What Downton Abbey doesn’t tell you about the First World War (Part 2)

For part 1 – see here

Delayed Reaction –  food rationing

Another example of this delayed reaction I mentioned before is with regards to shortages and rationing. As early as late 1914, the difficulty in obtaining goods from other countries resulted into price hikes for both essential and non-essential goods. By around 1916 there were already fabric shortages that helped accelerate further the demise of Victorian mourning customs. There was also less coal to go around so several households resorted to burning “waste paper bricks” or installing “coal saving” chimney pots. Crucially however was in 1917 when the Germans decided to engage in unrestricted U boat warfare to starve Britain into submission. In April 1917 alone Britain lost 800,000 tonnes of shipping – Germany knew that the UK depended a lot on imported food from abroad and decided to strike where it would hurt Britain the most – as Georgina Lee noted on 29 January:

The submarine menace is now acute. These islands are faced with a real shortage of food….[t]he daily toll of ships is growing heavier, and the Germans are seizing upon the U-boat as their last chance.

The submarine menace is now what we fear most. It really marks the death grapple between Britain and Germany.

By the end of April, Lillie Scales noted in her diary that “last Wednesday 40 ships over 1,600 tons were reported as having been torpedoed or mined,” Lord Devonport, the food minister initially called for voluntary rationing and Britain was forced to have two meatless days a week, while from October 1917 bakers were allowed to add potato flour to bread. Georgina Lee on 2 February 1917 recalls the amount of food consumed by her household:

We do not exceed this liberal allowance already, at least we have not lately. As we are seven in the house, I reckon we can have weekly:

13 loaves of 2lbs each, with

1½ lb Flour for puddings etc.

1/2 lb Flour for Cake

As for sugar, for weeks past I have imposed a limit of 5lbs for the household. Now I see I can use another 1/4lb, if I can get it! It has been very difficult to procure sugar at all, most grocers absolutely refusing to supply any. But my dear Army and Navy stores allow a certain fixed proportion on grocery orders.

The meat will be more difficult as the 2 ½ lbs include bone. It includes bacon for breakfast and ham so it will mean a great deal of goodwill and patriotic loyalty on the part of women, because these rations are at present left to our honour to enforce. There is to be no system of tickets yet, as in Germany. But the Government will resort to compulsion if the country does not respond.

The inefficiency of British agriculture and the commitment to free trade was one of the factors why Britain imported the bulk of its food from abroad. There were other factors as well as Jeremy Paxman noted, the British, he wrote, “lived by trade, and the growth of imperial power had rendered the country unable to feed itself any longer.” This overdependence on imported food meant that supplies were vulnerable to enemy attack and since the war broke out, people had generally made do with substitutes for staples such as butter, while newspapers and magazines published recipes especially for cakes that required no butter, milk or eggs.  But this wasn’t enough and by 1917-18, shortages were becoming more acute and endless queues for even the most basic of food stuffs were becoming common. The government’s initial response was to promote voluntary schemes such as “Eat Less Bread” through the office of the Food Controller led by Lord Devonport with the support and encouragement of the royal family. But these were not really successful and as more ships were sunk, shortages became even became more acute and the cost of food went up even further; the state was forced to come up with compulsory rationing especially on food stuffs such as butter, sugar, flour and later meat. The rationale behind rationing was to ensure that everyone received their fair share and would result into fewer queues in shops and discourage general panic that could damage morale. To help enforce rationing, the government made food hoarding a crime and several prominent and wealthy people fell foul of the law such as the writer Marie Corelli who was fined £50 for hoarding sugar despite her protestations that the sugar was for jam she intended to give away. A massive fine of nearly £700 was imposed on a Newcastle shipping magnate Rowland Hodge after he and his wife were caught hoarding over a ton of food including sugar and flour.

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Apart from making food hoarding a crime, the government also extended the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) to cover food production. Other legislation were introduced such as the banning of throwing rice at newlyweds, fines for wasting food (by 1918, nearly 30,000 people were fined for such an offence), regulating what farmers could feed their livestock and setting minimum prices to discourage war profiteering as well as making the latter punishable by fines or imprisonment. But there was more to rationing than coercion and employing the stick, for instance the Game Laws were relaxed to ease food shortages, as Georgina Lee recalled in her diary:

13 February

The Game Laws of England! They too have had to make way for the necessities of England at war. Not only is it illegal to feed game birds on corn or maize, but game is no longer protected. Anybody can shoot pheasants and any other game on the land on which he is tenant. This is partly to use all available food, and also to prevent these birds eating the precious crops. Some few weeks ago it was the shooting of all hunting packs, to save their food; and naturally too of foxes to prevent them eating poultry.

There were also campaigns to encourage people to plant vegetables no matter how small the patch of land was (and yet again, the royal family did set an example by using the gardens at Buckingham Palace and other royal residences to plant potatoes and the like) as well as exhortations to eat bread substitutes such as rice and maize and using less refined flour or potatoes to bulk out homemade bread. Magazines, newspapers and cookbooks were on hand to offer advice on how to eat well despite rationing – a noted example was May Byron, a writer known for her popular biographies and cook books. As she exhorts in her war time cookery book, May Byron’s Rations Book, “[i]f you cannot have the best, make the best of what you have” and her recipes were filled with tips on how to stretch out meagre rations and using substitutes for ingredients that were expensive or hard to obtain.

The fact that Britain was importing most of its food from abroad and that the war had meant both rising costs and later food shortages makes a nonsense of Jessica Fellowes’ claim that “food was relatively plentiful” and that “rationing didn’t come in until near the end of the war,” (but perhaps she didn’t notice that those two statements contradict each other). Certainly voluntary rationing was encouraged and  official rationing and the issue of ration books did not start until the beginning of 1918 with the issue of ration books with coupons for sugar, butter or margarine and meat. Throughout 1917 and 1918 regulations and penalties against waste, hoarding and profiteering became increasingly stringent, which does not suggest that food was “relatively plentiful”. It’s true that the Crawleys would have been cushioned by the fact that there was a home farm that supplied nearly all the family’s food but they would have still been subjected to government legislation concerning what to feed and not to feed their livestock, there would have been fewer men working on the farm and given that the Crawleys seemed to have resisted mechanising and implementing more efficient means of farming then there would have been less food to go around. Crucially there would be difficulties with imported essentials such as flour and sugar as well as coal. We do not see the Crawleys really coping with shortages in the same way as majority of their real life counterparts did, and yet again we don’t see them taking the lead and initiative when it comes to offsetting and easing shortages in food. Also, if the Crawleys haven’t mechanized (and a comment in series 1 suggests that haven’t), they are reliant on horses, and many of these horses would have gone, having been requisitioned by the army. The ones that are left are the old ones and they work less hard and need more care and feeding, hence less food is produced.

Even before compulsory rationing had been introduced, many real life aristocrats had been finding ways to cope with shortages. As Pamela Horn writes, as early as 1915, the duke of Marlborough had already introduced sheep into the formal gardens at Blenheim to replace the gardeners who had enlisted, and turned over the gardens for the planting of vegetables. Mabell Countess of Airlie, apart from her duties as a lady in waiting to Queen Mary and war work involving nursing training, was also holding the fort at the Cortachy estate as her sons and many of the estate workers had gone off to fight. She was heavily involved in ensuring that the estate was doing its part in the nationwide drive to be more self-sufficient in terms of food. In her autobiography Thatched with Gold, she recalled: “My entire horizon was bounded by potatoes. Every vine house was stuffed full of them; even the little hut at the back of the gardens was stacked with potato boxes from the floor to the roof.”

As mentioned in part 1, the Crawleys being the leading local family would be expected to be following the rules and seen to be following the rules, and that would include food rationing as well. Even before the diktat from the government arrived, Robert and Cora should have been leading by example and instructing Mrs Patmore and the rest of the kitchen staff to ensure that nothing was wasted: and even before the food shortages became noticeable and unavoidable, rising costs on goods and services as well as increase in taxation would mean that the Crawleys would have to resort to belt tightening measures long before 1917. It’s all well and good for Carson to pontificate that “keeping up standards is the only way to show the Germans they will not beat us in the end” but as the war dragged on, the casualties mounted and food became increasingly scarce Carson’s concern about proper place settings and objecting to maids serving at the table are not so much amusing as irrelevant and petulant. However, the rationing only becomes a plot bunny for when Matthew is set to marry Lavinia Swire and Mrs Patmore has to make the cake for the festivities. Rationing then becomes a crude bolt on plot device and trivialises the fact that Britain could have lost the war and that revolution could have been possible if it wasn’t for rationing both voluntary and through legislation, the convoy system and the realisation that to survive, people would have to rely more on home grown food and be canny and flexible. As May Byron confidently asserted:

Now, when faced with a crude incontrovertible fact that we live in an island, and that nearly all our food has been coming for outside that island, there is no doubt that the present rude awakening should be – in the long run – be very much to our advantage. ‘It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good.’ To begin with, a fools’ paradise is a weakening and demoralising habitation; to go on with, we are now compelled, willy-nilly to learn the use and value if expedients, of substitutes, of skilful cookery….I conjecture that, sooner or later, we shall emerge from this dire emergency a great deal cleverer than we were before; having acquired all sorts of knowledge, and exploited all manner of possibilities, which we should have regarded with a stare of blank bewilderment in 1913.

 

The servant problem – grabbing opportunities with both hands

When the First World War broke out, men of all classes rushed to enlist and this meant particularly for the aristocracy that their male servants both outdoor and indoor as well as estate farmers and tenants went off to fight; leaving them with those who were too old or too young to enlist (although this didn’t stop those who were too young from lying about their age). Outdoor members of staff such as carpenters, gardeners, gamekeepers, chauffeurs, coachmen and grooms particularly were valued by the armed services as they had skills that were useful and needed in a time of war. Country house servants were also generally seen as fitter and healthier than their counterparts in the city and were attractive recruits. There was also the appeal to patriotism – as Country Life asked its readers not long after the outbreak of war:

Have you a Butler, Groom, Chauffeur, Gardener or Gamekeeper serving you who, at this moment should be serving your King and Country? Will you sacrifice your personal convenience for your Country’s need? Ask your men to enlist TO-DAY.

The aristocracy also heavily encouraged their servants and estate workers to sign up; offering incentives such as keeping their jobs open for their return when the war ended (and the expectation was it would be over before Christmas), extended pay and continuing to pay their salaries to their dependents. More encouragement came from the state through the establishment of Pals’ Battalions and propaganda posters depicting German bombings of British towns and cities. Finally in 1916, the government introduced conscription which meant that men who fitted the criteria determined by the government had to fight. Conscription meant that more able bodied men went away to fight and with a few exceptions many aristocratic households found their homes almost exclusively staffed by women.

The war however also took away many of the female servants. Better pay and shorter working hours led many maids to leave service and take on work in munitions factories. Although the work could be difficult, dirty and dangerous the benefits included weekends off and nutritious and filling meals served on site. For the first time, many of these women had more money, more free time and were not in the beck and call of someone nearly 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The munitionettes eagerly partook in the nascent consumer culture of the period as they went to the pictures, tea rooms and restaurants as well as purchasing cosmetics, scent, clothes and accessories. Manufacturers and service providers realised that there was a new market to be tapped and the munitionettes would help pave the way for the growth of a consumer culture among the working class following the war.

Although the servant problem began during the late 19th century, the war further accelerated this issue. As the men went away to fight and the women moved on to more profitable war work, the country house many of which were located in the middle of nowhere suddenly was seen as limiting and it was preferable to be at the trenches or in a noisy factory. Rising costs and higher taxes meant that it was unaffordable for the aristocracy and upper middle class to keep the same number of servants before the war and resulted in many of them being unable to keep their promise of holding jobs open for those who had gone off to fight.

In light of this, it’s baffling that apart from Thomas and later William, none of the downstairs staff at Downton Abbey has expressed any interest in leaving the confines of the Abbey to either serve at the front or head off for more lucrative work. More so especially the women as Fellowes and the PR (especially during the last three series) have been yammering about “strong women” who are “substantial individuals” and are not “wilting damsels:” except we don’t see that either with the upstairs or downstairs female characters. Someone like Anna or Daisy would have been prime candidates to leave the Abbey to find better opportunities elsewhere but instead we get Anna snivelling and pining for Mr Bates as part of what would become a long running misery saga, and Daisy does nothing but whine and sulk despite the efforts of good Samaritans such as William and Jane.

There’s Ethel the second housemaid who constantly goes on about “wanting the best” but yet  continues to stay in service when she could go to a munitions factory and get paid more and work shorter hours and days. Of course there is the irony that her story line which involves her getting pregnant out of wedlock by one of the officers who is a patient at the hospital and getting sacked as a result is accurate and could have happened: especially as pregnancy out of wedlock was frowned upon by all social classes and a working class woman like Ethel would have much to lose.

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Another irony is that the most accurate story lines in this series featured those downstairs. Apart from Ethel, there’s William being conscripted and his belief that they are fighting a just war, Lang the valet who was invalided out of the army and suffers from shellshock, and war widow Jane who replaces Ethel and finds a kindred spirit in Robert. However it’s a shame that many of these story lines were not explored more thoroughly and this was not helped by the ropey timeline and the speed with which Fellowes explores the First World War.

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Conclusion and aftermath:

In his notes on the script for the 2011 Christmas special, Fellowes claimed that he set the special at the end of 1919 with the traditional servants’ ball held after New Year in 1920 in order to “allow the audience to grasp that the next series would take them into yet another era, leaving the war far behind.” And that in my view was a foreshadowing of the problems that would plague the programme in the last four series, especially the last three after Dan Stevens decided not to renew.

From series 3 onwards, there was a collective amnesia about the war in Downton Abbey. As one critic has pointed out, Downton simply retreated to the past when money was still plentiful and they could party like it was 1912 all over again. We do not see any war veterans begging in the streets, there’s nothing about unemployment going up as soon as the demobilised men return from the front, no mention of maimed veterans or further rises in taxation or sales of land and property and as many viewers cheekily pointed out, no disabled war vets among Mary’s suitors: and none of the paranoia about revolution, Bolshevism and socialism. Watching Downton you could be forgiven for not knowing that by 1918 three major ruling dynasties – Habsburg, Hohenzollen and Romanov – had been overthrown, in the case of the latter, bloodily and violently, nor the widespread fear that revolution and radical social change was likely to happen in Britain. Unlike real post-war Britain, the war becomes forgotten until it’s used as a plot bunny in series 5 to give redundant characters something to do and even then it was a delayed reaction – why does it take until 1924-25 for the village to have its war memorial when similar edifices were already springing up across the country as early as 1919 and the Cenotaph in London was built and dedicated in 1920 following the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey?

Although with hindsight series 2 is seen as one of the more decent series (the other being series 1), this marks the start of the often baffling swerves in characterization for the sake of the plot, Robert in particular. A man like him who was in the regular army would have been recalled to the colours as soon as possible or if sending him to the front was not possible, then he would be placed in charge of a training depot responsible for training some of the volunteers who have signed up. One can see how Fellowes writes to the plot and not the character from that and what happens in series 3 when apparently Robert – a Lord Lieutenant and representative of the Crown – can barge into the Home Office and DEMAND that the Home Secretary perverts the course of justice for a Fenian rebel – which is something that I think a lot of people didn’t realize he was doing. Not to mention as well indulging in breaking in and forgery in order to stop a putative royal scandal in the 2013 Christmas special, a plotline so thin and so ridiculous that people laughed at it for its lack of credibility and sheer ludicrousness. If he can do all of that, then he can confront the War Office and demand a posting. But that wasn’t the plot so it didn’t happen although it was likely that Fellowes didn’t even think of him doing that.

A family like the Crawleys would have been expected to step up to the plate and do their bit. They would have taken the initiative and not wait until 1917 to be dragged kicking and screaming to open their house as a hospital when in reality a lot of homes were already ready to receive casualties not long after the outbreak of war. In the end, the war was simply treated as if it was a little local difficulty in the way of Matthew and Mary getting married –  it barely inconveniences the family for all their foot-stamping over the hospital –  and for all the yammering about “Downton at war” and claims that the programme is chronicling a time of rapid change, we barely see any of it. All the changes are simply cosmetic, there are no attempts to really explore what the war meant for everyone and how they were affected.  The servants and family assemble to mark the armistice on 11 November 1918, Robert makes a poignant comment about how many men have been killed on the estate and that’s all, folks. Global war and slaughter on an industrial scale done, dusted and dealt with. Once the war is over Downton Abbey reverts to the old ways as if nothing had happened, and as many viewers pointed out, the 1910s where so much happens is covered in 2 series while the 1920s where nothing major really happens is dragged out for four. So much dramatic and narrative potential, and all wasted.

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It seems that nothing must stand in the way of derailing the destiny that has been set for Matthew and Mary – to the point of staging a mis-diagnosis and miraculous recovery for Matthew so he can marry his true love and sire the next generation – as well as what Professor Katherine Byrne calls the programme’s “socially conservative” message. I will even go one step further to say that the war must not stand in the way of the fairy tale that has been constructed around Downton as demonstrated by the collective amnesia about the war afterwards except in series 5 as a plot point, when in reality it was still present in people’s minds right up to 1939 and of course beyond to the present day.

 

Further Reading:

Gavin Roynon (ed) Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee (Stroud, 2006)

Jerry White. Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London, 2014)

Terry Charman. The First World War on the Home Front (London, 2014)

Kate Adie. Fighting on the Home Front (London, 2013)

Lucy Lethbridge. Servants (London, 2013)

Fiona (Herbert) Countess of Carnarvon. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle (London, 2011)

Julian Fellowes. Downton Abbey: The Complete Scripts Series 2 (London, 2013)

Jeremy Paxman. Great Britain’s Great War (London, 2014)

May Byron (with introduction by Eleri Pipien). The Great War Cookbook (Stroud, 2014)

Lillie Scales. A Home Front Diary, 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Brian and Brenda Williams. The Pitkin Guide to the Country House at War 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Jessica Fellowes. The World of Downton Abbey (London, 2011)

Simon Greaves. The Country House at War (London, 2014)

Jane Dismore. Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain (London, 2014)

Diana Cooper. The Rainbow Comes and Goes (London, 1958)

Ian Kershaw. To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 (London, 2015)

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

Andrew Marr. The Making of Modern Britain (London, 2009)

Anne de Courcy. Society’s Queen: The Life of Edith Marchioness of Londonderry (London, 1989)

Mabell (Ogilvy) Countess of Airlie and Jennifer Ellis (ed.). Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie (London, 1962)

Pamela Horn. Country House Society (London, 2013)

Katherine Byrne. ‘Adapting Heritage: Class and conservatism in Downton Abbey‘. Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice Vol 18 no 3 (Aug 2013) pp. 311-327.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2546026/Why-real-World-War-One-heroine-inspiration-Downton-Abbey-refused-accept-CBE-work-caring-wounded.html

http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/the-great-war/great-war-on-land/casualties-medcal/2383-millicent-duchess-of-sutherland-ambulance.html#sthash.2Hr8E9jr.dpbs

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01xtx6f/p01xtwvm

Britain on the Brink of Starvation: Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

What Downton Abbey doesn’t tell you about the First World War (Part 1)

Downton Abbey’s first series in 2010 which opened in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic ended in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War- and such was the popularity of the first series that a second one was commissioned by ITV and was telecast in 2011. The second series with the First World War as the backdrop was set between 1916 and 1919, depicting the lives of the Crawley family and their servants during the war as the likes of Matthew, Thomas and William go off to fight and the Abbey itself is turned into a convalescent home for officers.

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Although the quality of Downton’s narrative began to suffer from series three onwards, the plot holes were already apparent even with the first series and series two was no exception. Since the First World War was supposedly the main focal point of the second series, surprisingly there was little to no exploration of the conflict and how this war was unlike what had gone before, let alone its effects on millions of people at the time or for years to come. In retrospect its only reasons for inclusion in series two seem to have been a) it’s 1914 – Fellowes can’t actually ignore that it happened and b) to throw obstacles in the way of the romance of a dull couple. Chief among the major omissions include:

Lopping off two years from the war:

Series 2 of Downton Abbey opens with the Battle of the Somme and in the published scripts for the second series, Julian Fellowes explains why he decided to jump ahead to 1916 rather than continue with 1914 and have the family doing in 1916 what they should have been doing in 1914:

The challenge naturally, was how to cover the war. In the end, we decided that, just as we had opened Season One with the news of the Titanic in order to pinpoint where we were, similarly we would open Season Two on the battlefield, so there would be no mincing about. From the first scene the audience would know the war has begun. The other decision we made was that we would go forward two years into the middle of the fighting. This was partly because, after the declaration of war, as with all wars, there was a kind of slow-burn start-up, when we wanted to begin with a big bang, literally, but it would also mean that all the characters could have war back stories as the series opened…….[t]hey could jump out of the screen, like Athena leaping from the head of Zeus, fully formed fighters, caught in the Sturm und Drang of the Battle of the Somme.

I find this reasoning problematic and contradictory, never mind the offensiveness of seeing two years of all-out war and death described as ‘mincing about.’ The First World War was the first total and mechanised war in history and as soon as Britain had declared war on Germany, the whole war machine swung into action – land and sea transport were requisitioned to transport troops to the front and to provide emergency medical care, mobilisation was ordered, men who had been in the army were recalled to the colours and unused and idle land seized to set up military training camps and for food production. The civilian population both in the city and country was caught up with the country gearing up for war as the railways began to transport men and supplies to the front, men rushed to enlist and horses were requisitioned to be used for transport and by the cavalry.

In addition there was the also the fear of invasion. In the years before the outbreak of war and despite the confidence that the might of the Royal Navy would protect Britain from foreign invasion, the arms race against Germany and the prevalence of scare stories in the press and novels featuring spies and a possible invasion by the likes of Erskine Childers, John Buchan, Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph Conrad stoked fears of Britain being invaded. When war finally broke out, the government was so concerned with the possibility of invasion that Boy Scouts and local men – mostly those who were not eligible to fight – were engaged as look outs along coastal areas.

This fear became even more apparent when Whitby and Scarborough were shelled by German warships in November and December 1914. Not only was this the first time the civilian population had been targeted, they had no way of knowing it wasn’t the prelude to invasion. Jessica Fellowes claimed in The World of Downton Abbey that because Downton Abbey was “situated in the north of England in the middle of the countryside, it would not have suffered the frightening spectre of fighter planes overhead or the distant echo of bombshell.” But this is not exactly true as given where Downton Abbey is located, the village would have been near to both towns and not only would have the Crawleys, their servants and the rest of the village have heard of the bombardment but there would be general fear among the populace. And this fear spread to other parts of the country as well as Georgina Lee wrote in her diary:

December 16

The first German shells have fallen on England. This morning at 8am some German cruisers were sighted off Whitby, Scarborough and Hartlepool. A few minutes later they started shelling the three towns causing many casualties and damage to buildings and property. Everybody seems to think it a pity for those who have to suffer, but a very good thing for the country generally, which will at last be roused to the seriousness of the situation. The cruisers bombarded for half an hour, the, on sighting British patrol vessels, they disappeared in the mist.

December 17

The shelling of the three towns is more serious than was reported yesterday. Altogether 40 people have been killed and several hundred wounded, all civilians, including children and babies. Whitby Abbey, a priceless old monument, was much damaged.

It is mortifying that the German cruisers were able to come 400 miles, to bombard three cities and return to Kiel, without any of our fleet being there to stop them. How did they get through? On their way back they sowed mines in the North Sea which have already sunk three of our merchant steamers.

And while it’s true that the Battle of the Somme was “a great bloodletting, and a massive hideous event because so many men died” the early battles were no picnics in the park either: when Antwerp fell to the Germans in late 1914, that heightened fears of a German advance into France and finally crossing the Channel to invade Britain. There was also the retreat from Mons and the Battle of Loos in 1915 where despite great advantages from the Allied side, the British and the French failed to break through the Germans lines and the British suffered appallingly high casualty rates. All these would have been major headline news and all the more because even during the first two years of the war, there were already large numbers of men who have gone off to fight and millions more rushed to enlist after Lord Kitchener’s appeal for more men and encouraged by reports and propaganda posters depicting German atrocities in Belgium and the shelling of Whitby and Scadrborough.

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Fellowes’ comments above I believe reduces the death and slaughter from 1914 to 1916 as nothing more than something he’s decided are not sufficiently dramatic for his purposes. The fact that so many civilians especially women and children died during the raids on Whitby and Scarborough sparked outrage, drove more men to enlist and in the case of Downton Abbey provided a good avenue for the characters to articulate what would have been the reactions of ordinary people as the bombardment brought the reality of war in a way that was not possible in earlier conflicts.

 

Delayed Reaction – reluctantly falling in to do their bit:

In earlier blogs discussing the problems with Downton Abbey’s plotting and story lines, one of the issues that always recur is what I call “delayed reaction” which is something that is seen especially in the last three series. This “delayed reaction” began with series two – not content with lopping off two years from the war, Fellowes also decides to delay the role that the Crawleys will play during the war as he writes in his notes to the published scripts:

First of all, to take the house and its residents into the conflict, we start with a commitment to the soldiers at the front, and a fundraising event, but we do not yet suggest they should make any great sacrifices. This is, if you like, the transitional stage, when the family and staff realise that they’ve got to get behind the war effort and do their stuff but they haven’t really accepted the degree to which they can be helpful, because it will disturb their daily lives profoundly. I think it’s realistic. They’re well intentioned, patriotic, loyal, but not yet quite ready to sacrifice their way of life.

A cursory reading of the present Countess of Carnarvon’s biography of her predecessor Almina the 5th countess tells us a different story. Already known for her work with the sick on the Highclere estate, as well as nursing her own husband who had been left weakened by a motor accident in the early 1900s, the 5th countess had decided to turn Highclere Castle into a hospital in the event of war breaking out. She also began to undertake a more formalised nursing training and by mid-1914 already had the logistics in place for her hospital; so much so that by September 1914 not long after Britain had declared war on Germany, Highclere Castle was ready to receive its first patients.

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Others swung into action with the aristocracy and the rich opening up their homes as hospitals and convalescent homes. These included Woburn Abbey, Harewood House, Blenheim Palace, Glamis Castle, Wrest Park, Dunrobin Castle, Elmswood and Taplow Court. Other country homes such as Clandon Park and Attingham Park housed Belgian refugees who had fled the German advance while Halton House became a training depot complete with dug out trenches to simulate the conditions on the Western Front. In major cities such as London there was a need for more beds than any existing hospital could offer so aristocratic townhouses such as Londonderry and Grosvenor Houses also became military hospitals. Certain aristocratic women such as Millicent Duchess of Sutherland and Shelagh Duchess of Westminster  went one step further and set up hospitals in France close to where the fighting was, and although their sense of duty and hard work were appreciated the army sometimes found these aristocratic nurses irritating. Millicent Duchess of Sutherland for instance was known as “Meddlesome Millie” for her various charitable endeavours and crusade for worker’s rights before the war. When the First World War broke out, she worked with the Red Cross and established an ambulance unit in France which by the end of 1914 had grown into a 100 bed hospital near Dunkirk.

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While young aristocratic men enlisted in record numbers (by 1915 Vanity Fair calculated that there were 800 peers or sons of peers fighting in the army and navy), their sisters, wives, fiancées and other female relatives turned to nursing, although not without objections from their elders. Lady Diana Manners, a daughter of the Duke of Rutland was one who was determined to do her bit as she recalled in her autobiography The Rainbow Comes and Goes:

I began scheming to get to the Front as a nurse. Women were taking Red Cross hospitals and dressing-stations to France, and they were taking their daughters and their daughters’ friends. I wrote to the Duchess of Sutherland and the Duchess of Westminster and others……I got nothing but discouragement and tears from my mother and a pi-jaw from Lady Dudley, whom my mother summoned to reason with me. She explained in words suitable to my innocent ears that wounded soldiers, so long starved of women, inflamed with wine and battle, ravish and leave half-dead the young nurses who wish only to tend them. I thought her ridiculous and my mother ridiculous too, and could not believe Rosemary Leveson-Gower, my cousin Angie Manners and other girls I knew already in France to be victims of rape.

Regretfully I abandoned the Front in favour of nursing at Guy’s Hospital (Aunt Kitty’s refuge many years before). This took a stiff fight, but as an alternative to rape at the Front the civil hospital was relieving to my poor, poor mother.

The likes of Almina Countess of Carnarvon, Millicent Duchess of Sutherland, Mary Duchess of Bedford and Lady Diana Manners (later Cooper) were not simply “show nurses” but were actually trained and in time could assist in operations. Many of them had knowledge of the administrative side of hospital work by serving in committees and hospital boards before the war but practical knowledge was something they acquired during the war. Mary Duchess of Bedford  was a classic example: having established a small cottage hospital not long after her husband succeeded to the dukedom, she wasn’t content with merely becoming a figurehead but also began to attend medical lectures at London Hospital: and they stood her in good stead when the cottage hospital was expanded and enlarged. She came into her own when during the outbreak of the war and Woburn Abbey was turned into a military hospital. Sister Mary as the Duchess became known not only made sure that the house was well equipped and could cope with the huge number of casualties but also that the patients and nurses had access to leisure and entertainment as well as fresh air and ventilation, which she believed would help with the soldiers’ recovery and provide a respite for the nurses having to deal with the wounded and the dying every day. She worked 16 hour days and by 1917 had qualified as a surgeon’s assistant and began training in radiotherapy.

For younger aristocratic women, their war work gave them a glimpse into a side of life and interaction with other people that they would not have otherwise encountered, and equally importantly, for the first time in their lives they had a sense of purpose and achievement as Lady Diana recalls:

I enjoyed the months at Guy’s. V.A.Ds (it was the first month of their infancy) and there were but two of us were very well received. We dressed the same as the staff and were treated in exactly the same way. I was allowed to do everything the upper nurses were allowed, except dispensing, but in a few weeks’ I was giving injections, intravenous and saline, preparing for operations, cutting abscesses and once even saying prayers in Sister’s absence…..The life was excessively hard if you were not strong.

In light of these examples, it’s baffling that the Crawleys had to wait until 1916 to get behind the war effort, until 1917 for the Abbey to be turned into a convalescent home and even then the family does so grudgingly and with poor grace – Robert’s reluctance for this to happen is especially puzzling given his keenness to fight. (You have to wonder how the man who can’t bear even to give up part of his library to wounded men would have dealt with life in the trenches…) It takes a middle class woman, Isobel Crawley to remind her aristocratic relatives of their duty. While Sybil turns to nursing with enthusiasm and Isobel works as an administrator, the other women sit back and do nothing (save for Edith who briefly works as a farm labourer then as the convalescent home helper). Cora is only pushed to do her bit because O’Brien stirs things up by intriguing against Isobel rather than any sense of duty, and what’s laughable, of course, is Cora expecting a pat on the back as if she’s the only peeress working in a hospital or doing her bit after waiting for three years to get off her backside. By this point her real life counterparts were already running hospitals, driving ambulances on the front line of battle, assisting in complicated surgeries and could give out injections and clean abscesses without batting an eyelash. That scene where Cora was expecting to be singled out for praise by a visiting general was so ludicrous and opposed to the likes of Almina Countess of Carnarvon or Lady Stirling Maxwell – who actually declined the honours given to them after the war with the view that they were serving the best they could as demanded by their station in life without any recourse to recognition.

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Cora’s oldest daughter Mary is no better. While her younger sisters have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into war work, Mary is content to do nothing but mope. She lacks the imagination and initiative to do something and even Edith had to persuade her to sing to their patients. It begs the question of what’s she doing and what will Matthew think if he knows that she’s not doing anything and it’s not a very good omen for how she’s going to be if they do marry and she becomes countess.

The abovementioned examples show how much Fellowes’ assertion that the Crawleys “haven’t really accepted the degree to which they can be helpful, because it will disturb their daily lives profoundly” and that “it’s realistic” are bunkum, as even the most cursory research would have shown. As the leading local family, the Crawleys would have been expected to set an example, step up to the plate and would have made preparations even before war was declared. Even if no-one else wanted to, Robert, with his sense of duty and eagerness to serve would be urging his family and the village to do their bit – as a Lord Lieutenant* he’d know war was coming because he’d know about mobilization in the county and through his old army comrades. They don’t need to wait for 2-3 years into the war and Sybil and Isobel to drag them kicking and screaming to do their part: for an aristocratic family, service and duty was something ingrained in them, but the Crawleys fail to demonstrate the public service that is expected of them and not doing anything would be commented on by friends and their wider society. Propaganda posters and newspaper articles during this period continually stressed the fact that the whole country was in it together – from the King down, high and low, rich and poor. The British royal family for a start from King George V, Queen Mary, their three older children and various relatives all did their part with the King even giving up alcohol, using the gardens at Buckingham Palace for the planting of vegetables and royal carriages and horses deployed to help transport soldiers to and from hospitals. Queen Mary was highly active in getting women involved through knitting and sewing comforts for soldiers in the front as well as establishing a fund for unemployed women workers which led to a working relationship with the trade unionist Mary Macarthur. Her only daughter Princess Mary worked as a nurse and started a fund which sent those now famous boxes filled with home comforts to soldiers and sailors serving in the Front. Even the old Queen Dowager Alexandra played her part with her hospital visits and expanding her Queen Alexandra Rose Day initiative to raise money for the soldiers.

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The above mentioned examples demonstrate that everyone was expected and encouraged to contribute to the war effort. Royal encouragement was a very powerful incentive and there was a lot of public pressure for instance over women sending their men to enlist (more of which I will touch upon in part 2). This is very much a time when people ‘look up to their betters’ who were in their turn expected to set an example. Going to church every Sunday. Setting a moral example. Sending your sons to enlist in the army and your daughters to be nurses. Giving up your home for use as a hospital. This was part and parcel of the duty that the aristocracy were supposed to live by and those who didn’t do their duty were very much frowned and commented upon.

This inertia on the family’s part reminds me of something that occurred to me as Downton Abbey progressed through the series – that Fellowes actually despises the values and outlook of the traditional established aristocracy and is pointing out their uselessness and unwillingness to get involved as a sign that they serve no useful purpose: but then I realised that really he isn’t at all interested in portraying historical events to educate and enlighten and entertain. It’s simply a distortion of history (something to which he’s very prone) in the interests of plot. The plot, of course, is that Mary and Matthew become man and wife, in course of time earl and countess in the inevitable happy marriage, and that when they take over Downton can flourish in the hands of a progressive, modern owner, not the backward looking one it suffers from now. The upper middle class boy elevated to the ruling class (and God forbid I should suggest that for Fellowes the character of Matthew Crawley is in any way autobiographical) will show the peerage how to run their estates in the bold and modern world.  Everything else, including global war, is a sideshow to serve that purpose.

Now I can already hear the cries of ‘But it’s fiction! A writer is entitled to do what s/he wants with historical events to create drama!’ and of course that’s true, thanks for proving my point for me.  It IS only fiction, not a documentary. Leaving aside the fact that complete historical accuracy is not achievable anyway and no-one with any historical knowledge would claim that it is, Fellowes is only following in the giant footsteps of Shakespeare when he re-writes historical fact to entertain and a great deal of historical writing is essentially dependent on interpretation anyway. There is a whole debate about whether or not the writer of historical fiction has a duty to present the facts and what sort of distortion and re-writing is acceptable in the name of entertainment that I don’t propose to start here. My objection is that throughout the six series of Downton Abbey we have been assured that it is historically accurate down to the smallest detail, and that a historical adviser is on hand to make sure that no errors slip through.

This, I can tell you, is arrant nonsense. For many people boo-boo spotting the errors in Downton became an entertaining minor sport: and if Downton Abbey had ended after a couple of series the slips up, solecisms and errors would have been no more than an easily forgotten petty irritation. As it was the series became a world-wide hit with millions of fans who regard Fellowes as an expert on this period and take his very partial and distorted view of history as gospel because of that oft-repeated declaration of complete historical accuracy – and in series 2 he doesn’t just re-arrange historical fact to suit the drama, he actively suppresses fact by declaring things to be true that definitely aren’t and that even a brief reading on the war show to be wrong. Like Robert not fighting because he’s too old and because he’s a landowner. That is my gripe – that he says categorically this is true and happened like this when truth is no it didn’t, it happened completely differently which I will touch more upon in the next part.

*Although, of course, we don’t know until a later series that he IS a Lord Lieutenant. That’s another plot device that comes and goes like Bates’ limp. Incidentally, for those who are wondering, the Lord Lieutenant of a county was at the time a leading aristocrat who was the monarch’s direct representative in his locality. Had we known that it would make Robert’s reluctance to have his home turned into a hospital even more ludicrous: as the crown’s representative people of all classes would look to him to set an example right from the start of the war, and there’d be questions asked at very high levels if he didn’t.

 

Further Reading:

Gavin Roynon (ed) Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee (Stroud, 2006)

Jerry White. Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London, 2014)

Terry Charman. The First World War on the Home Front (London, 2014)

Kate Adie. Fighting on the Home Front (London, 2013)

Lucy Lethbridge. Servants (London, 2013)

Fiona (Herbert) Countess of Carnarvon. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle (London, 2011)

Julian Fellowes. Downton Abbey: The Complete Scripts Series 2 (London, 2013)

Jeremy Paxman. Great Britain’s Great War (London, 2014)

May Byron (with introduction by Eleri Pipien). The Great War Cookbook (Stroud, 2014)

Lillie Scales. A Home Front Diary, 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Brian and Brenda Williams. The Pitkin Guide to the Country House at War 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Jessica Fellowes. The World of Downton Abbey (London, 2011)

Simon Greaves. The Country House at War (London, 2014)

Jane Dismore. Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain (London, 2014)

Diana Cooper. The Rainbow Comes and Goes (London, 1958)

Ian Kershaw. To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 (London, 2015)

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

Andrew Marr. The Making of Modern Britain (London, 2009)

Anne de Courcy. Society’s Queen: The Life of Edith Marchioness of Londonderry (London, 1989)

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2546026/Why-real-World-War-One-heroine-inspiration-Downton-Abbey-refused-accept-CBE-work-caring-wounded.html

http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/the-great-war/great-war-on-land/casualties-medcal/2383-millicent-duchess-of-sutherland-ambulance.html#sthash.2Hr8E9jr.dpbs

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01xtx6f/p01xtwvm

The Poppy as Remembrance

poppies

For millions of people the simple field poppy has been the symbol of remembrance for the war dead since 1920, and its adoption was inspired by a poem written by Canadian doctor Lieutenant- General John McCrae: who in turn was moved to write it by the death of a friend, Alex Helmer, in the second Battle of Ypres in 1915, when McCrae noticed how  poppies quickly grew around the graves of the war dead

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

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The rondeau was published by Punch in December 1915 and gained immediate popularity for its depiction of the sacrifice of so many men’s lives, and was also used in war propaganda and for motivation and encouragement.

Poppies became popular as an icon of public remembrance through the work of Anna Guerin of France and an American professor and humanitarian named Moina Michael of the USA, who took Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem, and devised a practical way of raising vital funds for wartime charities.

Moina Michael wrote a response to McCrae’s poem entitled We Shall Keep The Faith in 1918.

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

She vowed to always wear a poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war. Michael realised the need to provide financial and occupational support for ex-servicemen after teaching a class of disabled veterans at the University of Georgia, and pursued the idea of selling silk poppies to raise funds for them.

Moina Michael’s efforts inspired Frenchwoman Anna Guérin to suggest to the newly-formed British Legion that they should take on the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. The first ‘Poppy Appeal’ in 1921 used artificial poppies made by women and children in war-devastated areas of France.

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Because the money already raised for widows and orphans could not be spent on buying poppies until after distribution to the public, Madame Guerin agreed with the British Legion’s treasury to take responsibility for the poppy order from France on the understanding that they would reimburse her afterwards. The first ‘Poppy Appeal’ ended up raising £106,000. In 1921 Earl Haig set up the Earl Haig fund to assist ex-servicemen, and one of the ways that was done was the sale of paper poppies in the weeks before Armistice Day on 11th November.

The Founding of the Poppy Factory

The Poppy Factory was the brainchild and inspiration of Major George Howson, himself a serving soldier and founder with Jack Cohen MP of The Disabled Society in 1920 in response to the growing need for employment support amongst wounded veterans of the Great War. When he opened the original Poppy Factory in 1922, it was his “to give the disabled their chance.” Thousands of wounded soldiers, sailors and airmen were returning from The Great War without the means of earning a living, despite the promises of ‘a land fit for heroes,’ and Howson was sure he could do something about it.

George Howson persuaded Earl Haig that the Disabled Society should supply the appeal’s poppies to provide paid work for British veterans wounded in the war. Haig accepted and Howson was given a grant of £2,000 with which he set up a small factory off the Old Kent Road with five ex-servicemen. It was here that the first British poppies were made.

Howson wrote a moving letter to his parents of the news of the grant for the factory; “I have been given a cheque for £2,000 to make poppies with. It is a large responsibility and will be very difficult. If the experiment is successful it will be the start of an industry to employ 150 men. I do not think it can be a great success, but it is worth trying. I consider the attempt ought to be made if only to give the disabled their chance.”

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The workforce quickly grew to over 40 men and they made over a million poppies in 2 months. The Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) visited The Disabled Society’s Poppy Factory in November 1924. The factory made 27 million poppies that year. Most of the employees were disabled, and by then there was a long waiting list for prospective employees.

Within 10 years, the name had changed to The Poppy Factory and Howson was employing over 350 disabled veterans to make the poppies. The factory moved to Richmond in 1925 and in 1928 Howson founded the annual Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey.

Within just three years, the British Legion Poppy Factory (as it had become known) had outgrown the former collar factory premises in Bermondsey as the demand for poppies increased, so in 1926 it moved to the Lansdown Brewery site in Richmond on the Petersham Road using funds donated by Howson. The charity is still based in Richmond to this day.

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After George Howson’s death from pancreatic cancer in 1936, his coffin was taken to The Poppy Factory and surrounded by colourful wreaths and poppies. Every worker then took his turn to hold an hour of silent vigil in his memory.

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George Howson founded the first annual Field of Remembrance in the grounds of Westminster Abbey in 1928 with a small band of disabled factory workers. They grouped around two battlefield crosses, familiar to those who had served in Flanders and the Western Front, with a tray of poppies and they invited passers-by to plant a poppy in the vicinity of the crosses. In the first year, there were only two memorials – one dedicated to “Tommy Atkins” – a nickname for a rank-and-file soldier in the British Army – and one to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, who had died in January that year.

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In November 2014 the annual order for poppies and wreaths was the largest ever from The Royal British Legion, and the 2014 Poppy Appeal raised a record £44m for the charity. Whereas The Poppy Factory has to fundraise itself to support disabled veterans into the wider world of work, the cost of producing the poppies is recovered from The Royal British Legion. The Poppy Factory’s annual Field of Remembrance was opened in 2014 by HRH Prince Harry, and raised a record £35,000. The money raised at the Field is traditionally donated to The Royal British Legion.

 

 

With many thanks to Mel Waters and Bill Kay at the Poppy Factory for permission to use the information and photos on their site.

https://www.poppyfactory.org/

Twelve Hours of Danger a Day: The Women Munition Workers of World War One Part 2

See part 1 here

Women who worked with TNT were nicknamed “canaries” because of the effect of working with it – turning hair ginger and skin yellow. Traditional gunpowder had been replaced by materials such as cordite and sulphur which were mixed by hand despite being dangerous to human health, and despite the jocular name the colour was a warning sign of toxic jaundice.

“Our skin was perfectly yellow, right down through the body, legs and toenails even, perfectly yellow,” reported one Mrs M Hall after a ten-hour shift absorbing deadly levels of TNT; and yet even when they asked for masks they were told they could not have them because of the risks of dermatitis. In 1917 seven shell girls refused to handle TNT and were fined 15 shillings each by the London Munitions Tribunal, with the chairman telling them The work is very important though the circumstances are disagreeable. I should have thought that all would be anxious to do what they can, even at some discomfort and inconvenience to themselves, to supply this explosive which is so much wanted by our soldiers.

The women refused to pay their fines on the grounds of being volunteers and not conscripts. Despite warnings women continued to work working with it and many suffered from the effects of prolonged TNT exposure, including liver failure, anaemia and spleen enlargement. Belatedly the change in skin and hair colour was recognised as a sign that the affected workers should be moved to other tasks, although some women regarded it as a badge of honour and pride in their dangerous work, and even had their own song

 

Same as the lads

Across the sea

If it wasn’t for the ammunition girls

Where would the Empire be?

 

When in 1916 a jury found that a girl of 16, working in an explosives factory, had died from TNT poisoning,  the powers that be at the factory were quick to point out that this was the only death and that ‘only a small class are susceptible to TNT poisoning. This class were those under 18 and the Ministry of Munitions was taking steps to prevent the employment of anyone under 18.’ Tacit acceptance that the change in skin colour was a barrier to recruitment into the factories: and a haste to reassure that anyone over 18 was safe and it was the silly girl’s fault for working there when she was too young.

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When Zeppelin raids started munitions workers as much as ordinary civilians were on the front line, with the added danger of being surrounded by hundreds of tons of explosives. Gladys Kaye who was an overseer at Woolwich Arsenal described raids with typical British understatement

All our lights were put out when the Zeppelins used to come over…not only were the lights put out but all the doors and windows fastened from the outside so that we could not possibly get out. There was such a great outcry from the women that after a short time all the doors and windows were left open so that we could escape if a bomb did hit us. The Manchester Guardian of 8 December 1916 paid fulsome tribute

England is very proud of the pluck, endurance and determination of her munition girls….Zeppelin nights in some places have put a very hard strain on the nerves of these girls, who in some factories have spent hours waiting in black darkness, knowing that at any moment a bomb may explode the munitions piled beside them…the girls have come through the ordeal without panic or collapse.

Munitions worker Caroline Webb was equally laconic about the dangers. We had a big air raid one day and our manager came flying in: ‘Run for your lives, girls.’ Well, there was ninety tons of TNT stored there.

However, the real everyday danger came from industrial accidents. By 1917 women carried out 80% of all machine work on shells and fuses and operated heavy machinery such as overhead cranes. Explosions and accidents were common, but were hushed up with government censorship controlling what could be reported. The traditional problems with explosives were ever present and the precautions factories took must have gone some way to minimising risks, but it’s hard to gauge how much the workers in those factories thought about them from day to day. It was a world of manual labour and that was expected to exact a heavy price on both body and mind but simply had to be put up with. Even with careful handling catastrophe was always a threat and some accidents, could not be ignored – as Adie says, “Usually incidents were confined to ‘a factory in the north’ but time and again the flames in the sky and the shudder of explosions defeated the censors.” (p 140)

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At Barnbow in November 1916 there was an explosion room 42, where several hundred women were filling, fusing, finishing off and packing 4½ inch shells. Room 42 was mainly used for the filling, and between 150 and 170 girls worked there. Shells were brought to the room already loaded with high explosive and all that remained was the insertion of the fuse and the screwing down of the cap. A girl inserted the fuse by hand, screwed it down and then it was taken and placed into a machine that revolved the shell and screwed the fuse down tightly.

At 10.27pm a violent explosion in the room killed 35 women outright, maiming and injuring dozens more. In some cases identification was only possible by the identity disks worn around the necks of the workers. The machine where the explosion had occurred was completely destroyed. Steam pipes had burst open and covered the floor with a cocktail of blood and water. Workers from elsewhere hurried to help with bringing out the injured to safety, and within a few hours workers had volunteered to carry on with the same work to prevent production falling off. No official notice was taken in the press of the explosions apart from the many death notices in the Yorkshire Evening Post that stated, “killed by accident”.

The Silvertown explosion in January 1917, when 69 workers were killed and 400 injured (although figures are not definitive) after fire broke out in the melt-pot room of Brunner Mond & Co factory in east London was extensively described in eyewitness accounts

I am still trembling from the shock of a terrible concussion and distant roar that occurred ten minutes ago…it was only one explosion, over in a few seconds, so it can’t be a Zeppelin blowing up munitions works….two ladies said that the whole sky was lit up like a red sunset and then came the roar. (Georgina Lee).

Last evening I was sitting alone…when without any warning there came the most ghastly crashing explosion possible to imagine!…I tore upstairs to look out of one of our upper windows which faces the direction of Woolwich and the sky was all red and lurid and vibrating, and then I felt sure that the arsenal was blown up and the whole of Woolwich in flames! (diary of Ethel Bilborough)

Years afterwards a journalist friend told me that on the evening of this disaster she was working in her room in Bayswater* when the drawn blind suddenly lifted without a sound, remained horizontal in the air for a moment or two, then slowly dropped. There was no wind and she had heard no noise. (Vera Brittain)

The explosion was heard 100 miles away in Sandringham, and all buildings within 400 yards were completely demolished, half a million windows were broken in surrounding districts, while the blast leapt the river and destroyed a gasometer at Woolwich. The cause of the blast was accidental but rumours of sabotage found many believers.

Many women were leaving munitions work by this time, having found safer jobs that were relatively well- paid, and in response the Ministry of Munitions created a Health and Welfare section to stem the flow of trained workers. Laws were passed to force factories to provide protective clothing, seats in workrooms, washing facilities, drinking water and cloakrooms.

oooOOOooo

War nudged women into uncharted territories – not just in work but in play too. New economic freedom gave working class women the means to dress up after work and enjoy themselves – an affluence much resented in some quarters, and despite the dangers of their work many munitionettes seem to have had the time of their lives. Women who had previously had very little surplus income now had money for clothes, cosmetics and leisure. Many munitions workers expressed this new-found affluence through fashionable dress leading to muttering that previous class distinctions in terms of appearance were becoming eroded and confused.  Cosmetic houses such as Rimmel and Maybelline made powder, rouge and mascara – previously worn only by women of distinctly dubious virtue – affordable by working class women.

Just as women without paid jobs were finding themselves with more household chores as their maids were diverted to munitions work, so those women who had always known the aches and pains of hard physical graft and the evidence it left on the body were for the first time earning money that meant they could buy items that gave at least the illusion of being a lady of leisure – or as some commentators expressed it, meant that they were getting above their stations. One well-received product was Ess Viotto, which were violet scented hand drops. In case anyone thinks that the exploitation of personal insecurity for commercial advantage is a recent phenomenon, the advertising for Ess Viotto dispels any illusions on that score by declaring that Women who have been working since the war began…have been concerned with preserving the smoothness and fine feelings of their hands. Violet scented Ess Viotto provided what Lizzie Ostrom calls a trompe l’oeil in smell form: the illusion of leisure. The woman of the 1910s could, while out and about, drop on some Ess Viotto and instantly turn her hands into delicately scented objects of beauty rather than rough instruments of labour.

Of course there were the expected moral panics about women having their own money and what they might get up to with it when they were gallivanting around unchaperoned, and the horror of what women might get up to if left to their own devices and with money in their pockets meant that imaginations ran riot. If a woman had moved into the male sphere of work and dress (such as trousers), the arguments went, then they must be immoral and would take even greater liberties, like smoking and drinking in pubs and (whisper it) behaving sexually like men as well.

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The sight of hundreds of young women heading out to enjoy themselves after work started a widespread grumbling – that these women were aping men by smoking, drinking and wearing trousers, aping their betters by buying fripperies like ribbons, hats, jewellery and even fur coats and silk stockings. They were, it was implied in a phrase loaded with condemnation, no better than they should be. The press was full of stories about young women drinking in public houses with men, buying showy clothes  – ‘looking for all the world like flash barmaids,’ in the words of one enraged churchman – and going dancing and to the cinema and to many people these were sure signs of immorality. The tendency of munitionettes to buy showy clothes was particularly worrying in some quarters, as any display of finery by the working class woman was seen as upsetting class divisions and being the first step on the road to being a tart. But as Adie points out

The independence from home and opportunity to meet new colleagues from different backgrounds possible had more impact on women than the actual job. This was a liberation they had not had to fight for and had not expected.  To have money to spend, to be able to go to a pub without the family or neighbours tattling, or choose to go dancing or to the cinema without having to ask anyone’s permission, was freedom indeed. Unmarried women, even in their twenties, were meant to submit to their fathers’ wishes – such as ‘Be in by ten o’clock – or else.’ It was an era in which young women were told that wearing make-up was ‘fast’ or ‘common,’ and keeping your wages instead of handing them over to your mother was unheard of.  (Adie p 132) And she concludes

In one sense the country had got itself a new army, a vast cohort of women with a united purpose, wearing uniform and prepared to face danger – and if it got a bit unruly on Saturday nights, what did you expect? (Adie p 133) In her opinion, there was no mass flight to immorality, simply the move towards a greater confidence in themselves as women, workers and citizens.

With so much written about the risk to public morality of the new freedoms of working women, to maintain order and help male foremen and factory owners who had no time or inclination to deal with the problems of large numbers of women workers, the government appointed welfare inspectors— the Women’s Police Service, the forerunners of the first women police officers. Their job was to ensure safety by searching the workers and to patrol the factories to stop shirking, but also to try and control the morality of women workers by leading them away from the lure of drink and sexual relationships – particularly women who were married and whose husbands were away fighting. Understandably there was need for their work – many of the younger women had been in service before the war or had not worked at all, they were living and working away from home for the first time, had unaccustomed freedoms, money in their pocket and were generally wholly ignorant of sex and not in any sense streetwise. But the WPS faced resistance and resentment as one of them recalled

The girls here are very rough (Pembrey, in South Wales) and their language is sometimes too terrible…the previous Sub Insp had only one sergeant & three constables under her and they managed to get themselves heartily detested by all the workers, with the result that for a policeman to as much as show herself was a signal for all the girls to shriek and boo. They several times threatened to duck the Sub Insp & once did throw a basin of dirty water over her…but as she comments with unconscious patronage that must have enraged some workers but they are very influenced easily by a little oratory and go back to work like lambs if you shout at them long enough. This is class difference as an element of control.

 

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But when the war was finally won the government and much of the trade union leadership wanted to put the clocks back – at the 1918 TUC congress the Birmingham Brass Workers Union said that women should be prevented from doing heavy jobs to stop their “physical degeneration”. The retort from a delegate from the National Women’s Federation was, “Why, bless my soul, a woman who carries a child carries a heavy weight.” Miss Symons at the same congress said, “We want women on the same footing as men. When a man is taken on he is not asked to show if he can do the job as much as another man, but a woman has to go through the test, and wherever possible her wages are reduced.” After the war ended hundreds of thousands of women quickly lost their jobs and by the autumn of 1919, 750,000 fewer women were employed in industry. Accommodation for single women, canteens and day nurseries were shut down. In deals that had been agreed with trade unions women’s employment had been only “for the duration” and for many women domestic service was once again the only option. Stung by guilt and pity at the sight of war-shattered men returning from the front, women of all classes were encouraged to give up their jobs to former servicemen and concentrate on returning to their rightful domestic sphere to create nurturing homes for their husbands (if they still had them) and children. The wartime women worker was seen as an aberration as single and widowed women joined in the pressure for married women in particular to leave jobs: but the clock could not be turned back entirely. Women had found new independence. They had shown themselves and the rest of society that they could do jobs that before the war would have been unthinkable. They had seen that the government could organise state provision for them and their children when it needed to. But most of all they had experienced in greater numbers than ever before being part of the collective force of the working class.

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In 1920 Barbara Drake wrote a major study of women and trade unions and recognised this was one of the most important consequences of the war. She wrote that most of all what women workers learned, “which they did not intend to forget” was “the value of their labour and the power of organisation”. Whereas in 1914 there were 212,000 women working in the munitions industry, by the end of the war it had increased to 950,000. Christopher Addison, who succeeded Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions, estimated in June, 1917, that about 80 per cent of all weapons and shells were being produced by women.

The Great War freed women from centuries of taboos, restrictions and beliefs, overturning ideas about what women could do, what they were capable of and what could be demanded of them: and the women and girls of the munitions factories and arsenals were at the forefront of that liberation. A revolution was going on while the war was being fought – with their men at the front women took their places in factories, farms, shops and offices and slowly but surely changed for ever not only their lives but the lives of generations after them. The genie of votes for women and the right to work and be paid as men did and be as professionally respected was out of the bottle and wasn’t going to be forced back, however long it took to achieve those aims. As Dr Elsie Inglis said, when she heard that thanks to women’s work during the war the House of Commons was to discuss granting the vote to women over thirty – “Where do they think the world would have been without women’s work all these ages?”

 

Further Reading:

Blogs.some.ox.ac.uk Somerville and the Great War

http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/barnbow-lasses/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2411052/Incredible-photos-shed-light-working-life-Britains-women-First-World-War.html

http://www.barwickinelmethistoricalsociety.com/4746.html

https://gm1914.wordpress.com/2016/10/13/manchesters-industrial-war-a-view-from-the-factories/

Gavin Roynon (ed) Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee (Stroud, 2006)

Joyce Marlow (ed) The Virago Book of Women and the Great War (London, 1998)

Jerry White. Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London, 2014)

Terry Charman. The First World War on the Home Front (London, 2014)

Kate Adie. Fighting on the Home Front (London, 2013)

The Illustrated First World War: from the Illustrated London News Archive (2014)

Neil R Storey & Molly Housego. Women in the First World War (London, 2010)

John Masters. Fourteen Eighteen (London, 1965)

Lucy Lethbridge. Servants (London, 2013)

Shell Turning for Munitions Workers – facsimile published by Army and Navy Press

Carol Harris. Women at War 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Lizzie Ostrom. Perfume: A Century of Scents (London, 2015)

Trevor Royle. The Flowers of the Forest: Scotland and the First World War (Edinburgh, 2007)

Vera Brittain. Testament of Youth (London, 1978)

Nina Edwards. Dressed for War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing and Trappings 1914-1918 (London, 2015)

Graham Hill and Howard Bloch. The Silvertown Explosion: London 1917 (Stroud, 2004)

Notes:

*Pre-decimal coinage. There were 20 shillings to £ 1 sterling. In 1914 a shilling bought 5 pounds of meat, 4  pounds of sugar or 4 quarts of milk. Average wage varied from 26 shillings to 24 shillings for men, 10 shillings to 15 shillings for women.

*Bayswater was and is a suburb of west London about 12 miles from the site of the explosion.

Twelve Hours of Danger a Day: The Women Munition Workers of World War One Part 1

World War I cannot be said to have many silver linings, but it gave British women a newfound political and social confidence and the experience of those four years transformed the lives of millions of women in Britain. There is a myth that the war brought women into industrial work for the first time. In fact many women had always worked in industry—in coalmines, cotton mills and potteries.

But the war did change things. In the years leading up to the war, British capitalism had faced a crisis of rule on several fronts. There was a powerful revolt against imperialist rule in Ireland, waves of workers’ struggles and a militant movement demanding votes for women. The role that women played during the war as workers meant that their lives and expectations would never be quite the same again. Up to two million women moved into previously male-only industrial jobs and assumptions about what women were capable of were shattered. Suddenly it suited politicians to break from the ideology of women being incapable and weak, at least temporarily. Now they pushed women to the limits of endurance in the name of the war and patriotism, and the same ruling class that had stubbornly refused women the right to vote now pumped out propaganda demanding women serve the war effort.

Mobilisation and recruitment of men at the start of World War I was on a scale never seen before. On 7th August 1914 the Prime Minister asked Parliament for permission to sanction an increase in the army to 500,000 men. By the 5th September the PM announced that 250,000 to 300,000 men had enlisted and two days later that figure was amended to 439,000 men. Patriotic fires burned high, and by the end of 1914 1,186,337 men had enlisted; in the words of HG Wells, “No-one wants to be a non-combatant.” However, the numbers of men joining the army left a huge gap in the numbers of those available to do vital work.

There was however a potential army of women who wanted to do war work and were not being used.  A group of doctors, offering their services to the War Office in 1914 only to be told “all that was required of women was to go home and keep quiet.” (Undeterred, Dr. Elsie Inglis and her fellow Scottish suffragettes went on to establish the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Serbia and France). The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies had called a truce with the government to allow concentration on the war effort, so it was only a matter of time before these women decided that they were not being used effectively and would voice their demands. In March 1915 the Board of Trade issued an appeal to women to register for paid employment of any kind – clerical, industrial or agricultural. In the first week after the appeal 20,000 registrations were made but take up was slow and many women felt that their hopes had been raised and their time wasted.

The change came with the “Shells Scandal” of 1915. Sir John French, British Commander in Chief, confided to the editor of the London Times that a shortage of suitable munitions was directly responsible for the failure of the British offensive at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. That the British Army were experiencing a shell shortage was not in doubt. British munitions production was not operating at full efficiency nor anything close to it. David Lloyd George the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, believed that a radical improvement in the munitions industry was not only possible but necessary if Britain was to compete with Germany in a long war. The “Shells Scandal” was a factor in the fall of the Liberal government in 1915 and the creation of a Ministry of Munitions with Lloyd George at its head.

In July 1915 50,000 women marched through London petitioning to be allowed to work in munitions as a recognised labour force. Georgina Lee described it in her war diary as” a very inspiriting sight”.

Lloyd George replied to the Women’s Deputation. He said that nobody who had witnessed this most impressive procession could fail to appreciate the organising capacity of women….he promised that the women would be employed in unlimited numbers as they were wanted…but he explained that it would not be fair to pay them at the same rate for time work. Being untrained and unskilled, they could not get in as much work, of as good quality, in the same time as men. Lee remarked shrewdly I believe this Women’s Demonstration and Lloyd George’s acknowledgement marks a new departure for the Women’s Movement. It is, apart from patriotic motives, a clever stroke by the leaders of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. They have seized a glorious opportunity for women to show what they can do, if properly organised and if allowed to compete with men in spheres hitherto closed to them by law and prejudice.

Between 1916 and 1918 unprecedented numbers of women were working in occupations that would have been unthinkable for them in pre-war Edwardian society – gamekeepers, coal-heavers, road sweepers, railway porters and shipyard rivetters. The shells scandal brought about an unprecedented and revolutionary evaluation of women’s labour and its value, and The enormous transformation of British industry that followed depended…on women, not only to take the place of men but to do jobs that men had never even be asked to do in such numbers before. (Zeppelin Nights p101). The greatest impact of all the many extensions of women’s labour in the war years was most famously, of course, as munitions workers.

The terms “munitions did not just refer to the manufacture of shells but if a job involved “feeding the guns” of the war effort then it could be termed munitions work – but the largest number of women were employed in the manufacture of explosives, shells and ammunition. Existing factories were enlarged and “superfactories” were built, the largest being at Gretna where manufacture started in April 1916. Gretna was so big it stretched for 12 miles and included two towns for the workers, four massive productions sites, its own telephone exchange, power station and railway system to carry the workers to and from the factories. By 1917 it employed over eleven thousand women.

As munitions factories began to fill up with female workers, 400,000 women left domestic service to become “munitionettes”, attracted by the comparatively high wages. As with the men who joined the army, women went into munitions for a variety of reasons, not always patriotic. Despite the high flown rhetoric and sentiments of The Home Service Review (Women! Remember who you are. Remember that they eyes of a nation are upon you….remember that you are helping to write the greatest page in the history of Womanhood!) money was as powerful an incentive as patriotism for some, while for others anything was better than the myriad petty indignities of being in service. Before the war some 1.7 million women were domestic servants, more than worked in any other occupation. For these women war work was a revelation. Even the low wages were higher than they had ever earned before and they had more independence than live-in servants ever experienced. Ethel Dean left her job in domestic service to work in a munitions factory at Woolwich Arsenal in London and relished the freedom the job gave her. “When you were in service you couldn’t go out when you liked. When you work in the factories you’ve got your own time, haven’t you? You just go home of a night, wherever you live, and you can go out when you like.”

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For some it was a reaction to grief. In the time of dogs and novels, tennis rackets and golf, and sometimes even a spare hour spent with our babies, we talked of munitions as we had talked before of the North Pole. The papers spoke of shells and tool-setters, of enormous wages and cheery canteens, happy hostels and gay girl-workers, but how one found the key to this useful wonderland we knew not….when the dreaded telegram came at last, and everything was grey and bitter, we…made our way to the lowest level – the gates of the nearest ammunition factory…a scrubby little man with a grimy collar smote a grimier fist on the grimiest of palms….”Fifteen shillin’s a week and a war bonus: hours 6 to2, 2 to 10 or 10 to 6. Them’s the facts. It’s for you to choose.”

Like new recruits to Kitchener’s army, new munitions workers were required to give their ages as this affected their eligibility for dangerous work and extra pay, but years were added on without too much fear of detection. Basic education – all most women had anyway thanks to deep-rooted prejudice that education was damaging to the female brain – and physical fitness was enough. The majority of women were working class and lower middle class – nice middle and upper class girls tended to go into nursing or women’s services –  but there were exceptions. At the Vickers factory in Erith a number of titled ladies took to the production line and one diarist working in a factory remarked that the few really shabby ones are popularly supposed to be peeresses.  Whether that is so or not it is certain that persons with glittering handles to their names have occasionally entered our ranks. However, mostly the upper and middle classes stayed away from industry, preferring to do their war work as nurses, ambulance drivers, clerks, running hospitals and doing a myriad volunteering roles.

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It didn’t always go easily for the new workers. Some men did all they could to discourage them – giving wrong or incomplete orders or refusing to help to mend broken machinery; and for many women the new world of machinery was frightening. Women knew that they were suspected of driving down wages and taking male jobs. On the other hand there was genuine help to negotiate this new unfamiliar world – I have a copy of a booklet entitled “Shell Turning for Munitions Workers” that says in the preface The great majority of these workers have not even an elementary knowledge of engineering…the authors have therefore provided them with some elementary instruction to assist them when they get to work in increasing the output of munitions.

General reactions to women taking over the work of men was varied, from official encouragement to outrage, but tempered by the acknowledgement that it was only for the duration of the war. Many comforted themselves that once the war was over then women would be slotting back into their accustomed pre-war roles and status, while ignoring that women had been a sizeable part of the workforce before the war, that they had always worked in the home and on the land – and that a good deal of that work had been hard, physically demanding and often unpaid.

The process of putting women into jobs previously filled by men was known as substitution, and unions had accepted the necessity for women in factories to deal with the manpower shortages as long as they were not paid at the same rate as men. Munitions was the biggest single employer of British women in substituted roles and was controlled by the Munitions of War Act of July 1915. The act gave the government wide ranging powers to manage the way the munitions industry was run and to impose strict rules for the employment of the workforce, such as setting a limit on profits and outlawing strikes: and making it a penal offence for a worker to leave his or her job at a controlled establishment such as a munitions factory without the consent of the employer. In the negotiations leading up to the 1915‘Treasury Agreement’ with trade unions and manufacturers that allowed women into men’s jobs, it was set out that to protect post-war male wages a woman doing the same job as a man should be paid at the same rate. The famous circular ‘L.2’, which set out the levels of pay and working conditions for female dilutees in munitions works with its promise of ‘equal pay for equal work’ was issued in October 1915.

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Although the circular and the Munitions of War Act gave the government the ability to enforce equal wages in controlled trades, and set a minimum weekly rate of 20 shillings* for women doing skilled ‘male’ work, employers often circumnavigated the edict. ‘Male’ jobs were often ‘diluted’ (broken down into multiple processes) to avoid being labelled ‘equal work’ and to prevent women taking them over and hence undermining pay rates once the war was over – and while 20 shillings was a minimum, it came to be interpreted as a standard. Even if they were paid less than men the wages women could expect for working in munitions were far greater than anything they had earned before the war- from £6 (120s.) to as much as £10 (200s.) or £20 (400s.) per week.
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For that money, however, it was usual to submit to stringent safety checks before going on shift, then work an eight to twelve hour shift, with one and a half hours for meal breaks and Sunday the only day off, while lateness and missed days resulted in hefty fines. (Although it’s not as if women, particularly working class women, had been leading easy, work free lives prior to August 1914. Most people worked long hours before the war – a girl in domestic service would get one half day off a week and one full day a month and might work eighteen hours a day and there were no labour saving devices. Women, whether in the home or at work, were no strangers to ceaseless, thankless grindingly hard work).  The work was physically demanding – to and fro…carrying each time two shells…two for the machine and two finished from the machine. My head ached, my shoulders swelled, and the muscles in my calves felt lacerated. On and on till, unable to bear it any longer, I leant, utterly exhausted, against a pile of boxes…..’Gawd! Said Louie. ‘You ain’t half soft!’

The uniform consisted of a pair of wooden soled clogs, with slippers or gumboots for those working in the most critical areas, and a “National Shell Overall”, which was a drawstring cap and a flame retardant canvas or twill overall with a belted waist. No metal could be worn in the munitions factories so this meant no corsets, and long hair could get caught in machines so women started wearing it short. To allow women to work more easily – floor length skirts and petticoats were not conducive to rolling heavy shells around a  filthy, greasy-floored munitions factory – the outfit was soon supplemented with trousers, something no woman would have dreamed of wearing before the war. Trousers became a badge of honour to be worn proudly and mark out the wearer as a munitionette. Women working in male domains were a challenge to notions of conventional feminine behaviour, but the need for female labour and the wide representation in the press of trouser wearing ‘munitionettes’ became a recognisable mark of their industry and contribution to the war effort, even though it aroused unease to see women in such distinctively masculine attire. Some French women munition workers visiting munitions factories were so impressed with what they called ‘neat and commonsense trouser’ worn by the workers that they took samples back to France.

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As Adie says ‘If any single image caught the eye of the public, it was…trousers, modestly part-concealed below a tunic. ‘Disgusting’ was a much used description.‘ But as she also goes on to say, trousers for munition workers signified something more serious than the frivolity of mere fashion and women aping males. Trousers were smart and comfortable and they were deeply practical for women doing men’s work and as such were influential in marking an increased emancipation for those who wore them. As Adie concludes -‘their monarch might be horrified, their mother might be upset and the maids’ former employers might fear for their morals, but trousers had arrived.’

And not just trousers. Munition workers were now a vital economic resource for as long as the war lasted, and some interest was taken in keeping them fit and healthy enough to work under intense physical and mental pressure. The concern was much more geared to production than any innate sense of responsibility for the welfare of the workers as individuals, but canteens were provided, supplying plain but nourishing food. Some of the lady supervisors in factories noted that women were completely unused to being served plenty of food and having time to eat it – this was a society that took for granted that if money was tight, the greater share of food on the table went to the man of the house and then the children, and as a result some women were seriously undernourished. Then they began to realise that sitting down together, this could be a pleasurable time…the canteen was a revelation. Being together. Food and gossip. New friends and fun. All reinforced by a shared sense of doing a job that was valued, however dirty and tedious it might be. (Adie, p147).

While clothing had to be unadorned and jewellery – even hairpins – was strictly forbidden under pain of a 28 day prison sentence and summary dismissal, a variety of small nuances in dress created little islands of individualism and asserted femininity. A posy of flowers in a shell casing at a bench, brightly coloured ribbons instead of shoelaces, or a lace edging to an overall. Elizabeth Gore’s mother worked at Woolwich Arsenal:

My father…when there was a scramble for the seats on upper decks of the trams…said they were the toughest bunch of girls he had ever come across. But mother…admired their gaiety and fortitude and their bright conversation. Everything about the Arsenal tended towards drabness and monotony – the work, the clothes, the long hours, but the girls strove to introduce a touch of variety and even frivolity…the first fashion touch was a posy pinned to the gown, every shop having its own emblem. As these were confiscated during working hours, someone got the idea of substituting bright coloured ribbons for the government shoe laces. First the ‘cap shop’ girls…with emerald green ribbons in their shoes, the ‘new fuse’ girls followed with yellow and soon the whole Arsenal was in the fashion.

Given the nature of the work death was never far away in a munitions factory, where the atmosphere was noxious with toxic fumes. During the war 61 women died of poisoning, 400 from over-exposure to TNT and 71 were killed as a result of explosions. There were stringent precautions against anything that could cause a spark – things like matches, tobacco, hairgrips and corset clasps were banned and workers would be searched for them, yet safety measures were primitive, with little protective clothing. Photographs of munitions factories show women handling shells, working machinery and packing cartridges while dressed in their National Shell Overall and little else – no ear defenders, no goggles, no hard hats, but this was a time when heavy industry was accepted as dangerous or risky. ‘Health and safety’ and caring for the well being of employees only gradually became accepted as a way to get the best out of workers who were being called on to make superhuman efforts.

Part 2 continues here

The Battle of the Somme 1 July 1916-1 July 2016– a very personal memoir

Even after 100 years and when no-one who remembers it is alive, the Battle of the Somme and especially its first day remains a scar on the British psyche. The 1st July 1916 and the deaths in action of nearly 20,000 thousand men on that day alone has come to represent for many people the entirety of the Great War. Books, documentaries, battlefield tours and above all the annual commemoration of Remembrance Sunday  keep the memory of the battle fresh, but behind all the pomp and remembrance it’s easy to forget that the names on the war memorials were men known, loved and grieved for, and that every name carried a story of pain and loss for the ones left behind.

Until the late 1990s I’d always thought that our family was the exception to the truism that every family in the country was touched by the 1914-1918 war and for some reason always felt slightly ashamed of that. My grandfather was born in 1900 and therefore too young to enlist, but he joined the army as a boy soldier in 1914, either out of patriotism, being swept up in the fervour of the early months of the war or the thought that it was time to find a steady paying job and take some of the burden off his widowed mother’s shoulders and the army looked like a good bet. In this family picture he looks both proud and slightly pathetic in his ill-fitting khaki: as if a harried stores clerk, busy kitting out men to go to the front, had held the uniform up in front of him and thought it looked as if it would fit and it would do. In any case, what did it matter one way or another? There were more pressing things to attend to.

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I can’t remember that either my grandfather or my great-aunt, who was born in 1898, ever talked about the war in anything but general terms. Of course I regret that I did not ask them for their memories, but in retrospect there were small hints, especially with my grandfather (to whom I was very close and whose favourite I was) that even after fifty years he retained painful memories of that 1st July.

My grandfather was the third of four children and was born in rural Hampshire – his parents met when he was a coachman and she was a maid. The world they all grew up in is unimaginable now, with the slowness of its pace and the lack of the hundreds of small daily amenities we take wholly for granted – and of course it was a world where transport, especially in rural areas, was very much dependent on horsepower. As children growing up in Devon in the 1960s we spent many of our holidays in London with our grandparents, and I recall rushing to see my grandfather one day after a day out and proudly proclaiming that we’d seen horses and him laughing – because of course when he was a child horses were so ubiquitous they were not worth a comment. They drew ploughs and buses and vans and carriages – everything wheeled, in fact. What was worth remarking for him was something he told us that happened when he was about eight or nine – that the teacher had sent them all out into the school playground to see a flying machine – a brand new technology still in its infancy but which would take a dreadful momentum from war.

My great-grandfather died in 1910 leaving a young widow, four children, the eldest of whom was twelve, and no money whatsoever. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the village churchyard and the day my grandfather took me there to point out the place is the only time I can recall him showing any emotion over his father’s death or talking about him to any extent – and I can understand that completely. My own father died when I was thirteen and my brothers just eight and seven – and to this day I find it hard to talk about that. Even after decades some things just still are that difficult.

I’ve done a fair bit of reading about the Great War since the commemorations started, and I’ve wondered what it was like for my grandfather and his family and their Hampshire village. The news of war in the papers, the men he knew enlisting and marching off – relatives, neighbours, friends, the older boys at school – all determined to give the Kaiser a good kicking. They’d have heard in church every Sunday that God was on our side, and the more or less constant expansion of the British Empire over the previous hundred years had made defeat almost unimaginable. What young man wanted to be the one who held back when all his mates and relatives cheerfully did what their leaders told them was a civic duty? Then of course as the months went on during leave visits home the young man would see the signs in the windows proudly proclaiming A man from this house is serving in the forces; perhaps he heard the distant mutter of the guns in France, saw the street shrines to the fallen, and he’d have heard of the delivery of telegrams that every family dreaded with their messages of Missing. Wounded. Dead – and seen the drawn blinds that meant the death of someone in the house. Perhaps as well he felt, early on the morning of the 1st July, the shudder of the earth as nineteen mines were exploded one after the other on the Western Front as a prelude to the opening day of the battle of Albert.

All this, of course, is conjecture. What is not is the story of my great-aunt Martha, my grandfather’s elder sister. She was born in 1898 and when her father died she and the brother next to her in age were sent to relatives – my great-grandmother couldn’t support four children on what she made taking in washing. My grandfather and his younger sister stayed with their mother – Kathleen because she was the youngest and grandad because his mother thought he was so ugly no relative would want to take him. (He wasn’t. He was slight, fair haired and blue eyed).

Aunt Martha was the archetypal spinster aunt. She lived near us in South London, my grandfather visited her nearly every Saturday and often took me along. She spoiled me and my brothers and cousins, made us cakes, gave us money and presents at birthdays and Christmas and generally gave the impression that she loved the company of children and their noise and mess. I don’t remember giving any thought to why she wasn’t married – she lived with my great grandmother until the latter’s death at the end of the 1950s, went out to work at a solicitor’s where she was a valued employee, had a wide circle of friends and an active social life. If I did think about it I assumed that she had missed her chance of marriage thanks to the deaths of so many men and was one of what were cruelly called in the 1920s ‘surplus women’ – those who would never fulfil what was regarded as their natural function of marriage and motherhood.

She lived to be 100, independent almost to the end, and died just after her hundredth birthday. On the day of her funeral I travelled home with my uncle’s sister in law Josie and heard a completely unsuspected side of the woman I’d taken for granted.

In 1916 Aunt Martha was eighteen years old and had a boyfriend her age or a little older. He, like millions of men, had enlisted, knew he was going to France and they wanted to marry before he went, but both sets of parents – or rather mothers – said that they were too young. Knowing he was going to France he and my great aunt threw caution to the winds and made love. He went to France, was killed in the battle of the Somme, and my great aunt found that she was pregnant. (Josie turned to me at that point in the story and said,” she said to me, we only did it once because he was going away.”)

Of course her story was never going to have a happy ending. Being unmarried, with no prospect of a husband, pregnant and living in a society where illegitimacy was a social stigma that marked both mother and child for ever was going to make sure of that: and my great grandmother by all accounts embodied all the worst traits of Victorian censoriousness and narrow mindedness. In retrospect it is hard to blame her – perhaps she knew from her experience of widowhood that life would be hard enough for my great aunt without the added burden of a child and was little chance of a husband, let alone one who would take another man’s baby. Perhaps as well my great grandmother was very well aware that they lived in a society markedly unsympathetic to a woman perceived as sexually transgressive and she didn’t want that reputation for her daughter. No doubt there were admonitions about bringing shame into the family and that Martha was “damaged goods”. It’s one of the things people now don’t understand because pregnancy out of wedlock now doesn’t carry anything like the same stigma – unlike in the past where it could be a source of a lifetime of extreme shame for both mother and child. For a working class woman like my great-aunt, her reputation was everything. Whatever the reasons, a termination was arranged (illegally and no doubt expensively), and my great aunt embarked on her long life of spinsterhood.

Did she have regrets and cry in the night for what she had lost, or catch herself watching children as they played? Was it horribly traumatic or did she bury it all deep down and try to forget? I have no idea (although she was a woman who had a twinkle in her eye and once told my brother she would have on her grave stone “Martha Ruffle, missed, but not as much as you think she did!”)

Certainly she remembered her lost love and his child even at the end of her life. She and my grandfather came from a world where you did not inflict your emotional pain on anyone, no matter who you were, high or low. You stiffened your lip and your spine and jolly well got on with the hand life had dealt you. My grandfather certainly recalled the sacrifices of that July – he was usually quiet and withdrawn every 1st July and even less talkative than usual. Perhaps he was recalling friends and neighbours, his sister’s lost love and what she’d sacrificed thanks to war, or perhaps as a professional soldier of 40 years standing his grief and silence might have been not just for the men he knew but his knowledge and anger that the first day of the Somme was, in the words of another soldier (talking this time about the retreat from Dunkirk), an almighty great fuck-up. One that irretrievably changed the lives of people he knew and loved. Anyone would be silent thinking about that.

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Thiepval Memorial to the missing credt Chris Hartford London

Thiepval Memorial

I have no idea of the boyfriend’s name, what regiment he was in or when he was killed, whether it was the first day of the Battle of the Somme or the last or some day in between. I do not know if he has a grave somewhere or if he was one of the many missing whose only memorial is a name carved in stone. Perhaps somewhere there is a family who still talk about great uncle so-and-so, killed so young fighting for his country and what a waste of a life – I like to think there is.  I do make sure that every November three crosses are placed in the Garden of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey – one for an unknown soldier and two for a woman and child who were as much victims of an industrial war machine as any man who went over the top to his death.

Further reading:

http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/space-into-place/subterranean-sanctuaries-beneath-the-somme/

Jeremy Paxman. Great Britain’s Great War (London, 2014)

Richard van Emden. The Somme: The Epic Battle in the Soldiers’ Own Words and Photographs (London, 2016)

Lyn MacDonald. Somme (London, 2013)

Gary Sheffield. The Somme: A New History (London, 2004)

Martin Middlebrook. The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916 (London, 2016)

Peter Hart. The Somme (London, 2008)

Joshua Levine. Forgotten Voices of the Somme (London, 2009)

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3666866/Relaxing-carnage-Heartbreaking-photos-troops-eve-Somme-100-years-ago.html

Note:

Many thanks to my brother Robert the family historian and archivist for invaluable and detailed family information and carefully checking my anecdotes.

 

The Battle of Jutland: Public reaction in the aftermath of the battle

Background: In the shadow of Trafalgar

Throughout the nineteenth century the Royal Navy was held in high esteem by the British public – even more so than the army. Being an island nation, the British relied on the seas as a barrier against invaders and her navy, which was considered the most powerful in the world, helped consolidate Britain’s status as a Great Power.

While the public and those involved were justifiably proud of the Royal Navy’s achievements, there was also the awareness that the late 19th and early 20th century navy was in the shadow of the greatest victory achieved by the Royal Navy – Trafalgar – and its commander Nelson, whose exploits continued to be lionised and held up as the gold standard not just for the Royal Navy but the British public. As the Battle of Jutland would demonstrate, Nelson and Trafalgar for good and ill would have serious consequences as while individual stories of courage and heroism would recall Nelson’s famous signal that “England expects that every man will do his duty”, what worked in securing that decisive victory at Trafalgar would prove to be inadequate at Jutland and expose several weaknesses in the strategy, tactics, communication and even basic health and safety procedures in the navy.

However that was still far away in the 1890s when Britain’s position as mistress of the seas was challenged by Germany. Under the new emperor, Wilhelm II – himself half-British – Germany began building up its navy, which stemmed partly from the Kaiser’s intention of protecting German interests and that she must have her “place in the sun”. This ambition for the German navy was also inspired by his summer holidays in Britain especially at the Isle of Wight where his maternal grandmother Queen Victoria had a summer residence, Osborne House. When he was made an honorary admiral in the British navy, the Kaiser was so overjoyed that he told a courtier, “fancy wearing the same uniform as St. Vincent and Nelson, it’s enough to make one feel giddy.”

While Germany built its navy, Britain watched with a mix of wariness and suspicion further fuelled by scare stories about espionage and a possible invasion in the papers and in popular fiction. The launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 sparked an arms race between Britain and Germany as both countries tried to outdo each other in the number of ships they could produce and add to their respective navies. By 1914, Britain had 28 dreadnoughts compared to Germany’s 16. With this superiority in numbers, the British press and public expected that should there be a head to head encounter with Germany, the Royal Navy would triumph and replicate Nelson’s feat at Trafalgar.

The man chosen for this task was Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (1859-1935), a naval officer who had participated in campaigns in Egypt and China. He was popular with his men, competent and well respected however he was viewed as too cautious. Winston Churchill once said that Jellicoe was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” His second in command, Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty (1871-1936) was a contrast to Jellicoe: while the latter was cautious, analytical and unshowy the former was impulsive and cavalier. Even in their personal lives, the two men could not have been more different – Jellicoe’s private life was quiet and conventional while Beatty was an illegitimate son who had courted scandal further by marrying a wealthy American divorcee. The marriage eventually soured: partly bought about by his wife’s lack of understanding of the demands of his naval career and duties as well as her selfishness and narcissism. Their personalities would reveal themselves during the battle where Beatty’s impulsiveness and carelessness would result into making parts of his squadron vulnerable to the German fleet while Jellicoe’s caution meant that lives were saved in the long run.034

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The Battle of Jutland: Public reaction

On 31 May 1916, the British and German fleets met off the coast of Denmark and went head to head in what became known as the Battle of Jutland. In 36 hours it was all over but the public had to wait until 3 June before the first accounts of Jutland were being reported in the papers. What was reported did not exactly provide comfort the public who were expecting a Trafalgar part 2 and Jellicoe to be the new Nelson.

Jutland_DT

There were reports of appalling losses of life, especially on the Indefatigable and Queen Mary which sank when magazines on the ship exploded because the safety doors were kept open throughout the battle. Both ships sank within minutes with the loss of around 2,266 lives.  The death toll and the number of ships lost were noted down by a local woman from Kent, Ethel M. Bilbrough and interestingly she makes a comparison and contrast of the number of lives lost between Trafalgar and Jutland:

This morning comes news of our first naval battle in the great war, for up to now the Germans have kept their fleet well boxed up in port. We have lost heavily, as our main fleet was not in the North Sea where Admiral Beattie’s [sic] squadron was attacked by the Enemy with her most powerful battleships, cruisers, and torpedoes, aided by three Zeppelins to throw search lights etc., and to guide them which way to go. A most unequal fight to start with, and our splendid “Queen Mary” sank in two minutes, and others followed suit before the main fleet could get up to their assistance. Our losses were appalling, about five thousand four hundred  killed, whereas in the great battle of Trafalgar only about 400 lives were lost – far less than there were in the “Queen Mary” alone, which had over 1,000 souls. And its dreadful to think of the poor little “middys”, lads of sixteen having to go through what must have been a veritable hell upon Earth, Two admirals killed, and 333 officers. All England is bewailing, and no wonder.

This was echoed by Georgina Lee who mentioned the terrible loss on HMS Invincible:

There has been a great naval battle in the North Sea, and it was very serious in our losses. With a naval force which included 28 battleships and 5 battle cruisers we attacked a powerful German fleet of 34 off the coast of Jutland, with the result that we have lost 3 battleships Queen Mary, Indefatigable and Invincible and several other warships. Over 2,000 men on the Invincible died: there were only 6 survivors.

But two days later, the Admiralty began to issue bulletins and reports in the papers which reassured the public that Jutland was a British victory despite the losses. The Daily Mirror trumpeted on 5 July that “German losses are heavier than the British” while The Times reassured their readers that “Britannia still ruled the waves”, something which was reiterated by Georgina Lee:

The Battle of Jutland is now being viewed in the light of a British victory, as news comes into the Admiralty of fresh German losses. It is now stated that the Germans lost 18 ships to our 14. This, taken with the act that the Germans fled back to their harbours and that Jellicoe remained in possession of the high seas, goes to show that our Fleet got the best of the encounter.

Eventually as more facts became known and were reported, the public demanded answers but overall there was satisfaction that the Germans did not dare challenge the British again. As Lillie Scales wrote in her diary:

On Monday the papers spoke quite differently – telling of numbers of German ships sunk, and that our strategy had been most wonderful, and that the German fleet would have been annihilated if a fog had not come on, and the day closed in before we had had time to reap the fruits of our victory, for it was a victory, the German fleet scuttling off for all it was worth and leaving us masters of the sea.

A century on, controversy still rages on about what went wrong at Jutland and who really was the victor but then as now, what was clear that Jellicoe and Beatty failed to deliver the knockout blow of a decisive victory that ensured Jutland would equal Trafalgar in the annals of great British naval victories. When the surviving ships returned to Britain after the battle they were greeted with boos and shouts of “cowards” while Admiral Jacky Fisher the man most responsible for the Dreadnought project after learning of what happened at Jutland, wailed “they had failed me!” which more or less summed up public disappointment of the outcome of the battle and his own desire to crown his career as the St. Vincent to Jellicoe’s Nelson.

 

“I Need a Hero”: Jack Cornwell VC

The aftermath Battle of Jutland undermined confidence in the Royal Navy and damaged its reputation in the eyes of the public. It also weakened national morale; as stories of heroism during the battle made their way into the press, one more than others captured the popular imagination – Boy First Class John Travers Cornwell or better known to the public as Jack Cornwell or Boy Cornwell.

His background and how he came to be in the Royal Navy was typical of the period. Born into a working class family in Leyton, Essex (now Leyton, east London), Cornwell left school at the age of 14 to work as a delivery boy and a year into the First World War enlisted in the Royal Navy without his parents’ permission. After training he was assigned to HMS Chester where he was posted as a gunner. During the battle, Cornwell remained at his post awaiting orders despite his comrades lying all around him dead or dying. Badly wounded but still refusing to abandon his post, he was finally rescued and transported back to Britain where he died of his wounds at Grimsby Hospital.

1916 battle of jutland

Cornwell’s exploits and conduct during the battle captured the public imagination and over the next few weeks and months after Jutland, his image was circulated widely in the papers and his gallantry was immortalised by a portrait by the society artist Frank Salisbury. A campaign for Cornwell to be awarded the Victoria Cross was begun as well as to bury him with full military honours. The Daily Sketch noted that “England will be shocked today to learn…that the boy-hero of the naval victory has been buried in a common grave”. On 29 July 1916, Cornwell was buried with full military honours at Manor Park Cemetery and on 15 September, the London Gazette announced the awarding of a posthumous Victoria Cross to “Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell, O.N.J.42563 (died 2 June 1916), for the conspicuous act of bravery specified below. Mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, Jack Travers Cornwell remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders, until the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all round him.” His mother finally received the award at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 16 November.

Times July 31 1916

The lionising of Cornwell as a hero had its roots in the Crimean War which was the first conflict to be covered from the battlefield first hand by war correspondents. While the papers reported military disasters and appalling conditions on the front, there were also stories of bravery and gallantry displayed by ordinary soldiers and sailors. The institution of the Victoria Cross in 1856 was one way to recognise the bravery and gallantry of the ordinary soldier and sailor and the public began to see them as heroes.

The failure of Jutland in becoming another Trafalgar lead to general disillusionment over the navy and its officers and the bravery of Cornwell and other sailors went into some way into restoring confidence in the Royal Navy. With the conflict both on land and sea not going well, the British public needed heroes and Jack Cornwell’s exploits provided a boost to national morale. During the rest of the war and even to this day, he has been held up as a role model especially for the young.

Conclusion: A Pyrrhic victory?

Each side claimed victory but never again would Germany go head to head with the British at sea. During the rest of the war, they resorted to U boats which forced the Navy to adapt the convoy system to guard Britain’s food supply and the transporting of civilians across the Atlantic. As several historians have pointed out, Britain might have lost the battle but in the long term they did win the battle of the Dreadnoughts. However controversy still rages over what did happen and what could have happened had things been different. New research and advances in technology has meant that the wrecks could be examined more thoroughly and help us learn more about what really happened in those 36 hours

Upon hearing news of the battle, Kaiser Wilhelm II exulted that “the spell of Trafalgar has been broken” and on one hand, he was right as despite having several advantages, the British failed to score a decisive victory. On the other hand however, the British retained control of the North Sea and the Germans were unable to penetrate the blockade imposed by the Royal Navy.

A month later, the Battle of the Somme would mean that Jutland was pushed out of the headlines and it became increasingly clear that another sea battle that could finish off what Jutland started would never materialise. In the end, the shadow of Trafalgar still looms large even a hundred years on. If one goes to Trafalgar Square, there are a pair of memorial fountains and busts of Jellicoe and Beatty that commemorate Jutland but the busts are tucked away in a corner of the square behind the column that bears Nelson’s statue which literally and figuratively is a sign that both men will always be condemned to be in the shadow of Britain’s pre-eminent naval hero.

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Further reading and viewing:

Innes McCartney. Jutland 1916: The Archaeology of a Naval Battlefield (London, 2016)

Nick Jellicoe. Jutland: The Unfinished Battle (Barnsley, 2016)

Gavin Roynon (ed.). Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee (Stroud, 2006)

Ethel M. Bilbrough. My War Diary 1914-1918 (London, 2014)

Lillie Scales. A Home Front Diary 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Jonathan Sutherland and Diane Canwell. The Battle of Jutland (Barnsley, 2007)

Andrew Gordon. The Rules of the Game: Jutland and the British Naval Command (London, 1996)

Correlli Barnett. The Swordbearers: Supreme Commanders in the First World War (London, 1963)

John Winton. Jellicoe (London, 1981)

Charles Robert Beatty. Our Admiral (London, 1980)

George Bonney. The Battle of Jutland (Sutton, 2002)

Robert K. Massie. Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany and the Winning of the Great War (London, 2004)

Robert K. Massie. Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War (London, 1991)

S.W. Roskill. Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty (London, 1980)

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/jutland-100th-armageddon-sea-case-study-leadership-jim-rossi

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZH5AwLuJ2E

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pob1PVA9MeY

Jutland: WW1’s Greatest Sea Battle (Channel 4 UK documentary) – first telecast on 21 May 2016

The Battle Of Jutland: The Navy’s Bloodiest Day (BBC documentary) – first telecast on 31 May 2016

http://www.jutland1916.com/understanding-the-battle/

 

Exhibitions:

Jutland: WW1’s Greatest Sea Battle – at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

36 hours: Jutland 1916, The Battle that Won the War – at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth

 

Notes:

Photos of portraits of Jellicoe and Beatty in the National Portrait Gallery London and busts in Trafalgar Square taken by blogger

All other photos from the internet, Times article of Cornwell’s funeral screenshot taken by blogger