The Centre for Hidden Histories is proud to present a public talk on the subject of British Public Parks and the First World War. Professor Paul Elliott, of the University of Derby, will give the talk at Derby Quad on Wednesday 27th May at 7pm. Here, Professor Elliott introduces some of the themes that he will cover in his talk.
On 16 December 1914 German shells thudded into Scarborough from the sea, aimed at a Naval Wireless Station at the top of Falsgrave Park. In all, the bombardment killed 17 people including a 14 month old child who had been in Westbourne Park. Apart from this highly unusual episode in the home front context, public parks were rarely, of course, the targets of German bombs, although perhaps they ought to have been, as they were playing their role in the war effort.
Public reaction to the conflict changed over the course of the war, with propaganda and rumour fostering patriotism and hatred of the enemy whilst the ethic of volunteerism and the rhetoric of sacrifice were prominent in debates over where the burdens of war should fall and documented in public discourse, as well as the influence of religious ideas. As the war drew to a climax, tensions about the distribution of sacrifices threatened to tear society apart, whilst victory and the processes of commemoration helped create a fiction of a society united in grief.
This talk will argue that public parks were caught up in some of these reactions and ambiguities, and were utilised both in support of the war effort in various ways and also sometimes as places where resistance to the war and its consequences occurred. The recruitment of hundreds of thousands of men for the armed forces, food shortages and rationing, the assumption of male work roles by numerous women, all impacted upon urban parks and green spaces. As we shall see, public parks in Derby and other places were requisitioned for various purposes including military (such as anti- Zeppelin and aircraft guns), defensive, governmental, medical and for food production, particularly after the Defence of the Realm Act or (DORA) was passed. They also played an important role in maintaining morale when some other forms of recreation were curtailed such as organised sports like football and rugby. At the same time, parks were places where civilian and military populations on leave or recuperating could temporarily escape from some of the demands of war and even resist authority. On occasion they served as venues for anti-war and pacifist meetings and demonstrations too.
The event is free but spaces are limited so if you are interested in attending, please let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
The Battle of Neuve Chapelle was the first of the British spring offensives in 1915, when the Allied commanders were keen to escape the static conditions that had emerged and break through the German lines. They had planned simultaneous French and British attacks but when the British commander, Sir John French, requested reinforcements he was given territorials rather than regulars. This, and a sense that they were already over committed, prompted the French commander to call off his troops’ involvement, leaving the British on their own. Sir John decided to press on in any case (partly to impress the French following British failures to take ground in December 1914) and announced that the attack would take place at the ruined village of Neuve Chapelle in the Artois region of northern France and that Sir Douglas Haig would lead troops from the First Army (the IV Corps and the Indian Corps) in an effort to break through at Neuve Chapelle and capture the village of Aubers.
The German lines at Neuve Chapelle formed a salient, upon which Haig intended to converge his troops, the IV Corps (commanded by Lt. Gen Sir Henry Rawlinson) on one side, the Meerut and Lahore Divisions of the Indian Corps (commanded by Lt. Gen Sir James Willcocks) on the other. It would also be one of the first examples of the use of air power in warfare, with eighty-five aircraft conducting aerial reconnaissance, photography and cartography to aid the artillery bombardment.
On the morning of the 10th March 1915, following a thirty-five minute bombardment from hundreds of guns, the infantry launched their attack. A further barrage of artillery fire was committed behind the German trenches to prevent reinforcements from joining after the British attack. Sepoys of the Garhwal Brigade rushed across no-mans-land to seize Neuve Chapelle, taking 200 German soldiers prisoner. The village itself being taken less than an hour after the start of the assault and five of the eight assault battalions achieved their objectives with minimal losses. Many battalions were almost unscathed. In some areas the fighting was hand-to-hand. In the initial phase of the attack, everything seemed to be going in the British favour.
However, the commanders were unable to secure the breaches they had made in the German lines and were hampered by poor communications and the loss of field commanders, leaving poorly-briefed NCOs in charge of some units. Further progress and made the remaining push difficult and uneven. In particular, the northern sector, closest to Aubers itself, had managed to escape the British bombardment and the German lines remained intact. Every one of the thousand troops that advanced towards it was killed. Two German machine guns managed to kill hundreds of soldiers of the 2nd Scottish Rifles and the 2nd Middlesex, while other British troops lost their way in the confusion. Poor communication meant that the artillery couldn’t be informed of the situation in the front and were unable to respond, leaving the advancing troops to the mercy of the German guns. The battle went on for several days. On the fourth day, many of the surviving troops had to be roused ‘by force’ from sleep, a task made all the more difficult because they lay among corpses, indistinguishable at first glance from the sleepers.
Several problems emerged from the battle. The push took the infantry further away from their supply lines, isolating them and pushing the Germans further into their own territory. The more the British pushed, the worse they found things and, in terms of supply, the better things were for the Germans. Crucially, the push towards German lines took the British away from their lines of communication. They could lay telephone cables as they went, but these were easily cut by bombardment. Pigeons, flags and runners were ineffective and easily cut down. Relaying information to command, five miles behind the front, and back again to the advancing troops took eight or nine hours, meaning that effective, fluid commands were impossible. In addition, the men who led the attack were exhausted by the time they got to the German lines, making follow-throughs difficult. Reinforcements were difficult to supply, not least because of the poor communications.
A small salient, 2,000 yards wide by 1,200 yards deep had been taken and 1,200 German soldiers captured. 40,000 Allied troops took part during the battle and suffered 7,000 British and 4,200 Indian casualties. Similar losses were suffered by the Germans, setting the pattern for the slow, attritional nature of trench warfare.
The 7th Division had 2,791 casualties
the 8th Division 4,814 casualties
the Meerut Division 2,353 casualties
the Lahore Division 1,694 casualties
Ten Victoria Crosses were awarded for conspicuous bravery in the battler. Among the recipients was Gabar Singh Negi of the 2nd/39th Gharwal Rifles. His entry in the London Gazette reads: For most conspicuous bravery on 10 March, 1915, at Neuve Chapelle. During our attack on the German position he was one of a bayonet party with bombs who entered their [the German] main trench, and was the first man to go round each traverse, driving back the enemy until they were eventually forced to surrender. He was killed during this engagement’. His name is among those recorded on the memorial at Neuve Chapelle. He was nineteen.
Had the aim of the battle simple been to restore the British reputation in the eyes of the French, it would be considered a success. Perhaps even more coldly, the experience exposed the British commanders to some of the realities of trench warfare, giving them information that they could use in the development of new strategies and tactics. Reviewing the battle in his despatch to the Secretary of State for War, Sir John French attributed the success to ‘the magnificent bearing and indomitable courage[of] the troops of the 4th and Indian Corps’. Willcocks, who had served for many years in India and could speak several Indian languages, wrote that the Garhwalis ‘suddenly sprang into the very front rank of our best fighting men’. However, the impact of the losses took its toll, breaking up long-established units and, in some cases, killing officers who had worked with Indian troops and who knew and understood them, and leaving them to the care of men to whom the Indians were alien. In proportional terms, the Meerut Division lost 19 percent of its Indian soldiers d 27 percent of its British officers, while, with 575 casualties, the 47 Sikhs lost 80 percent of their fighting strength. These losses meant that, although not the last time that Indian troops would see action, Neuve Chapelle would be the last time that they were used as a striking force. It set the template for much of what was to follow. General Charteris wrote of the experience ‘I am afraid that England will have to accustom herself to far greater losses than those of Neuve Chapelle before we finally crush the German Army’.
The personal impact of the battle was recorded by the survivors in letters home. The historian David Ommissi has collected some of the letters sent by Indian soldiers. Their comments testify to the almost indescribable bloodshed:
‘The death of a human being has become as of much account here as the death of an insect’ -Nanak Singh, 6 Cavalry, France to Gaur Singh, Jhelum district, 6th March 1917
‘God has made them fowls of the air, dragons of the earth and poisonous crocodiles of the sea and he has given them such skill that when we encounter their deceitful bayonets they set light to some substance which causes a suffocating vapour and then they attack. How can I describe this?’ South Indian Muslim, hospital ship to friend, India, 9th February 1915
This is not war. It is the ending of the world.-Wounded Rajput to relative, India, 24th January 1915
The memorial at Neuve Chapelle was erected by the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) in 1927. It is especially dedicated to the Indian soldiers who died in the battle and was designed with Indian culture and architecture in mind.
Michael takes a look at a creative approach to remembrance…
This week I had the great pleasure to listen to a presentation given by Kate Pullinger of Bath Spa University. Kate, along with her colleague Neil Bartlett, spent much of this year working on the Letter to an Unknown Soldier project, which is a digital memorial scheme that invited people of 2014 to engage with someone from a century ago.
The project, which is supported by 1418 NOW, is based on Charles Jagger’s memorial statue, which is situated on platform 1 of Paddington Station and was unveiled by Viscount Churchill on Armistice Day 1922. The statue, which portrays the soldier in full battle gear, was designed to show him reading a letter from home. Pullinger and Bartlett’s idea was to invite people to imagine what they would write if they had sent that letter. What would they say?
They put out a call for people to send them their letters so that they could publish them on a dedicated website. The submission period was open from 28th June, the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to 4th August, a hundred years on from Prime Minister Asquith’s announcement that Britain had joined the war.
They received an astonishing response. Over 21,000 letters were submitted by people from all walks of life and from all over the world. Every single letter was read and published.
Although the project is a digital one, many people chose to write them by hand and post them in the traditional way, even if they had initially composed it on a computer. There is, Kate suggests, something in the act of putting pen to paper and physically posting it that makes people feel a closer connection to the recipient. Handwritten letters were scanned and are available to view online with every pen mark intact. A selection of the letters were later gathered for publication in a book that was released in November in time for Remembrance Sunday.
It’s a fascinating project that succeeds by prompting people to think about the effects and experience of war in a personal way. It can be difficult to know what to write to someone you have never met, and never will, and to do so across such a gap of time. As the thousands of writers can no doubt attest, it is worth the effort.
A nineteenth century cannon sits at the entrance of a Pakistani village. Michael Noble takes a look at the story of the Dulmial Gun.
Dulmial is a village approximately a hundred miles south of Islamabad in Pakistan. A century ago, the area was part of British India, which meant that its inhabitants were drawn into the Great War on the side of the Allies. A settlement steeped in military history, Dulmial sent 460 of its men to fight in the British Army, the largest single participation of any village in Asia. Nine gave their lives. In recognition of this service and sacrifice, in 1925 the British government offered Dulmial an award of their choosing.
The man in charge of this choosing was Captain Ghulam Mohammad Malik, the highest ranking and most decorated soldier in the village. The Captain was a man of great experience, having commenced his military life in the Derajat Mountain Battery and participated in Lord Roberts’ march from Kabul to Kandahar in 1880. A career soldier, he eschewed the British offers of land, money and water facilities, choosing instead to have Dulmial’s contribution recognised with the presentation of a cannon.
The British agreed to this selection and provided Dulmial with a twelve pounder. Agreeing was the easy part. Getting the thing to Dulmial would be quite a different matter. The gun was to be collected from the First Punjab Regimental Centre in Jhelum, from where it could be carried by train to Chakwal. There, the gun was dismounted and loaded in a cart to be pulled by three pairs of oxen for the remaining 28 kilometres. The roads were semi-mountainous and passage was difficult. It would take the ox carts two weeks to cover the distances. From five kilometres out, at Choa Saiden Shah, the route became more difficult still and Dulmial had to despatch five additional pairs of oxen to relieve the initial six and complete the gun’s journey.
Safely in Dulmial, the gun was placed at the main entrance to the village and a photograph taken with the local commissioned officers. It remains there today, a reminder of the contribution that Dulmial made in the First World War.
Dulmial is now known within Pakistan as the ‘village with the gun’, but it is rather less well known in the UK. ‘This is because very little has been written or published about the the village in English’, says Dr Irfan Malik, a Nottingham man whose family originates in Dulmial. ‘I have visited Dulmial many times over the years’, he continues ‘and I have made it my aim to research the World War One history of the village as it played such an impressive part during the time’. It is Irfan’s intention to bring this hidden history to a wider audience and help to share the reasons of just what a nineteenth century Scottish cannon is doing in the mountains of Pakistan.
Anyone who has visited the war graves will have felt a sense of awe at their sheer number. Making headstones in that volume took a lot of effort and a lot of stone. Nigel Hunt explains the East Midlands origins of the headstones.
With over a million deaths across the UK and the Dominions, and with nearly all the dead being buried on the battlefield, there was a huge demand for high quality headstones at the end of the war, along with stone for the monuments that are dotted around the battlefields, such as the Lutjens’ Thiepval memorial and Blomfield’s Menin Gate memorial, which together commemorate over 100,000 of the missing of the Somme and Ypres respectively. In total, nearly 1.3 million names are engraved either on individual headstones or on memorials to those who have no known grave.
By 1921, over 1,000 cemeteries had been established, and 4,000 headstones were shipped to France every week. Most cemetery construction was complete by 1927.
Most people think that the headstones are all made of Portland stone, derived from Portland on the south coast. Indeed, most headstones did come from there, but the demand was so high other sources had to be found, and the other main source of headstones was in Derbyshire, from Hopton Wood quarry near Middleton-by-Wirksworth. In all, 120,000 headstones were made from Hopton Wood limestone.
The name Hopton Wood quarry is a bit misleading. While the original Hopton Wood quarry was situated in Hopton Wood, near the village of Hopton, the main quarry is to the west of Middleton, linked to another quarry in Middleton itself. The quarry closed in 2006, but it had a long history. It is a source of extremely high quality limestone, examples of which can be found in many country houses and public buildings around the country. Examples include Westminster Abbey, Birmingham Cathedral, Chatsworth House, Oscar Wilde’s tomb and the Houses of Parliament. It has been on many occasions mistaken for marble, because it can be finely polished. It is also relatively easy to carve, and is relatively hard-wearing. The main quarry is underground. There are over 25 miles of large passageways underneath the moors to the west of Middleton. The entrance can be seen from a nearby footpath.
There are remnants of broken headstones in the walls in the area, particularly near to the Middleton quarry in the village, but there are few other traces of what was a very busy time for the quarry.
The Sikh contribution to the First World War was a significant one. Michael Noble looks at the written evidence of their efforts and at a modern campaign to ensure that their sacrifice is not forgotten.
The First World War is often described as the first modern war. Although other conflicts may also lay claim to that title, among them the American Civil War and the Boer War, certain commonalities can be found that make them ‘modern’. The advanced nature of the technology, the adoption of industrial techniques, the role of the media and the suggestion of ‘total war’ all make the First World War recognisably of our own era, even as it slips from memory into history.
One of the most significant ways in which the war can be considered modern is in the fact that, for perhaps the first time in history, a majority of the combatants were literate. Although some level of literacy has been present, by definition, throughout recorded history, prior to the late 19th century, testimonies have usually come from the wealthy, powerful and educated minority. The First World War could perhaps be described as the first major conflict of mass literacy.
Reading and writing skills were not merely useful from a military organisation point of view, as the ongoing Operation War Diary makes clear; it also means that many of the participants in the conflict left a paper trail of their thoughts and feelings in the form of letters, diaries and, famously, poetry. Reading the personal documents of soldiers and their families is a privilege that lets modern readers gain intimate insights into the experience of life and war from those who were directly involved.
Of course, part of that range of epistolary comes from the soldiers who were drawn from different parts of the world. In 1999, the historian David Omissi collected and edited a selection of letters from Indian soldiers who found themselves on the Western Front and published them as Indian Voices of the Great War.
A selection of these letters now form the basis of Indians in the Trenches, a short film made by Dot Hyphen Productions who have made it their mission to educate and inform people in the 21st century about the actions of Indian solders in the First World War. The film features modern Sikh performers wearing the uniforms of a century ago and giving voice to the words of their forebears.
A recurrent theme is the sense of bravery and willing sacrifice. The testimony stresses not so much the conditions in the trenches, or in Europe particularly, but rather the ‘opportunity’ to engage the enemy, the winning of distinction, the desire to be sacrificed and the need to observe Sikh practices while at war.
Sowar Natha Singh, writing from France in January 1916 mentions expecting, even wanting to die. As he set his pen to paper, he did not expect to ever leave France. ‘I should like to die in this country’, he says. ‘I have no hope of seeing [the children] nor do I wish to see them for I have found a good opportunity for sacrificing my life’
Eight months later, Bakhlawar Singh, 6th Cavalry writes about his belief that the Sikhs ‘are fortunate men to have been given the chance to fight in this great war’.
The spirit of sacrifice pervades not just the letters and diaries, but the breadth of the Sikh experience in the war. Over 100,000 Sikhs took part in the war and, of the twenty-two Military Crosses awarded to Indian soldiers, fourteen went to Sikhs. This contribution is being reflected in a new campaign to create a lasting memorial to these soldiers. Jay Singh-Sohal is leading the campaign to raise funds to set the memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield. He says ‘we want to ensure that our community has a lasting legacy of remembrance for those who fought – a memorial will ensure that their service is never forgotten and that in future people remember their heroism.’
Indians in the Trenches is available to watch below.
You can get involved in the Sikh memorial campaign here.