BBC WW1 at Home

Pulpits, mutinies and ‘khaki fever’: The unsettling stories of WW1

Matt Shinn has unearthed some unsettling stories as part of the World War One at Home project, which might not otherwise have got an airing.

Lester Mason, Lecturer in History at University of Wales Trinity Saint David, singles out the treatment of German immigrants in some communities in Wales, as a particularly dark aspect of the Great War in the Principality. ‘We might think of ourselves as liberal-minded,’ he says, ‘but look at how ordinary, law-abiding people of German descent were dealt with in the First World War – arguably, much worse than British immigrants in Germany were treated.’

Examples include the case of a liberal-minded, anti-Kaiser German Professor at the University College of Wales Aberystwyth, a Dr Ethe, who was forced to leave his post after there were disorderly street protests against him (several papers at the time sided with the protestors). ‘It’s a rather ugly story of anti-German sentiment, which was repeated throughout Britain,’ says Lester Mason – often mobs would go looking for German workers in barbers and hotels, where they had traditionally been employed. But the trouble wasn’t confined to so-called ‘enemy aliens’: there were also problems between locals and American naval personnel in Pembroke dock, and disturbances involving Belgian refugees in Milford Haven. ‘These are some of the less savoury aspects of the war, which have been forgotten or sidelined.’

These are some of the less savoury aspects of the war which have been forgotten or sidelined

British prisoner, 1918 (IWM)
British prisoner, 1918 (IWM)

A hotbed of immorality

Also unsettling is the way that the authorities treated young women in many parts of Wales, fearing an outbreak of what was called ‘khaki fever’ (the supposedly overwhelming attraction felt by young women towards a man in uniform). Women in Wales were policed under the Defence of the Realm Act, with arrests being made among those who were caught committing ‘indecent acts.’ Women in Cardiff faced a curfew. And at the same time, concerned citizens took things into their own hands: in Swansea, one councillor called the town a ‘hotbed of immorality,’ because of evidence of sexual activity between young women and visiting Scandinavian seamen – the Swansea Women’s Citizens Union subsequently launched a ‘Purity Crusade’ to ‘stem the tide of immorality sweeping over the town’.

Feeding the guns
Elsewhere in Wales, and throughout Britain, women were finding work in the many munitions factories that supplied the Front with bullets and shells. One of the largest munitions factories and weapons stores in Wales was at Pembrey, where dynamite and TNT were produced: from 1916 women were employed on the shop floor, alongside the men.

In July 1917 an enormous explosion left four men and two women dead. But it was the funeral of the two female victims – Mildred Owen aged 18, and Mary Watson, 19 – that drew the most mourners, including from among their fellow workers, some of whom wore their overalls to the service.

The war and Welshness

According to Lester Mason, ‘there has been a perception that the Welsh were less keen to go to war than people elsewhere in Britain. Recruitment figures for Wales are on a par with those for England and Scotland. But there is some anecdotal evidence of farming communities being reluctant to give up their labour. And then there’s the Welsh tradition of Non-conformism: the perception has been one of a more distinct pacifism in Wales.’ This remains a controversial subject, and there is a need for further research into ordinary people’s enthusiasm for war in Wales, based upon changing attitudes during the conflict, as well as gender, town and country, and even class distinctions.

Did the war change the way that people in Wales saw themselves in relation to England? ‘There’s a strange mix. There was nothing wrong in saying that you were fighting for England’s glory, or fighting in England’s war – some Welsh war memorials even said that, including the Cenotaph at Pembroke, which carries the inscription, ‘Forget us not o land for which we fell. May it go well for England, still go well’.

But at the same time, ideas of nationhood were also emerging throughout Britain during the First World War, and throughout the Empire. Though Plaid Cymru didn’t emerge till the Twenties, there was a growing sensitivity to being Welsh. People’s attitudes were flexible, and could accommodate the paradox: that you were both Welsh, and fighting England’s fight. And oddly enough it was the sense of belonging in the British Empire – even as the war brought about the beginning of the end of that Empire – that enabled them to do that.’

Rioting in Rhyl
Gerry Oram, Lecturer in History at the University of Swansea, singles out another dark story that the World War One at Home project has uncovered.

The Canadian army mutiny at Kinmel Park in Rhyl, North Wales, was one of a series that crept across Britain, in the latter years of the war and immediately afterwards. It was also one of the most serious. In March 1919 rioting broke out among 20,000 exhausted and disease-ridden Canadian troops, who found themselves stuck for months in a dilapidated training camp, waiting to be taken back to Canada. By the time that order was restored, five of them, having come through some of the great battles of the war, had been killed by their own countrymen. The tombstone that was provided by locals for one of the soldiers that was killed, Corporal Joseph Young, reads: ‘someday, sometime we’ll understand.’

By the time that order was restored, five of them, having come through some of the great battles of the war, had been killed by their own countrymen

Welsh women after the war
According to Gerry Oram, in Wales especially there is more to the traditional narrative concerning women in the First World War – of opportunities becoming available as the men went off to fight – than meets the eye. ‘We can see clearly that women in Wales were far worse off than in the rest of the UK,’ he says. ‘Their rates of employment were lower before the war, then there was some munitions work, but then after the war the percentage of women who were employed dropped to below the 1911 census figure. In 1931 it dropped further still.’

But then, according to Gerry Oram, the effects of World War One on the Welsh economy were catastrophic. ‘The war made Welsh industry very disjointed. The coalfields took on an importance that they didn’t warrant. Many industries that were given over to war work subsequently declined. And in agriculture too, which had traditionally employed many women, employment rates dwindled. This all led to a huge migration of young women, especially, away from Wales. It fits with one of our key narratives of the First World War: that Wales suffered disproportionately, compared to the rest of Britain.’

Two versions of history

Of course, one of the things that sets Wales apart from much of the rest of Britain is the fact that the country is bi-lingual. Gethin Matthews, who is a Lecturer in History at the University of Swansea, is in a good position to understand the implications of this, as he speaks both Welsh and English. ‘Some narratives come across differently in Welsh and English language sources,’ he says. ‘Take a figure like John Williams, the best-known preacher in North Wales during the First World War: he preached in uniform in the pulpit, encouraging men to enlist. He was seen as quite mainstream during the war itself, but in the Welsh language sources he really comes across as a hypocrite, as someone who had turned his back on the traditions of the Welsh chapel, in preaching for a just war. He’s seen as betraying the old traditions of pacifism and anti-militarism – of betraying the idea of Welshness itself.’

But then, in Welsh language sources ‘disillusion with the war starts earlier, and goes deeper, than it does in the English ones. And indeed, in economic terms the consequences of the war were awful for Wales: it’s impossible to say that the war was worth it. It’s no coincidence that the first conscientious objector to be elected to parliament, after the war, was elected in Wales.’
What the World War One at Home project has shown, though, is that Welsh chapels responded to the war in very different ways. Two Baptist chapels in Briton Ferry (near Neath) illustrate the point. One, Rehoboth, preached the message of a just war, and has 99 names on its roll of honour. Another, Jerusalem, just down the road, was known by its detractors as the ‘Kaiser’s Temple’, being strongly anti-war: it hosted anti-conscription meetings. There was a plurality of attitudes to the war, in other words. But while many historians have focused on the stories of Welsh conscientious objectors, for Gethin Matthews this is ‘more than their numbers warrant.’

 It’s quite clear that remembrance is more a matter of community in Wales than it is elsewhere in Britain

Finally, the long-standing narrative of Wales suffering more than the rest of Britain during the war, or being worse treated, has also led to there being a slightly different culture of remembrance in the country, according to Gethin Matthews. ‘The official commemoration is a devolved issue. But it’s quite clear that remembrance is more a matter of community in Wales than it is elsewhere in Britain. In England, money is given to schools to take children to visit the World War One battlefields. In Wales, there are initiatives to encourage children to find out about the men who joined up, and how their communities were affected by their going. That’s quite a different emphasis.’

With thanks from Lesley Hulonce, history lecturer at Swansea University, who undertook research for the ‘hotbed of immorality’ section.

Find out more about what research reveals about WW1 and its legacy in the AHRC’s Beyond the Trenches publication. Read it online or order a free copy here.


‘Without death there is no victory, but I am alive and very well’: Letters from Indian soldiers during World War I

These five letters, describing the experiences of Indian men in the army during the Great War, have been excerpted from Indian Voices of The Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-1918 by David Omissi. Omissi’s research reminds us of the Indian Army’s involvement on the Western Front, and reveals how the experience was about more than front line combat for these men. (First edition published by Palgrave Macmillan in 1999. The new edition (2014) contains a foreword by Mark Tully.)

1. A Muslim officer to his brother (Central India)

December 1914

What better occasion can I find than this to prove the loyalty of my family to the British Government? Turkey, it is true, is a Muslim power, but what has it to do with us? Turkey is nothing at all to us. The men of France are beyond measure good and honourable and kind. By God, my brother, they are gentlemen to the backbone! Their manners and morals are in absolute accord with our ideas. In war they are as one with us and with the English. Our noble King knows the quality and the worth of his subjects and his Rajas alike. I give you the truth of the matter. The flag of victory will be in the hands of our British Government. Be not at all distressed. Without death there is no victory, but I am alive and very well, and I tell you truly that I will return alive to India.

2. A Garrison Gunner (Sikh) to a relative (France)

3rd December 1914

The English have suffered severely. Nothing is put into the news, but we know a good deal from day to day. The German ship Emden has sunk forty English ships near this land, and is sinking all the seventy English ships of war. She has not been much damaged although she gets little help.1 The English have eight kings helping them, the Germans three. We hear that our king has been taken prisoner. Germany said that if she were paid a lakh of rupees by five o’clock on the first of the month, she would release the king. The money was paid, but Germany refuses to let him go. I have written only a little, but there is much more for you to think of.

3. An unknown writer to a Jemadar (34th Sikh Pioneers, France)

[early January 1915?]
Gobind Garh

I was distressed to hear that you had been wounded. But God will have pity. Keep your thoughts fixed on the Almighty and show your loyalty to the Government and to King George V. It is every man’s duty to fulfil his obligations towards God, by rendering the dues of loyalty to his King. If in rendering the dues of loyalty he must yield his life, let him be ready to make even that sacrifice. It is acceptable in the sight of God, that a man pay the due of loyalty to his King. God grant you life and happiness. Those heroes who have added lustre to the service of their country and King, let them offer this prayer before God, that victory may be the portion of their King, and let them show the whole world how brave the people of India can be. The final prayer of this humble one before God Almighty is this – that God may make bright the heroes of Hindustan in the eyes of the world and with his healing hand may soften the sufferings of the wounded and restore them to health, so that they may go back to the field of battle and render the dues of loyalty to their King of peace, the King of kings, George V, and secure the victory for him.

4. Subedar-Major [Sardar Bahadur Gugan] (6th Jats, 50) to a friend (India)

[early January 1915?]
Brighton Hospital

We are in England. It is a very fine country. The inhabitants are very amiable and are very kind to us, so much so that our own people could not be as much so. The food, the clothes and the buildings are very fine. Everything is such as one would not see even in a dream. One should regard it as fairyland. The heart cannot be satiated with seeing the sights, for there is no other place like this in the world. It is as if one were in the next world. It cannot be described. A motor car comes to take us out. The King and Queen talked with us for a long time. I have never been so happy in my life as I am here.

5. A Pathan to a friend in the 57th Rifles (France)

13th January 1915
40th Rifles
Hong Kong

Return this letter signed and with your thumb impression on it, on the very letter itself. Of the dead say ‘so and so sends you greeting’ and of the wounded say ‘greetings from so and so’.Indian Voices of the Great War 2014 edition

BBC WW1 at Home

Poetry, protest and ‘pukka’: World War One at Home in Scotland

The Scottish experience of the First World War and its aftermath was different, in many ways, from that of the rest of Britain. Among other things, it was in Scotland that Britain probably came closest to having its own version of the Russian Revolution.

Red Clydeside

Billy Kenefick is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee. As he points out, ‘Scotland in many ways was highly patriotic in the First World War: some 63% of eligible men in Dundee were in uniform, for example – that’s a very high proportion. And the “tank campaign” to raise money for the war effort in 1917/18, which involved battle-scarred tanks touring towns and cities to drum up sales of War Bonds and Savings Certificates, saw several Scottish cities vying to outdo each other. Dundee raised £4.5 million in one week.’

Yet several Scottish cities were also leading centres of the anti-war movement, with many of them having anti-conscription fellowships. Scottish cities also saw significant industrial and civil unrest, during and immediately after the war. The Independent Labour Party in Scotland grew from 3,000 members to 10,000 by war’s end – a rate of growth that wasn’t replicated elsewhere in Britain. And ironically perhaps it was Glasgow, seen by many as the second city of the British Empire, which became the focus of political radicalism, and effectively found itself under martial law during what became known as the Red Clydeside era.

Glasgow and the surrounding area was home to a significant amount of heavy industry, but many factory and shipyard workers lived in conditions of extreme poverty. During the war, the government introduced a number of laws that were met with hostility by the trade unions, while at the same time, living and working conditions became worse. This led to a campaign for a 40-hour week, and other improvements in working conditions.

Then on 31 January 1919, a huge rally was held in George Square in the centre of Glasgow, organised by the trade unions. The gathering turned into a riot, and the Red Flag was raised by the crowd. Barely a year after the Russian Revolution, the government in Westminster panicked: fearing a Bolshevik-style insurrection on the streets of Britain, they sent troops and tanks into the city to quell the unrest, making sure that the troops weren’t Glaswegian (the local regiment was locked inside its barracks), and that few of them were veterans of the war, lest they prove too sympathetic to the aims of the protestors.

Poetry and rare finds

Another Scottish location that is famously associated with the First World War is the Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh, where officers suffering from shell shock were treated with ‘talking cures’ and other newly developed therapies (enlisted men were subjected to altogether less enlightened regimes, in other locations), and where the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon first met, inspiring each other to write some of the poetry that continues to shape the view of the war that so many of us have.

Staff and patients at Craiglockhart War Hospital (courtesy of Edinburgh Napier University)
Staff and patients at Craiglockhart War Hospital (courtesy of Edinburgh Napier University)

Alistair McCleery is Professor of Literature and Culture at Edinburgh Napier University, which now includes the old Craiglockhart buildings, as well as housing the specialist archive of materials relating to Owen, Sassoon and others – the War Poets’ Collection. The Craiglockhart site is still home to a rare form of moss, found in Northern France, which presumably arrived on soldiers’ boots.

‘With the War Poets being an important part of the school curriculum,’ says Alistair McCleery, ‘we get a lot of school groups making visits to the campus. World War One at Home has led to the creation of learning resource packs that we can give to them: it’s a lasting legacy of the project.’

And according to Alistair McCleery, the summer roadshows that have been organised as part of the World War One at Home project, including one in Dundee, have been ‘like the TV programmes Cash in the Attic, or the Antiques Roadshow.’ Among the original material that has come to light, as members of the public have brought it in, has been a concert programme from Craiglockhart during the war: the evening’s festivities described in the programme, and put on by the patients, began with the national anthems of the Allies, including Russia’s old Tsarist anthem. Another person at the roadshow came forward with rare copies of The Hydra, the magazine produced by patients at Craiglockhart, which Wilfred Owen edited, and which features the first appearance of his poetry in print.

The real Miss Jean Brodies

According to Alistair McCleery, the World War One at Home project has helped draw attention to some Scottish writers who should be better-known, including the Dundee poet Joseph Lee, and Christine Orr, whose novel, The Glorious Thing, describes ‘ordinary lives during an extraordinary time.’ But then, ‘this was an experience that engulfed everyone. The First World War wasn’t a remote conflict, like the Boer War – no-one could escape its effects.’

The Morningside area of Edinburgh, for example, used to be famous for its spinsters – real-life Miss Jean Brodies. ‘But behind the type is a sad reality – so many women were forced to turn to the teaching profession after their fiancés were killed. You need an empathetic imagination, to picture what life must have been like for them, in the Twenties. The life that was mapped out for them, all gone.’

A diaspora in reverse

Other distinctive elements of the Scottish experience of the First World War include the sense of martial tradition. ‘The kilted soldier really was the poster boy of Empire,’ says Derek Patrick, Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee. The exploits of Scottish regiments in conflicts like the Peninsular, Crimea and Boer Wars, had cemented the place of the Scottish soldier in Britain’s consciousness. ‘National, religious and military traditions all came together. It says something about Scotland as a nation. Military achievements helped Scots identify with the imperial project – the Scots saw themselves as Empire-builders, and as defenders of the Empire in adversity.

There was also what amounted to a ‘diaspora in reverse’ during the First World War, with first or second-generation Scots returning from Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, to fight in Europe, either with Scottish divisions, or in kilted South African or Canadian regiments.

And this story of the movement of Scottish soldiers around the world led to some interesting cases of cultural cross-over. The famous Scottish regiment the Black Watch, for example, had a long association with the Indian subcontinent, and its second and fourth battalions served with Indian divisions during the War. Several Indian regiments incorporated pipe bands and tartans, while long periods stationed in India rubbed off on Scottish soldiers, affecting their language (military slang of the period is full of words of Indian origin, including ‘pukka,’ ‘cushy’ and ‘doolally’, which blended with the Franglais slang popularised by men of the New Army) and their taste in food – curry was offered by army cooks from influence of the Indian army, and introduced more widely as a result of the War. The newspapers in Dundee, a city whose jute trade was closely linked with India, used to delight in showing photos of Scottish soldiers rubbing shoulders with troops of many different nationalities, knowing that their readers would find them interesting.

Initial Grave of the dead sonCommemoration in Scotland

The Great War Dundee Commemorative Project aims to co-ordinate a city-wide approach to the centenary commemoration of the First World War, bringing the local community together with Dundee’s museums, archives, libraries, universities, schools and businesses, through a programme of activities that encourage the broadest possible public participation and collective reminiscence. These activities include the opening of a hundred-year-old time capsule, located in Royal Mail’s Dundee East Delivery Office, which is thought to contain a large number of letters from soldiers on various First World War battle fronts, and photographs of Dundee men and women, as well as stamps and coins from the time. The aim is for events in Dundee to serve as a focus for a specifically Scottish commemoration of the war.

Scotland has a particular culture of remembrance, too. According to Billy Kenefick, that can be seen in the cathedral-like Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh: ‘there was a sense that the Cenotaph in Whitehall wasn’t good enough – there was a national desire to commemorate Scottish soldiers in their own way, to see them as fighting the war for Scotland as well as for Britain. But then, Robert the Bruce had been used on recruiting posters, while others used to say “we cannot allow the sons of the rose, the leek and the shamrock to get ahead of the sons of the thistle”.’

Find out more about what research reveals about WW1 and its legacy in the AHRC’s Beyond the Trenches publication. Read it online or order a free copy here.


New publication showcases range of WW1 research

A new AHRC publication launched today presents and celebrates the richness and diversity of research into World War One. From the experience of Indian soldiers in the trenches to the role of women in peace campaigns, from Professor Tim Kendall’s work on the composer and poet Ivor Gurney to the coastal war, the publication uncovers a wealth of research funded by the AHRC through different schemes and modes of funding.

Among the other topics covered in the publication are: the role of cartoons in conveying information about the experiences both of soldiers and of those at home; the German naval threat that fuelled the build-up to war; the impact of the war on the Middle East; and projects exploring the significance of the centenary and the ways in which the war is taught in schools. The arts are well represented through an exploration of the work of American painter Horace Pippin and the impact of the war on sculptors such as Ivor Roberts-Jones and Charles Sargent Jagger, while major initiatives such as the AHRC’s collaboration with the BBC, World War One at Home, and the recent launch of the five national WW1 Engagement Centres, a partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund, also play a prominent role.

You can download the publication Beyond the Trenches- Researching the First World War (PDF 17MB, opens in a new window). To request a print copy of the publication, please write to


The German naval threat

AHRC-funded research has challenged widely-held assumptions about the build-up to the First World War, writes Carrie Dunn.

Historians have long accepted the idea that the expansion of German maritime power was the dominant factor in British naval policy before the First World War. More recently a few have argued that Admiral Sir John Fisher, the First Sea Lord at the time, was more concerned with threats of global cruiser warfare from rival empires such as France and Russia rather than the menace of a big battle fleet that was quietly increasing across the North Sea.

Now an AHRC-supported project has provided an alternative argument. Dr Matthew Seligmann of Brunel University London argues that German schemes for commerce warfare drove British naval policy for over a decade before 1914.

He shows in his book ‘The Royal Navy and the German Threat 1901-1914’ that Germany was assessed as a major threat to Britain at that time not because of its growing battle fleet, but because the British Admiralty (rightly) believed that Germany’s naval planners intended to arm their country’s fast merchant vessels and send them out to attack British trade ships in the manner of the privateers of old.

Dr Seligmann says that he stumbled upon the topic largely by accident after his previous book on British intelligence in Berlin prior to the First World War. “In that, I argued that actually Britain was extremely well informed about what Germany was doing in terms of military and naval policy, and therefore the decision for war in 1914 was a largely rational one,” he explains. “I then put forward the view that Germany was very much at the forefront of British admiralty thinking in the crucial period from around 1901 to 1905, which didn’t strike me as tremendously controversial when I wrote it, but it turns out this is an extremely contested idea.”

He began to explore the idea a little further, expanding it into a major research project, and assessing the Admiralty’s paperwork prior to the First World War. “I started looking at the origins of the battle cruiser – or large armoured cruisers as they were then called – and quickly discovered, much to my surprise, that these ships seemed to have been built very much with hunting German armed liners in mind,” he says.

I quickly discovered that battle cruisers seemed to have been built very much with hunting German armed liners in mind

He points to the doomed Lusitania, torpedoed and sunk by a German u-boat, as an example of the substantive Admiralty response. It had been built with the aim of being used in war as an armed merchant cruiser, and was listed as an auxiliary war ship – just like its sister ship the Mauretania.

So Seligmann followed an extensive paper trail through the Admiralty papers, and organised them in chronological rather than file order. This was an immense feat, almost like putting together a jigsaw, because the Admiralty have kept only two per cent of the registered papers they generate, meaning that there is a very remote chance of a complete set of documentation on any topic being retained.

So instead of accepting the gaps in the archive, Seligmann looked at it from another angle.  “The only way round this sometimes is thinking about who they would have corresponded with. On armed liners, they corresponded with just about everyone. So there were papers about this in the Foreign Office files, the Colonial Office files, the Cabinet Office files, the Treasury files, and so on, and then there also seemed to be quite a lot that people had taken away and kept in their private papers,” he explains.

“The whole thing just told a story that had never been told. Nobody would have put this together, as it was so widely scattered, but an enormous amount survived in different places, and there were very few gaps in the story once I’d done all the dredging.”

The whole thing just told a story that had never been told

And once he’d got that information together, he went one step further. “Because I can read German I thought it’d be interesting to go and see what the Germans were actually doing, so I went to the German archive to look at their papers, and so I was able in the end to map out what Britain was doing with what Germany was doing, and compare and contrast the two,” he says.

“What I was able to do was work out what the Germans were actually doing, and what their policies were, and then map it against the secret intelligence Britain had on what we thought they were doing, which was in many ways close and in many ways wrong. You wouldn’t call it an intelligence failure; it was a success, albeit with the standard problem that you tend to see what you’re looking for and assume your opponent is going to do that which you’re most worried about, which isn’t always the case.” La Correntina DAMS 1

This threat to British seaborne commerce was so serious, Seligmann argues, that the leadership of the Royal Navy, including First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill spent twelve years trying to work out how best to counter it.

“Churchill pushed the policy of creating a global intelligence network on German raiding and re-routing British shipping – that was up and running by the time the war began, and it was an important network in both wars, stemming from this particular threat,” says Seligmann.

Unsurprisingly, research this groundbreaking has created a bit of a stir in the field, with Seligmann admitting that his work is “unpalatable” to those historians who have long held the view that those who think Germany played a crucial role in shaping British policy before the First World War are simply using hindsight.

“The arguments have become fierce as other people have entered the fray,” Seligmann admits. “The old angle is being scrutinised and found wanting. Those stuck in aspic with their ideas don’t find my work to their tastes at all. I guess, without wanting to make a pun of it, this book has become a flagship for a new way of looking at naval history before the First World War.”


Professional Women and Unmanly Men? Care careers in the First World War

Along the lines of evacuation, wounded men encountered men and women serving in caring roles. In this guest post, Dr Jessica Meyer explores what the organisation and staffing of medical establishments in war meant for gender and gender roles.

For women, wartime medicine could, at one level, mean greater opportunity.  For doctors like Elsie Inglis, who led the Scottish Women’s Hospital, the desperate need for medical professionals at or near the front line provided the opportunity to demonstrate hard-won skills.  Doctors such as Inglis and her staff had the opportunity to prove that they were equal to their male colleagues in terms of their courage and resourcefulness as well as their skills.  For professional nurses, the war provided an even greater opportunity to lay claim to a professional identity through recognised service with both the military nursing services and the British Red Cross.  For unskilled middle class women, volunteering with the Voluntary Aid Detachments and social caregiving units such as the YMCA or train greeting committees was a socially sanctioned form of war service which took them beyond the confines of domesticity.  They could learn new skills, experience adventure, and even travel abroad.  Finally, for working class women, general service with the British Red Cross provided a form of war service that was safer, if considerably less well reimbursed, than munitions work.

Used with the permission University of Leeds Special Collections, Liddle/MUS/AW/118’
Used with the permission University of Leeds Special Collections, Liddle/MUS/AW/118’

Yet women’s experiences of medical caregiving in the war was not simply a story of female liberation and the establishment of professional female identities.  Indeed, the struggle to establish such an identity was, in some ways, severely limited by the war.  The Scottish Women’s Hospitals were not employed by the British military but served instead with allied nations, including the French, Belgian and Serbian militaries.  After the war, many continued in medicine until marriage, but without the recognition that was accorded to their male colleagues of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

For professional nurses, the war presented an opportunity and a challenge.  The service of volunteers, who were valorised not simply as nurses but as volunteer nurses, threatened military nurses’ claims to a specifically professional identity.  If nursing was something that could be done effectively voluntarily, then why accord special recognition to those who undertook it as a career?  The power of this challenge is reflected in the fact that cultural memory of First World War nursing is often dominated by the eloquent voices of VADs such Vera Brittain rather than the more restrained professionalism of military nurses.

A similar conflict can be seen in the opportunity for women to train in medical roles previously reserved for men, such as anaesthetists and pharmacists.  On the one hand this provided professional opportunities for women to gain previously unavailable expertise.  On the other hand, these roles were under the authority of the always male surgeon or hospital Commandant.  At the same time, the increasing number of women in medical care strengthened pre-existing cultural links between caregiving and femininity.  In a society where the marriage bar in most professions would exist for another half a century, this served to depress the status of medical care as much as it improved female emancipation.  It is arguable that the relatively low financial value accorded to hospital carers today can be traced in part to the rise of female dominance of hospital care during the First World War.

And what of the men engaged in caregiving roles?  For medical officers, the influx of civilian professionals served to enhance the professional identity of a service that had, before the war, struggled to define its status within the military.  The actions of men such as Noel Chavasse, one of two medical officers to win not only a VC but also a bar, helped the officer ranks of the corps lay claim to a heroic wartime identity despite being non-combatant.

Stretcher bearers similarly were able to define their work as heroic.  Forced to face the terrors of the front line and come under attack without even carrying a weapon, stretcher bearer heroism was built on the image of immense stoicism in the face of danger.  In a conflict where endurance was increasingly key to definitions of the soldier hero, their work under fire was increasingly a source of admiration for their combatant comrades.

Medical orderlies, by comparison, had a far harder struggle in defining themselves as masculine. Tent orderlies serving overseas with field ambulances and Casualty Clearing Stations could and did come under shellfire.  Many also volunteered as stretcher bearers, using the role to lay claim to the qualities of endurance and self-sacrifice that attached themselves to their colleagues.  Those serving in Base and, even more so in Home hospitals, found themselves labelled as ‘Slackers in Khaki’ and mocked as the diminutive ‘orderlim’. This was an identity that orderlies never appear to have fully shaken off.  The manpower crisis meant that men were increasingly ‘combed out’ for combatant duty to be replaced by men too unfit for front line service.  These men were unable to fulfil definitions of heroism which privileged physical fitness, but having lost that fitness through war service, their masculinity was less open to direct question.

In 1919 the RAMC was recruiting for men who wished to ‘learn a useful occupation which may help you in civilian life’, recognition that such service could help men achieve the appropriate masculine identity of provider as well as that of military hero.  While caregiving may have become an increasingly feminine occupation, particularly in diluted hospitals, by the end of the war the RAMC serviceman was able to define not only his wartime but his postwar role as appropriately masculine.


Hush here comes a Wiz-bang: The etymology of slang names for weapons

In this guest blog, Dan Ellin explores the many different names, puns and visual metaphors soldiers on the Western Front used to describe weapons.

The distinct language of the Western Front united men from different classes and different geographical areas. French expressions and place names were anglicised, and a medical orderly noticed that, after contact with Cockneys, Scottish soldiers began dropping their ‘h’s in the phrase ‘Not ‘arf.’ Soldiers used euphemisms for death and injuries, and troops on the Western Font also created a wide variety of names for the different shells and mortar bombs they encountered. The neologisms soldiers invented for different weapons were combinations of visual metaphors, onomatopoeia, puns on military jargon or acronyms, or cultural references. For example, named after the fireworks manufacturer, a night time bombardment was a ‘Brock’s Benefit’, while a Lewis machine gun could either be called a ‘Belgian Rattle Snake’ after the sound it made, or a ‘Huntley and Palmer’ because of the appearance of its ammunition tins.

Several names were based on military terms and jargon. The terms ‘Ack Ack’ (anti aircraft fire), and ‘Toc Emma’ (trench mortar), were taken directly from the British military phonetic alphabet. A ‘Four-two’ was a 4.2 inch German shell, while a ‘Quarter to Ten’ was a British 9.45 trench mortar. In the same way as tanks were named after their cover story as ‘water carriers for Mesopotamia’, two of the names for gas cylinders stemmed from their code names ‘Accessory’ and ‘Roger.’ British troops were familiar with the German ‘Minenwerfer’, a German trench mortar (literally a mine thrower), and German anti-aircraft fire was known as ‘Flak’ from the German Flieger Abwehr Kanone, which translates as aviator defence cannon.

It is accepted that ‘Archie’, another term for anti-aircraft fire, came from George Robey’s  hen pecked music-hall character, who was repeatedly told ‘Archibald, certainly not’ in the song’s choruses. However, the name ‘Archie’ was first given to pockets of air noticed by early aviators at Brooklands. Archie Knight was a famous pre-war flying instructor at the Vickers’ school at Brooklands, and it is unclear whether the pockets of air which caused aircraft to lurch were named after him, or the popular song. However, buffeted by bursts of ‘Flak’ over the Western Front, airmen began to refer to the shells as something more familiar and less dangerous.

First World War period German 15cm shrapnel shell.

On the ground, exploding German shells were named after their appearance. ‘Black Marias’ and ‘Coal boxes’ gave off black smoke, as did a ‘Jack Johnson’ which was named after the black heavy weight boxing champion, while a ‘Woolly Bear’ was a German shrapnel shell which left a cloud like form. Actually made from used jam tins, home-made grenades (and the early no.8 and no.9 grenades) were ‘Jam-tins’. Later models were ‘Cricket balls’ and ‘Eggs’, while the German stick grenades were ‘Potato mashers’ and ‘Pineapples’ because of their appearance. German gas shells were simply named after their coloured markings; a ‘Green Cross’ contained phosgene gas, and ‘White Stars’, chlorine and phosgene. Trench mortar shells included ‘Footballs’, ‘Oil Cans’ and ‘Plum Puddings’, while a ‘Toffee Apple’ was a trench mortar bomb with an attached shaft; a ‘Rum Jar’ was a bomb of a similar shape to the jars the rum ration was delivered in, and as it was catapulted with a high trajectory rather than fired, it could be seen coming.

However, vision in the trenches was largely restricted to a short stretch of trench and the sky above. For soldiers, hearing was important in making sense of their world and warning them of danger; sound also played a role in the naming of many of the weapons they faced. Before it became a term for cheap wine, ‘Plonk’ was the onomatopoeic sound of impact from a bullet or shell, and a ‘Crump’ was the distinctive sound of a German 5.9 shell. A ‘Wipers Express’ was a shell that sounded like a train as it passed overhead and a ‘Silent Percy’ or ‘Silent Susan’ was long range, high velocity shell. Perhaps the most well known shells were the alliterative and onomatopoeic ‘Moaning Minnie’ and the ‘Whiz-Bang’.  The ‘Moaning Minnie’ was a shell fired from a Minenwerfer, and a ‘Whiz-Bang’ was a high velocity 77mm shell; its distinctive noise in flight was followed immediately by the explosion and the sound of shrapnel cutting through the air. Their innocuous names reduced the deadly weapons to the status of an annoying girl, and a humorous euphemism.

The Battle of Arras, April-May 1917
The Battle of Arras, April-May 1917

Imaginatively named after their appearance, the sound they made, or reference to more familiar objects, the soldiers’ disparaging euphemisms made deadly weapons seem inoffensive and less frightening. Identifying a shell and being able to speak its name usually meant the soldier had survived, at least until the next incoming ‘Whiz-Bang’ or ‘Rum Jar’. The irreverent names given to weapons and incoming ordnance were part of the shared language and experience of the British Army, and played a role in the comradeship which enabled troops to endure the hardships of the trenches. Dark humour also played a role in creating new signifiers, and, in a rare direct reference to weaponry, there is an appreciable irony in the fact that most soldiers welcomed ‘Gunfire’, as tea laced with rum was known.


Shaving in the Trenches: Washing and grooming in the Great War

This guest blog post was written by Dr Alun Withey, a 2014 New Generation Thinker and academic historian of medicine and the body. It was originally published on his blog.

As the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War approaches, we are constantly reminded of the horror of trench warfare. A raft of new books, articles, websites and programmes will be devoted to charting the conflict. All of the big questions will be revisited, from the motives for going to war to the fitness of those in charge to lead their men. Much attention has already been paid to the lives of ordinary ‘Tommies’ in the trenches and the recent publication of diaries, such as that of Harry Drinkwater vividly bring to life the experience of living in the shadow of battle.

In the discussions of action, however, the day-to-day experience of living in the trenches, the ordinary routines of life, are sometimes overlooked. How did men keep themselves clean, for example? In the muddy quagmire of battle trenches, did the usual routines of washing and grooming still apply? I thought it might be interesting to look at one aspect of this – shaving –to see what the sources might reveal.

Until 1916, it was a statutory requirement for all members of the British Army to wear a moustache. Uniform regulation command number 1695 stipulated “the hair of the head will be kept short. The chin and the under-lip will be shaved, but not the upper lip…”. It is not clear how far this order was rigidly enforced but until General Sir Nevill Macready, who apparently hated moustaches, repealed the order in October 1916 British soldiers were moustachioed! Nonetheless, shaving was still required; to appear stubbly was still effectively a breach of regulation. What, then, did soldiers in the field actually do?


Firstly it is clear that many soldiers, at least initially, carried razors as part of their kit. Some also took tins of shaving cream and lathering brushes – officers, especially, had toilette kits to help them keep up appearances.

As the war drew on, however, it seems that razors became harder to come by. In the wet, muddy conditions metal objects, like razors, quickly became rusty. Over time, and with use, they blunted and resharpening them only possible with a stone or strop. By 1915 they were starting to become scarce. In October 1915, as winter approached, many regiments were starting to run out of basic necessities. Funds, such as the Christmas Comforts Fund in Manchester, called for people to donate everything from envelopes and pencils, to chocolate and razors. The 2nd Battalion South Lancashire regiment asked specifically for mirrors, shaving soap and razor strops amongst their ‘wish list’.

The 2nd Battalion Cheshire regiment asked for the same in a long list that included everything from chocolate, coffee and cakes to musical instruments. Such items were small comfort in cold winter months, which the Manchester Guardian described: “The wet mud, the ice-cold water beyond their knees in the communication trenches, the wind that lashed them like sharp whips, the ooze and slime in the dugouts, the waterspouts through the roofs of broken barns…Must our men” the paper argued “suffer all that again?” Indeed they must.


In the dirty environment of the trenches, without access to running water, basins, towels and even privacy, how did men even manage to shave? In some regiments, rules were relaxed in times of action meaning that stubble was permitted, although soldiers were expected to take the first opportunity to attend to their beards in calmer conditions. In the field, though, even obtaining clean water to shave was no easy matter. Complete washing was an irregular occurrence. According to one account, a single tub of water served for the whole company. Instead, soldiers might get a cursory wash of face and hands at best. In such circumstances ingenuity was required. Some soldiers took to using cold tea as shaving water – better than drawing water from a muddy puddle although even this likely sufficed in an emergency


Whilst such a mundane, prosaic activity such as shaving might not seem important in the broader discussions about the First World War, it is also something that brings us closer to the lived experiences of trench warfare and the daily lives of ordinary men. Requests for razors and strops, along with other basic items, remind us of the comfort that even these basics could bring. Even in the heat of battle, men tried to maintain some semblance of normality, no doubt finding comfort in routine. I would argue that these small glimpses, such as Thomas Mcindoe’s account, are vitally important in any study of the Great War.

One of the best narratives we have of the practicalities of shaving comes from the records of a British soldier on the Western Front. In 1914, Private Thomas Mcindoe was entrenched with his regiment, the 12th battalion Middlesex. In 1975 Thomas recalled how, in a lull in fighting, he decided to remove his several days’ worth of beard. Setting up in an abandoned sniper post Thomas described how be filled his mess tin with water and stuck a mirror into the earth and carefully shaved himself. Emerging from the post he encountered an officer who exclaimed “Oh, what a lovely clean boy!”. The officer was impressed by Thomas’s new-fangled safety razor, as opposed to the usual cut-throat models, and asked the young Private to shave him – a task that was undertaken outside on a chair next to the sniper’s position

4701As Thomas himself pointed out, cutthroat razors were lethally sharp and dangerous in battle. Shaving oneself, especially around the neck and throat, required precision and a steady hand. Many soldiers of what Thomas described as the “nervous type” had faces full of nicks and cuts since their hands shook so much from the experience of battle. In fact, shaving comrades was a common occurrence. It was perhaps easier to do this than rely on a broken shard of mirror and attempt to do the job yourself.

Whilst such a mundane, prosaic activity such as shaving might not seem important in the broader discussions about the First World War, it is also something that brings us closer to the lived experiences of trench warfare and the daily lives of ordinary men. Requests for razors and strops, along with other basic items, remind us of the comfort that even these basics could bring. Even in the heat of battle, men tried to maintain some semblance of normality, no doubt finding comfort in routine. I would argue that these small glimpses, such as Thomas Mcindoe’s account, are vitally important in any study of the Great War.