Then & Now -an interactive journey

Modern tools can help to illuminate the impact of the war to twenty-first century eyes. Michael Noble is impressed by the latest effort

The raid on Scarborough was used for recruitment and propaganda purposes

Here’s a rather beautiful thing. Housing website Rightmove have created ‘Then & Now – An interactive journey around World War 1 Britain’
Blending archive photos with images fro m Google Street View, the site lets users merge the past with the present and examine how our streets have evolved from the days of the Great War.

Users simply use their mouse to “swipe” across the chosen Street View and reveal an insight into the past, as provided by the Imperial War Museum and other image resources. Clicking on the information icon reveals more about where and when the photo was taken.

In total, 13 photos from the duration of the conflict are used to help tell the story of the First World War on the home front.

Images include a house on Lonsdale Road in Scarborough, severely damaged by German naval shelling in December 1914 and a line of recruits outside Deptford town hall, who fade in and out of historu with a simple swipe of your mouse.

There’s a real sense of the uncanny in the images, they seem to make the war years at once distant and familiar. It’s also interesting to note how effective the repair work was on the shelled buildings. A 21st century pedestrian walking along these streets could be forgiven for his ignorance of the damgage that had been wrought in days gone by.

Then & Now can be found on the Rightmove website. It’s well worth a visit.

The Deptford recruits
The Deptford recruits

The Military Boots Project

A Nottinghamshire artist has found a unique way of remembering those who served, and those who continuTrent to Trenchese to do so. Michael Noble takes a look.

Some of the completed cotton strips

Joy Pitts is a multiple award-winning contemporary artist based in Nottinghamshire. She works primarily with garments, which she sees as expressive of our individual identity and way of life. Her work assembles these individual identities into a shared whole that represents the collection of individualities that we call society.

This concept has a natural mirror in the idea of war memorials that place individual names in a shared space. One of Joy’s current projects reflects this by seeking to gather individually-sewn names of servicemen and women and present them as a single art work on canvas that will depict a pair of military boots. The Military Boots project is a collaborative effort being undertaken as part of Nottinghamshire’s Trent to Trenches programme.

Joy would like to invite  you to contribute to this project by stitching the name of those in your family past or present who have served or are serving in the Armed Forces onto a strip of cotton tape for her to add to the art work. She will provide the materials, you just need to provide the names and a little bit of your time.

Joy says ‘during World War One it was common for both men and women to sew; repairing clothing at home and in the trenches, embroidering messages to send to loved ones and sewing bandages. This project recalls these activities and invites you to make your own hand made acknowledgement to those who serve.’

Cotton strips in blue

If you are interested in taking part, you can contact Joy directly here to request a stitch pack.

A Nottingham Library Remembers: Bromley House Library and The First World War 1914-1918

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Jeff Buggs’s story of 9 Albert Avenue, Carlton

The Bromley House Library is holding a series of events to commemorate the war. Michael Noble takes a look at what’s on.

The Bromley House Library has served the people of Nottingham for almost two hundred years and is, at the start of the twenty-first century, one of the few remaining subscription libraries in the country. Its appeal lies partly in its collection of around 40,000 books and also in its pleasant atmosphere, described as ‘tranquil and unstuffy’ atmosphere. Founded in 1816, the library has been situated since 1822 in Bromley House, a Georgian townhouse that is now Grade II* listed. Access to the library is usually limited to paying subscribers but it is opening its doors this autumn and inviting the public to pay a visit to see a specially-commission exhibition of First World War artefacts and to hear a range of guest speakers.

The exhibition, which has been generously supported by the Lady Hind Trust, has been mounted as part of Nottingham’s Trent to Trenches programme. It consists of items that have been kindly loaned by the library’s members in an effort to tell the ‘stories’ behind their families’ experience of the Great War.This creates a natural focus on the war as it was experienced by Nottingham people. This personal element is made all the more poignant by the setting of cherished objects alongside beautiful photographic images of their owners, some of whom gave their lives in the conflict.  A modern interpretation of the war is provided by local artist Janet Wilmot, whose works have been displayed to accompany the historical material.

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BHL collections, images and one of the War Bond Posters
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Part of the installation by Janet Wilmot

The exhibition is displayed in the Bromley House Gallery and in the main reading rooms, and is open to the public every Wednesday from 10.30am – 4pm In addition, the library has a diverse programme of subjects and speakers for Saturday lectures (£5.00 pp) and Wednesday lunchtime talks. The talks on Wednesdays are free but tickets need to be reserved in advance.




For further information about the programme and reserving tickets please contact, or phone 0115 9473134, visit or just pop in!



Autumn Roadshows 2014

Leicester Cards 2
A souvenir card from the First World War, displayed at our Leicester event

Michael Noble reports from the Hidden Histories Autumn Roadshow Programme

We’ve just completed our first round of roadshows, which took us to Nottingham, Leicester and Derby to share some of our work and ideas. We were very pleased to welcome members of community groups, interested individuals and staff from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the local councils who came along to listen and participate.

Our Principal Investigator, John Beckett outlined his idea of ‘Hidden Histories’ and explained that we were interested in examining the stories of people who took part in the First World War but who do not fit the conventional model of a Tommy. To illustrate his point he presented a picture of Wilfred Owen next to a similarly-posed portrait of a Daffadar (Sergeant) of the of the 14th Murray’s Jat Lancers of the Indian Army and asked the audience to name them. Many of the attendees could identify Owen, none could name the Daffadar. And neither could we. His, John pointed out, is a hidden history.

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Mike Heffernan presents his research to the audience at Leicester

We had the privilege of hearing from community representatives who wanted to share their ideas for commemorative projects. In Nottingham, Dr Irfan Malik presented the story of the Dulmial Gun (which we blogged about here) and described its importance to his family. Local artist Joy Pitts gave us an insight into her work and her ongoing Military Boots project and Eric Pemberton of the African and Caribbean organisation Banyan presented his painstakingly researched calendar, which he also brought along to the Leicester event. He was joined at Leicester by the Ramgarhia Social Sisters who have recently returned from a visit to the Empire, Faith and War exhibition and who have been inspired to create a tapestry work to tell the stories of the Sikh soldiers in the First World War. Also at Leicester was Roy Hathaway, who has amassed a collection of around a quarter of a million vintage cigarette cards, many of which feature soldiers and imagery from the war. Roy was kind enough to display some of his collection at the event. In Derby, we were joined by Daljit Singh Ahluwalia MBE and his wife Parkash, who are planning to develop a local exhibition of the Sikh contribution.

All three events featured a short talk given by one of our Co-Investigators. In Nottingham and Derby, Natalie Braber presented her work and answered the question of what a linguist has got to do with the First World War. In Leicester, Mike Heffernan gave a talk on the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission and the effort to memorialise the dead in an appropriate and fair manner.

Leicester Cards 3
Some of Roy’s collection, displayed at Leicester

We were encouraged by the enthusiasm shown by the attendees and will be pleased to work alongside them as they develop their projects. If you were unable to come to any of the roadshows, but would like to get involved, please contact us for a friendly discussion.


The Dulmial Gun

The gun at Dulmial


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.

Officers of Dulmial pose with the gun

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 Plaque
The plaque attached to the base of the monument

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.


Beyond Walter Tull

Walter Tull
The Walter Tull Commemorative Coin

The story of Walter Tull is one that resonates strongly today, but was he really the British Army’s first black officer? Michael Noble looks at a curious hidden history.

It was announced this week that Walter Tull, widely regarded as the British Army’s first black officer, is to be commemorated on a special ÂŁ5 coin, part of a set of six that the Royal Mint will be producing as part of the First World  War centenary. This follows the announcement in June that a new road in his home town of Folkestone is to be named Walter Tull way in his honour. Meanwhile, a campaign is underway to make him a posthumous award of the Military Cross that was denied to him while he was alive.

The demand to award Tull the medal is no post hoc rewriting of history, or even a simple response to his fame as a professional footballer. The honour is entirely deserved and its denial a miscarriage of justice. On New Year’s Day 1918 Tull, then a 2nd Lieutenant on the Italian Front, led a mission across the icy-cold River Piave that runs from the Alps to the Adriatic. He returned without a single casualty and was cited by his commanding officer for ‘gallantry and coolness under fire’. The CO recommended that this be followed by a medal. None was forthcoming.

Wars are confusing, challenging situations and many things can go wrong. Still, it’s difficult to shake the conviction that the denial of Tull’s medal was entirely a question of race. The MC was a medal that had been created for junior officers below the rank of Captain and, gallant or otherwise, Walter Tull shouldn’t have been an officer at all. In some eyes, it was bad enough that he was in uniform at all, never mind being given a position of leadership.

The Manual of Military Law of the time stated that ‘Troops formed of coloured tribes and barbarous races should not be employed in war between civilised states’, meaning that sending a man like Tull to fight Germans was anathema to the mindset of the age. Of course, British men of African origin volunteered like any others but according to Tull’s biographer Phil Vasili, ploys were used to ensure that they failed the medical on spurious grounds. This trick, of course, could hardly be deployed against a professional footballer who continued to turn out for Northampton Town throughout the recruitment process and consequently, on completion of the 1914-15 season, Tull attended basic training and was deployed in France that autumn.  His abilities were quickly noted and he was made an NCO, attaining the rank of lance sergeant. It would not be the last recognition of his leadership skills, nor would it be the last time he surmounted the institutionalised and statutory racism of the day.

On being recommended for a commission in November 1916, Tull’s commanding officer had to complete a form to begin the process. The document survives and is kept in the National Archives. One of the questions asks if the candidate is of ‘pure European descent’, by which it means white. Tull’s form naturally shows the handwritten response ‘no’. For some reason, Tull’s fame, his exceptional character, the need for men of proven ability, the question was skimmed over by the board and Tull was given his commission in May 1917 whereupon he commenced officer training.

It is curious that the question was even asked. If it was axiomatic that men of non-European backgrounds were inappropriate to serve as officers is seems odd that officers in the British Army would need reminding. But then, not everything in a vast bureaucracy like the modern military is so clear cut. Which brings us to the story of George Edward Kingsley Bermand.

George Bermand was an old boy of Dulwich College, a former engineering student at University College London and, it was said, ‘a cheery soul, always inclined for a joke’. He joined the Officer Training Corps in October 1914, applied for a commission early in 1915 and obtained one with relative ease. He was also black.

George Bermand

The Great War London blog contains some excellent research on Bermand’s life and career. He was born in Jamaica in 1892 and travelled to  Britain in 1908. Like Walter Tull, George Bermand was actually of mixed heritage and had some white British ancestry. Still, in accordance with the sensibilities of the time, he and his family were recorded as simply ‘African’ in the form that they completed on the USA leg of their journey to Europe.

The interpretation of such questions is important. When asked if he was of ‘pure European descent’, Walter Tull (or whoever processed his application) answered ‘no’. When George Bermand was asked the very same question, he answered ‘yes’. Bermand’s commission was sponsored by a Brigadier-General Anthony Abdy, who commanded the 30th (County Palatine) Divisional Artillery to which Bermand made his application. ‘I am willing to take him’, noted the Brigadier-General on the form and this seemed sufficient to ensure that Bermand got his commission. It is entirely possible that it was Abdy’s personal intervention that made the question of European descent an irrelevance in Bermand’s case. The bold ‘yes’ merely met a cold bureaucratic requirement leaving the actual business of recruiting a promising young officer to the pleasure of the man who would command him.

George Bermand’s Commission Application. Note his answer to question 4

Neither Tull nor Bermand survived the war. Bermand was killed by an artillery shell near Bethune on Boxing Day 1916. Tull was cut down by a German soldier during the Spring Offensive of 1918. They were aged 24 and 30 years old respectively.

The recent flurry of activity aimed at commemorating Walter Tull is admirable. His achievements in overcoming unimaginable prejudice on both the field of play and the field of battle are an indication of his strength of character and confirm his as a story worth telling and worth remembering. But there are other stories, other Hidden Histories that show that Tull may not have been alone. Although he was a fine cricketer at Dulwich, George Bermand lacked Walter Tull’s outstanding sporting ability and consequent popular fame. His elevation to officer rank came via the traditional method of patronage while Tull’s was the gift of the newer power of celebrity. Still, that either young man required any assistance to take an officer’s rank remains an indictment of the times in which they lived. In an age that was desperate for healthy young men to answer the country’s call, that any capable candidate would need a nod and a wink to get through the recruitment process seems absurd. But get through they did, and they showed that their places were not mere gifts -they had been earned. Just as Walter Tull earned his Military Cross.



Indians in the Trenches

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.

Royal Horse Artillery gunners writing letters

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.

Sikhs At War Logo
@SikhsatWar logo

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’

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The WW1 Sikh Memorial Fund (@SikhsatWar)

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.





August Bank Holiday Larks

This week I had the pleasure of visiting the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester and of seeing the From Street to Trench exhibition that has been designed to reflect the contribution of, and effect on, the North West of the First World War.From-Street-to-Trench-PV-Creative-2

As with many of the regional exhibitions, the focus is not merely on the local aspect of the war (which, for the North West means references to the Eccles cotton mill and the auxiliary hospital at Dunham Massey) but on the directly personal. Letters and artefacts, many of which have been donated or loaned by local people, tell the story through the eyes of the ordinary men, women and children who experienced the war at first hand. There is a paradoxically rich mundanity to these items. Their very ordinariness means that the war is set as a very loud background event to people’s lives. Examples such as the letter from some children, begging Lord Kitchener not to take their pony for war work, (he didn’t. The animal was too small for it), or the recorded testimony of Ernie Rhodes, who cheerfully recalled being promoted at work when some of the lads above him absented themselves by volunteering for duty in 1914 remind us that people’s everyday concerns didn’t simply stop because there was a war on.

Ordinary considerations filtered through to the theatres of war too. In a letter to his wife dated 1st October 1916 (touchingly appended ‘after tea’), William Anderson described a recent spate of desertions. The effort, he concluded, wasn’t worth it. Not only would it risk a military tribunal, but it would see the deserter’s ‘pay interfered with’. For modern eyes trained to see desertion rewarded with an automatic firing squad, this is a salutary reminder that more ordinary punishments loomed larger in the minds of the men involved. Capital punishment falls outside the 21st century British experience, but having one’s wages docked (and worse, having to explain the shortfall to one’s spouse) does not.

Some of the ‘moustached archaic faces’ that Philip Larkin may have had in mind

This everyday, in-the-moment correspondence challenges the received view of the war. It was perhaps the time of year, but as I strolled around the exhibition space, I recalled the words of Philip Larkin, who, in MCMXIV, commented satirically on the lines of 1914 volunteers, ‘grinning as if it were all an August Bank Holiday lark’. Larkin wrote from an historical perspective (the war had concluded before he was born) and made his comments around the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the war. His work was a product of, and contributor to, the popular idea that the war was received as an excellent thing, a jolly good clearing-out that would settle things once and for all and, famously, all be over by Christmas. In this view, the people of 1914 were naive at best, outright fools at worst, blissfully unaware of the devastation that was about to be wrought upon them. ‘Never such innocence’, continued Larkin ‘never before or since…never such innocence again’.

Again, this view is challenged by the off-hand testimony of the people who were actually there. From Street to Trench contains a series of letters written by Merseysider Ada McGuire to her sisters. The first, dated 7th August 1914, expressed the ordinary concern for a loved one; ‘thank God Ralph won’t have to go to the war’, she writes, ‘this terrible war’. That date again: 7th August 1914. The British Expeditonary Force only arrived in France that day and HMS Amphion had been sunk a day earlier, causing the first British casualties of the war (facts that may not have even been known to Ada McGuire as she set pen to paper). The precise, unprecedented terribleness of the war was not yet known either, and still it warranted a horrified adjective. August or otherwise, faces such as Ada McGuire’s were hardly grinning, even at that early stage.

Football is just one example of how life continued through the war

Larkin’s commentary pointedly drew a comparison with the lines of volunteers and those who queued up at the gates of football stadiums on Saturday afternoons. The two were not mutually exclusive and football, as well as sport in general, was just as affected by the war as any other aspect of life. Appropriately, for an exhibition focused on the North West, football has a prominent place in From Street to Trench (the Professional Footballers’ Association is a key supporter). The involvement of the game is demonstrated through examples of that perennial collector’s item, the matchday programme. The edition from Liverpool vs Rochdale on the 16th October 1915 (they drew, two goals apiece) features a recruitment advert for the County Palatine Royal Army Medical Corps), demonstrating how the authorities sought the attention of young men where they knew they could find them -in the stands. A later programme, from Manchester City vs Liverpool on the 16th November 1918 (Liverpool took victory after putting two past a goalless City), shows the state of the game in the immediate wake of the Armistice. A letter from City player Peter Gartland reveals his sorrow at having to ‘finish with the game my heart and soul were in’. His career had been brought to an end not long before when he lost a leg after receiving a ‘wound just the size of a threepenny piece’. He remained stoical and wished the club every success and that he hoped to ‘see them at the top this season’. His desire to look ahead was shared by the club’s officials who used the programme to describe their plans for the future of the game. They were glad to seen an end to ‘the Awful Tragedy’ and wanted to carry on for ‘the good of the boys’. International fixtures would be a non-starter, but there was every possibility of  inter-league matches. Football, and life itself, must go on.


From Street to Trench is at Imperial War Museum North. Admission free.


History and Memory

Harry Patch, the 'Last Fighting Tommy' 1898-2009
Harry Patch, the ‘Last Fighting Tommy’ 1898-2009

There are, according to some estimates, 11,000 people in Britain today who were already alive when war was declared in August 1914. They were, of course, very young back then. The eldest, Ethel Lancaster, was just fourteen at the time, meaning that, had she been male, it’s very likely that she would have been in uniform by the time that the Armistice was declared. As it was, the ‘Last Fighting Tommy’, Harry Patch, died in July 2009. We enter this centenary period highly conscious that it will probably be the last major anniversary at which any first hand memory of the Great War is available.

This is important and not merely because it gives historians tiny opportunities to glean information from living, breathing people, but also because it places the First World War within the range of accessible cultural memory. There are many more people who, while they were not themselves born before 1918, were the children, nephews and nieces of people who were. They grew up as cognisant of the war as many of us are of, say, the 1960s and 70s. Their recall of the war is obviously second hand, but their experience of its aftermath and of the impact that it continued to have on the lives of those involved is utterly direct. Material items such as medals, uniforms, flags, even weapons, have been handed down to children and grandchildren, but so too have memories and the impact of experience.

Ethel Lancaster, the Last Victorian in Britain
Ethel Lancaster, a teenager during the First World War, is the Last Victorian in Britain
John Tyler, the tenth President of the United States 1790-1862
John Tyler, the tenth President of the United States 1790-1862

These connections can survive a surprisingly long time. As recently as 2012, it was reported that the US government was still paying Civil War pensions to two (elderly) children of veterans, 147 years after the war ended. John Tyler (b. 1790), the tenth President of the United States, still had two surviving grandsons as of 2013. These facts can feel a little odd, as can the realisation that, having been born in May 1900, Ethel Lancaster is not only Britain’s oldest woman, but the last surviving Victorian. If they do, it may be because we’re accustomed to regarding most periods as belonging purely to history and disconnected from our present age. This disconnection can make it difficult to empathise with those concerned or make it tempting to regard much of the details of these eras as irrelevant to ordinary life in the twenty-first century.

The Great War is undoubtedly an historical event. It has been studied again and again and will deservedly continue to do so centuries from now. Questions can be asked of its origins, its progress and its impact. The images that we have of it, often unclear, usually in monochrome, give it a distancing quality that seem to confirm it as the event of another age. And yet, it is not history like the death of Julius Ceasar or the signing of Magna Carta or the Protestant Reformation is history, it is also, for now still memory and that gives it a resonant power that may strike a chord with people as they reflect on its centenary.


Trent to Trenches and the Local in the Global

Trent to Trenches is the official commemorative project of Nottingham City and County. Michael Noble paid a visit to see how the first ‘global war’ remained steadfastly local.

Whether byTrent to Trenches sending its young men off to fight on land, sea and air, by contributing materially to the war effort or by banding together as the costs of the conflict grew, every corner of the country was affected in some way by the First World War. The local impact of the war remains a powerful one and is central to the Trent to Trenches project in Nottingham.

The central exhibition, based at Nottingham Castle, weaves the local seamlessly through a series of objects and stories that nonetheless reflect the global nature of the war. A detailed timeline, painted onto the walls, matches events in Nottinghamshire with those that took place around the world. As visitors progress through the displays (a skilful blend of the chronological and the thematic)  materials such as uniforms, letters, diaries and photographs, many of which were kindly loaned by local people, emphasise the ‘Nottingham-ness’ of the war. A lace panel, reflective of one of the town’s traditional trades, portrays British, French and Belgian soldiers as they would have appeared at the start of the war. A huge Union Jack dominates one wall. Its origin? HMS Nottingham, the light cruiser that was sunk by a U-boat in 1916.

Nottingham Lacework
Nottingham Lace Panel showing Belgian, British and French soldiers, 1914

The Nottingham had recently taken part in the Battle of Jutland, which was not the only major engagement that had a local angle. During the Battle of the Somme,  the Sherwood Foresters were deployed at Gommecourt, towards the northern end of the line. Their role was a diversionary one, intended to draw German attention away from the main assault further south. The exhibition tells the story through an emotionally affecting film which cleverly uses local information to make it familiar: the territorial gain was ‘the distance from Nottingham Castle to Radcliffe-on-Trent’. Doing that in the East Midlands would cost you about two hours on foot. In France on the 1st July 1916 it cost the Sherwood Foresters 424 officers and men.

Further familiarity is found in the personal. You can see Nottingham schoolboy Raymond Pegg’s beautifully illustrated diary in which he commented on the development of the war with the eager pupil’s eye for details of flags and military equipment. The diary, in Raymond’s well-drilled handwriting, is accompanied by photographs of the lad as he would have appeared in between making entries and is a fascinating insight into the mental world of a young civilian at the time.

Albert Ball c1915-16

Flying Ace Albert Ball, a local and national hero,  is given a section to himself, with photographs, clothing and other items of interest including his personal weapons. Ball, the son of a wealthy Nottingham businessman, was born on Lenton Boulevard in 1896 and fostered an early interest in engineering which led him to pursue a wartime career in the air. As with so many early airmen, this career was a painfully short one, which ended in 1917 in a crash at Douai in France, but it was a successful one and Ball was the most successful British airman at the time of his death. The ‘Wonder-Boy of the Flying Corps’, his exploits were celebrated internationally, and even acknowledged by Manfred von Richthoffen, the ‘Red Baron’, who described him as ‘the best English flying man’. For all this celebrity,  the most resonant aspect of the Ball exhibit is the local and personal -his signature on his flying certificate, the images of his family or the photograph of him as a toddler at home in Nottingham, a local lad from the very beginning.


The Trent to Trenches exhibition is at Nottingham castle from Saturday 26th July – Sunday 16th November 2014.