Co-ordinating Centres Research

Home comforts: the YMCA and the Great War

Matt Shinn looks at an extraordinary story of philanthropy and humanity that is being uncovered by Voices of War and Peace, one of the AHRC Engagement Centres, in partnership with the YMCA.

‘The average Joe probably just thinks of the song by the Village People,’ says Michael Snape, Reader in Religion, War and Society at the University of Birmingham. Few of us now would associate the YMCA with the First World War, or know that the organisation was involved at the time in one of the greatest philanthropic endeavours ever undertaken in British society.

YMCA Centre in Ypres
YMCA Centre in Ypres

The support that the YMCA gave to soldiers in the Great War was material,  educational and spiritual. It covered everything from providing recreational  huts and tents when young men began their training, to supplying pastoral  care, writing materials and cups of tea at hundreds of centres, many very  close to (and sometimes on) the front line (the YMCA centre at Ypres, for  example, was in a dug-out that frequently came under shell fire). The YMCA  was one of several organisations that gave soldiers a small reminder of the  civilian world, even in a front-line trench.

 The YMCA was one of several organisations that gave soldiers a  small reminder of the civilian world, even in a front-line trench

Then there was what Michael Snape calls the ‘amazingly touching’ service that the YMCA provided, of taking family members to hospitals in France, to say farewell to soldiers who were dying and who could not be moved. ‘I had a great uncle who was fatally wounded at Messines,’ he says. ‘My great grandfather received the news, and was asked to travel to be with him in his last hours. I puzzled over that for years – how was it possible for a working-class man to get over to France in 1917? The answer was that the YMCA had made it possible.’

YMCA centre near the front line

 Elbow room

The YMCA’s work in the Great War was a huge logistical undertaking. And   given its range, cost, and the number of people involved, says Michael Snape, ‘the fact that it’s now so little known shows just how much of the legacy of the First World War has been forgotten.’

The project that is bringing this forgotten history to light has been supported by the Voices of War and Peace Engagement Centre, based at the University of Birmingham but involving other universities and a wide range of organisations (see inset box – to follow). Like other projects supported by the Engagement Centre, it shows how much the role of religion in society has changed in a hundred years, and how important the work of faith-based agencies was at the time of the First World War.

The YMCA’s work in the conflict was entirely independent of government: it was carried out by volunteers, and supported by donations totalling £2.5 million over the course of the war – a huge amount at the time. ‘The latitude the YMCA was given shows how much Britain was a liberal Christian society, and the care that it took of its soldiers,’ says Michael Snape. ‘It’s in marked contrast to some of the black legends of the Great War, with their clichés of every 16-year-old being tied to a stake and shot for cowardice. The elbow room given to philanthropic organisations shows the real attitude of the army and of the state, and the extent to which British soldiers were looked after. The French and the Germans didn’t have anything like it.’

YMCA centre for the walking wounded
YMCA Centre for the walking wounded

The YMCA’s work was carried out by volunteers, and supported by donations totalling £2.5 million over the course of the war – a huge amount at the time

There is a fundamental contrast, in other words, between the work of the YMCA in the trenches, and the image of the army as a callous machine. ‘I’m not trying to bang the drum for the generals, but key figures in the military top brass, including Field Marshal Haig, were important in promoting the YMCA’s work: Haig’s wife even worked for the YMCA in London.’

It was natural that Voices of War and Peace should be involved in this project: the YMCA’s main archive is in the Cadbury Research Library at Birmingham University. As Michael Snape says, it is an ‘absolutely astonishing treasure trove of photographs and manuscripts. And this is a very important story to tell. But one of the problems has been that the YMCA is an activist organisation: it tends to be busy with what it’s doing in the present, rather than thinking about the past.’

The YMCA Goes to War project has involved running day schools, to teach people who are interested in the conflict about this neglected aspect of it. It also involves encouraging local YMCA branches to work with the organisation’s archives, and make use of them. Bradford YMCA, for example, has created a display to catch the attention of passers-by, and show them something of the work that the YMCA did during the Great War – a deliberate echo of the kinds of awareness-raising that the YMCA went in for during the conflict, including the creation of mock dug-outs, to demonstrate the conditions that the soldiers were fighting in. ‘We’re telling YMCA people themselves about their history,’ says Michael Snape, ‘and enabling them to engage with the public in a very direct way, taking stuff out onto the streets.’

An international effort

The YMCA’s Head of International Affairs is Ken Montgomery. He points out that many of the YMCA’s volunteers in the First World War were women, who often came to understand much more of the reality of the conflict than those who stayed at home. ‘Many, indeed, found themselves in harm’s way: Betty Stephenson, for example, volunteered at the age of 18, and was given the job of taking relatives to visit the men who were too seriously wounded to be transported back to Britain. She was killed in France in an air raid, at the age of 21.’

And the YMCA’s work was an international effort: volunteers came from Canada, India, the US and Australia, as well as Britain. US President Woodrow Wilson said that 90% of pastoral services provided to the American troops during the First World War were provided by the YMCA. The government of South Africa also paid tribute, donating 400 acres on the shores of Lake Windermere, which the YMCA still uses as an outdoor activities centre.

‘The YMCA provided services to friend and foe alike,’ says Ken Montgomery. ‘It was ecumenical, and it didn’t proselytise. It was very much about providing practical support, and not just praying. With the professionalisation of services, and the expansion in what the State provides, you probably wouldn’t get anything like it today.’

  It was about providing practical support, and not just praying

As well as exploring the impact of the Great War on communities in Birmingham and the Midlands, the Voices of War and Peace  Centre will focus on themes of national importance including Gender and the Home Front, Belief and the Great War, Cities at War, Childhood and Commemoration.


A Land Fit for Heroes

In this blog post, Ian Aitch looks at how doctoral research, led by PhD student David Swift, is overturning assumptions about the patriotism of the working class.

The centenary of the start of World War I has brought with it a fair amount of debate about the reasons for war and the treatment of those who fought in the trenches. Some have questioned the war poets’ view, while others have sought to protest what they see as the glorifying of the ‘war to end all wars’.

Away from the controversies, research into some of the untold stories around World War One has been taking place. But this was not the usual collection of tales of derring-do or unexpected moments of humanity. Instead, the work that came out of an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) between the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) and the Manchester-based People’s History Museum explored a major piece of working class and labour history that had almost been forgotten about.

PhD student David Swift’s research on Patriotic labour in the era of the Great War revealed surprising results that showed how history can be re-written over time with the attitudes of a more modern era. Swift used the resources of the People’s History Museum to dust off the story of an almost wholesale support for the war from the trades unions and the burgeoning labour movement of the day.

“It was something that was led by the larger unions that represented navvies, railway workers and dockers,” says Swift of the union support for the war effort, which helped to shape the battalions based around workplaces. “It is interesting that, at that time, the unions were considered to be a conservative element of the labour movement in terms of social economic policies. The Socialist Society complained about the power of their block vote then, which saw radical socialist ideas voted down by the unions.”

“the labour movement’s enthusiasm for the war effort in 1914 was almost unanimous”

Swift believes that a modern view of the labour movement and war, especially coloured by the Falklands War, has painted it as a largely anti-war body. But its enthusiasm for the war effort in 1914 was almost unanimous. “The idea that if you are going to be on the left then you should be internationalist in scope and a pacifist is a rather recent convention,” says Swift. “Labour leaders made speeches about internationalists, but it was not something that they took seriously. It is a very racist period, so even the anti-war left are showing how degrading the war was by saying that allowing West Indian or West African solders to kill Germans show how terrible it all is. Being left wing economically and believing in social justice sat far easier with nationalism, patriotism and even racism than it does today, when it obviously does not do so at all.”

Sorting through around 16,000 documents from the Workers’ War Emergency National Committee at the museum, Swift found a complex picture emerging. Although he did find a left united in the war effort, even when some were critical of the reasons for it and the Government of the day. He also found sizeable pockets of working class conservatism in the East End of London, the south and places like Liverpool.

“The labour movement said ‘we cannot abandon our country, no matter how much we hate the ruling classes’,” says Swift. “This was a general agreement across the left wing that was really important. There was talk of the unions breaking from the Labour Party at the time, as Labour was seen as being too contaminated with middle class socialists and radicals who were too soft on Germany. But Labour’s support of the war meant this did not happen. So they survived the war intact and emerged rather united.”

This broad unity helped the Labour Party to establish itself as a major party, taking the unions, the co-operative movement and many feminists with them. By 1922 they were the second party and in 1929 emerged with most seats in the Commons under Ramsay MacDonald.

National Federation of Discharged Sailors & Soldiers certificate

Nick Mansfield, who is Swift’s PhD supervisor at UCLAN, was director of the People’s History Museum for 21 years, so knows its archives well. However, even he was surprised by the scale of some of Swift’s findings, as well as how the consensus had been blurred by time. “There were a quarter-of-a-million trade unionists volunteered by December 2014,” says Mansfield. “Local and regional trade union leaders actually did the recruiting. 200,000 miners and 200,000 farm workers joined up. Labour historians tend to look at things such as conscientious objectors, but there were only 16,500, with only about a quarter of those objecting on political grounds. They had to stop the miners volunteering, as they needed some to keep the coal going.”

Mansfield is pleased that the collection held by the museum was such an important resource in Swift’s research and that the PhD student has been able to interpret that for wider public use, with work from the pair forming a large part of the basis for an exhibition. A Land Fit For Heroes: War and the Working Class 1914-1918, opened in May 2014 and will continue until February 2015.

“This actually gives students experience in the nitty gritty of putting on an exhibition,” says Mansfield. “The show is achieving very high academic standards. This shows the huge change in the role of women, trade unions and the Labour Party, with profound consequences. I think it moves this on from the lowest common denominator you sometimes get with a lot of commemoration, about how all these poor people from a particular part of society had a terrible time. The fact that 95% of the trade union members were patriotic meant that they achieved a place in the political system they would not have done otherwise.”

 “The fact that 95% of the trade union members were patriotic meant that they achieved a place in the political system they would not have done otherwise”

Both Mansfield and People’s History Museum curator Chris Burgess point to the importance of papers belonging to Navvies Union leader John Ward in the story of this period of patriotic left wingers. Ward worked closely with Lord Kitchener and raised numerous battalions from his membership. “It would have been impossible for the museum to go through all of these boxes of papers,” says Burgess. “So we got a really good historical depth from this CDA. We didn’t want to do the classic trenches and battles for our exhibition. We wanted to talk about how the war really was popular and we wanted to show the agency of working class people who, at least at the start of the war, believed in what they were fighting for.”

David Swift says that his research findings have shocked many of those in the Labour Party and the trade union movement, who largely believed that their forebears were against the war. Although this period of labour movement patriotism could provide inspiration for those in the Labour Party looking for ‘blue Labour’ and other conservative demographics they wish to appeal to.

“There is a real surfeit of left wing Nigel Farages and Boris Johnsons during the war period,” says Swift. “You get a lot of bombastic left-wing equivalents who also love a pint. So you get London dock strike leader Ben Tillett who loved to gamble, drink and smoke. The opposite of the Methodist and Baptist, liberal teetotallers who were Labour Party leaders at the time. He was just one of many working class men who were great speakers, were left wing but also loved the football.”

A Land Fit For Heroes: War and the Working Class 1914-1918 continues until February 2015.


Co-ordinating Centres Research

Chocolate, elephants and Little Khaki George

In this blog post Dr Kate Vigurs and Dr Jessica Meyer, both involved in the Legacies of War project at the University of Leeds, tell Matt Shinn about the many ways that the war affected the lives and work of people in the Yorkshire area and how this has since shaped the region.

Ideas of Yorkshire being a place apart, and of Yorkshire people having their own characteristic strengths and attitudes, were played-upon by recruiters in the First World War: there were plenty of appeals to ‘Yorkshire grit,’ for example. But then, ‘regional identity in the UK was more distinct in those days – you had pride in where you came from.’ That’s according to Dr Kate Vigurs, who is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Leeds, and who worked on the World War One at Home project for North, West and South Yorkshire.

Heavy metal
Then as now, South Yorkshire was associated particularly with the steel industry. But the demands of war led to some unusual additions to the workforce, including an elephant that was leased from a travelling menagerie, and used for heavy lifting. The beast, called Lizzie, hauled hundreds of tons of recycled metal every day, taking it to the city’s steel mills to be used again for the war effort. Like many thousands of human workers, Lizzie found herself filling in for others, in the unusual circumstances created by the war – in her case, she was making up for the absence of the horses which normally did her job, but which had been sent to the Front.

Further north, in York, in 1914 the Lord Mayor sent a Christmas present of chocolate to everyone from the city who had enlisted in the armed forces. The chocolate was made by Rowntrees, at what is now the Nestle factory: to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, a new batch was recently made to the original recipe, and given to soldiers from York who are currently serving – many of whom found it too bitter for their taste.

York Minster, meanwhile, saw much of the stained glass in its windows being taken out and hidden away in special bomb-proof shelters in the First World War, to keep it safe from Zeppelin raids. Among the glass that was protected was that from the Five Sisters Window, which was put back in place after the end of the conflict, and dedicated to the women of the British Empire who had lost their lives in active service. The funds for the restoration were raised by a Mrs. Little, who said that she’d seen the apparition of her long-dead sisters gesturing towards the window.

And it was North Yorkshire that suffered the first major enemy attack on British soil during the First World War. A German naval raid in December 1914 saw several hundred shells being fired at targets in Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby from warships off the coast – over a hundred people died, many of them civilians. The attack caused outrage, with widespread hostility being directed towards Germany, but there was also public censure of the Royal Navy, for failing to prevent the raid. As Kate Vigurs says, ‘the attacks became a rallying cry for recruitment – “avenge the victims of Scarborough.” But the shock that they caused was considerable, with the realisation that in modern war, it was not just those in the armed forces who found themselves in harm’s way. The episode gave rise to the expression “the Home Front.”’

Switching tracks
For Dr Jessica Meyer, who is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the History of Medicine at the University of Leeds, another town in North Yorkshire shows how the arbitrary effects of war can have a long-lasting influence. ‘The fact that Pickering remains a small market town,’ she says, ‘and is not now a centre of industry, like other places nearby, is largely due to what happened to the railway in the area: steel was in short supply during the First World War, and some of the rails on the line that ran through Pickering were taken up to be used elsewhere. In terms of its development, the town has been on a different track ever since – the rails were never put back, meaning that Pickering has remained on a single line, and sees much less traffic as a result.’

In West Yorkshire, many of the textile firms did well out of the war, as they were commissioned to produce many of the millions of uniforms that were needed by the troops. Someone they didn’t make a uniform for, though, was George Bentley, also known as Little Khaki George. He was a toddler in Halifax, who was dressed as a soldier by his mother, in order to raise funds for the war effort. He became something of a celebrity, as one of three known child fundraisers: before long he had beaten the record set by a child collector in the Boer War, and ended up raising more than £100 – the equivalent of more than £10,000 today. A story from Leeds, meanwhile, concerns one of the many thousands of ‘teenage Tommies,’ who lied about their age in order to join up. Horace Iles enlisted in the Leeds Pals when he was just fourteen: two years later he was killed, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. As Jessica Meyer says, ‘his story is very touching – his sister had sent him a letter, imploring him to come home, as he was still underage. But it was returned unread: Horace was killed before it could reach him.’

War and identity
Finally, Leeds is one of many places in Yorkshire where the First World War contributes to a strong sense of local pride. The city has an unusually large number of war memorials, including one in Meanwood that is dedicated to the men of the parish, who, in Kate Vigurs’s words, ‘barely made it out of their trench’ on the first day of the Battle of the Somme: as well as Horace Iles, some 750 of them died, out of a total of 900.

Another well-known memorial is a small plaque just inside the Leonard Hutton Gates at the Headingley cricket ground in Leeds which carries the names of five Yorkshire cricketers who died serving in 20th century wars. One of those is Major William Booth, born in Pudsey in 1886, and who died a 2nd Lieutenant in the West Yorkshire Regiment during the battle of the Somme. As he lay dying he was comforted by Abraham Waddington (Abe as he was known), another cricket player who went on to play for Yorkshire after the war. As the BBC World War One at Home story relates, he signed up as a volunteer with the Leeds Pals and died on the first day of the Somme offensive on 1 July 1916. His sister never got over his death and kept a candle burning in his bedroom window in the hope that he would return.

‘In Leeds and many other Yorkshire cities,’ she says, ‘they’re very keen to remember. The war has had a profound effect in shaping regional identity.’



Secret ports and ‘lumber Jills’

In this guest blog post, Professor Mark Connelly reveals how the South East of England was transformed by the First World War and the impact this had on local industries, the influx of new inhabitants and women’s contribution to work previously dominated by men such as felling trees and collecting timber. 

‘Being so close to the continent, the South East saw enormous transformation during the First World War,’ says Mark Connelly, who is Professor of Modern British History at the University of Kent. ‘But often that transformation was temporary – that’s what makes it so fascinating to revisit the area, and those times.’

All change

As the World War One at Home project shows, the First World War was a time when the local could be very closely connected to the global. ‘You might have a soldier from your village sending back a postcard from Baghdad,’ says Mark Connelly, ‘or you might know someone who’d gone to serve with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, and ended up in Malta. And even when you’d got used to the strange circumstances that the war brought about, there might be a sudden change – you might have government agents turn up in your sleepy backwater, and the place could be transformed overnight.’

Take for example the town of Richborough in Kent: ‘it was a fairly minor inland place, and then all of a sudden the Royal Engineers take it over, building from scratch a secret port on the river Stour, to load barges with ammunition and troops. Before long there were millions of tons of armaments being dumped there in crates.’ The hidden port was built right under Richborough’s Roman fortress and Saxon walls: from 1916 it was the embarkation point for almost all of the hardware that was shipped to France, as well as being the place where the salvage of war – the spent shell casings and damaged vehicles – was brought back to. And here as elsewhere, the demands of the war were a stimulus to innovation: it was at Richborough that roll-on, roll-off ferries were first developed, to speed up the process of loading and unloading.

Like other parts of the UK, the South East saw an influx of people from overseas. But as Mark Connelly says, ‘the World War One at Home project shows that the kind of enforced cosmopolitanism brought about by the First World War wasn’t just due to people coming to the UK from abroad. There was also a great deal of internal migration, with displaced people having to move around the country. The First World War marked the death knell of the Kent fishing fleet, for example, as the Channel was too dangerous for it to put to sea. Much of it was moved to Cornwall, and stayed there.’

Being the part of the UK closest to France and Flanders, Kent was naturally the site of a great deal of activity centred around the treatment of wounded soldiers, with many hospitals in the area overwhelmed with the numbers of troops returning from the Western Front. Mark Connelly points out the irony in the fact that Tunbridge Wells was chosen as the location for one huge hospital encampment – ‘this was originally a spa town, built on much older ideas of health.’

On the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, the focus was more on aviation, with Eastchurch being used for pilot training, and Leysdown airfield being turned into a base for Short Brothers, for manufacturing and testing aircraft. Security was so tight that civilians needed a special passport to get on to or off the island.

In Sussex, meanwhile, there were female ‘lumber Jills,’ who were working as part of the Women’s Timber Service, which did for forestry what the Women’s Land Army did for farms, filling in for the men who were away fighting. Women came from as far away as Canada, to work in the local forests. It was unusual, certainly, to see women in these roles, but as Mark Connelly points out, ‘what’s really different about a lot of the war work that women were doing is the number of middle class women who were doing it – many working class women were already working in factories and in the fields before the war.’

Traces of the past

Many of these changes didn’t last much beyond the end of hostilities, and we’ve lost the last of the direct eyewitnesses to the First World War. But as Mark Connelly says, ‘we’re still left with that final and most enigmatic witness, the landscape.’ For example, from the air you can still see the trench lines that stretch across Kent, built in case the Germans invaded. The Isle of Sheppey in particular was turned into a heavily fortified position during the First World War, given its strategic location at the mouth of the Thames and on the approaches to Chatham, and given that it was a possible landing area for invading forces. So robust were its defences that Sheppey became known as Barbed Wire Island, while surviving relics of the First World War include a series of gun emplacements that were designed so that the guns could swing round to fire inland, in case the Germans got in behind them.

That final and most enigmatic witness, the landscape.

‘The South East is now so closely associated with the Second World War,’ says Mark Connelly, ‘that the footprint of the Great War has tended to be overlooked. People tend to think of the Battle of Britain, and of Dad’s Army units defending the beaches – parts of Kent are even called the Spitfire Coast in publicity material for tourists. People tend to think, too, that it was in the Second World War that the line between soldiers and civilians was obliterated: they forget that there was a massive precursor for this in the First World War.’

The centenary of the Great War provides an opportunity, then, to remember what happened in the South East in this other global conflict. And for Mark Connelly, ‘here more than anywhere, it’s appropriate to use the First World War commemorations to think about how we stand in relation to our modern European partners, and how we are all to get along, in a Europe that has so often caused misery to itself.’


‘The Bold Aviator Lay Dying’: ‘carefully contrived callousness’ in airmen’s songs

In this guest blog post, Dan Ellin examines the culture of the Royal Flying Corps, in particular looking at the songs that many of the officers would sing with lyrics that reflected the risks they took every day.

The culture of the Royal Flying Corps was one of ‘carefully contrived callousness’ as Max Hastings has commented. This insensitivity was necessary because of the rate of loss among flyers during the First World War. Some replacement pilots arrived at operational squadrons with less than 15 hours solo flying experience, and a new pilot’s life expectancy could be as short as a few weeks. As many were killed in training as in combat, and early flyers were as much at risk from mechanical failure as enemy action. By November 1918, Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force casualties exceeded 16000 killed, injured, captured or missing.

Officers of ‘C’ Flight, 22 squadron, RAF outside the flight mess at Bertangles, near Amiens. From the Imperial War Museum collection

As well as the enemy, flyers battled mechanical failure, the cold and lack of oxygen from high altitude, bad weather, ‘G’ forces, and the laxative effects of the castor oil used to lubricate rotary engines. They were refused parachutes, and the ace scout pilot, Mick Mannock, famously carried a revolver to use if he was ever trapped in a burning aircraft. For airmen, the stresses of flying were countered by times of relaxation in the comparative comfort and camaraderie of the mess; music and songs were important to the young men who flew during the war.

Studies of songs from the war have highlighted themes including the construction of identity and shared experience, protest and resistance, as well as nostalgia and resilience. New lyrics relevant to their situation were often sung to existing popular tunes plagiarised from the music hall, hymns and other popular sources; many were bawdy and full of sexual content. Following the oral tradition of the folk song, songs particular to one unit evolved as they were passed to others. Many have been lost, and usually only sanitised versions appear in print. Like songs sung by the infantry, songs in airmen’s messes were used to ‘let off steam’, however, a noticeable theme in aviator’s songs were the causes and consequences of crashes, and many songs contained seemingly callous and brutally fatalistic lyrics.

Evidence of the concerns of early combat pilots can be found in the songs that have survived, and they often acknowledge that crashes, deaths and injuries were not necessarily caused by enemy action. ‘Poor Old Pilot’, sung to the tune of ‘Ring a Rosies’, had the repeated lyric ‘He’s killed himself’, and in 1918, 54 squadron sang ‘we haven’t got a hope in the morning’ to the tune of ‘John Peel’. It contained the lines:

He was diving at the Hun
At two hundred miles an hour
When his wing tore off like a leaf

Sung to the tune of ‘The Tarpaulin Jacket’, ‘The Bold Aviator’ (or ‘The Dying Airman’) was a particular favourite. It was sung in many flyers’ messes during the First World War, and had the longevity to be sung by members of the RAF in the following war. There is no definitive version, different verses and several variations of the chorus exist, but the first verse and chorus was usually:

Oh the bold aviator was dying
And as ‘neath the wreckage he lay, he lay
To the sobbing mechanics around him
These last parting words he did say

Take the cylinders out of my kidneys
The connecting rod out of my brain, my brain
From the small of my back take the crankshaft
And assemble the engine again.

Destroyed Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2e two-seat biplane of No. 49 Squadron RFC on fire.  Part of the Imperial War Museum collection
Destroyed Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2e two-seat biplane of No. 49 Squadron RFC on fire.
Part of the Imperial War Museum collection

The character of the pilot in the song casually acknowledges that he is dying, and that he is dispensable; his priority is to salvage as much as possible of the valuable aircraft. Indeed, as the lyric of an alternative chorus claimed, ‘there’s a lot of good parts in the wreck.’ Further lyrics list more parts of the aircraft that could be found in the unlucky pilot’s internal organs. It was said that to fly successfully, the airman had to become one with the aeroplane. In ‘The Bold Aviator’, the pilot’s body was interchangeable with mechanical parts of the aircraft; in his death he really did become part of the machine. By singing the song, the flyers were subtly reminded that they were a small and expendable part of the new industrialised warfare.

‘The Bold Aviator’ also effectively set an example of how to stoically face death; it was the mechanics rather than the heroic pilot who ‘sobbed’, and the ‘bold’ aviator in the song died bravely with dignity and honour. In order to continue to fly, airmen were forced to either come to terms with their mortality or maintain the belief that death was something that would happen to someone else. The lyrics of other songs display a similar defensive detachment. In one, the apocryphal pilot ‘was butchered beyond belief’, while in another, flyers sang of the pilot of a Sopwith Camel: ‘his throat was cut by the bracing wires, the tank had hit his head’.

Pilot of No. 49 Squadron RFC climbing out of a DH.4 biplane crashed into a hangar’s roof. From the Imperial War Museum collection

As in the ‘The Bold Aviator’, the black humour of many of the songs undermined and belittled death. The songs inured the flyers to the dangers of flying and aerial warfare and promoted indifference toward the death and injury of others. The airmen’s courage was boosted by acknowledging and singing about their fears, and by sharing the apparent bravado displayed by their companions as they sang, however contrived it may have been. The songs composed and sung by the airmen reflected and reinforced the culture of ‘carefully contrived callousness’ towards life and death in the air services during the war.


Re-examining First World War Heroism

In this guest blog, Dr Jessica Meyer discusses how the understanding of heroism during the First World War have changed over time and reveals how her work with the new Massive Open Online Course in partnership with the BBC has contributed to this topic.

In his memoir of his four years’ service as a Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) stretcher bearer, George Swindell recalled his unit’s trip out to France in the company of two infantry units: ‘Some talked of the times we had had, others of what was in store for us, others in a jocular vein, spoke about going into action with stretchers at the alert, and with three cornered bandages, and pads of cotton wool, as ammunition. … Others chipped us about getting out too late the war will be over before you get to the line, and sundry other pleasantries about a lot of base wallahs [1], (in reference to us being, the R.A.M.C.).’ [2] By comparison, in 1917, Corporal W. H. Atkins published a poem in The ‘Southern’ Cross, the hospital journal of the 1st Southern General Hospital, Birmingham, which praised ‘The “stretcher-bearers” doing their bit,/ Of V.C.’s not many they score,/ Yet are earned every day in a quiet sort of way/ By the “Royal Army Medical Corps.”’ [3] In the space of two years, the perspective on the courage of the stretcher bearer as a serviceman had dramatically shifted from unheroic ‘base wallahs’ to earners of the V.C.

This shifting perspective on the work of RAMC stretcher bearers reflects wider changes in understandings of heroism as a result of the First World War. The fact that men such as Atkins could present the non-combatant labour of stretcher bearers as heroic indicates that heroic ideals were reformed by the experience of industrialized warfare, rather than, as some have argued, simply destroyed by it. While the individual man of rank and action who had been so central to 19th century ideals of the soldier hero could not survive the war unscathed, the association of ordinary soldiers, which included all those in uniform whether they bore arms or not, with heroic qualities of physical courage, endurance and self-sacrifice, most certainly did.

This refashioning of heroism in war occurred in cultures and societies across Europe, not just within the British armed forces. The ideal the individual elan would save the French nation died somewhere between Verdun and the Chemin des Dames. Germany, as a defeated nation, struggled to define a coherent vision of heroic war service in a post-war political climate where right-wing ‘stab-in-the-back’ mythology vied with left-wing anti-war sentiment for dominance of the narrative of the war.

Understandings of First World War heroism have also continued to change over time. The on-going struggles of disabled and traumatised ex-servicemen in post-war society, the rise and subsequent defeat of National Socialism, the revival of memory around the fiftieth anniversary of the war years and the development of the European project as a preventative solution to major European wars have all helped shaped perceptions of the First World War as a heroic enterprise and participants in that conflict as heroes.

These shifting perceptions of the heroic in relation to the First World War, and their representations in European culture across the twentieth century, is the subject of a Massive Open Online Course, taught by myself and four colleagues at the University of Leeds, which initially ran on the FutureLearn platform between 27th October and 14th November. It is one of four MOOCs run in partnership with the BBC around aspects of the history of the First World War. This partnership has given us, as scholars, access to an extraordinary range of images and audio and video resources for use in our lectures, discussions and activities. These resources have helped me gain new perspective on the subject of First World War heroism. As learners start to engage with both the arguments that I and my colleagues put forward and the supporting source materials, I anticipate that I, too, will learn more about this, to me, endlessly fascinating subject. Combined with the fascinating discussions generated by learner engagement with the course, I found that I, too, learned a great deal about this, to me, endlessly fascinating subject.


The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) will be running again from 9th March, you can access details here.

[1] ‘Base wallahs’ was a derogatory term for men who served in roles behind the line which were perceived as being safer than front line combat. It was one of many terms introduced into the British armed forces by units which had served in India during the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

[2] George Swindell, In Arduis Fidelus: Being the story of 4 ½ years in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Ts. Memoir, Wellcome Library, RAMC Muniments, RAMC 421, pp.72-4.

[3] Cpl. W. H. Atkins, ‘The R.A.M.C.’, The ‘Southern’ Cross, Vol. 2, no. 18, June 1917.


Bringing the War Home to You: Presenting the War to Small-Town America

In this guest blog post, Dr Caroline Nielsen (University of London) reveals one of the more unusual life stories uncovered by World War One at Home, the story of Captain John Herbert Hedley: decorated wartime pilot, attorney, and, somewhat surprisingly, American stage performer. To his post-war American audiences, Hedley was “The Luckiest Man Alive”!

What was Hedley’s unique selling point? This flying ace once fell 300 ft (91m) out of his biplane only to spectacularly land on the tail as it past back under him. Move over, James Bond. Catp J.H. Hedley

Hedley’s strange career trajectory may, at first glance, seem out of place amongst the other stories uncovered by World War One at Home series. His story moves us from North-East England to the clubs and community halls of small-town Midwestern America. But his story speaks to the emotional impact of the war on families and communities around the globe. Public speakers like Hedley offered American audiences a way of understanding a distant war that had cost many families dearly. Hedley reminds of the truly international character of the war by taking us into the world of the Circuit Chautauqua.

Chautauqua: ‘The Most American Thing in America’
Few outside of North America have heard of the Chautauqua Movement. Chautauqua was, and still is, a large adult education movement. The original Chautauqua Assembly was founded in 1874 by Methodist preacher John Heyl Vincent and businessman Lewis Miller. The idea quickly spread and smaller independent Chautauquas began throughout North America. These smaller independent ventures gained the nickname ‘Circuit’ or ‘Tent’ Chautauqua. These later Chautauquas were organised along more commercial lines. One of the main organizers was the Redpath Lyceum Bureau. It was this talent agency that Hedley became involved with in the early 1920s.

Redpath Chautauqua System
Redpath Chautauqua, source:

Chautauquas were (and still are) based on the principle of self-improvement  through community education. Attendees would go to large annual  gatherings to listen to a variety of lectures and entertainers. The original  Chautauqua movement was set up to train teachers and preachers. Speakers  often combined music and lecturing. Chautauquas had a loyal audience  between the 1880s and 1930s, attracting thousands annually. Many of the  organizers believed that these programmes had an essential role in  schooling Americans in patriotism and moral rectitude. Evangelical religion  featured heavily as did social conservatism. The smaller commercial Circuit Chautauquas were seen as wholesome educational entertainment, with none of the moral ambiguity associated with county fairs and other travelling shows. Their dedication to the ideals of self-improvement and community led Theodore Roosevelt to declare                                                                                                                them to be ‘the most American thing in America’.

Chautauquas and the War
The movement’s ability to reach thousands of isolated rural communities meant that they were invaluable in the American war effort. Chautauquas ran in many areas where the new technologies of cinema and radio had not yet fully infiltrated. Speakers sold Liberty Bonds and encouraged recruitment. Both during and after the war, audiences were desperate to understand the conflict. Hedley was one of a large number of ex-military or humanitarian workers to sign up temporarily with Redpath. Many of their publicity materials have been digitized by the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections. These speakers offered grieving audiences a chance to understand what their loved ones had gone through while reassuring them that American honour was still intact.

There is no doubt that Hedley was exciting to watch. Speakers wore their uniforms, told dramatic stories, handed round props, and even acted out scenes. Learning through entertainment and performance were cornerstones of the Chautauquan educational ethos. On a more practical level, boring speakers were commercially risky. No talent agency wanted to annoy, or offend, fee-paying audiences.

But for all of Hedley’s Boy’s Own ‘derring-do’ attitude, most speakers did not hide the horror of the war from audiences. Canadian Private Peat toured with his wife explaining the trenches and the work of the Red Cross. Hedley talked about being a prisoner of war. Arthur Empey’s publicity began with the word’s “If you want to know how it feels to be in a bayonet charge, to go out in a poison gas attack…here this American who has been through it all’ (Arthur Empey, What Do You Know About the War?, 1918). Perhaps most striking was the Overseas Military Quartet. Made up of four disabled servicemen, it toured under the by-line “back from hell with a song!” (Lush, Music in the Chautauqua Movement, from 1874 to the 1930s, 2013).

The Fighting AmericansHedley’s career with Redpath was short-lived. He only gave lectures on and off for three years, preferring to speak at halls and clubs over the organized summer tents. The Chautauquas themselves were dying. Audience tastes changed over the course of the 1920s. Many of the Chautauquas dropped the war as a subject and went for lectures on current domestic American affairs. Others focused more on music and dance. The Chautauquas were also increasingly outstripped by the advent of new technology. More Americans began to own cars, making trips to local cinema easier. Most of the Circuit Chautauqua had closed in the late 1930s.

Many Americans’ experience of the First World War came directly through their involvement with the Chautauquas. Hedley’s diverse career, and those of the performers he worked with, shows how British regional experiences of the war were represented internationally.

To learn more about the Chautauqua and their role in American communities, and to see their advertisements, go to the University of Iowa Libraries’ Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century, Iowa City website.

I am indebted to Charlotte Canning’s book, The Most American Thing in America: Circuit Chautauqua as Performance, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001) for the history of the Movement during the War.

My thanks to Kathryn Hodson of the University of Iowa Special Collections, Iowa City.



BBC WW1 at Home

Zeppelin raids and stockbroker soldiers

In this blog post, Jonathan Black, Senior Research Fellow in History of Art at Kingston University and Dan Todman, Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London look at the impact of the war on London and how it is being commemorated in the city.

As the World War One at Home project shows, the experience of Londoners during the conflict was distinctive, partly because of the sheer size of the city. ‘Often during the First World War,’ says Jonathan Black, who is Senior Research Fellow in History of Art at Kingston University, ‘things that were taking place elsewhere in the UK were concentrated and magnified in London. Everything was on a bigger scale, as the capital acted as a magnet for people, money and development.’

There were munitions factories all around the country, for example, and accidents took place in many of them. But the explosion at the Silvertown factory in West Ham created one of the loudest man-made noises that there have ever been. Fifty tons of TNT were detonated, the bang could be heard over 100 miles away, and the resulting fires could be seen for 30 miles: 73 people were killed.

And while Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart is now the place most closely associated with the treatment of shell shock, it was London’s Maudsley Hospital that saw by far the largest number of cases of this newly recognised condition. Craiglockhart looked after officers like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon; the Maudsley dealt primarily with the ordinary soldiers. And it was here that experimental treatments were first tried out – everything from massage and talking cures to electric shock therapy. ‘The lack of understanding of shell shock is shown in the variety of terms used to describe it,’ says Jonathan Black – many in the medical profession preferred to use the terms ‘neurasthenia’ or ‘Not Yet Diagnosed (Nervous).’

Record numbers of women were working in London factories, too. And London being what it was, women there were able to fill some unusual positions, left vacant by men in uniform – Maida Vale on the Bakerloo Line, for example, was the first Tube station to be entirely ‘manned’ by women. At the time, London was the only city in the UK with an underground network.

The civilian war
For Dan Todman, who is Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London, it was the German bombing campaign against the city that really made Londoners’ war experience distinctive. ‘I was struck by stories of the raids by Zeppelins and German aeroplanes, many of which were to be echoed in the Second World War. And I was struck by the language that was used about those people who had died in air raids – that theirs was a sacrifice that had to be redeemed by victory.’ With London the principal target of the raids, anti-German feeling ran high among the civilian population: many Londoners continued to refuse to buy German products long after the war had ended.

One possible victim of the Zeppelin bombing in London was the cricketer WG Grace, who suffered a heart attack after one raid. The German airships had made him agitated: when asked why he allowed them to unnerve him, when he had stood up to countless fast bowlers undaunted, Grace replied: ‘I could see those beggars: I can’t see these.’

I could see those beggars: I can’t see these

As Dan Todman points out, though, it’s surprisingly difficult to gauge the impact of the First World War on the majority of working class Londoners. ‘Life during the war was very hard for many of them, and so they didn’t have much time to write about their experiences. It was members of the middle classes who tended to keep diaries, with a sense that they were writing partly for the historical record.’

The World War One at Home project has helped, though, to shed some light on the war experiences of ordinary civilians in London. It has led, for example, to the rediscovery of archives held by the London County Council, which had sent out investigators during the conflict, clearly concerned that the war was leading to social breakdown in the metropolis. Subjects that the investigators looked into include unrest among the cabinet-makers of Hoxton, after the war had put them out of work, and whether women in Lambeth were drinking too much, now that so many of them were alone, with their husbands overseas. ‘We don’t have a baseline for any of this,’ says Dan Todman, ‘to show how much had changed since before the war. But it gives us an idea of what the authorities were concerned about. And the fact that we have such records here is a sign of how well-developed municipal government was in London, compared to other British cities.’

London’s role as the centre of Empire is epitomised, meanwhile, in the story of Joe Clough, who was one of the first people to settle in London from the Caribbean. He became the first black London bus driver, in the face of discrimination – including one false, racially-motivated claim that he had been speeding (at 28 miles an hour). He went on to drive field ambulances for four years near Ypres on the Western Front.

Another distinctive feature of London is the role of the City. Volunteer battalions were raised in the Inns of Court, and among the stockbrokers of Lombard Street. As Dan Todman points out, ‘this was a distinctive feature of the First World War – the voluntary involvement of so many members of the upper middle class professions (many of which were based in London).’

The place of memory
Finally, it is London, of course, which is home to many of the national war memorials that were constructed after the conflict had ended. And so for art historians like Jonathan Black, the war memorials of London hold a special interest: ‘of the 54,000 or so World War One memorials in the UK, only around 300 have figurative sculptures on them, largely because they were expensive. But London has a much higher concentration of sculpture on its memorials than other places in the country.’


Among the memorials that are distinctive to London are the National Submarine War Memorial on the Victoria Embankment, which includes the first attempt to depict the inside of a submarine in sculpture. And round the corner, there is one of the first representations of a camel in a British city, on the memorial of the Imperial Camel Corps, which served in the Middle East.

With the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Cenotaph, and now the field of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, the capital remains the focus of remembrance in the UK.

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