Researching the Home Front of the First World War in Wiltshire

on Tuesday, 02 September 2014. Posted in Archives, Events, Military

I don’t know about you, but when I think of the First World War the first thing which comes into my mind is barbed wire and mud – and all the associated horrors of trench warfare. This is probably the result of reading the War Poets at school, and watching the film ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ at an impressionable age! As I have got older I’ve read more widely about the War and learned how it impacted on civilian life, as well as on the front line troops. I have been amazed by the scope of that impact, and by the way in which aspects of life on the Home Front (which I had previously assumed were introduced in the Second World War) such as rationing and evacuation, actually had their roots in the First World War. One blog cannot do justice to this topic so I’m just going to touch on a few aspects of the War’s impact on Wiltshire. We hope to uncover more stories of life on the Home Front through the Wiltshire at War: Community Stories project in collaboration with Wiltshire’s museums http://www.wshc.eu/blog/item/wiltshire-at-war-community-stories.html

The first way in which the War impacted on Wiltshire was through the existence of the military training camps on Salisbury Plain. The population of Wiltshire prior to the war was 290,000. During the war an extra 180,000 people are estimated to have visited Wiltshire for military training, either in army camps or on the newly formed airfields. After war broke out in August 1914 there was a massive programme of building new huts for the troops, who otherwise had to sleep under canvas, or were billeted out in the community. Wiltshire building firms and other businesses supplying goods and services to the military prospered during the war, and there were improvements to road and rail links, and the water supply, to facilitate use of the camps. It is estimated that Wiltshire was the centre for training a tenth of all troops based in the UK. It was also the centre for the newly formed Royal Flying Corps (afterwards the RAF.)

The second main impact of the war was on civilians. Men, women and children helped to support the war effort through making munitions, farming, fundraising, sending supplies to the troops, volunteering for civil defence and nursing the wounded. Shortages of fuel and food, rationing, the threat of air raids and the absence of the men fighting in the armed forces changed their daily lives. For the first time civilians were vital to the war effort, fighting on the first real Home Front. Women in particular had their lives transformed through the freedoms which War brought, and gained new skills and a greater diversity of work. The civilian story can be traced through published sources such as newspapers and books, and through original archive material, some of which is held at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.

We are holding a workshop on Wednesday 10 September, 9.30-12.30 at the History Centre, to help people with research into the Home Front. The workshop costs £5.00 and places can be booked on 01249 705500.

If you are unable to attend the workshop, please see: http://www.wshc.eu/world-war-1-resources.html#Resources1 for a list of sources which could be useful for researching the Home Front, including newspapers, letters, diaries, printed ephemera and so on. This list also gives a link to a PDF including detailed descriptions of some particularly relevant archives, but this is by no means exhaustive. Please also see our archive catalogues at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/a2a and http://history.wiltshire.gov.uk/archives/archive_search.php

Newspapers and published sources such as parish magazines will be useful for giving a sense of how the war was impacting on civilians, both in terms of news stories but also through advertisements (however do bear in mind that censorship became widespread after the first few months of the war). Official records such as minute books of local authorities or school log books kept by head teachers will also be useful to see what was happening in individual communities. For even more detail about the stories of individuals, it could be possible to use letters, diaries, school admission registers, hospital records, photographs and so on, which will be contained in the archives of private individuals, charities, hospitals, schools and businesses. The best way to find this type of information is by using our catalogues as mentioned above.

Other useful sources of information:
‘Wiltshire and the Great War’ – by T S Crawford, first published 1999, reprinted in 2012
‘Fighting on the Home Front – the Legacy of Women in World War One’ by Kate Adie, published 2013


The Imperial War Museum has a huge amount of material which is helpful for anyone researching what life was like on the Home Front – see for example:
http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/rationing-and-food-shortages-during-the-first-world-war
http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-womens-land-army-in-pictures
The Red Cross has its own archives – see: http://www.redcross.org.uk/About-us/Who-we-are/History-and-origin/First-World-War


Claire Skinner, Principal Archivist, August 2014

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