Military

Poems and stories inspired by the Arctic Convoys

on Tuesday, 23 May 2017. Posted in Archives, Military

 

The final piece of the Arctic Convoy project has just been completed – and what a resounding success.

The History Centre joined forces with writer and arts facilitator Dawn Gorman to work with a group of young people on a creative writing project using the Second World War Arctic Convoy oral histories as source material. We approached St Laurence School in Bradford on Avon and the Chippenham Air Scouts to recruit youngsters to the project.

We were knocking on an open door at St Laurence as we had worked with the school in 2016 on the Iron Duke project and we knew there would be students eager to hone their creative writing skills. Four students signed up to the poetry workshops being run by Dawn.

To be fair the Scouts were a slightly trickier audience, even with the promise of earning another badge if they took part. Dawn and I attended one of their meetings and spoke with around 20 youngsters, mostly aged 11-13 and mostly boys, about the stories of the Arctic Convoy veterans and the idea that anyone and everyone can enjoy creative writing!

I had brought with me Second World War magazines, a selection of photographs of veterans interviewed by the History Centre in the first part of the project, and a medal presented by Russia to British sailors who had served on the convoy ships.

This brief session prompted two of the Scouts to share with the group that their great grandfathers had been sailors on Royal Navy ships escorting the merchant ships carrying supplies to Russia. In the end we had four Scouts signed up to the workshops and they were joined by a member of Corsham Sea Scouts.

The starting point for the creative writing was to listen to the stories told by some of the Wiltshire veterans of the convoys. These oral histories and their transcripts can be accessed at the History Centre. On our website we have uploaded a series of short films with abridged versions of the oral histories and it was these recordings that were used in this project.

Dawn worked in school with the Year 10 and 11 students on poems inspired by these men’s stories while the Scouts took part in a more structured series of workshops held at the History Centre.

The boys created both poetry and storyboards based on the Arctic Convoys. Dawn worked with them on “found poetry” – creating poems from pre-existing text – the five senses and creating a hero profile and story. 

Trowbridge shows its sympathy

on Tuesday, 16 May 2017. Posted in Archives, Military, Wiltshire People

P56517

I was recently cataloguing an early 20th century postcard for our Historic Photograph & Print Collection which was quite unusual; it was commemorating the death of two gunners called Harrild and Murray. Included on the front of the postcard were photographs of each of them. I really wanted to find out more. What happened to these men and what were their full names? Even a location for the event wasn’t clear, so I needed help!

After a timely tweet, Trowbridge Museum came up trumps and confirmed that the men had been stationed at Trowbridge Barracks and had been involved in an accident with the funeral being held on 30th July 1909.

My next port of call was to a local newspaper, the Wiltshire Times, where on Saturday 24th July 1909 the inquest was reported. The two gunners were Sidney Harrild (age 19) and Richard Murray (age 26), and another, Gunner Wells, who was seriously injured. It appears that the gunners were removing primers from shells although there was a debate around whether the powder was also being removed. The powder in seven of the cartridges exploded, with “terrible results”. The funeral was also reported, occurring slightly earlier than we thought, on 27th July.

Wiltshire Times

“With full military honours, the remains of Gunners Murray and Harrild were laid to rest on Tuesday afternoon, the awfulness of the tragedy and the solemn progress through the streets of the soldiers with their dead comrades combining to make this occasion one that will not soon be forgotten.”

Parish War Books

on Tuesday, 09 May 2017. Posted in Archives, Military

I’ve been producing documents for the public from the archives for 21 years, during which time I’ve come to know the collections quite well. There are several extremely interesting collections that are very under used. One particular collection is the Parish War Books (WSRO F2/851/3/1 – F2/851/4/52) which are a very interesting piece of local history.

WSA 2601/5

The Wiltshire Parish War Books have their origins with the Napoleonic Wars when there was a real threat of invasion from the French. In 1798 a plan was drawn up to make provisions in the event of this happening. Titled “Rendering The Body Of The People Instrumental In The General Defence” it laid out three plans. The first was to cut off the food supply to the French by moving all the live stock away from the enemy advancing. Another measure was “Breaking the upper millstone and the crown of the oven are deemed the most effectual and least expensive modes of derangement”. Second, was to supply the number of wagons, carts and horses with drivers and conductors that could be made available to help supply the British Army with provisions. Lastly, a plan for insuring the regular supply of bread to the army with instructions for bakers to bake loaves of three pounds or four and a half. A hard crust all the way around was needed otherwise they would not keep in hot weather.

Copyright Imperial War Museum

Fast forward 143 years and the risk of invasion was once again upon us. By mid 1940 German forces had invaded France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. “Operation Sea Lion” was the code name for Nazi Germany’s invasion plan of the U.K. during the Battle of Britain. In preparation, invasion committees were set up around the country.

First World War Tunnels at Larkhill

on Tuesday, 25 April 2017. Posted in Archaeology, Military

I have written before about some of the amazing finds at the site that will become the Larkhill Service Family accommodation. Archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology and White Young Green have been ensuring that the archaeology has been excavated, with archaeologists from the Wiltshire Council Archaeological Service (mostly me!) helping to ensure that anything affected by the development is properly excavated and recorded. We’ve had Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age finds, including a Neolithic causewayed enclosure, a new (probable) henge and an enclosed settlement (with associated roundhouses). I’ve also mentioned before that we have the remains of a First World War training battlefield, with what has turned out to be over 8km of trenches that have been excavated by the archaeologists and unexploded ordnance specialists that have been working on the site (an example of some of these trenches are shown in this picture – the trenches are white from the excavated chalk being backfilled into them. The second photo shows part of the trench system).

In addition to the trenches, we can now reveal that the practice battlefield also included tunnels and dugouts. On battlefields, dugouts were used for lots of reasons, including troop shelters, medical posts, headquarters and stores. Their position underground meant that they were less likely to be affected by bombs, shells or bullets. We have a number of these at Larkhill, along with a number of tunnels. Both sides dug tunnels into no-man’s-land in order to lay mines that could blow up the other side’s trenches. Counter trenches were also dug to try to stop this. Tunnels were also used as listening posts (listening for the sound of the other side’s digging).

(These pictures show the entrance to one of the dugouts, with steps leading down, and another with a cob wall and doorway forming a room inside.)

The presence of these tunnels and dugouts (along with the trenches, ammunition, grenade fragments and food containers – amongst other things!) show that the troops training here were learning to undertake all aspects of trench warfare. They may well have come from all over the Commonwealth, but we know for a fact that we have people from the Wiltshire Regiment, drafted West Yorkshire coal miners, Manchester Scouts and troops from Australia. We know this thanks to the over 100 pieces of graffiti that have been found written on and carved into the chalk of the defences. Sometimes the graffiti was written in soot from candles, but more often if was written in pencil on the chalk.

Penruddock’s Rebellion – Wiltshire’s Royalist uprising of 1655

on Tuesday, 29 November 2016. Posted in Archives, Military, Wiltshire People

The joy of working at the History Centre is that every day is a learning day with the added pleasure of discovering treasure!

My latest magical tour through the archives has taken me back to one of the most turbulent and important times in our history – the English civil wars, the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the fight to restore the monarchy.

Illuminated chancery document showing Oliver Cromwell, 1655 (2057/D4/81)

I was hooked the moment a beautiful chancery document from 1655 appeared in our office. Archivist Steve Hobbs dug out the document for our recent open day and it had not just one, but two remarkable features: a superb portrait of Oliver Cromwell and a complete Commonwealth Seal showing parliament on the obverse (front) and a map of the Commonwealth – England, Wales and Ireland – on the reverse.

Seal attached to chancery document showing parliament

The illuminated document (2057/D4/81) is part of the Wilton House archive and relates to the estate of the Earl of Pembroke. I was not too concerned with the content (although it was in English as opposed to Latin). It was the portrait and seal that drew me in to a fascinating period in our history and opened up all sorts of questions about how power and authority are conveyed through images as well as words. Here I was, handling (very carefully) a 361-year-old seal and looking at a contemporary portrait of Oliver Cromwell, the ruler of an English republic!

O for Oliver

I would have been happy if this journey into 17th century Wiltshire had stopped there. But it didn’t – it was just the beginning of a voyage of discovery that took me to documents written by a condemned man, heartfelt letters from his wife to Cromwell and then back to a document signed by a king who lost his head.

As the education officer here at the History Centre I look for ways our archives can support learning for all ages. I mentioned the Cromwell portrait and seal of 1655 to an historian friend who has been teaching the English civil wars and interregnum for 20 years. She responded immediately with two words – Penruddock’s Rebellion.

I have to confess that Penruddock and his rebellion had passed me by (my areas of expertise are the 20th century, early medieval and pre-history), and I felt somewhat shamefaced to discover that this short-lived but significant event began in my hometown Salisbury.

So off I went to fill this rather glaring gap in my historical knowledge and was rewarded with a fascinating story and a treasure-trove of documents from our archive and John Penruddock himself. The story is one of plot and intrigue, of secret (or not so secret) societies, and of paying the ultimate price for ones beliefs.

Wiltshire's Enemy Aliens (Part Two): Collar the Lot!

on Saturday, 12 November 2016. Posted in Archives, Military, Wiltshire People

By the end of 1939 and the early part of 1940 most of the 70,000 ‘aliens’ – immigrants – living in Britain had been sent before a tribunal which assessed their loyalty to Britain, after which less than 600 were classed as high threats to British national security and imprisoned, usually as a result membership of a Nazi organisation. This relatively tolerant policy was to change dramatically in May 1940.

Between the outbreak of war and early summer of 1940 the military situation of Britain and its allies had gone from relatively optimistic, to precarious, to potentially disastrous. The Norwegian Campaign had been a failure, France and the Low Countries had been invaded and overrun, the British Expeditionary Force had been trapped and nearly destroyed at Dunkirk, and a German invasion attempt seemed highly likely. To make matters worse, Italy joined the war against Britain on 10 June 1940.

Nationally, this sudden change in the outlook of the war exacerbated already simmering anti-alien tensions. It was not thought possible that the Germans could overrun France and Belgium so quickly under normal circumstances – that they had collapsed so soon was taken as proof that they had been undermined from within by German agents posing as immigrants. Combined with Britain’s difficult military situation these (unfounded) accusations led to a hysteria in which any alien, even those previously classed as loyal, was seen as a potential traitor. The government responded to this panic by ordering the arrest of all enemy aliens: when discussing what to do about Italians living in Britain, Winston Churchill is said to have demanded that the police “collar the lot!”.

The files of the Wiltshire Constabulary here at the History Centre show how this mounting hysteria gripped the county. On 28 May 1940 the Chief Constables of England and Wales wrote to the Home Office to say that: "It is not felt that the slightest reliance can be placed even on those aliens who have produced the most excellent credentials and whose conduct has hitherto been apparently innocuous, as it seems reasonable to expect that that any enemy agent ... will be extremely circumspect until the time comes for him to take action."

What’s interesting about this letter is the way that the language used to describe aliens living in Britain had changed since September 1939. Whereas at the start of the war aliens were deemed innocent unless specific evidence of disloyalty was found, by late May 1940 the police were suggesting that aliens should be assumed guilty of subversion unless proven otherwise. The best response to this, the security services felt, was simply to arrest all enemy aliens in Britain: “under the present circumstances the County Chief Constables feel that the only safe plan is to intern every enemy alien”.

The effects of this suspicion were soon felt in Wiltshire. On 29 April 1940, the Home Office wrote to Wiltshire Police instructing them to begin preparations to deal with Italians employed in sensitive locations within the county; in the event of hostilities between Britain and Italy these people were to be off immediately on receipt of a coded Home Office telegram. In response, the police began to draw up lists of all Italians then in Wiltshire; police records here at the History Centre show that 17 Italians were identified, 5 men and 12 women, giving their names, addresses and occupations.

 

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