Co-ordinating Centres

Where did the headstones for the First World War cemeteries come from?

In this blog post from the Centre for Hidden Histories, Nigel Hunt looks at the origins of the East Midlands headstones and the role they played in the Second World War.

Anyone who has visited the war graves will have felt a sense of awe at their sheer number. Making headstones in that volume took a lot of effort and a lot of stone. Nigel Hunt explains the East Midlands origins of the headstones.

Middleton Mine
Middleton Mine

With over a million deaths across the UK and the Dominions, and with nearly all the dead being buried on the battlefield, there was a huge demand for high quality headstones at the end of the war, along with stone for the monuments that are dotted around the battlefields, such as the Lutjens’ Thiepval memorial and Blomfield’s Menin Gate memorial, which together commemorate over 100,000 of the missing of the Somme and Ypres respectively. In total, nearly 1.3 million names are engraved either on individual headstones or on memorials to those who have no known grave.

By 1921, over 1,000 cemeteries had been established, and 4,000 headstones were shipped to France every week. Most cemetery construction was complete by 1927.

Headstone of 2nd Lt J.H. Bellamy, the Sherwood Foresters
Headstone of 2nd Lt J.H. Bellamy, the Sherwood Foresters

Most people think that the headstones are all made of Portland stone, derived from Portland on the south coast. Indeed, most headstones did come from there, but the demand was so high other sources had to be found, and the other main source of headstones was in Derbyshire, from Hopton Wood quarry near Middleton-by-Wirksworth. In all, 120,000 headstones were made from Hopton Wood limestone.

The name Hopton Wood quarry is a bit misleading. While the original Hopton Wood quarry was situated in Hopton Wood, near the village of Hopton, the main quarry is to the west of Middleton, linked to another quarry in Middleton itself. The quarry closed in 2006, but it had a long history. It is a source of extremely high quality limestone, examples of which can be found in many country houses and public buildings around the country. Examples include Westminster Abbey,

Aerial view of Hopton Wood quarry – tunnel entrance hidden by white area, right middle
Aerial view of Hopton Wood quarry – tunnel entrance hidden by white area, right middle

Birmingham Cathedral, Chatsworth House, Oscar Wilde’s tomb and the Houses of Parliament. It has been on many occasions mistaken for marble, because it can be finely polished. It is also relatively easy to carve, and is relatively hard-wearing. The main quarry is underground. There are over 25 miles of large passageways underneath the moors to the west of Middleton. The entrance can be seen from a nearby footpath.

There are remnants of broken headstones in the walls in the area, particularly near to the Middleton quarry in the village, but there are few other traces of what was a very busy time for the quarry.


All images provided courtesy of Nigel Hunt with thanks.

Co-ordinating Centres

November 1913: The Archduke, Nottingham and a Near Miss

In this blog post from the Centre for Hidden Histories, Professor John Beckett explores how  Nottinghamshire, and the University College, Nottingham (as it then was) have a direct link to the origins of the First World War and to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s misadventures with firearms.

In November 1913 the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, spent some time in England, and this included a visit to Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire. The owner of this former monastic property was the sixth Duke of Portland, who was lord lieutenant of Nottinghamshire, and also President of the University College Council. In the latter position he was spearheading efforts to have the College upgraded to full university status. These efforts had to be put on hold when the war broke out.

The Sixth Duke of Portland
The Sixth Duke of Portland

The archduke and his duchess travelled to Welbeck by train on 22 November 1913, alighting at Worksop to be driven by carriage to the Abbey. Fellow guests during their week-long stay included the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and Arthur Balfour, leader of the Conservative Party.

During the course of the week they spent at Welbeck the archduke enjoyed shooting parties at Clowne Hills, Clipstone and Gleadthorpe, and he and the duchess visited Sherwood Forest, Bolsover Castle and Hardwick Hall.

‘I have often wondered whether the Great War might not have been averted, or at least postponed, had the archduke met his death then and not at Sarajevo the following year.’

The Archduke had an accident with a gun during the shooting. Portland later recalled that ‘One of the loaders fell down. This caused both barrels of the gun he was carrying to be discharged, the shot passing within a few feet of the archduke and myself.’ Portland subsequently reflected: ‘I have often wondered whether the Great War might not have been averted, or at least postponed, had the archduke met his death then and not at Sarajevo the following year.’

Archduke Franz Ferdinand at a shooting party at Welbeck
Archduke Franz Ferdinand at a shooting party at Welbeck

Nine months later, and safely back home in Vienna, the  archduke and his wife set out on a journey to Sarajevo, the  capital of Bosnia Herzegovina to open a hospital. They were  aware that this might prove to be a dangerous trip. So it proved when they were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip on 28 June 1914.

The assassination made relations between the Austro-Hungarian government and Serbia even more strained than they already were. Under existing treaty obligations Russia sided with Serbia and Germany with Austria. When Germany invaded neutral Belgium on 3 August 1914, Britain was drawn into the conflict as a result of their alliances with other European states, and war was declared the following day.

Through the war years, the Duke and Duchess of Portland played a leading role locally encouraging enlistment among young men, and supportive activities among young women (such as knitting woollen clothes for soldiers in the trenches).

The Duke continued to chair the College Council, regular meetings which between 1914 and 1918 received reports of former students and serving staff who had died in the conflict. He remained President of the Council until his death in 1943. Nottingham received its charter as a full university in 1948.

Duchess Winifred (1863-1954) nursed injured veterans at Welbeck Abbey during the First World War and her experiences in supporting and also miners led to the creation of Harlow Wood Orthopaedic Hospital in 1929 (closed 1995). She was also responsible for planning and opening a training college that could complete the work of rehabilitation for both veterans and miners – giving injured working men a new trade that would make them economically independent once more. This is still the role of Portland College, near Mansfield.


Images provided courtesy of Dr John Beckett with thanks.

Co-ordinating Centres

Birmingham’s Military Hospitals

In this guest blog post provided by one of the WW1 Engagement Centres, Voices of War and Peace, we look at the role that the University of Birmingham Hospital played during the war.

Plans for military hospitals in Birmingham were made by the 13th Territorial General Hospital well in advance of war breaking out. Birmingham University was used as the 1st Southern General Hospital, with the first wounded soldiers arriving on 1 September 1914, and 1,000 beds provided by early 1915. As casualties increased many other buildings became hospitals, such as the Poor Law Infirmary on Dudley Road in 1915, the Monyhull Colony in King’s Norton in 1916 and school buildings in Kings Heath and Stirchley. Rubery Hill and Hollymoor hospitals were also used.

Great Hall, University of Birmingham
Great Hall, University of Birmingham

Auxiliary hospitals, often staffed by volunteers, were set up in some of Birmingham’s larger houses, including Highbury in Moseley, Moor Green Hall, Harborne Hall, The Beeches in Erdington, Uffculme, and Allerton in Sutton Coldfield.

When war broke out on 4th August 1914, mobilisation orders were received by the 1st Southern General. Just one week later, 520 beds were in place in accordance with plans drawn up in 1909. This photograph shows the University of Birmingham’s Great Hall converted into a military hospital ward.

Ambulance at Highbury
Ambulance at Highbury

Many activities were organised to keep the wounded and  convalescing soldiers occupied. Workshops mended boots  and produced surgical appliances, bed frames, supplies for  the front. Classes were given in languages, shorthand, book keeping, shorthand, carpentry, tailoring and gardening. Drama companies put on shows and many Birmingham theatres provided free tickets to performances. At Christmas, wards were decorated and traditional celebrations took place.

Regular ambulance units could not cope with the numbers and volunteer drivers ferried wounded soldiers to hospitals and delivered medical staff to stations. Volunteers produced medical equipment and also trained as nurses. A Citizen’s Committee and Lady Mayoress’s Depot, set up in 1914, organised much of the voluntary work in the city.

Highbury opened as an auxiliary hospital in 1915, the money for its equipment being donated by Kynoch’s of Witton. It specialised in neurological cases and was staffed by a commandant, a matron, eight sisters and voluntary workers, mostly women. It had 274 beds, an open air ward, and the conservatories and greenhouses were used in emergencies.

Commonwealth Patients in Edgbaston
Commonwealth Patients in Edgbaston

This photograph, taken in the grounds of the Edgbaston military hospital, shows wounded soldiers from Australia and Scotland with other Allied patients and VAD nurses. By the end of the war there were over 7,000 beds in Birmingham and by 1919 over 125,000 men had been treated, including Belgian, American, and Serbian soldiers.



Image captions:

Great Hall, University of Birmingham [Library of Birmingham: WW1/Hospitals]

Ambulance at Highbury [Library of Birmingham: WW1/Hospitals]

Commonwealth Patients in Edgbaston [Library of Birmingham: WW1/Hospitals]

Co-ordinating Centres

The Silenced War – Fiction for Children across World War One

In this guest blog post, Professor Jean Webb from the University of Worcester looks at various children’s’ books from World War One and the gender divide they captured as part of research for Voices of War and Peace, one of the AHRC’s Engagement Centres.

The attitudes toward warfare in Britain leading up to World War I were deeply rooted in nineteenth-century notions of masculinity embedded in adventure stories for boys and therefore, by polar opposition, in the domestic construction of the feminine.

A V.A.D. in Salonika, by Bessie Marchant (1917)
A V.A.D. in Salonika, by Bessie Marchant (1917)

These were the values of the British Empire i.e. endurance, valour, honour, self-sacrifice and patriotism with war tending to be constructed as a great game. Such childhood reading ideologically influenced the men who volunteered to enlist in World War One to protect those values. There were a few books for girls principally by Bessie Marchant which emphasised the ‘clichéd’ part women played in the war and silenced other aspects of domestic life on the Home Front.

Fiction for children just prior to and across the period displayed patriotic patriarchal adventure stories heightened with fervoured romance silencing the realities of the experiences of World War One. It was not until 1935 with Captain W.E. Johns’ Biggles Learns to Fly that loss of comrades and the effects of fighting entered fiction for children.

The War years and the aftermath are framed by the Arcadian fantasies of Kenneth Grahame with The Wind in the Willows (1908) and A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the Pooh stories (1926) which presented protected enclosed idyllic worlds far removed from war and retreating from the deep social and political concerns of Grahame and the horrors which Milne has experienced as a combatant.

Burton of the Flying Corps, by Herbert Strang, 1916
Burton of the Flying Corps, by Herbert Strang, 1916

There are still other silenced voices, the voices which could tell either through realist modes of writing or surrealism or fantasy the lives of those who had to stay behind, the lives of the women who maintained the Home Front so that there was a domestic idyll to which to eventually return.



Books from the period:

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908)

Herbert Strang, A Hero Of Liége (1914), Fighting With French: A Tale of the New Army (1915), Burton of the Flying Corps (1916), Tom Willoughby’s Scout: A Story of the War in German East Africa (1918)

F.S. Brereton, With Joffre at Verdun: A Story of the Western Front (1916)

Bessie Marchant, A Girl Munition Worker: The Story of a Girl’s Work During The Great War (1916), A V.A.D. in Salonika (1917)

Alice Massie, Freda’s Great Adventure (1917), A Transport Girl In France: The Story of the Adventures of a WAAC (1919)

Alice B. Emerson, Ruth Fielding At the War Front or The Hunt For The Lost Soldier (1918)

Brenda Girvin, Munition Mary (1918)

A.A. Milne, Winnie-The Pooh (1926)

Captain W.E. Johns, Biggles Learns To Fly (1935)


Image rights:

A V.A.D. in Salonika, by Bessie Marchant (1917). Illustrated by J.E. Sutcliffe.

Burton of the Flying Corps, by Herbert Strang, 1916 [Image: Project Gutenberg]

Co-ordinating Centres

Cadbury Angels and World War One

In this guest blog post, Jo-Ann Curtis from the Birmingham Museums Trust looks at the role of women in the famous Cadbury Bros company during the war as part of the Voices of War and Peace project.

As soon as war broke out and troops were deployed overseas, Cadbury Bros began producing ‘chocolate for the troops’. These gifts continued to be distributed throughout the duration of the war and in total 20,000 parcels were sent out to troops on the front, as well as to those who were wounded and recovering at home or in hospital.

‘Packing Comforts for the Troops’
Packing Comforts for the Troops

The photograph ‘Packing Comforts for the Troops’ depicts Cadbury employees preparing to ship boxes of Cadbury’s Mexican Chocolate and books to British troops. Each box was packaged up with the message, ‘a present to our friends at the front, from the workpeople at Cadbury’s Bournville’.

Women employees at Cadbury during the First World War are predominantly represented as carers and nurturers. Recurring articles pertaining to the activities of the 3,500 female workforce included ‘Bournville Girls as Nurses’, and the knitting and sewing activities of individual departments. However, very little information is given regarding the experiences of women in the workplace during the war.

Both the Bournville Works Magazine and Bournville Works and the War 1914-1919, provide the reader with a vision of a workforce in harmony. But, for many women who were employed purely to supplement the depleted male workforce, the end of the war signified the termination of their employment. In the 1918 minutes of the Bournville Works Women’s Council, the company was considering the demobilisation of its supplementary female workforce.

During this time, Cadbury had disbanded their bar on the employment of married women. In 1919 a rare protest is recorded in the Bournville Works Women’s Council minutes by women who had been

Girls' Works Committee, 1911
Girls’ Works Committee, 1911

temporarily employed in one of the men’s departments, on the announcement of their demobilisation the following was recorded:

‘Communication from Printing Shop Committee […] They think it fair that they should be given a chance to secure a position which will satisfy them, as they have stood by the firm during a time of difficulty. They would like to know exactly how they stand in the matter’.

This minute represented the experiences of many women at the end of the First World War. Although women were celebrated for stepping up to take on the roles of men during the war, once the male workforce returned women were expected to give up their newly found independence and status.

Bournville Works and the War 1914-1919

 Bournville Works and the War 1914-1919 was a  commemorative publication produced at the request of  Cadbury’s employees in 1920. Throughout the war Bournville  Works Magazine featured a column entitled ‘The Factory and  The War’, recording the activities of Cadbury’s employees.  The commemorative publication was a summary of this c  column.

In November 1914, the first ‘Factory and the War’ column was published. Contained within is an address given by Cadbury Bros to its employees:

‘We feel that it is the duty of every one of us to be willing to sacrifice our own immediate interests on behalf of out country. Some have felt it their duty to go to the front, but it is not less incumbent upon those who, for conscientious or other reasons, cannot let their patriotism take this form, to bear their share’.

The Works Magazine’s record of the war carried the sentiment of this address, in that it recorded the individual and collective efforts of the company’s employees at home and on the Western Front. The magazine’s readership during the period included employees serving in the forces. This was reflected in the publishing of letters recounting experiences on the Western Front, as well as comments on articles within the magazine.

Throughout the duration of World War One, Cadbury continued with chocolate production, albeit at a reduced rate, affecting many factory floor employees working on piece-rates. As a result Cadbury established emergency financial provision for those whose earnings fell below a certain rate. The firm also provided financial assistance to dependants of employees who had enlisted and for widows or dependants of men killed in action.In total, 2,148 of Cadbury’s employees served during the war, many enlisting with local Birmingham Pals regiments.


This is an extract from

Image Credits

Packing Comforts for the Troops’ courtesy of Library of Birmingham: MS466/41/3a/89

Girls’ Works Committee’, 1911 courtesy of Library of Birmingham: MS466/41/3/99

‘Bournville Works and the War 1914-1919’ courtesy of Library of Birmingham: LP66.53CAD


Co-ordinating Centres

Creative Centenaries Resources Fair: Titanic Belfast

Living Legacies 1914-18, one of the AHRC’s World War One Engagement Centres, gives an account of their recent visit to the Titanic Buildings in Belfast attended by academics, practitioners, local history groups and arts professionals. 

On Thursday 5th March, Living Legacies visited Titanic Buildings, Belfast, for the first large-scale, multi-stakeholder event this year. Kindly supported by the Nerve Centre, Derry/Londonderry, the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Heritage Lottery Fund and Community Relations Council. The venue, the impressive Titanic Suite, was in-keeping with the scale of the event and provided an excellent backdrop to the day’s proceedings.

There were over 30 stalls on display, covering multiple angles and approaches to the war. Our colleagues from Heritage Lottery were present to provide advice and guidance to the many interested attendees. Community Relations Council chair, Peter Osborne, launched the fair by welcoming the assembled groups and audience members and encouraging all those present to engage with each other and discuss potential collaborations.

Audience members at the conference
Audience members at the conference

Following this, historian Dr. Eamon Phoenix gave an insightful lecture on the hidden history of nationalist involvement in the Great War, which is now being drawn out by excellent research projects, such as 6th Connaught Rangers.

The fair was attended by a combination of academics, practitioners, local history groups and arts professionals. Throughout the day, visitors and exhibitors exchanged knowledge and discussed a number of avenues for cooperative work. Whilst the fair was going on, a number of workshops took place in the conference rooms adjacent to the Titanic Suite. These dealt with ‘Ethical and Shared Remembering’, ‘What is Commemoration?’ and ‘Creative Responses’.

The Living Legacies team received a number of enquiries about supporting and guiding community-led research and we look forward to building upon these fruitful conversations. The Creative Centenaries Resources fair demonstrated the important and varied work which is going on in the region, to critically commemorate and engage with the legacy of WW1.


Written by Sophie Long, Queen’s University Belfast on behalf of Living Legacies 1914-18.


Writing home: the experiences of Indian soldiers in the War

Carrie Dunn explores how Indian soldiers, thousands of miles from their home, experienced and wrote about the War.

The First World War did not just have an impact on Britain and the British, but on people around the Commonwealth, with troops coming from all corners of the globe.

An earlier AHRC-funded project shone a spotlight on one previously neglected area of research, examining letters from and to Indian soldiers during the First World War, looking at how they documented their experience, and how their families at home responded to them. The fellowship led to further research and impacts, and encouraged others to explore a largely forgotten story.

Dr David Omissi of the University of Hull evaluated Indian soldiers’ experience of civilian Europe in wartime, and considered how this encounter may have affected their engagement with Indian values and with post-war India after their demobilisation.

Censors monitored all the letters sent and received by the Indian soldiers, and the chief censor produced a weekly report summarising the contents. Helpfully for Dr Omissi, attached to the reports were excerpts from about 100 letters, translated into English, each one giving the name, rank, and religion of the soldier concerned. He discovered a cache of these in the British Library while working on a history of the Indian army, and decided to take this further.

Lewis gun manned by two Indian troops, Mesopotamia, 1917-18
Lewis gun manned by two Indian troops, Mesopotamia,   1917-1918

“I wanted to really look at how the soldiers interacted with Europe, because that was one of the main themes in their letters: they were writing home, talking about France, sometimes they were in hospitals in Britain,” he explains. “I became interested in how they interacted with the censorship, how they disguised the meaning of their letters sometimes, and used hidden language.”

“I became interested in how they interacted with the censorship, how they disguised the meaning of their letters sometimes, and used hidden language.”

The soldiers probably did not write all their letters themselves due to low levels of literacy, as the Indian Army recruited overwhelmingly in rural parts of the country. Instead, the troops might have asked scribes, such as the company clerk, to write their letters for them and to read out the letters they had received, adding an extra imperative to disguise their true meaning in places.

Omissi was particularly interested in the correspondence about religion. He says there is an evident concern in many of the letters soldiers received from home about the possibility of their abandoning their faith.

“Letters from families become very anxious about soldiers converting to Christianity,” he says. “British charities got very involved in supporting Indian soldiers, and one was the YMCA. They distributed writing paper with YMCA inscriptions on it – the censors would try to delete them and any references to Christian organisations. Families were very worried about the prospect of conversion.”

 “Letters from families become very anxious about soldiers converting to Christianity”

Omissi points to one especially interesting correspondent, Mohammed Khan, who married a French woman in 1917. His relations in India were very concerned that he might convert to Christianity, so he hit on a very unusual tactic to allay their fears.

“He ended up writing home and telling them the king himself had ordered him to marry the woman, so it was his duty to do so,” says Omissi.

As is evident from this focus on religion and relationships, Omissi’s work explores letters that were  not necessarily from the heat of battle – some were miles behind the frontline, and others were written from hospital.

“I wanted to remind people that a lot of soldiers didn’t spend a lot of their time in the frontline,” says Omissi. “This was true of Indian cavalry, who spent nearly four years on the Western Front, but most of the time weren’t in action. Most of their lives were spent behind the line, interacting with French civilians.”

Omissi wanted to find out how much information about the soldiers’ religious practices was detailed in the letters.

“How did soldiers deal with fasting? Should they keep wearing turbans or dispense with them? What did they think about the way in which French women behaved? What did they think about European literacy? How were they treated in British hospitals? To what extent were they being respected? To what extent were the British authorities aware of the soldiers’ religious needs and concerns? How well informed were they about them?” he asks.

“How did soldiers deal with fasting? Should they keep wearing turbans or dispense with them? What did they think about the way in which French women behaved?”

The reason this is so key is because one of the censors’ aims of monitoring the correspondence was to get information and pre-empt any disciplinary issues triggered by cultural or religious misunderstandings. This meant censors needed to have language skills as well as diplomacy.

“The censors were very well informed,” agrees Omissi. “They were literate in Indian languages, and with a lot of experience and knowledge of India.”

As with many archives of wartime correspondence, these letters are often very emotive, and Omissi was struck by the soldiers’ description of the impact and extent of their comrades’ deaths.

Indeed, by November 1918, around 827,000 Indians had enlisted as combatants, in addition to those who were already serving in August 1914.

Members of a Waziri Khasadar, India 1917-19
Members of a Waziri Khasadar, India 1917-19

It may be difficult 100 years on to understand why Indian soldiers would be prepared to fight in a European war. It is possibly too simplistic to attribute it just to mercenary reasons, although money may have been one motive for enlistment: many soldiers were recruited from poorer, rural areas, and any additional income would doubtless have been useful.

However, many soldiers saw it as an opportunity to display their bravery in battle and thus bringing honour to their clan or caste, and also a chance to demonstrate their loyalty to King George V, the British monarch and figurehead of the Empire.

There are also more disquieting reasons for their enlistment. From 1916, British authorities in India told local officials to sign up a given number of men from each district, or their jobs would be under threat. That led to widespread bribery and coercion to make sure enough men were recruited. Official figures suggest that, over the course of the four years, 64,449 Indian soldiers were killed.

“These are long service regulars, mostly,” Omissi points out, “but the war in France was a tremendous shock – just the scale of the losses. That comes out in their letters. Many of them are very, very moving.”

Ongoing impact

David Omissi’s AHRC-funded project grew out of an earlier project to edit a book of Indian soldiers’ letters, published in 1999 as Indian Voices of the Great War.  This is now being reprinted by Penguin India, and two of the soldiers’ letters were read out by the High Commissioner for India at the Centenary of the First World War, Service for the Commonwealth, held at Glasgow Cathedral on 4 August 2014, to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the day the Commonwealth joined the war.

David Omissi has been involved with the Indian Embassy in Paris in planning commemoration for the one hundredth anniversary of 1915, which was the Indian Army’s ‘big year’ in France. He gave a short paper at the Indian Ambassador’s residence as part of a workshop in June 2014.  This also involved showing a feature by New Delhi Television on the Indian Army in France, for which he was interviewed.  The original programme reached an audience of 80 million in India.

The AHRC project will, in turn, be the springboard for further research and outreach on the Indian Army in Europe during the First World War.


Co-ordinating Centres Research

Citizen historians – Sikhs in the First World War

Matt Shinn looks at a collaboration between a community group and academic that is uncovering an important but neglected aspect of First World War history.

 The First World War wasn’t just about white soldiers fighting in the trenches of France and Belgium. To begin with, every sixth British soldier serving during the war was from the Indian subcontinent. In total, nearly one and a half million volunteers from pre-partition India served in the British ranks: the British Indian Army was as large as the forces from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa combined.

 “every sixth British soldier serving during the war was from the Indian subcontinent”

Indian soldiers also served on many of the more distant fronts in the conflict, from North Africa to Mesopotamia – not just in Europe. But the role of Indian troops in the Great War has largely been overlooked.

Front cover of The Great War magazine showing men of the 45th Sikhs serving with the British troops on the banks of the Tigris River marching with their scared scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, in Mesopatamia, 1918.  Courtesy of Nanaki and Sahib Collected Works
Front cover of The Great War magazine showing men of the 45th Sikhs serving with the British troops on the banks of the Tigris River marching with their scared scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, in Mesopatamia, 1918.
Courtesy of Nanaki and Sahib Collected Works

The one percent

Among the community groups which are seeking to change this is the UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA), a charity which is dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of the Sikhs and the Punjab, and which aims to commemorate the remarkable but forgotten contribution of Sikh soldiers in the First World War, as well as recording the experiences of the families that they left behind.

Although they accounted for less than one percent of the population of British India at the time, Sikhs made up nearly twenty percent of the British Indian Army at the outbreak of hostilities. With Sikh military traditions being integral to the faith, the British Army looked especially to the Punjab for recruitment. Yet few now are aware of the important role of Sikh soldiers in the Great War, especially in the early months of the fighting on the Western Front, when they were instrumental in halting the German advance.

As the first part of a three-year project, an exhibition, Empire, Faith and War: the Sikhs and World War One, is being held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the exhibition tells the story of how a small community played a disproportionately important role in the Great War.

As UKPHA Chair Amandeep Madra says: ‘the non-white Empire’s efforts have largely been forgotten, and their heroism and sacrifices omitted from mainstream narratives, or left as somewhat forlorn footnotes of history. By telling the Sikh story we want to change that, and remind the world of this wider, undervalued contribution of the non-white British Empire. This is British history, and a story that helps explain much about modern Britain.’

For the glory of the Raj: Indian troops charging the German trenches at Neuve Chapelle, March 1915. Courtesy of Nanaki and Sahib Collected Works
For the glory of the Raj: Indian troops charging the German trenches at Neuve Chapelle, March 1915.
Courtesy of Nanaki and Sahib Collected Works

But why was the role of Sikh troops, and Indian troops more generally, forgotten in the first place? As UKPHA team member Harbakhsh Grewal makes clear, it was recognised immediately after the war. There were war memorials (including the Indian Memorial at Neuve-Chappelle in France, and the Chattri Memorial in Brighton, on the site where many Indian soldiers were cremated), and much positive press and PR. But then ‘the Indian independence movement wiped away other memories. Some soldiers had gone to war with the expectation that proving themselves in war would help lead to greater independence. But very soon their actions were being omitted from Indian histories. And in many cases, veterans were not given the pensions they were due.’

In the case of the Sikhs, in particular, relations with the British changed very soon after the end of the war, with the Amritsar massacre of peaceful demonstrators in 1919 – an act which took place not just in Amritsar, the spiritual centre of the Sikh faith, but also during Baisakhi, the main Sikh festival. But even in India, according to Harbakhsh Grewal, enough time has now passed since the struggle for independence for the role of Indian soldiers in World War One to begin to be acknowledged.

As the Empire, Faith and War project continues, it will involve building up a database of soldiers’ and families’ stories, with members of the Sikh community being encouraged to become ‘citizen historians’, discovering more about their own ancestors who fought. ‘That is one reason why the exhibition is taking place at the beginning of the project,’ says Harbakhsh Grewal. ‘This is partly about engaging people with their own history.’

Stalwarts from the East - a French lady pins a flower on the Sikh saviours of France. Paris, 1916 (Toor Collection).
Stalwarts from the East – a French lady pins a flower on the Sikh saviours of France. Paris, 1916 (Toor Collection).

Founding myths

And as the project develops, UKPHA is exploring, with the World War One Engagement Centre at Nottingham University, ways in which academic expertise can help it become more effective. The Centre for Hidden Histories: Community, Commemoration and the First World War works with many different community groups, to find more inclusive ways of commemorating the First World War, and to broaden understanding of the war as a global conflict.

  “One visitor pointed to one of the soldiers in the background, and said ‘that’s my dad’”

Among the expertise that the Nottingham Centre is offering UKPHA is that of its computer scientists, who specialise in developing and using new technologies to capture oral histories. The researchers at the Centre have experience in developing guides, to ensure that the stories that are collected are of a high quality, so that the online database becomes a useful research resource for the future. Academics within Nottingham University’s School of Education are also able to help UKPHA make the educational material that is being produced, as part of the project, more engaging and useable for schools.

A Sikh soldier in a prisoner of war camp, c 1915. (Toor Collection)
A Sikh soldier in a prisoner of war camp, c 1915. (Toor Collection)

Mike Noble is Community Liaison Officer at the Centre for Hidden Histories. For him, ‘this is an opportunity to learn about how the war has been repurposed by different groups. In some countries, such as Canada and Australia, the First World War has become a founding myth of nationhood, a bit like Agincourt for the English. It has become a national epic: a story of adversity through which a sovereign nation was born. For other groups, though, the story of the Great War is a contested history: something that has been brushed under the carpet. Through the projects that we work on, we can help to get it out in the open.’

And already the UKPHA project has had some unexpected results, according to Harbakhsh Grewal. ‘One visitor to our exhibition looked at the photo that we use on the main exhibition poster – of Sikh soldiers marching through the streets of Paris in 1916, and being given flowers. He pointed to one of the soldiers in the background, and said “that’s my dad”.’

Staffed by a consortium of academics from the universities of Nottingham, Derby and Nottingham Trent, the Centre for Hidden Histories has a particular interest in the themes of migration and displacement, the experience of ‘others’ from countries and regions within Europe, Asia and the Commonwealth, the impact and subsequent legacies of the war on diverse communities within Britain, remembrance and commemoration, and identity and faith.

If you would like to read more about the range of projects funded by the AHRC on World War One, including projects exploring the contribution of Indian and other non-European countries to the war effort, please go to our commemorative publication ‘Beyond the Trenches’ (PDF 17MB), or write to to request a print copy.


Words and women II: writing gender and identity in early 1915

In this guest blog post, Professor Lynda Mugglestone, who specialises in the history of English, explores the various new gendered words that came into existence during the war due to the increase of women in the workforce.

The English Words in War-Time Project tracks language and language change across 1914-1918, using the hitherto largely unexplored archive of material gathered during WWI by Andrew Clark, under the heading English Words in War-Time, and now housed in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. A long-time volunteer on the Oxford English Dictionary (the first edition of which was still on-going as war began), Clark decided to use the methods of the OED – but to make a self-standing collection in order to examine the interrelationships of history and language in a period of significant change. Unlike the OED, he decided to focus on ephemera and news discourse as sources of evidence on the basis that these might provide the most immediate reflection of events, and the ways in which language might change in response. Clark asks interesting questions about the extent to which words can tell a history of the war, and the kind of forgotten stories that might thereby also come to light.

A marked feature of war (and comment on war) in early 1915 was, as Clark confirms, the labour shortage which arose following the departure of some two million men to the Front. Historically, this would be resolved, at least in part, by a range of changing opportunities for women to enter the workforce. In terms of language, as the Words in War-Time archive documents, this would, however, bring opportunities of a different kind – generating a range of constructions which, in various ways, reflected women’s increasingly visibility outside the home. By March 1915, there were some ’10,000 Women War Workers’, as the Daily Express affirms in an extract which Clark carefully gathered up. Language and the women war worker, as Clark realised, offered yet another fertile domain of enquiry in his attempt to fuse historical principles with the documentation of on-going change.

War worker, as the modern OED confirms, is itself an interesting creation of WWI. Given as a coinage of 1915, war worker remains deeply expressive of the ways in which combatants and non-combatants could be yoked together in the enterprise of war. War effort could be expended at home, while effort (and endeavour) of a different kind were demanded on the battle field. While women war worker, alongside other related coinages, did not appear in the OED, the Words in War-Time archive yields some very interesting results in this respect. Even in December 1914, Clark was, for example, carefully noting down airwomen, here in relation to the Russian Military. The Princess Shakovsky “has been permitted to join General Ruzsky’s staff as a military airwoman”, as the Scotsman recorded on December 2nd 1914.

Two women replace the traditionally male porters at Marylebone Station in London during the First World war. Original Publication: Illustrated London News - pub. 1915 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Two women replace the traditionally male porters at Marylebone Station in London during the First World war. Original Publication: Illustrated London News – pub. 1915 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The novelty of such transferred roles under the exigencies of war would, in fact, generate plentiful evidence of relevant words. Agent nouns such as porter were, for example, formally unmarked in terms of gender – but their use, and meaning, had traditionally been constrained by underlying assumptions of male as norm. For the Star, for example, change in this respect was, in another telling combination, made to  constitute a war phenonomen in its own right. Here, the move from porter to woman porter is described in ways which extol female willingness to ‘do their bit’ even as a certain surprise is evoked at women’s successful adaptation to the roles now extended to them.

“Another war phenomenon has appeared in the person of the women who understands time-tables. She does not speak of ten minutes past twelve, but of 12.10 with all the glibness of an accustomed traveller. She does not come panting on to the platform one minute after the train has gone, nor stand helpless amid a pile of luggage. If she is surrounded by luggage it is not her own, and she is far from helpless, for she is the new woman porter who has sprung into existence at Marylebone”.

Traditional gender stereotyping – and its discriminatory overtones — could, as this suggests, be both challenged, and reinforced, in this respect. Woman porter, as other evidence in the archive proves, would by no means be an isolated example of this form. A similar article in the Daily Express, also from April 1915, celebrates the endeavours of the porters in petticoats for whom changed social roles – and sustained femininity – are made to unite.

As other news articles in the archive confirm, such shifts, and the overt gender marking which relevant forms acquired, formed a significant part of what was seen as war change – the transformative effects of war on ordinary life. Women carriage cleaners are recorded in the Daily Express in April 1915, railway women in the Evening Standard on April 7th 1915, and women air mechanics in the Scotsman (even if these are, in reality, French rather than English)

Women mechanics have proved very successful. A great number of them, having been employed in motor or engineering shops practically from girlhood, have become quite clever as turners or in the manipulation of machinery. They are found to be regular at their work and persevering and do not waste time” (Scotsman, 15th April 1915)

The Evening News even began its own collection of these changing images of identity:

“Within the last few weeks we have had the girl district messenger, the lift-girl at Harrod’s, the girl ticket collector at Paddington, the girl in the newspaper stall on the Piccadilly Tube …”. (Evening News, 28th April 1915)

Evidence in the modern OED, we might note, can remain distinctly at odds – lift-boy, for example, is the sole form it records. Lift-girls do not appear. “Lift-boys always have aged mothers”; “Chauffeurs, waiters, lift-boys…they are the operators” states the accompanying evidence in citations which derive respectively from 1904 and 1967. The Words in War-Time archive can therefore often tell a somewhat different story – tracking the changes by which gender and identity were represented and recorded in response to the social and economic pressures of the war years.

By May 1915, the Daily Express was even extolling the advent of the “the First Call Girl” – a form which is, however, perhaps likely to be read with raised eye-brows when read outside the immediate context of war – and the register of the theatre on which it depends. As the OED confirms, a call-boy, is ‘a youth employed (in a theatre) to attend upon the prompter, and call the actors when required on the stage’.  Call-girl in the OED has very different resonances: call-girl (orig. U.S.), “a prostitute who makes appointments by telephone”. It is dated to 1940 (and verified with the quotation ‘Call Girls Die Young’). The call-girl of 1915 instead epitomises other aspects of war change. ‘Innovation at Shaftesbury Theatre’, as the Daily Express proclaimed, in Clark’s densely documented notebook for spring 1915:

 “Tovey, the call-boy at the Shaftesbury Theatre, has joined the Army as a trumpeter, and Mary Powell, who is only fourteen, has taken his place. She has the distinction of being the first call-girl in the world” (Daily Express, Fri 28th May 1915)

Some apparently transgressive forms can nevertheless be produced by the combination of changing social role and overt gender marking, as in the girl page-boy which the Daily Express records on May 11th 1915:

“The girl “page-boy” is the latest outcome of the shortage of labour owing to the war. She has made her appearance, neatly uniformed, in the service of a leading Harrogate hotel, and meets guest on their arrival at the railway station”

Similar concerns were raised by the new uses required of the verb to man. ‘Girls “Man” a Station’. Booking Clerk Wears a Cream Blouse”, states a headline in the Daily Express on June 7th 1915. Manning a station already raised some uncertainties as to grammatical propriety if the ‘manning’ in question was to be done by women.

“The first London railway station to be “manned” entirely by girls was opened yesterday. It is Maida Vale Station, on the Bakerloo Line”.

Perhaps especially interesting in early 1915 is, however, the diction of the war woman. ‘The manner in which war is affecting the character of woman is a matter of vast importance’, the Daily Express commented. The war woman who appeared, for example, in the title of a series by Miss Lorette Aldous, linked what was described as ‘real history’ (located in the female experience of war, on both Home and Western Front) with ‘a modern woman’s ambition and revolt’. Like her antecedent the new women, the war woman is thereby rendered interestingly transgressive; if she emblematises modernity by means of her confidence in taking on new activities in the public realm, she is potentially dangerous too, offering dissent, discontent, as well as ambition. As later posts on the Words in War-Time archive will explore, such conflicted images remain in evidence across the remaining years of war.



Disturbing practices

In this guest blog, Carrie Dunn explores Professor Laura Doan’s research into ideas around the First World War being sexually liberating. 

A focus for Laura Doan’s research is women whose lives and behaviours might now be interpreted as ‘lesbian’ but were not identified as such at the time. Her new book – ‘Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experience of Modern War, 1914-18’ – draws attention to the fluidity and interconnectedness of sexuality and gender in the early years of the 20th century as well as the limits of categories of sexual identity.

Professor at Manchester University, she began looking at the topic after her previous research on women’s fashion in the 1920s and the development of a lesbian culture.Doan_high res cover copy

“As I began to do a lot of research and extend my ideas, I started to worry that I thought I knew more about these women and how they understood themselves than was possible at the time,” says Professor Doan. “It was proclaimed that during World War One, all men became more like soldiers, and women became more like men: hyperbolic, of course, but I use that as a starting point to talk about anxieties about gender roles.

“People like to say the war obliterated Victorian gender norms. What I say is that’s not a very good way to think about it. Instead, I suggest it stretched the meanings of gender. I talk about the elasticity of gender. It’s like a rubber band, it stretches, it gets flabby, it’s not a complete rethinking.”

Doan suggests that the idea that the First World War was sexually liberating is a rather simplistic one. “If you read some textbooks on the social and cultural history of the war, it is very common to come across references that World War One was a liberating moment for homosexual cultures, and that the war created homosocial communities, communities of men and communities of women, and it gave women a lot of freedom, and this led to unprecedented levels of experimentation, also promiscuity, and a greater concern about morals,” she says.

However, she takes pains to point out that gender and sexuality as we understand it in the 21st century were often completely alien concepts 100 years ago.

“I began to realise that the way we go about thinking about sexuality in the past needs to be rethought, because what I discovered is people then did not think at all about sexuality in the way we think about it now,” she explains. “That was my big discovery. Today it’s second nature for us to imagine that people think of themselves as a certain something, and that there are these categories [of sexual orientation]. Almost no-one makes sense of sexuality like that in the First World War. If we really want to understand what’s happening to sexuality in the early part of the 20th century, we have to make that whole world strange to ourselves.”

Doan’s efforts to do that – what she describes as installing “a circuitry of a totally different way of thought” – were assisted by the award of an AHRC fellowship, giving her time to complete her research and her book. She suggests that people do not begin to identify their sexual orientation in terms familiar to us today until the middle and later decades of the twentieth century. That means that during the First World War, there was little understanding or acknowledgement of homosexuality or homosexual activity. If a woman gave the slightest indication that they knew anything about sex or sexuality, she was already “tainted” as “immoral” by that very admission.

The war, then, Doan argues, was not the sexually liberating event that some have perceived it to be. “That discourse is confined to elite and bohemian artistic cultures, such as the Bloomsbury group, or people who’ve gone to public school, but ordinary people would never think of that,” she says. “They might think that person seems a bit odd or eccentric or maybe immoral.”

This theme of sexuality being understood as “immoral” runs throughout Doan’s research. “During the First World War, for women to even acknowledge that they understood anything about sexuality, that troubled their respectability,” says Doan. “If a woman was accused of anything [such as what we now term as lesbianism], for her to even acknowledge that she understands the thing she’s being accused of already taints her, especially in the middle and upper middle classes.”

One of the case studies Doan focuses on is Violet Douglas-Pennant, head of the Women’s RAF, who was ordered to step down from her post without being given a reason. “It’s often understood in LGBT history that she was accused of being a lesbian,” says Doan. “In 1918, when she was fired, all she knew was that someone had said she was ‘an immoral woman’. That was never acknowledged [by the Air Ministry or by Douglas-Pennant] – that would have troubled her respectability.”

Doan looked through the ministry’s private papers to find out whether any of the officials had written down what had been said about Douglas-Pennant. “When I was in the archives in Glasgow, I opened up an envelope and out came all these white feathers, sent to the Air Minister to goad him to come clean about why he had really fired Douglas-Pennant,” she recalls. “The feathers were waltzing around the archive room as I tried to grab at them, and it felt like a neat little metaphor for the research. If I knew for sure what she was I could have just grabbed that feather and put it right into my chapter, but every time I tried to reach the feather it floated away. That’s how history works. It’s not a thing I can hold in my hand.”

You can view Laura Doan’s research online.