Monthly Archives: July 2014

Back to Blighty: The Medical Front in Tunbridge Wells

Emma Purce, University of Kent 

This year, in conjunction with the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery, a number of postgraduate students from the School of History have been co-curating an exhibition to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. ‘Back to Blighty: The Medical Front in Tunbridge Wells’ focuses on the healing of wounded soldiers in Tunbridge Wells, with particular reference to the use of various local stately homes as auxiliary hospitals and places of convalescence for wounded servicemen. The project has involved archival research to find personal testimonies from the soldiers and nurses who were recovering and working in Kent throughout the First World War, in the hope of linking these individual stories to the stately homes local to Tunbridge Wells.

Undertaking research at the Tunbridge Wells Museum

Undertaking research with Tunbridge Wells Museum staff Jeremy Kimmel and Elizabeth Douglas.

Following the completion of the archival research, there was an opportunity to think creatively about the way the exhibition should look. This included discussions about the housing of a number of interesting artefacts, which depict some of the ways that the successful healing of wounded soldiers was accomplished at Tunbridge Wells. Examples of the potential exhibits considered, included: the X-Ray of an arm shattered by a bullet wound, a soldiers medical kit, and a V.A.D nurses uniform, as well as a wide variety of photographs of men who were recovering from the injuries sustained at war. The exhibition, therefore, tracks the journey of the wounded soldier from injury on the battlefield and the immediate medical attention they received, to their return to England and the beginning of their journey to recovery. The exhibition will open on Friday 25th July 2014 and runs until January 2015.  

School of History postgraduates involved in the Tunbridge Wells project: Emily Bartlett, Emma Purce, Paul Ketley and Jack Davies

School of History postgraduates involved in the Tunbridge Wells project: Emily Bartlett, Emma Purce, Paul Ketley and Jack Davies



War: An Emotional History. British Academy Conference, London, 9-11 July 2014

Lucy Noakes, one of the Co-Investigators of the ‘Gateways ‘ project and Reader in History at the University of Brighton, was co-convenor of the recent conference War: An Emotional History held at the British Academy in London from 9-11 July 2014.

Conference convenors (l to r)Clare Langhamer, Lucy Noakes and Claudia Siebrecht.

Conference convenors (l to r) Professor Claire Langhamer, Dr Lucy Noakes and  Dr Claudia Siebrecht.

The conference bought together historians from around the world to consider the ways that ‘emotional history’ can help us understand the experience and legacies of warfare across a range of different places and times.  Papers given ranged, chronologically, from investigating the emotional history of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries in the Netherlands and the 1641 Portadown Massacre to a discussion of the multiple legacies of the Greek Civil War and the Northern Ireland conflict. Keynote addresses from Professor Ute Frevert, of the Max Planck Institute, Berlin, and Professor Martin Francis, of the University of Cincinnatti, examined, respectively, honour, shame and sacrifice in First World War Germany, and the relationship between private lives and public diplomacy in Second World War Cairo.

There was a wealth of discussion of the two world wars of the 20th century, with a variety of papers exploring the emotional history of the First World War.  The conference offered an opportunity to engage with work being carried out on the ongoing legacies of this conflict across the globe: these included Professor Christa Hämmerle talking about her research on love letters in Austria and Germany in the two world wars, Dr Claudia Siebrecht discussing patriotic, religious and maternal love in First World War Germany, Professor Michael Roper debating the impact of the First World War on families and Professor Joy Damousi considering the transnational impact of grief on families during and after the war.

Professor Jay Winter

Professor Jay Winter

A highlight of the conference was Professor Jay Winter’s (Yale) public lecture on shell shock and the emotional history of the First World War. Professor Winter made a compelling case for the under reporting of shell shock cases, arguing that current estimates of the 2-4% of men suffering from the condition during and after the war could, in fact, be increased tenfold.  Professor Winter’s talk can be viewed via this link:

Plans are afoot for the publication of a collection of the talks given at the conference, and details will be posted here once a final decision is made on this.

Photos reproduced with permission from the British Academy.

Volunteering on the Centenary Commemorations Project at Canterbury Cathedral

Ruben Rees, School of History, University of Kent

Following a call for volunteers sent out to the University of Kent by the Archivist at Canterbury Cathedral, work began on preparing a First World War Centenary Commemoration display for open evenings at the Beaney Museum and the Nave of the Cathedral. The research began with a selection of material held in the Cathedral Archives which consisted mainly of wartime letters and some objects. There was also some existing research available specifically on HMS Kent that had been compiled by other volunteers at the Archives.


Canterbury Cathedral Library and Archives. This was the centre for the project and was where much of the research took place.

HMS Kent

HMS Kent. The ships involvement in the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914 was the main focus of the naval research.

The project from the off had a specific focus on local history and telling the ‘Soldiers’ stories’. It was decided that the research should cover the local area’s contribution to the war, with reference to the local Regiments, Pilots, Sailors and Civilians. As such, the challenge lay in searching the records for a range of local stories that encapsulated the whole war as much as possible.

The research revealed that Mick Mannock and James McCudden – two of the most notable ‘air aces’ of the war – were local to Canterbury and Kent. This provided a great start to the project. Also available was a paper on HMS Kent, which had already been the subject of research in relation to its role in the Battle of the Falkland Islands. The biggest challenge was the local Regiments, which certainly proved to be the most difficult part of the project. After sifting through casualty records and cross referencing names, dates and events, some little known stories were unearthed which – it is hoped – will enable the public to gain a better insight into the lives of the men of Kent during the First World War.


Members of B Coy, the Kent Cyclist Battalion pose in Castle Street, Canterbury in 1914. They would be sent to India in 1916 as a dismounted infantry battalion.


Major Edward “Mick” Mannock was discovered with thanks to the Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society (CHAS), ‘Canterbury’s very own Red Baron’.

Finally the civilian organisations – the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) Hospitals and Canterbury War Work Depot – were brought in to give a wider view of the war effort at home and abroad. Research was also undertaken into ‘memorial and commemoration’ in Canterbury.

war memorial

The unveiling of the East Kent Yeomanry Memorial, High Street, Canterbury, October 1922.

The research has now been formatted into display boards and is in production. It is hoped that the display will be showcased, along with objects from the Archives, in the Cathedral in early October and will help inform the public of the local history prior to the main commemorative events the following month.

From start to finish the project has been of great benefit to the volunteers involved and has given the students of History a chance to take part in a research project in the historical sector during a very poignant point in the commemorations of the First World War. This experience will be of great benefit in the future.

Ruben Rees is a War Studies student at the University of Kent, about to begin the final year of his undergraduate degree.

Images courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral Archives.

AHRC Connected Communities Festival, 2-3 July 2014

The AHRC’s Connected Communities Festival held in Cardiff  at the start of July provided a welcome opportunity for members of all five of the AHRC’s First World War engagement centres to get together and talk about our various projects, both with each other, and with members of the public. Helen Brooks was there representing the Gateways Centre and over two days, at the Motorpoint in the heart of Cardiff, had the opportunity to talk about the First World War with a diversity of people, as well as to have stimulating discussions with people from other AHRC-funded projects.

Connected Communities 2      Connected Communities 1

As part of the event, the centres were asked to put together a collaborative workshop which, it was decided, would focus on two key themes which overlap all the centres: cultures of commemoration; and theatre about, and during, the war. The workshop was well attended, despite the difficulties in transport, and finding the room we were in! And audiences had a chance to hear about a range of work taking place across the centres. Ian Grosvenor, from Voices of War and Peace, screened a video reflecting on work undertaken with local schools, whilst Jonathan Coope and Paul Elliott from the Centre for Hidden Histories shared some of their findings of their Green Spaces project which looked at parks in Nottingham during the war. In the section on ‘Performing the First World War’ Andrew Maunder, from Everyday Lives in War, talked about a recent staging of J.M. Barrie’s A Well Remembered Voice at Hertfordshire, raising questions about how drama can shed light on people’s experiences and attitudes during the war. In an interesting contrast, focusing on new drama created from local First World War material, Brenda Winter-Palmer from Living Legacies 1914-1918 discussed the process involved in making her recent play The Medal in the Drawer, and it’s connection to her own experience of researching her grandfather’s role in the Great War. Highlighting the importance of theatre in upcoming commemorative projects, Dr Winter-Palmer pointed to drama’s unique ability to allow divergent opinions and perspectives to be voiced simultaneously, a theme which Gateways will be developing further in our upcoming collaborative events with the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury.

Covering a diversity of projects, the workshop provided a welcome opportunity to discuss how the centres can engage with the complex and contested legacies of the war when working with local communities. A key theme which arose was the importance of questioning myths of the war, and allowing for a range of historic experiences and attitudes to be reflected in commemorative activities.  Some excellent questions from audience members provided stimulating discussion around these topics, making for a very engaging event.

Lest We Forget Project, Portsmouth

Gateways is helping the people of Portsmouth research and uncover the stories of those who took part in the First World War at the front and at home in an Exhibition which will run from the 19 July 2014 to 25 January 2015.

Portsmouth City Museum, in partnership with the University of Portsmouth, was awarded £97,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund for the Lest We Forget project which encourages community groups, families and individuals to contribute to the exhibition.

Dr Brad Beaven preparing the Lest We Forget exhibition

Dr Brad Beaven preparing artefacts for display in the Lest We Forget exhibition

The starting point for Lest We Forget was the museum and archive collections which hold First World War material relating to over 200 individuals who experienced war at the front or at home. Dr Brad Beaven, a Gateways Co-Investigator and guest curator of the exhibition, explained how the project evolved. ‘Work for the exhibition began earlier in the year when we put a call out to community groups and schools for help in researching the individuals and objects in the collection. The response has been fantastic and we have a really impressive level of community engagement from researching timelines to choirs singing war songs for our “sound showers” in the exhibition’.

Visitors to the exhibition are also encouraged to get involved. ‘Research hubs’ have been set-up in the exhibition to allow people to research names of individuals and objects in the collection. Dr Beaven commented that ‘with over 200 names in the exhibition we have gaps in our knowledge and we’d encourage visitors to add to our growing collection of personal stories’.

How You Can Get Involved

Add details of your ancestors to the Tale of One City Community History website.

Add details of your World War One projects to the Community history website under the topics and places sections.

Please do let us know if you are working on a local community history or schools project relating to the First World War – we can list your project on the web site. We are also working directly working with some community groups to support their projects.

The project coordinator would be pleased to visit your group to tell your more about the project. Let us know if you are interested.

The Loneliness of Thiepval

Professor Mark Connelly, University of Kent

Thiepval on the heights above the River Ancre was once a thriving village centred on a handsome chateau. As with countless other places in France and Belgium, it was destined to be utterly devastated by the war. During the course of the huge Battle of the Somme, Thiepval was reduced to nothing. Its commanding position sealed its fate for the Germans quickly saw that it was a strong defensive position capable of dominating the surrounding country. Inevitably, the British had to capture it before their forces could advance elsewhere. The attack on 1 July 1916 was a failure made more tragic by the fact that the men of the 36 Ulster Division achieved a stunning advance on its outlying boundary. Unable to maintain their toehold due to the failures on their flanks, these brave Irishmen had been forced to concede all their gains and return to their original positions. Thiepval then remained stubbornly beyond the hands of the British and it was gradually obliterated. Edmund Blunden witnessed Thiepval’s destruction and lamented its fate in his poem Premature Rejoicing, which was elegiac, wistful and ironic in turn:

What’s that over there?

Thiepval Wood.

Take a steady look at it; it’ll do you good.

Here, these glasses will help you. See any flowers?

There sleeps Titania (correct – the Wood is ours);

There sleeps Titania in a deep dug-out….

After much careful preparation, the British finally captured the village in a well-executed, but hardly bloodless, assault in September. However, this did not mark the end of the war for Thiepval, for it was fought over twice more in 1918 first during the great German advance in April and then for the last time when the British passed back through it in August.

As in other places, at the war’s end the people of the Somme region returned to their former homes and commenced the slow, grinding process of rebuilding and healing the scars of war on the landscape. But, for Thiepval there was to be no return to its pre-war condition. What had made the village an ideal defensive position now became its irredeemable weakness. Stranded on high ground a long way from the main Albert-Bapaume road, it lay inaccessible and isolated. In a region crying out for building materials and builders, Thiepval was a low priority as other, easier to reconstruct places swallowed attention and effort. Only slowly were roads rebuilt to the devastated village, but it had missed its moment. Thiepval shrunk massively from its pre-war size and although a non-descript red brick church, so typical of those that mark the Somme region, was rebuilt, it lacked a soul and a centre and became a hamlet containing a handful of houses and farm buildings.

Why then did the British choose this spot to erect their main memorial on the Somme? Everyone involved with the Imperial War Graves Commission knew that the Somme would have to be marked by some great memorial, and it would have to be in a prominent position. Sir Edwin Lutyens commenced work on designing a suitable memorial to commemorate the 70,000 missing on the Somme up to the spring of 1918 (a separate memorial was designed for those lost in the final stages of the war and was eventually incorporated into the cemetery at Pozières). With his plans complete, it was now necessary to allocate an appropriate location. Lutyens had wished it to be on the Albert-Bapaume road or on the outskirts of St. Quentin. In both cases the memorial would have taken on a similar function to the Menin Gate, as it would have been a daily reminder of British and Imperial sacrifice to all local people going about their lives. It was this very aspect which caused a problem. Concerned that too many large British memorials were being erected across France, which might give people the impression that the British effort had somehow outshone that of the French army, the French authorities were increasingly sensitive to requests for land. Unable to place the memorial in the heart of the Somme community, Lutyens and the Imperial War Graves Commission looked for an alternative site. As the highest point on the Somme battlefield, Thiepval was perfect for it meant that the towering memorial would be visible for miles around, particularly in a landscape still denuded of trees.

Work commenced on the memorial in 1929, and proved a complex task for it required the making of thousands of bricks and the movement of much heavy materials. After three years, the work was complete and it was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in July 1932. Unfortunately, unlike the Menin Gate, Lutyens’s architectural masterpiece has never gained the iconic status of Blomfield’s work in Ypres. The reasons are probably two-fold and involve the emotional and the severely practical. To start with the practical, it is harder to reach Thiepval in every way. In the 1930s a visitor would have to take a train to Amiens or Arras and then change to the branch line to Albert. Once in Albert, a visitor would have to take a bus or taxi to the site. Even then, most buses would have gone along the Bapaume road, leaving the visitor with a stiff walk from Pozières. Once at Thiepval the visitor would have found little to hold her or his attention. There was a café in the 1930s run by a British ex-serviceman, which would no doubt have been a welcome stop, but there was very little else to restore the flagging visitor. By contrast, Ypres was a short rail journey from the coast. Once at Ypres station it was a short walk into the heart of the city where there were bars and cafes aplenty, and, of course, there was the attraction of the Last Post ceremony. Then there is the issue of the emotions. Unlike the familiar neo-classicism and ornate decoration of the Menin Gate, Lutyens set the visitor an emotional and intellectual puzzle. As you first approach the Thiepval Memorial its strange ziggurat pyramid form, refashioned into an arch, hits the eye. It has a remarkably complex geometry and scale with each of the arches being two and a half with the largest central arch having a span of thirty-five feet. All of which means that on first glance the memorial appears to lack neat proportion and the brain and eye are slightly confused, and then there is the inscription which simply says, ‘The Missing of the Somme’. Rather than the affirming ‘Pro Rege’ and ‘Pro Patria’ of the Menin Gate, Lutyens makes the visitor think about the enormity of the losses. The visitor is forced to contemplate what caused such tragedy in sobering, sombre terms. Little wonder it often leaves people marvelling, but perhaps slightly confused and disturbed, too.

The Thiepval Memorial.

The Thiepval Memorial.

From the moment I first saw it in July 1986 I have been overwhelmed and awed by the Thiepval memorial and its strange, haunting, ethereally majestic brooding effect. The brooding nature affects the stillness and quietness of Thiepval, and it can feel very, very lonely particularly on grey winter days when wind and rain buffet. The Somme trees may have grown back, but Thiepval can still feel extremely exposed and somewhat forbidding. Having taken many visitors to the memorial over the years, I have been struck by how often they return back to the road looking slightly quizzical, slightly cowed, slightly scared even. And it is then that the loneliness of Thiepval, the agony that it has suffered, the dreadful fact that 70,000 men were not simply killed but obliterated, really hits me. Lutyens’ brilliant genius combined with location provided a fitting tribute. As an architect for an imperial agency, Lutyens asks us to consider carefully the cost of war to a mighty empire. Doing so in the loneliness of Thiepval is sobering indeed.