patients have appeared in publications as part of the centenary commemorations. These institutions have even been the subject of popular TV dramas, such as Downton Abbey, The Wipers Times, and The Crimson Fields. But the creation of these life-saving institutions had a hidden cost: the forced displacement of around 12,000 of the most vulnerable people in British society. This was because twenty-four of Britain’s largest war hospitals were requisitioned asylums for the mentally ill and those with learning disabilities.

Asylums and the War
The British military authorities were under considerable pressure in late 1914. There were simply not enough hospital beds in Britain to accommodate the ever-growing number of allied war casualties. Numerous patriotic individuals and organisations voluntarily opened their doors to soldier-patients, donating their time, money, and property to the war effort. But it was simply not enough. A drastic and ambitious scheme was developed to ensure that the nation remained fighting fit. Recovering soldiers needed beds but they also needed spacious grounds, recreational areas and sports fields to aid their recovery. Only a small number of institutions had all of these facilities already in place: residential schools, workhouses and the largest of them all, lunatic asylums. There were only two problems: the pre-existing large population of vulnerable patients and the stigma attached to them.

Every county in England and Wales had a lunatic asylum. Run by local committees overseen by the Government’s centralized Board of Control, these institutions offered residential care to a large population of men, women and children. There were over 102 psychiatric asylums in England and Wales in 1914. Over 108,000 men, women and children lived permanently in these institutions. This meant that each county and borough asylum cared an average of 1000 patients at any one time (Sarah Rutherford, The Victorian Asylum, 2011).

Asylum patients had a wide range of conditions, many of which would not fit with modern understandings of mental illness. As well as caring for those with depression, anxiety and delusions, asylums nursed those with long-term or degenerative conditions like epilepsy, tuberculosis, liver disease, alcoholism, and syphilis. A significant proportion of patients were elderly and frail, moved from out of their homes when they started to experience the disorientating symptoms of dementia. It was not uncommon to find those with learning disabilities living permanently in asylums (for example those with Down’s syndrome or who would now be placed on the autistic spectrum). It is important to stress that the majority of those with learning disabilities in the early twentieth century continued to live with their extended families. While some patients were sent by their families to these institutions, others were referred there by social welfare authorities: by doctors, charity workers, the Board of Education, or by the Guardians of the Poor who oversaw workhouses. Going into a workhouse or insane asylum carried a huge social stigma. But for the most impoverished, sick and desperate, they offered the only chance of free medical care.

The Asylum War Hospital Scheme, 1915-1919
Faced with mounting casualties, the British War Authorities approached the Board of Control for permission to empty a small number of asylums. Patients were either to return to their families or be transferred into different institutions. 9 asylums were initially selected, with others gradually added into the scheme whenever more beds were needed. All selected asylums were swiftly renamed as “war hospitals” so that soldier casualties would not be tainted with the stigma of receiving treatment in a lunatic asylum.

The most incredible aspect of the scheme was the speed with which it was carried out. Within 5 weeks of the scheme being confirmed, the selected asylums had been emptied of all but a few of their patients. The official estimate was about 12,000. Only the “gravely ill” [dying] and a few “quiet useful insane” men were allowed to stay on. The “useful” patients were to work as gardeners. (Board of Control, Official History of the War Asylum Hospitals, 1920). The insane were not even given the reassurance of familiar staff. Asylum nursing staff were requisitioned for the war effort along with the furniture.

Unsurprisingly, the immediate effect on the patients was severe. The official report of the Medical Officer of Norfolk County Asylum (later Norfolk War Hospital) is so shocking that it is worth quoting at length;

The scenes on departure aroused varying emotions in myself, my medical colleagues and the nurses. It was all interesting, some of it most amusing and much sadly pathetic. To not a few the asylum had been their home for many years, some for over fifty years, some since childhood; many even had never been in a railway train … so it will be readily believed that the whole gamut of emotion was exhibited by the patients on leaving, ranging from acute distress and misery, through gay indifference, to maniacal fury and indignation.

Casualties of War
That the Asylum War Hospitals Scheme saved lives is beyond dispute. By 1920, the hospitals had offered specialist care, pioneering treatment and friendship to over 440,000 men from all over the world. Approximately over 38,000 (9%) of these men were psychiatric cases; those suffering from shell-shock, nervous breakdowns, delusions, and sheer terror.

But the War Hospitals came at a terrible cost to the mentally ill and their families. Within 1 year of the first transfers, the Board of Control noticed that patients were dying at a higher rate than usual. Overcrowding had resulted in some of the remaining asylums, facilitating the spread of influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis. The asylum patients were also subject to rationing and food shortages, weakening an already sickly population. A series of cold wartime winters and a shortage of psychiatric medical professionals only exacerbated the problem.

In its official 1920 inquiry on the War Hospital’s Scheme, the Government reported that the transferred insane should be viewed as quasi casualties of war. Their suffering during the war was immediately and irrefutably comparable to that of “normal” military casualties. The insane deserved respect and sympathy irrespective of the stigma attached to their condition.

This was never to be. In spite of the report-writer’s best efforts, the wartime experiences of the civilian insane were almost immediately forgotten by their communities. The stigma surrounding mental illness and disability meant that discussing their experiences became taboo. No war memorials were raised in the name of these men, women and children. But as the centenary passes, they too should be remembered.

 

The AHRC and BBC “World War One at Home” project will explore the asylum transfers further in the autumn. Detailed descriptions of the individual asylums can be found in the Board of Control’s official report, entitled “History of the Asylum War Hospitals in England and Wales”, 1920. Regional asylum death statistics can be in Lewis Krammer’s article “The Extraordinary Deaths of Asylum Patients, 1914-18” in the journal Medical History (1992).

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Co-ordinating Centres

Remembering the forgotten heroes of the First World War

Flanders Fields, muddy trenches, the poetry of Wilfred Owen, poppies, the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth…ask anyone to conjure an image of the First World War and it is likely to feature something along these lines.

Despite their now iconic status, they don’t offer us the complete picture of what became one of the deadliest conflicts in history.

Now, in the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the Great War, a new national research centre has been launched at The University of Nottingham that will help to explore some of the lesser known stories of the years 1914-19.

Century-long legacy
hiddenhistories1The Centre for Hidden Histories is aiming to pair local groups and societies keen to commemorate the role of their communities in the war with University academics who can offer guidance on how to make their vision a reality.

They are particularly keen to offer support to people in the Sikh, Muslim, West Indian and Caribbean, Eastern European and Jewish communities, which have been widely affected by the century-long legacy of the First World War but whose stories are often overlooked in the narrative perpetuated by the media.

Professor John Beckett, in the University’s Department of History, is leading the new centre. He said:

“Our project is particularly interested in the events and participants that fall outside of the traditional image of the Western Front. We intend to explore themes of migration and displacement, the experience of ‘others’ from countries and regions within Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, and the impact and subsequent legacies of the war on diverse communities within Britain, remembrance and commemoration, and identity and faith. We are interested in hearing from community groups who are planning activities to commemorate the years 1914-19, especially those for whom the traditional Armistice Day celebrations may have strikingly different meanings.”

Getting involved
The Centre for Hidden Histories is one of five First World War engagement centres that have been established by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to investigate the war and support community groups in their efforts to research and commemorate the war.

Led by Nottingham, the centre is run by a consortium of universities made up of Derby, Nottingham Trent, Goldsmiths, UCL, Manchester Metropolitan and Oxford Brookes.

As well as academic and research support, the partner universities will also be able to provide some financial grants to the community groups through dedicated Community Challenge and Research Development funds.

Among the projects which the centre is already supporting are:

  • Assistance with arranging and recording anti-war songs in the West Indian tradition to commemorate the contribution made by the West Indies — the Caribbean colonies were represented by more than 18,000 officers and soldiers.
  • The creation of a tapestry that tells the story of the Sikh contribution to the First World War, using traditional Northern Indian craft.
  • The development of an exhibition of the Sikh contribution that could be taken out into the community to other faith groups to develop a deeper understanding of a shared history.

The centre is keen to hear from community groups who have ideas on how to commemorate the First World One and is holding a series of roadshows where people can learn more about the project and how to get involved. These are taking place at:

Wednesday 24th September 6pm-8pm
Lecture Room
Nottingham Mechanics
3 North Sherwood Street, Nottingham NG1 4EZ

Saturday 27th September 10am-12pm
Satta Hasham Room
Leicester Adult Education College 2
Wellington Street
Leicester LE1 6HL

Wednesday 1st October 6pm-8pm
The Green Room
QUAD
Market Place, Cathedral Quarter
Derby DE1 3AS

Anyone interested in finding out more or booking a place can contact Community Liaison Officer Michael Noble on 0115 748 4942 or at by emailing hiddenhistories@nottingham.ac.uk

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Co-ordinating Centres

The Arrival of the Belgians at Folkestone

In this guest blog post, Dr Will Butler (University of Kent) reflects on how Belgians crossed the English Channel in the first month of WW1. This post was originally posted on the Gateways to the First World War blog.

The outbreak of the First World War only had a very limited impact on the town of Folkestone during its opening weeks. Despite the fact that many of its summer visitors had left in a flurry of panic in its opening days, many did not, and the town had also begun to fill with British soldiers ready to embark for the front. However, by the middle of August allied forces had suffered a series of setbacks and its armies were on the retreat along with many thousands of refugees. Many fled westwards, but others attempted to reach the ports of Calais, Boulogne, and Antwerp in an attempt to cross the channel.

Belgians on boats
Belgians on boats

Initially, penny packets of Belgian soldiers began to arrive at Folkestone. The first boat from Calais brought 72 men from 12 different regiments. These men had fought at Namur and Liege, and the fact that they had come from so many different regiments shows just how much the Belgian army were in disarray. Within a few days, a conveyor belt of civilians began to arrive from the Continent, many of them in commandeered fishing boats. An extract from an article written by the Folkestone correspondent of The Times perhaps best illustrates the scene:

‘Gradually at first and very rapidly during the last week or ten days there has been a great change. The town is full, hotels and boarding-houses are crowded, and there is a constant stream of people walking along the Leas. A huge crowd gathers daily outside the closed gates of the Harbour Station and stands there for hours to watch the thousands of people landed every afternoon who pass out to take up their temporary abode here. But it is not the usual holiday crowd which Folkestone knows so well. These sad-faced people, who walk soberly about or gather in little groups and discuss solemnly topics which are evidently of intense interest to them, are not happy rollicking, holiday-makers, nor is their language ours. There is far more French than English heard on the Leas in these days, for Folkestone is becoming a town of refugees’.

It was estimated that by 5 September, as many as 18,000 refugees had arrived in Britain through Folkestone Harbour and there was no sign that the numbers would fall. A Folkestone War Refugees Committee was quickly formed in the town and a Belgian Relief Fund was instigated by various newspapers around the country. Each refugee was given a medical examination by a doctor before they left the Harbour, some were then sent on to London, and others were found jobs locally, such as hop-picking. Above all, free meals were provided to all who required feeding: as many as 6,000 meals each day.

All classes of people had made the journey across the Channel. Many ‘smartly-dressed’ people of the middle classes stayed in the larger hotels and boarding houses surrounding the Leas. The poorer visitors, described as ‘terribly poor’, with little or no luggage were put up around the town in rooms volunteered by many of the townspeople. The Refugee Committee was praised very highly for its endeavours. Described as displaying ‘untiring zeal, cheering drooping spirits, feeding the hungry, helping the helpless, and directing and advising all who stand in need’.

The stream of refugees continued almost every day until the middle of October. By this time the town was as full as it would be at the height of the tourist season and few unoccupied rooms could be found anywhere in the town. Over 100,000 Belgians had passed through Folkestone in only a few months and as many as 15,000 had taken up residence. As a result, more funds were required to ensure that they could be cared for over the winter months. Many of the shops had put up signs in their shops advertising in French and a specific paper was printed, Le Franco-Belge, which could keep those who wish to be informed of news from the front. All effort was made to make the refugees feel welcome and comfortable. For many it would be at least another four years until they could return home.

Belgian-refugees
Belgian refugees

The citizens of Folkestone clearly embraced the presence of the new residents. In July 1915, the town celebrated ‘Belgian Day’, to coincide with the Belgian national holiday. The Town Hall and other businesses flew the black, yellow, and red flag, and many Belgian children were seen selling them in the streets. A ceremony was held at the Roman Catholic Church and the Mayor of Folkestone spoke of England’s admiration for ‘gallant Belgium’.

Other events regularly took place throughout the war, and the town was visited by many dignitaries as a result of its hospitality to the Belgian people, including the King and Queen of the Belgians who were warmly received. Famously, Signor Franzoni painted a portrait which depicted the arrival of the first Belgian refugees at the Harbour, which can still be viewed in the town. A tablet was erected outside the Town Hall in testimony of the work carried out by the townspeople. Finally, a message was received by King Albert at the end of the war, when a Mausoleum was erected at nearby Shorncliffe Military Ceremony, who stated that ‘Folkestone had earned the admiration not only of the Belgians, but also of the whole world: yes, the whole civilised world knew how the town of Folkestone had received them with such cordiality which would never be forgotten’.

Belgian recognition of service
Belgian recognition of service

Gateways to the First World War is an AHRC funded centre for public engagement with the First World War centenary. It is managed by the University of Kent in partnership with the Universities of Brighton, Greenwich, Portsmouth, Leeds and Queen Mary, London, and supported by a range of other institutions. The aim of the Gateways team is 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.

Find out more about Belgians in WW1 on Beyond the Trenches: “Remembering Elizabethville: The Belgian Refugee ‘Colony’ of Durham”

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Co-ordinating Centres

Remembering the Life of Sergeant Alfred Knight VC

To coincide with the 100th anniversary of World War 1, a range of collectible coins and stamps have been launched to mark this event. The Post Office Shop blog team has been researching the role of the Post Office during World War One. In this guest blog post, supplied by Voices of War and Peace, Brook Chalmers from the Post Office introduces a solider from Birmingham who their work has uncovered. 

post-56-6-regimentThe General Post Office as it was known in 1914 had an active involvement throughout the Great War. During our research we learnt that the Post Office had its own military arm called the Post Office Rifles Regiment. This regiment saw active service throughout World War One. A member of this regiment, Sergeant Alfred Knight was awarded the highest military honour, the Victoria Cross, for an act of battlefield bravery.
The Post Office Rifles Regiment first saw active combat on 11th May 1915 when the 1st Battalion was introduced into the trenches during the battle for Festubert. The regiment would then go on to be involved in some of the key battles of World War One including the Somme, Passchendaele and Ypres.

Alfred Knight was introduced into World War One in 1917 as part of the Post Office Rifles’ 2nd Battalion. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for an act of gallantry on the battlefield.

post-30-3381a-recruitment-posterAlfred Knight was the son of Joseph and Annie Knight and was born on 24th August 1888 in Ladywell, Birmingham. He was a Post Office employee in the North Midland Engineering District which was based in Birmingham. Knight then relocated with the department when they moved to Nottingham in 1912. Alfred was still with the department when war broke out.

Alfred Knight enlisted on 26th October 1914 and was assigned to the 2nd battalion of the Post Office Rifles Regiment. Although he joined the regiment in 1914, his unit was not stationed in France until 1917 and the first combat that the regiment saw was during the second battle of Bullecourt. During this battle, Knight returned wounded soldiers to the trenches under severe enemy fire and for this act of bravery he was given a battlefield promotion to the rank of Sergeant.

Sergeant Knight was awarded the Victoria Cross for his acts during the battle of Wurst Farm Ridge, Ypres on 20th September 1917. He was awarded the highest military accolade for demonstrating “most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during the operation against the enemy positions.” Sergeant Knight single-handedly stormed a German machine gun position and secured it from the enemy.

b4-2-sgt-knight-vcOn 3rd January 1918, Sergeant Alfred Knight was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George V in a ceremony held at Buckingham Palace. Knight is the only member from the Post Office Rifles regiment to be awarded with the Victoria Cross. When his award was announced, Knight quickly became a local celebrity in both Birmingham and Nottingham. He was given civic receptions in both cities and adorned with gifts.

Knight continued to serve in the Post Office Rifles until the end of the First World War. In 1919 he was then re-commissioned to serve in the Sherwood Foresters regiment with the rank of Second Lieutenant. When the Sherwood Foresters were then demobilized, Alfred Knight returned to his role within the Post Office.

Alfred Knight passed away on 4th December 1960 aged 72 in Birmingham. He was laid to rest in Oscott Catholic Cemetary, New Oscott.

Voices of War and Peace: the Great War and its Legacy is a First World War Engagement Centre funded by the AHRC and in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund. The University of Birmingham Centre is a joint initiative across the Midlands with Birmingham City University, Newman University, the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Worcester, and further afield with the University of Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan University and Cardiff University.The Engagement Centre will support a wide range of community engagement activities, connecting academic and public histories of the First World War.