During the First World War, all eight of Amy Beechey’s sons enlisted in the British Army, but unfortunately only three survived the war; Barnard and Harold were killed in action, Frank, Charles, and Leonard died of wounds, and Christopher was invalided from the army after being badly wounded. In April 1918, aware that two of her sons were still in danger, Mrs Beechey was presented to the King and thanked for her sacrifice. She is reported to have told the Queen ‘It was no sacrifice, Ma’am. I did not give them willingly.’ The Beecheys regularly wrote home to their mother and their five sisters, and over 400 of their letters survive in the Lincolnshire Archives. Together with their sister Edie’s unpublished memoir held in the local library, and Michael Walsh’s history of the family, Brothers in War, these letters were recently used as the basis for community history projects, ‘Leaving Home’ and ‘The Last Post’ to commemorate the war’s centenary.
‘Leaving Home’ was a collaboration between BBC Radio Lincolnshire and the University of Lincoln’s School of Performing Arts. To mark the beginning of the war, a radio play concentrating on the story of the eldest son ‘Bar’ was recorded and broadcast. Local children played the roles of two of the Beechey children in early life. This was followed by two concert performances which were also broadcast on local radio. The concerts, in Lincoln’s Arboretum and the village of Friesthorpe where the family lived, were accompanied by the Royal Anglian Regimental Band, and a Military Wives Choir. As well as engaging with a broad spectrum of the community, the location of the performances in places important to the Beechey family helped to create an emotional attachment and a poignant geographical connection with the past. Rather than focusing on the impersonal stone of traditional war memorials, the everyday became sites of remembrance. In ‘Leaving Home’ and ‘The Last Post’, local audiences were reminded of the humanity of those who walked the same streets a hundred years ago.
Written and directed by members of the Lincoln Mystery Plays Company, and with a large cast of local people, the play ‘The Last Post’ was performed in Lincoln from 11 November. The play used Edie, the youngest Beechey girl, as a framing device. In the opening monologue set in 1968, the character of ‘Old Edie’ directly addressed the audience and discussed the foibles of memory. She explained that while many believe that memory is unchanging ‘like a cine film’, she had edited her memories of her brothers over time, and only the letters she kept from them were unchanging. The letters represent a fixed point in time. Like ‘Leaving Home’, throughout ‘the Last Post’, actors spoke the men’s words as if they were writing the letters, and through them we know more about the men at the front than those who remained at home. Apart from one example when ‘Bar’ had replied on the back of a letter sent to him because he had no paper, letters to the brothers were not saved.
The letters are eloquent, detailed, and highly descriptive; although the correspondence includes the inevitable Field Service Post Cards, with ticks acknowledging ‘I am quite well’, because the eldest brothers were well educated but served as privates and NCOs, they reveal details of life in the trenches from the perspective of those in the ranks. In one letter ‘Char’ extols the virtue of the sandbag, as ‘the one and only really useful thing… [they were] supplied with’ and explains its many unintended uses. Through the letters, the play reflected the different characters of the brothers, and their changing opinions of the war, particularly as their siblings euphemistically ‘went under’ and they learned of their deaths.
The tone of some earlier letters is optimistic and full of jingoism, while bitterness and fears can be discerned in later correspondence. In 1915, Chris wrote from Gallipoli: ‘Tell all the women and girls you know to send their men… I would rather perish or hang than live under the German Kultur’, and Harold told those at home: ‘This is worth it. We shall finish this affair up finally this time.’ However, the experiences of being ‘a bit crook’ at Gallipoli and wounded at Pozières, changed him. In November 1916, Harold complained about the ‘miserable spitefulness’ of the military, and asked his mother to write to his commanding officer in the hope that he would be granted leave before being returned to the front.
Through the letters and imaginatively reconstructed characters of Mrs Beechey and Edie, both projects focused on the loss and grief the Beechey family suffered, but their ‘messages’ about the war remained open to interpretation; it is likely that watching them reaffirmed whatever opinions about the war the audiences took with them. The plays about the Beechey family successfully engaged people with their local history, and the commemoration of the First World War, but also the functioning of memory. ‘Leaving Home’ and ‘The Last Post’ were imaginative and effective examples of community history projects, and as ‘history from below’, it was the human story of life and death that was important and resonated so strongly with the people of Lincoln. All those involved, both those who participated in the performances, and those in the audiences, experienced a new connection with their history and others in the community.
In our latest blogpost, Dr Emma Hanna from Gateways to the First World War, one of five Engagement Centres working on different aspects of the war, reflects on the myths and realities of the 1914 Christmas Truce.
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce, there has been a lot of interest in the story of that particular wartime event. But for me, planning for the commemoration of the Truce started a year ago. I was approached by the British Council to advise on their education pack ‘Football Remembers’, a resource for schools that was sponsored by the Premier League and the Football Association, which also ran a competition for children aged 8-14 to design a memorial to the Truce at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire. Clearly the idea of a football match being played in no-man’s land remains strong in our collective memory of the Christmas Truce, and it was a key feature in an event run by the National Children’s Football Alliance in April when British school children from schools in Kent played sport with students from a school in Germany at Maidstone Football Club. The students had a lot of questions about the Truce and the football match, and I felt rather like a party-pooper in telling them that the Christmas Truce is really a myth – there was no one all-encompassing Truce and neither was there one single England v. Germany fixture in Plugstreet Wood. It is something I have to explain many times over – that there was no one wholesale truce but a series of lots of little events of fraternisation at Christmas 1914, some of which we know included football matches and other rather unexpected events. In Britain the ‘two world wars and one world cup’ mentality remains strong, and Andrew Murrison, a member of the government’s centenary committee, has underlined that perhaps football is the best way to get people interested in not only the Truce but the history of the war more generally. This has upset quite a few military historians, but I see this as the best time to get in there and explain the real history behind the Christmas Truce myth.
Last week I gave a talk about it to the British Legion, and yesterday I was interviewed for a BBC radio programme on the subject where I was asked many questions about ‘what really happened’. Yes, the beleaguered Pope, Benedict XV, called for a Truce of God in the first week of December 1914, but Britain was incredulous about it, even before two German battleships had shelled the coastal towns of Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough causing the deaths of 122 and injuring over 450 residents. What I find really fascinating is that General Sir Horace Smith Dorrien, commander of II Corps of the BEF in the Ypres Salient, issued orders in the first week of December that he was concerned about the lack of ‘offensive spirit’. He was an experienced soldier and he realised that as weather conditions worsened the men might be tempted to permit unofficial ceasefires in the run up to Christmas. He was adamant that under no circumstances any ‘intercourse with the enemy’ should be allowed. However, the day after a particularly costly offensive at Ploegsteert Wood on 18th December 1914 British and German troops agreed to permit one another to rise out of their trenches in order to bury their respective dead and collect the wounded. This was not particularly unusual, it had happened before, but further events would follow during that first Christmas of the war – a war that was supposed to be over by then, as the British newspapers claimed in the heady days of August 1914. Neither side was going anywhere. And as it happens, a number of British soldiers and their German counterparts did not follow their orders, much to Smith Dorrien’s frustration. Many of the German High Command found out about the truce after seeing some of the photos in The Times! However, no disciplinary action was ever taken on either side; they probably knew that any reprisals would have been extremely unpopular and that it was best to let the matter lie, which it did pretty much for over 60 years.
While some historians have tried to play down the Christmas Truce, or even deny that anything like it really happened, there is an enormous amount of evidence from soldier’s letters and diaries – including Belgian, French, German and Indian soldiers – that truces of various durations occurred, that they met to bury their dead, had joint burial and carol services, exchanged gifts including food and tobacco, played football, and chatted about their pre-war lives and the war in which they were currently fighting. Incredibly there is even evidence – as shown in the Sainsbury’s advert – that soldiers who had been barbers before the war even offered their services to other side. Even I didn’t believe that until I found the evidence. It is rather bizarre, until you remember that there were hundreds of thousands of German businessmen in London when war broke out, many of whom were barbers, and that their skills would have been put to good use in their wartime lives, too. I also thought the old story about British officers bumping into the German chef of the Trocadero, a high society London nightclub, was a fallacy until I saw the evidence. But not all soldiers approved or took part. The Belgians and the French thought that the British soldiers who did fraternise were at best mad and at worst traitors, and there were many British soldiers, particularly those who had been at the Battle of the Aisne, who refused to fraternise because they did not trust the Germans.
This shows that historians shouldn’t be afraid of the sometimes yawning gap between history and myth. Sometimes, bizarrely, the gap isn’t as wide as we might think, and as the Sainsbury’s advert is just short of 14 million views since it was launched 3 weeks ago, we as historians should engage with the conversation about what the history and memory of the truce means to us in the history of 1914-1918. As is often the case, history can tell us more about the times in which it is being written than the period it purports to recount. The Christmas Truce was an anomaly, an event which received only a little attention in Britain in January 1915, and I certainly think it is no coincidence that the main representations of the truce – eg Paul McCartney’s ‘Pipes of Peace’ and the first history Peace in No Man’s Land by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton – date back to the early 1980s, a time when Britain was at war in the Falklands. We need to remember the more humane parts of the First World War because the conflict itself was so horrific, and that’s the appeal of the Truce – it makes the history of the war more palatable in some ways to see that at one point long-term foes became temporary friends. As with the sea of Poppies at the Tower of London, the Sainsbury’s advert has caught the popular imagination, and anything that increases the interest in the First World War gives us an ideal opportunity to engage in the conversation. Reality is sometimes stranger than fiction, and that is what makes History so interesting.
Emma Hanna is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Greenwich. She is one of the expert speakers at ‘Representations of the Christmas Truce’, a symposium organized by Gateways to the First World War on Friday 12 December 2014. For more information please visit our website.
In this blog post, Jane Chapman, Professor at Lincoln University and Research Associate of Wolfson College Cambridge, looks at the ways in which manufacturing and food consumption changed during the war in the East Anglia region.
‘With its combination of small towns, industrial and agricultural communities, East Anglia is a good place to see some of the profound changes that were taking place throughout the UK, during the First World War.’ That’s according to Jane Chapman, Professor at Lincoln University and Research Associate at Wolfson College Cambridge, who worked on the World War One at Home project for the East of England.
Windows to weapons
In Essex, for example, there is a ‘hidden industrial history’ relating to the First World War, which the project has helped bring to light. As elsewhere in the UK, many medium-sized market towns in the area developed an industrial base during the conflict, with countless small businesses adapting their workshops for the war effort – going from making light bulbs to bullets, bicycle chains to machine gun housings.
Many of these diverse engineering companies have since changed or disappeared, but in some cases they are still going – Crittall Windows, for example, have been turning out steel-framed windows in Essex for over a hundred and fifty years, but during the Great War they turned their hand to making munitions. They produced millions of shells during the course of the conflict, but when they received their first order for two hundred thousand, they were given no specifications for how they should be made: they had to split a shell in half, to work out how it was put together. As Jane Chapman points out, the First World War ‘demonstrated the kind of technological enterprise and adaptability that people are capable of, when it’s called for – and these aren’t qualities, of course, which are restricted only to the British.’
The technological enterprise and adaptability that people are capable of.
In East Anglia, as elsewhere, ‘entire communities could be turned over to war-related activities. The fishing town of Brightlingsea in Essex, for example, was taken over by Australian soldiers, who practised digging in the sand as preparation for the landings at Gallipoli.’
And even academics in the East of England’s most famous university, Cambridge, could have their work taken in an entirely new direction, as a result of the war. Charles Myers, for example, found himself dealing with a new type of military casualty, as he studied the symptoms of shell-shock victims. He used hypnosis to treat them, and intervened on their behalf, saving many shell-shocked men from being shot for cowardice. Indeed, Myers was the first to draw attention to cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, as we call it now, among soldiers, and the department he founded at Cambridge University went on to become a world-leader in experimental psychology.
Fuelling the fight
With its large rural areas, the Eastern region is also a good place to examine another vitally important aspect of life on the home front during the First World War: the struggle to keep soldiers and civilians fed.
With so many farm workers away fighting, and with imports cut off by the German U-boat blockade of Britain, agriculture in the UK had to be put on an entirely new footing. Domestic food production, which had been in long-term decline, suddenly had to be boosted: at the beginning of the war the UK imported some eighty percent of its wheat. To replace the men who had gone to war, the Women’s Land Army was formed to keep farms functioning, while conscientious objectors were also made to work on the land. And parks, bits of waste ground, and even the gardens of stately homes were turned over to allotments, to grow fruit and vegetables.
Ultimately, Britain was able to avert the threat of famine, which several other combatant nations succumbed to. Nevertheless, food became extremely expensive during the First World War, and long queues were a common sight outside food shops. The British government was initially reluctant to impose controls on the prices of bread and other staples, focusing instead on passing laws that were limited in their effect: restricting the number of courses that could be consumed in public eating places, for example, and imposing fines on members of the public who fed pigeons or stray animals.
But as the Germans stepped-up their attacks on ships around the British Isles, a more drastic response had to be found. Milk, butter, margarine, flour, meat and sugar were all rationed by law from 1918, with everyone (even the King and Queen) having their own ration cards, which had to be used at designated shops.
And yet it’s true of the First World War, just as it is of the Second, that the changes in consumption brought about by conflict resulted in better health for many in the population. At the beginning of the war, the average diet for many working people consisted primarily of bread, margarine and tea. But for those better-off people who had tended to over-consume before the war, rationing put them in effect on an enforced weight-loss diet.
Another of the changes that the war brought about was the introduction of school dinners, which were intended to prevent children having to miss school to queue for food, or going hungry because their mothers had to queue so much they didn’t have time to cook.
Thinking globally, acting locally
What are some of the wider implications of the First World War, then, for the present day? For Jane Chapman, the story of food production in the UK during the conflict shows how events on the international stage can be intimately connected with what happens locally. And that has implications for some of the struggles that we are involved in, now: ‘the local is important. You can see it today with the environmental movement, with the question of food miles. But the First World War shows that the UK can be self-sufficient in food, if the will is there. The local can make good when it comes to food production.’
‘This is just one example of the value of the centenary of the First World War, in teaching us practical lessons. History is not just for the historians.’
This blog post by Victor Hulbert explores the history of World War 1 Conscientious Objector, starting with his great uncle, Willie Till, one of 130 Seventh-day Adventist young men who stood their ground as pacifists.
Can there be any worse picture then that of the death and destruction in the trenches of World War I? Over 65 million soldiers fought each other in a war that seemed it would never end. Over 8.5 million died. A further 21 million were injured. It was horrific. Modern weaponry combined with out of date tactics from yesteryear.
But what if you believe war is wrong? What if you believe human life is sacred? How can you stand for peace in the midst of tremendous political and social pressure? Lord Kitchener’s propaganda machine made ‘conchies’ very unpopular people. Earlier this year I discovered that my great uncle, Willie Till, was a WWI Conscientious Objector. He was one of 130 Seventh-day Adventist young men who stood firm for their pacifist principles in the midst of that horror. Some of them discovered a different horror for themselves. Refusing to fight, and standing by the principle of Sabbath observance, they were beaten, starved, forced to spotlessly clean latrines without any equipment, and punished with the dreaded ‘crucifixion’ –shackled in irons and painfully strapped to a fixed object such as a gun wheel.
From when conscription was introduced in 1916, some 130 young Adventist young men were called up for military service. Most chose to uphold the principle of the sacredness of life, and equally had strong views on Sabbath observance and other moral values.
Bernard Belton was one of those early conscripts. He was stationed as solitary Adventist with 70 or 80 other non-combatants in France. In those early days he sent a letter to the church paper reporting that after discussion with his commanding officer he given Friday sunset to Saturday sunset off and was even able to witness with those in his billet. “I have had a grand time with two corporals”, he wrote. “They are very worldly men but they have been so impressed with the views I have presented that they are continually bringing the Bible and pointing out apparent contradictions with the request that I should explain.”
He was one of the more fortunate one. Seventeen young men, such as Hector Bull, and Charles Meredith spent time in Dartmoor prison where hard labour, dragging granite in from the moor and smashing it into road building material was the order of the day. Discipline was harsh, particularly in the earlier months of conscription. Conscientious objection was not to be seen as an ‘easy option’ for escaping the trenches. For men like Hector Bull, discipline would be at its harshest on Saturday, when he refused to work.
Yet his life was easy compared to that of 14 students from Stanborough Training College in Watford. They were conscripted into the 3rd Eastern Non Combatant Corps at Bedford Barracks on 23 May 1916, and soon after sent to France.
Despite their NC status, trouble stared even on the boat. They had been handed out their uniforms. On the ship to France they were handed rifles. They refused them. Landing in France they were put to one side on the dock and after a while, to try and break the resistance, the tallest and strongest of them, and therefore perceived to be the ring-leader, was forced to carry large rocks from one end of the dock to the other. When he had completed his task he was made to carry them back.
Despite that difficult start, accommodations were made and for 18 months the Adventist group worked mainly as stevedores, unloading ships on the docks at Le Havre and elsewhere. H W Lowe wrote in a letter, “The colonel asked us about our beliefs and told the colour sergeant, ‘see that these men are excused duty from Sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.”
That is exactly what happened until November 1917. That autumn they were moved to a new area with a new, young captain. He was determined that he would have none of this ‘Sabbath nonsence’. This they jointly refused to do. They were immediately court martialled and sentenced to six months hard labour at Military Prison number 3 in Le Havre.
H W Lowe, in his understated manner recalled, “The prison routine was very rigorous, and obviously geared psychologically to control a tough lot of men.” They were isolated from each other, forced to work long hours at double-pace, and, Lowe reported, if you could not keep up the frenetic pace of work then you could expect severe punishment. “The armed guards were not blessed with the milk of human kindness when administering these punishments. On some occasions a man would be tied to a wheel in crucifixion fashion for hours in the sun. All prisoners dreaded what they called ‘crucifixion’.”
Writing years later to a young man who asked about the experience, Worsley Armstrong wrote,
“I will not go into the details of the horrible treatment we received, but finally each one of us was cast into a small cell, approximately 7 foot by 4 foot with iron walls and a concrete floor. It was mid-winter. There, after punishment, our hands were placed behind our backs and locked with what were called ‘Figures of eights’. This was very painful.”
Alfred Bird died early, in 1944, partly as a result of ill health resulting from this appalling treatment. His daughter says the marks of these irons digging into his wrists could be seen until the day he died. Armstrong developed a heart condition, even in prison, and lived with the serious consequences of his treatment for all his life.
Those were nightmare days. After the war they refused to talk about their experiences, even to their families. The fullest account of their suffering is in the 4 April 1918 edition of the clandestine paper, The Tribunal. That account talks about bullying, breaking men’s hearts, and that sergeants were authorised to use physical means to achieve their objectives.
On the first Friday afternoon of their imprisonment, the Adventists downed tools at 4 pm in preparation for Sabbath. The sergeants were ready, armed with sticks, revolvers and boots. Following severe beatings to every part of their body they were left in their cells, figures of eight irons tightly clamped on their wrists, digging into their flesh, their hands behind their backs.
Such mistreatment and worse continued the next day but it is actually a personal letter from W W Armstrong’s, written 40 years later that clearly shows the courage and faith of these young men, not much more than teenagers.
“When the Sabbath morning came, I remember hearing the door of the cell to my right being opened and the sergeant giving instructions to one of our young men to go to work. I could not hear his reply, but I did hear him leave the cell and the door was bolted.
The same thing happened to the youth on the other side, and I was left by myself. I heard other doors opened and bolted in the same way and finally the door to my cell was opened, and I was commanded to go to work. I refused to do this in a courteous way, explaining once more the reason for my refusal. I fully expected to be thrashed and beaten… but to my surprise the sergeant was quite affable. He told me not to be a fool; that all the other young men had come to their senses and they had all gone to work as good Britishers should, and that I would only get into further trouble if I was stubborn.
This news, of course, surprised me, and I could hardly believe it, but I remember making the statement that whatever my brethren might do, I must remain firm to the truth of God, and I endeavoured to get some sort of spiritual understanding into the mid of that gross sergeant. I learned later, however, that all our young men in the cells remained faithful.”
The sergeant’s attitude then changed and the inevitable beating came. But that was not the end of the story.
Armstrong writes, “A short while afterwards a little way down the corridor I heard somebody whistling one of our well-known hymns – although I cannot remember just which one it was. I was surprised to hear this because to whistle or sing was counted as gross insubordination, but to my surprise I heard a voice singing with the whistling, and it was only a question of seconds before many other voices were singing this hymn, and I found myself spontaneously joining in the singing of that good old hymn.”
Armstrong noted that “the singing of that hymn brought wonderful comfort and strength to us as we were there in that prison.” It had an effect on the sergeant and other non-commissioned officers who gathered in the corridor and didn’t know what to do. They became very subdued, and, Armstrong reports, “We finished that hymn in an atmosphere of absolute quiet.”
While much of the horrors of that time fell away over the years, that moment remained. Even forty years on he could state with clarity, “There was something in the hymn itself as well as the spirit in which it was sung which affected those brutal men, for brutal they were to the extreme, and although we did experience considerable persecution subsequently, I felt that these men had far more respect for us after they had heard our singing.”
The men were not allowed Bibles – they were confiscated on entering the prison. However, one of them managed to secrete a copy of the gospel of John, which they then divided up between them and hid in their caps.
A chaplain from a neighbouring army camp was passing the prison one day and heard shrieks from the cells. He entered the prison and asked to see the Adventists. He knew they were there – but his request was refused – and moreover, he wasn’t allowed inside the prison again even though he had held a service there once a week. It may possibly be him that raised the alarm with higher authorities back in Britain. By Christmas they were back in Britain. Their detention in Military Prison #3 lasted not much more than a month. Much longer and they might not have survived. They were released from the Army and sent to Knutsford Work Centre. By July all 14 were released to civilian life.
These were men of courage. Many of them went on to lead the Adventist Church both in Britain and overseas following the end of the war. H W Lowe, who became president of the Adventist church during the lead up to WWII. In 1937 he was invited to the legal department of the war office. A new Military Service act was in preparation. In an hour long meeting the government lawyer stated that he did not want the mistakes of WWI to be repeated.
“I think,” he said, “that military officers do not understand religious convictions such as your people hold sincerely, and that the best thing would be for us to make it possible for your men to serve the country in time of emergency in some capacity outside the armed forces.”
This set the rule for WWII where Adventist young men still had to attend tribunals but were then directed into work of National Importance on the land, in industry or in a medical capacity.
I believe that the 14 young men who stood by their principles in France have to be admired. Also the many more who served time in Dartmoor, Wakefield, Wormwood Scrubs or Knutsford prisons. The 130 who stood firm despite Lord Kitchener’s pressure that ‘Your country needs you’.
They inspired me so much that my research led me to make a documentary film exploring their experience and the issues of Adventists and war. During that research I discovered that one of those young men in France was my Great Uncle. I found that to be very moving. It strengthened my own pacifist roots. I talked to his son, Garth, and to the children of other NC’s. Those children all stand by their parent’s decision. For me, they are unsung heroes.
Their example, their positive choices, their determination to stand for the right, are perhaps the very lessons we do need to remember one hundred years later.
Pastor Victor Hulbert is Communication and Media director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the UK and Ireland. His great uncle, Willie Till, was one of the 14 court martialled in France.