Discovering Britain’s Home Front 1914-18

Between 1914 and 1918 Britain’s cities, towns, villages and countryside were transformed by war.  For the first time in generations her population was directly threatened by conflict.  Coastal towns were bombarded by German warships and submarines, while airships and aircraft brought death and destruction from above.  Across the country thousands of factories were turned over to war production, camps and training areas were built for the new armies, and airfields constructed for the newly created air force.  Country houses were converted into hospitals and convalescent homes, and in towns and cities buildings were mobilised for the war effort. Offshore a largely forgotten campaign was waged against coastal shipping and fishing fleets.   A century later many traces of the conflict remain.

SouthamHutSoutham, Warwickshire, after the war many army huts were sold for community and other uses, local research is crucial in tracking down surviving examples.

To document the many changes that occurred during the war and to discover the features that survive the Council for British Archaeology, funded by Historic England, is leading the Home Front Legacy project. http://www.homefrontlegacy.org.uk/wp/   It’s a ‘citizen science’ project which aims to encourage local researchers to create a permanent record of the events and traces left by the First World War.  Through an on-line recording form professional records may be made on iphones, ipads and pcs for local Historic Environment Records.

Mobilisation of society for modern industrialised war was a highly complex administrative task requiring armies of clerks.  One of the consequences of this extraordinary undertaking is that historians have been left with lists of army camps, training areas, munitions factories, places of internment for enemy aliens and prisoners of war, and many other wartime establishments.  However, a century later considerable detective work is often required to track down their precise locations and to report if they survive.  Not all aspects of army life were recorded and many practice trenches, simulations of the Western Front, wait to be discovered.   The locations of most of the 200 or so national factories owned and operated by the state are known.  In additional around another 6,000 factories vital to the war effort were managed as controlled establishments, their locations and contribution to the war effort remains to be discovered.

NMGF-Nov14cropThe National Machine Gun Factory, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire.

A largely unexplored topic is how the rhythm of town life was affected by the war and how familiar buildings and places took on new roles.  Contemporary newspaper articles and advertisements may reveal how the geography of everyday life changed, and extraordinary local events, such as the arrival of prisoners of war.  Other articles may alert researchers to buildings used by the Red Cross to pack parcels for troops, houses used by groups of women for knitting socks and hats, and preparing hospital supplies.  Places were also taken over to provide soldiers with cafes and reading rooms, or national kitchens to feed the civilian population.  Reference may also be found to allotments and some even remained to be photographed in the early 1920s by the fliers from Aerofilms whose images may be viewed on-line on the Britain from Above website. http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/

SheernessHighStreetBlueTownSheerness, Kent, scarring on a wall left by a bomb dropped from a Gotha aircraft in 1917. 

On the dockyard wall at Sheerness, Kent, scars of bomb damage from a German air raid are visible and elsewhere traces of attacks by airships remain.  Many local and family historians have knowledge of places that were touched by the war and the project is a way of communicating this knowledge.  The First World War was also the first war of mass communication and few aspects of the war escaped the attention of the postcard makers.  Today, postcard collectors often own unique snapshots of the war’s social history.  By sharing information on the places and events shown on postcards may inspire others to track down their exact locations and see if they survive.

WoldinghamSurreyWoldingham, Surrey, many aspects of the war were recorded on postcards and they are now important sources of evidence for the location and appearance of many wartime establishments. 

Few will be fortunate to be able to explore the hundreds of wartime wrecks around our coasts.  Through the project people will be able to add information on the wrecks, perhaps on their places of construction, home ports, or information on lost crew members.

It would be incorrect to present a country 100% behind the war effort.  People were opposed to the war on religious and political grounds.  Industrial disputes leading to strikes occurred throughout the war, mapping the premises where they occurred might provide another research topic.  Where were the places associated with conscientious objectors? These might include safe houses, places of imprisonment, Home Office work camps, and even the traces of their hard labour on road schemes and land improvement.

In contrast to large parts of Europe, although no battles were fought on Britain’s soil, its physical and social landscapes were transformed by war. By the end of the centennial period the goal is to have a far more nuanced picture of a country at war and the traces that remain.

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This handbook provides an introduction to many of the types of sites and remains that will be encountered, and invites you to add your knowledge.  http://www.homefrontlegacy.org.uk/wp/

Wayne D. Cocroft

The Home Front in Britain 1914-18: An archaeological handbook is available to purchase from Oxbow Books.

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