Co-ordinating Centres

‘Send a good letter to cheer me’ – soldiers’ correspondence in the Great War

Two brothers from the village of Sweffling in Suffolk – George and Albert Stopher – were killed on the Western Front within a few weeks of each other, in the spring of 1917. But the men’s voices can still be heard, through an extensive collection of letters that they left behind. Some of those letters were found, together with locks of hair and dried flowers, amongst their possessions after their deaths.

George Stopher (1896-1917)
George Stopher (1896-1917)

Rachel Duffett teaches History at the University of Essex. Through the Everyday Lives in War Engagement Centre, based at the University of Hertfordshire, she is working with the Suffolk Record Office in Ipswich to bring the Stopher letters to a much wider audience. ‘In some ways,’ she says, ‘the experience of George and Albert Stopher was typical of many young men in the First World War. They appear to have enlisted early (it’s impossible to know for sure, as their war records were destroyed during the Second World War). They suffered the privations of the Western Front, and George was hospitalised for a while with shell shock.’

But the Stopher correspondence is also very unusual, says Rachel Duffett. ‘First, there is its sheer size, with the many bundles of letters that the brothers left behind. Its volume contrasts sadly with the few lines in the official history of the Suffolk regiment, describing the engagements in which George and Albert died.’

Then there is the variety of the correspondence: ‘through it, we can chart the relationships between the brothers, their parents and their sweethearts.’

Unusually also, the letters tell the story of the rural citizen soldier, unlike most collections of soldier’s letters, which tend to be from men from towns and cities. Prior to February 1916, only about eight percent of the army’s recruits were from agricultural occupations.

Albert Stopher (1897-1917)
Albert Stopher (1897-1917)

The Stopher letters are also different in the way in which George and Albert express themselves. While the letters suffer from an almost complete absence of punctuation, and idiosyncratic spelling, they also have a directness and vivacity which are often absent from soldiers’ correspondence. Writing to his mother while he was in a French hospital recovering from shell-shock, for example, George Stopher says that sending him back to the front in his current condition would be like ‘sending a rat to kill a dog.’ As Rachel Duffett says, ‘people in small rural communities were not exposed to the mass media in the same way as city-dwellers, and so were perhaps less likely to express themselves in cliché.’

Food is a recurring theme in the letters, often as a proxy for love and care, with the brothers frequently asking their mother for home-cooked cakes and puddings. George and Albert also aren’t shy in getting their parents to importune things on their behalf: ‘do not be afraid to ask anybody for a little gift’.

But when it comes to the darker aspects of the war, there is very little that makes it into the letters. Certainly there was censorship in the trenches, with officers reading what the enlisted men had written before it could be sent, but we see very little black ink in the Stopher correspondence. What censorship there was seems to have been self-censorship, for a variety of reasons: as George says in his letters, of the treatment for shell shock he was receiving, ‘some things are not to be spoken of.’ And yet, as Rachel Duffett says, ‘writing of his shell shock to his mother, you can sense something of his desire nevertheless, to let her know what he’s experiencing. I’m surprised it got past the censor.’

George ends his unsettling letter, detailing his fragile state of mind, with a request to his mother to ‘send a good letter to cheer me’. He was probably thinking of something more uplifting than the letter that Albert received from his sweetheart Bessie, in which she told him that she’d dreamt that he had died.

letter1The surviving relatives of the Stopher brothers have been active supporters of the project, and have donated framed photos of George and Albert, as well as their medals. Displays of the letters and other material are being developed, and the letters have been used in local schools, as a way of introducing the subject of the First World War. The project also included public readings from the letters on 4 August 2014, the hundredth anniversary of Britain entering the war: according to Rachel Duffett, ‘it’s surprising how different the letters seem when you read them out loud – how vividly the men’s voices come across.’ And giving a talk at Sweffling, she was ‘struck by the resemblance of the many great-nephews and great-nieces who were there to the Stopher brothers, as I’d seen them in photographs.’

But then, it is this quality of immediacy and familiarity in the Stopher correspondence which makes it so unusual. ‘I’ve read so many collections of soldiers’ letters,’ says Rachel Duffett, ‘but these really are special. You come to feel that you know the Stopher brothers personally.’

Listening in

letter2Bridget Hanley is Collections Manager at Suffolk Record Office in Ipswich, where the Stopher correspondence is held. For her, the involvement of Rachel Duffett, through the Everyday Lives in War Engagement Centre, has made the difference in bringing the letters to life: ‘we’re providing a resource for others to use in imaginative ways. Rachel has been able to take one of our collections and really run with it.’

When the letters have been used in schools, ‘we’ve had fifteen-year-olds, which is a notoriously difficult age groups with which to engage, almost in tears. They’re not a lot younger than the Stophers were when they went to the front: this collection of letters personalises the war for them. And it enables us to see both sides – we have some of the family’s letters to the Stopher brothers, but also their letters back. We can see how everyone – both on the front line and at home – was affected by the conflict.’

‘This is a story of ordinary, everyday people, with the same emotions that we all have, being caught up in the First World War. It’s a story that was played out across the country: it always touches people. You feel almost like you’re eavesdropping.’


WW1 cartoons reach new audiences in Sydney

AHRC-funded research on WW1 comics is on display down under. Professor Jane Chapman’s research is part of the ‘Perceptions of War’ exhibition at Macquarie University Public Art Gallery in Sydney. Professor Chapman’s talks in Australia have particularly attracted interest from the Chinese community.

Members of the Sydney Chinese community are translating the WW1 comics and cartoon material on display, attending the public talks, and promoting it on their own social network site.

Translator Lan Zhang will use the content for teaching English and understanding of Western culture, and incorporate the content into Chinese English undergraduate classes.

Her grandfather was the Chinese government’s official illustrator and reporter during World War Two, covering the country’s invasion by Japan. She says:

Arts and history are both important in our life, I believe. By them, we can learn from our past and have the courage to go ahead, that is why your research on the cartoons from the trenches inspires me too.

‘Perceptions of War’ is on at the Macquarie University Public Art Gallery in Sydney until the 19th March 2015. There are free public lectures by  Professor Jane Chapman:

  • Thursday 19 February at 1pm, “Visual Satire and Australian Identity, 1914-18”
  • Wednesday 5 March at 1pm, “Humour as History – Soldier Cartoons from the Trenches”
  • Free Mandarin guided tour on the 18th of March at 2pm
Christmas Day at Gallipoli from the Anzac Book Collection the Australian War Memorial

Both sides of the trenches

This blog post looks at the involvement of the Middle East, particularly Turkish troops who took part in the First World War and the devastating effect it had for both sides of the trenches. 

“Everyone is fascinated by the post-war partition of the Middle East – the Sykes-Picot borders that emerged,” he says. “In my book I look at how the process of partitioning the Middle East begins very early in the war: March 1915, and goes right through.”

‘The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East’ is the forthcoming book by Eugene Rogan, a research fellow at the University of Oxford. He argues that these boundaries were not part of an imposition of a greater plan, but simply demonstrated what was possible at that moment and what was happening on the battlefields.

“Every one of the plans, rather than reflecting any deliberate thought by the parties involved about Zionism or Arab nationalism, were agreements that reflected the exigencies of the war at that moment,” he explains. “None of them would have made any sense without the war context. The British, French and Russians would not have engaged in any of this diplomacy. The borders are the errors of war. Rather than creating a stable post-Ottoman Middle East, the borders created an imperial post-Ottoman Middle East, and we’re living with the consequences of that in the present day.”

Rogan’s work explores the experiences of soldiers and civilians from all sides of the war, drawing on personal accounts and newly-discovered and translated diaries as well as official records to give a holistic picture, and using sources from all over the world, from New Zealand to Australia to the archive at his own university.

Turkish prisoners at Tuz Khurmatli, 1918 (Imperial War Museum)
Turkish prisoners at Tuz Khurmatli, 1918 (Imperial War Museum)

“I bring in the Turkish and Arab sources to a story that we tend to know only through British sources,” he says. “I’ve been drawing on the diaries, the memoirs, the journals of Turks and Arabs, civilians and soldiers, from virtually all of the fronts: from the Caucuses to Gallipoli, the fighting in Syria, and balancing that with accounts from the British, French and Anzac soldiers. There’s frustratingly little primary material out there from Indian soldiers, but where I’ve got letters I use those to try and capture the Indian experience as well. We come away with the most balanced reading of what the war experience was from both sides of the trenches.”

Rogan was not, however, concerned with attempting to revise the established official histories of battles or tactics. “When it comes to the big battles and tactics, I don’t think there’s anything there that’s open to revision,” he explains. “We have to remember that anything like [the battles of] Gallipoli or Mesopotamia was the subject of so much investigation at the time because they were catastrophic for the British. The official histories were as a result very well informed on what went wrong; they don’t try and gloss over heroic atrocities in history and they explain some very embarrassing defeats for the British, some of which were also rather politically sensitive. What I was looking for were the accounts of what people went through.”

The idea for the book came from a personal experience of his own – visiting the war grave of his Scottish great-uncle, who was killed in 1915, along with scores of his schoolfriends, at Gallipoli.

“They suffered so much – the boys had been sent over the top after inadequate shellfire had not reduced the Turkish trenches and so they came straight into machine gun fire – they were just all mown down,” he reflects. “The sadness for the village after all these young men had died was more than my maternal great-grandmother could bear, and that’s when they moved to America. In a sense this was how my mum came to be, and me after her – we owe our lives to his death.”

Yet it was a chance encounter with a war memorial that made him realise just how necessary it was to publish an account of these battles from as many perspectives as possible.

“When we went to visit, we made a wrong turn, and stumbled upon a war memorial to the Turkish dead from the same engagement,” he recalls.  “As I read the plaque it explained that 10,000 Turks died there. It was probably three or four thousand more than the Scots who had died on the same day. The number of Turkish bereaved would have far exceeded the number of Scottish bereaved, but it was never part of my family story – we’d never heard about the Turks who were killed at the same time. It hammered home to me how limited my understanding of it had been. To come to grips with Gallipoli and all its horror, you need to view the conflict from both sides of the trenches.”

He also explores the schisms within the Ottoman Empire, particularly the massacre of the Armenian community, and the ways in which the Empire itself was beginning to disintegrate.

“At the heart of the book is the Ottoman war against its own people,” he says. “It begins with the history of tensions between the Ottomans and the Armenian community, it sets out how the deportations and massacres were organised and conducted, it draws on sources to give the view from the top down, and ends with the trials that the Ottomans conducted of those they charged with responsibility for the massacres, done to try and stave off a draconian peace settlement at Versailles.”

Dr Fred Anscombe of Birkbeck University, an expert on the Ottoman Empire, is looking forward greatly to the publication of the book. He says that Rogan’s approach to the research is unusual and particularly valuable in its breadth.

“It’s very good on the history of the Ottoman Empire and what happened afterwards,” he says. “He looks at a range of perspectives and interprets them; and he doesn’t approach the subject as an outsider. I just cannot think of anyone else who can do that or has done that with such a range of expertise.”

“It’s trying to give you all sides of the story so we don’t have a one-sided triumphalist view,” concludes Rogan. “Instead, we see the cost in human tragedy that lay behind a war that in so many ways was not the Middle East’s to fight.”

Co-ordinating Centres

Exploring the Legacies of War

In this blog post, Carrie Dunn looks at the outreach work of Legacies of War, one of the AHRC Engagement Centres based at the University of Leeds researching events from the First World War. 

‘Legacies of War’ is the umbrella name for a series of research projects focusing on the First World War Centenary at the University of Leeds, including three strands of work supported by the AHRC: the initial titular project, which was followed by Leeds Stories of the Great War, and then Discovering First World War Heritage. Led by Professor Alison Fell of the University of Leeds, academics with research interests in different aspects of the First World War have collaborated with community groups around the area to explore what happened during the war and its long-term consequences.

Memorabilia brought along to the WW1 Open day in Leeds in February organised by 'Leeds Stories of the Great War'
Memorabilia brought along to the WW1 Open day in Leeds in February organised by ‘Leeds Stories of the Great War’

The team have also been helping to coordinate a series of events and activities that are taking place across the city now and over the next four years in a variety of venues, commemorating different aspects of the First World War. “There are six core academic members of the team,” explains Fell. “We’re not military historians, so we had a desire to do something beyond the trenches, something home front-based, and also something that had the potential for European comparison because a lot of us work primarily outside of Britain.”

Fell has led the theme of‘Yorkshire and the Great War’, one of five thematic strands, looking at different elements of the war’s impact on the city and the county more broadly. “I’ve learnt a lot – there are aspects of World War One I genuinely knew nothing about,“ she admits. “I’ve got to know a lot more about British history – I’m primarily in French studies, so that was probably inevitable, but for me it’s been really interesting.”

Fell’s involvement with community projects has also led her to reflect upon her own research interests and practices as a cultural historian. One of the most significant, she feels, was a link-up with local young people exploring records of refugees relocating to Leeds during the war. “One of the projects that has been most closely linked to my own research is about Belgian refugees into the city, and I was working with two secondary schools and with some university students on it,” she says. “I did some research in the archives in Brussels, and I helped some of the schoolchildren and their teachers and the students do some research in the local archives, so we were trying to get both perspectives – the people in Leeds and the Belgian refugees.”

She began to notice that the young people were approaching the source materials in very different ways, looking for very different things to her.

We were trying to get both perspectives – the people in Leeds and the Belgian refugees

Memorabilia brought along to the WW1 Open day in Leeds in February organised by 'Leeds Stories of the Great War'
Memorabilia brought along to the WW1 Open day in Leeds in February organised by ‘Leeds Stories of the Great War’

“That was really interesting!” she exclaims. “I was interested in the experience of mothers with their children, and in education; and what they were interested in was crime and romance, mainly! A lot of them were interested in the idea of fitting in as a teenager in a new culture. They didn’t have the background knowledge that a historian would if they’d been researching this stuff, but they did have their own life experience, so to help them answer the questions they were asking, I looked at different sources than I might have normally.

“I’d just never thought about how they might approach the sources. That interaction was really fulfilling.”

It has also been a hugely positive experience for the community groups working with Fell and her colleagues, such as the Friends of Lawnswood Cemetery, who have been involved with Legacies of War from the very beginning.

The cemetery opened in 1875 and features four memorials and several buildings that have been listed for historical preservation – but it is also of significance to those interested in World War One, with 138 burials, a war graves plot and two screen walls recording names of war dead.

Founder Andrea Hetherington and her group work towards the upkeep of the cemetery and also offer guided walks. Since becoming involved with the project they have also had the opportunity to work with academics on various pieces of research, and Hetherington feels that personally the relationship has been invaluable.

“The Legacies of War team have made such a massive difference to me,” she says. “When I started to work with them, I’d just been made redundant and was at quite a low ebb. My background is in law but now I’m doing lectures and guided walks and I’m writing a book at the moment. They’ve been really helpful and enthusiastic and it’s led off in all kinds of directions for me.”

The Legacies of War team have made such a massive difference to me

Memorabilia brought along to the WW1 Open day in Leeds in February organised by ‘Leeds Stories of the Great War

As well as the successful research outcomes, Fell feels Legacies of War is also proving to be an opportunity for personal professional development in external communications, marketing and partnership working – areas that individual academics may often neglect while working within their institutions.

“I realised at an early stage, for these projects to work and to reach into different parts of the community that a university wouldn’t normally work with requires skills that academics often don’t have,” she says. “We had a project officer from an outreach background – she was absolutely vital. There’s a skills deficit [in academia] in terms of trying to understand how you would get people to trust what you’re doing, and deal with all the paperwork, like risk assessments, so academics can be confident to go and work with community groups. The AHRC has been doing this via the Connected Communities programme, and now we’re all working to learn new skills.”

And she would urge other universities to overcome their reservations and look into the possibility of doing similar work with local groups. “When we had the first meeting, there was a lot of anxiety around the newness of the project,” she confirms. “There were questions like, ‘Is it going to allow us to do research our bosses are going to like? Is it going to be REF-able?’

“But there’s a lot of knowledge out there, and it does all feed in. And it has given validity – because it’s an AHRC grant – to something that we wouldn’t normally have time to do. I’ve found it really valuable.”


Legacies of War at the University of Leeds is a First World War Centenary project for 2014-2018. The project will work with people and organisations in Leeds, the UK and internationally to explore the legacy of the First World War.


The front-line funnies: cartoons and comic strips in the First World War

In this blog post, Matt Shinn looks into a major research project by Jane Chapman that is telling the story of the two World Wars through an unlikely, but important, and up to now, largely overlooked medium.

Two bristle-haired Tommies are sitting in a shell hole, while explosions fill the sky above them. We don’t know exactly what has just passed between them, but one turns to the other and says ‘Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it.’

The cartoon, featuring the anti-hero Old Bill, was by the British humourist Bruce Bairnsfather. It was to become the most famous cartoon of the First World War. And work of its kind can give us an at-a-glance appreciation of what people at the time of the Great War were thinking. If it’s a comic strip that will also provide a sense of story that is a valuable record, according to Jane Chapman, Professor of Communications at Lincoln University.

Hark! Hark! The Dogs do Bark. Artist unknown. Published by G.W. Bacon 1914
Hark! Hark! The Dogs do Bark. Artist unknown. Published by G.W. Bacon 1914

The AHRC-supported project that Jane Chapman has been working on, Comics and World Wars: a Cultural Record, began with the idea that comics were an important piece of popular culture that had been overlooked by historians. ‘Many academics have been interested in the mainstream press only,’ she says. ‘And within newspapers, they’ve tended to overlook the apparently marginal things – the cartoons and the adverts, both of which can tell you a lot.’ The project is intended to bring back into public understanding the heritage of comics and cartoons produced at the time of the First World War, and to shed light on the attitudes that they demonstrate. And in some cases, to recuperate much of this material that has been forgotten – it’s mouldering away in collections, and it’s not usually been written about.

“The project is intended to bring back into public understanding the heritage of comics and cartoons produced at the time of the First World War”

Vulgar caricatures

The graphic art produced during the First World War is of many different kinds. An exhibition at the Cartoon Museum, which the AHRC has supported as part of the Comics and World Wars project, brings together over 300 images, many on loan from the Cambridge University Library War Reserve collection, the biggest store of war-related ephemera in the world. They range from humorous cartoons from newspapers and magazines, to cigarette cards and cartoon maps, and colourful comic postcards by the likes of William Heath Robinson and Donald McGill (who would go on to become the ‘king of the saucy seaside postcard’).

Fifth Gloucester Gazette, March 1918. Syndics of the University of Cambridge
Fifth Gloucester Gazette, March 1918. Syndics of the University of Cambridge

Then there are the trench publications that were produced by serving soldiers for their own entertainment, some of which featured cartoons. The ‘Comics and the World Wars’ research project has found 800 editions, with some 200-odd examples of multi-panel cartoons. Bruce Bairnsfather himself started out drawing cartoons for soldiers’ publications, and his jokey style  was copied by others as the grumbling but steadfast Old Bill became the face of the long-suffering Tommy in the trenches, and hugely popular among the men at the front. Bairnsfather’s work was criticised in Parliament as ‘vulgar caricatures of our heroes’, but the Old Bill cartoons were reproduced on plates and cards, and even inspired stage shows and films.

He looks smarter in his Khaki - but I love him best in this. Donald McGill c. 1916
He looks smarter in his Khaki – but I love him best in this. Donald McGill c. 1916

The work in the Cartoon Museum exhibition – Never Again! World War I in Cartoon and Comic Art – also covers a huge range of subjects, with depictions of life in the trenches, themes from popular songs, and air raids. Women’s war work, suffragettes and conscientious objectors all featured frequently in cartoons and comic strips of the time. And as Jane Chapman says, around the time of the First World War cartoons and comic strips weren’t always conservative in their underlying message: political organisations – including trade unions and suffrage groups – also used them to try to bring about change. ‘The Labour movement for example used the cartoon image of the gullible worker, forever being taken in by the system, and a victim of capitalism and recruitment propaganda.’

 “Women’s war work, suffragettes and conscientious objectors all featured frequently in cartoons and comic strips of the time”

Then there are the ‘hate cartoons’ that demonise the Germans, often making great play of the German spiked helmet, and showing the Hun as a spider, gorilla or monster. The Kaiser was always a popular subject – ‘how ugly, incompetent, feeble or Satanic do you want to make him?’ But there were still boundaries – one Australian cartoon of a bayoneted Kaiser was turned down for publication. And there are other depictions of the enemy, by the likes of Heath Robinson and Haselden, that acknowledge the humanity that was shared by both sides. ‘The soldiers themselves often portrayed the Germans with a degree of empathy,’ says Jane Chapman, ‘seeing them as just doing their job, as the allies were. The further from home a soldier was, and the longer they had been away, the more mellow their attitude in writing became towards the enemy.’

The serious business of the comic

The First World War marks an important point in the evolution of the comic strip. There had been strips before the war, but they were aimed at children: it was in the Great War that adults began to take an interest in the strip format. And cartoons became a hugely important publication medium during the conflict, as they weren’t subjected to the same kinds of censorship as print. At the same time, the adult market for cartoons was developing because of the need for propaganda, and simple forms of communication and entertainment. The recognisable idiom of the comic strip, including many of its conventions (such as speech bubbles), was being formed.

Young man, I hope you came by all those things honestly? Donald McGill, 1917
Young man, I hope you came by all those things honestly? Donald McGill, 1917

The cartoons from the First World War also give visual form to important aspects of the conflict. Among soldiers themselves, for example, the figure of the anti-hero was very popular, but this could contrast sharply with depictions in the British press of soldiers as heroes, further reinforcing the belief among many at the front that people at home didn’t understand the reality of the war.

“A hundred years after the First World War, cartoons can also provide a means of reaching out to a more general audience, and interesting them in the history of the conflict.”

Finally, a hundred years after the First World War, cartoons can also provide a means of reaching out to a more general audience, and interesting them in the history of the conflict. As Cartoon Museum curator Anita O’Brien puts it, ‘cartoons and comic strips give us a different way of approaching the war, and the feelings that people had about it. We’re like a bridge between the knowledge that academics have and a public who may not be easy to reach: many of the people who come to the Cartoon Museum would not go to other museums. Cartoons and comic strips are a marginal artform – they’re never seen as high art – but they have tendrils that reach out to a lot of aspects of the period. They can introduce subjects visually that people might not initially want to read about: they’re a great way in.’

You can find out further information from the University of Lincoln.

Watch an AHRC film on the project


Mass movement, Pals and trawlers

​Matt Shinn looks at the eastern coastal counties of Britain where many major events in the First World War took place, but which few of us now are aware of. 

Nick Evans is Lecturer in Diaspora History at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull. For him, one of the previously overlooked things that the World War One at Home project has helped to uncover is a story of mass migration.

‘Up to the outbreak of war, Britain had been an increasingly isolated island nation,’ he says. ‘But the influx of Belgian refugees in the first four months of the war was bigger than any other wave of immigration in British history. And more people moved between and within parts of the British Empire than they had ever done previously.’

Robb Robinson
Robb Robinson

‘A third of the Tommies weren’t white, and many of them had travelled great distances to reach the front lines.’ As Nick Evans says, ‘we tend to think of the First World War as involving home regiments just hopping over to France from the South East of England. But even some of the British regiments – those from Scotland, for example – had already travelled hundreds of miles, before they embarked for the Western Front. And soldiers were often treated as aliens in the places where they were stationed. “One Scot, based in Lincolnshire, even put an ad in the local paper inSkegness, saying “I’m not foreign – I’m from the Western Isles of Scotland.”’

The threat of invasion

The reason why Scottish regiments had travelled down to Lincolnshire, and were stationed there, was to counter the threat of invasion. This is another ‘forgotten story,’ according to Nick Evans: the fact that Scottish troops were kept near the eastern coast of Britain, protecting the home front in the early years of the war, is a good example of what the World War One at Home project has been able to unearth. ‘There’s hardly anything in the archive about this,’ says Nick Evans. ‘We wouldn’t have known much about it without going to local sources.’

We forget how close we were to the conflict in France and Belgium, and how the prospect of invasion must have loomed in people’s minds

Indeed, the entire East coast can be seen as a front line in the war, and it is clear that the threat of invasion was taken very seriously: ‘in Skegness, instructions were even provided on what to do when the Germans invaded.’ The bombardment of Scarborough by German warships, meanwhile, was described in the press as a ‘failed invasion.’ Once the German army had captured Ostend in Belgium in October 1914, says Nick Evans, ‘we really were next.’

East Coast War Channels

 Popular prejudice

 The World War One at Home project has also revealed real patterns of prejudice.  Hull saw the most serious anti-German riots in the country, especially after Zeppelin  raids on the city, in which civilians were killed (according to Nick Evans, ‘often what  we think of as aspects of the Second World War – air raid shelters in British cities,  for example – were also there in the First World War’). Many Jewish people who had  settled in East Yorkshire, and had been the subject of prejudice before the war, now  also found themselves targeted because of their German-sounding surnames.

 Street shrines

 Urban areas in East Yorkshire also saw the formation of many so-called Pals  battalions, in which men who had enlisted together in local recruiting drives were  able to serve alongside their friends, neighbours and work colleagues. What this  meant, though, was that entire communities could be devastated in a single battle. A  sign of the way that towns and districts could be changed forever is the shrine in Sharp Street in Hull, which commemorated the men from the surrounding area who were killed serving with the Hull Pals. An impromptu affair made of wood, the shrine is now lost, but surviving photos show how the grief of local communities could be given visual expression.

The war of the little ships

Robb Robinson is a Lecturer at the Maritime Historical Studies Centre, University of Hull. ‘When you think about the maritime dimension to the First World War,’ he says, ‘most people think about the big battleships, and the Battle of Jutland. But the maritime war also involved many hundreds of small trawlers, with fisherman clearing mines and attacking German vessels.’ The Western Front didn’t really end in Flanders, in other words: ‘it continued right up the East coast of Britain. This is another aspect of the war which is very much under-explored: the war at sea as it was carried on month after month, by armed trawlers.’

A shipyard in Beverley was the centre of the production of trawlers for the North Sea fleet: one such vessel, the Viola, was

The Viola Bell
The Viola Bell

requisitioned by the Admiralty to become one of the first ships to use depth charges, and during the course of the war it was involved in the sinking of U-boats. ‘Go round the world now,’ says Robb Robinson, ‘and you can still find the bones, the wreckage of these trawlers.’ Having been involved also in the Falklands War, the Viola, for example, is now in South Georgia.

The coastal communities of East Yorkshire made a significant contribution to the trawler fleet. ‘I come from a fishing family myself,’ says Robb Robinson – ‘my grandfather worked on minesweeping duties in the First World War.’ Up and down the East coast of Britain, this was an aspect of the war that many thousands of people were involved in, directly or indirectly.

But it’s the little details in the stories, which the World War One at Home has unearthed, which for Robb Robinson give the project its particular power. The fact that the wife of the Viola’s skipper, for example, was involved in collecting sphagnum moss in the Shetlands during the war, for use as surgical dressings (other dressings, developed for the Allied forces by Hull-based Smith and Nephew, helped the company to grow into the multinational manufacturer of medical equipment that it is today).            

‘This was the first total war,’ says Robb Robinson, ‘which affected every aspect of society. And it’s only by assembling the little facets that you begin to see the bigger picture.’