One hundred years ago people and politicians around the globe were contemplating a new world order following more than four years of war. In Britain, January 1919 and the following months were marked by strikes, civil unrest and military mutinies. The flu pandemic continued its deathly march. The month also saw the beginning of the Paris Peace Conference which lasted into the summer concluding with five treaties formally ending the war – including the Versailles Treaty signed 28 June – and the formation of the League of Nations.
As a nation we have spent the last four years commemorating the centenary of the First World War (FWW). A hundred years on from this cataclysmic event and we are living with its legacy – with regional conflicts that have their origins in the war; with advances in medicine (reconstructive surgery, improved anaesthesia); with the music, art, literature and poetry produced during and after the war; with universal suffrage; and with a landscape shaped by war.
But what of the legacy of these commemorations? What will future generations find when they delve into early 21st century archives and history books, looking for evidence of how we remembered? Without doubt they will find an amazing amount of new, high quality research that has changed our understanding of the Great War. But have the commemorations reflected this changed narrative or have they reinforced the myths and iconography associated with First World War and which are embedded in our collective memory? Some historians are asking whether the last four years have been a lost opportunity.
From a personal point of view it feels as though much of the national commemoration did focus on traditional themes and symbols such as the mud and blood of the western front, the experience of the war poets, the silhouetted soldier. There have been some stunning artistic responses to the centenary, commissioned by 14-18 Now, including Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Jeremy Deller’s We’re Here Because We’re Here, Danny Boyle’s Pages in the Sea and film-maker Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old.
But these have also drawn criticism. 14-18 Now estimates that 35 million people engaged with their commissioned events, but historians Professors Maggie Andrews, of the University of Worcester, and Sarah Lloyd, of the University of Hertfordshire, question whether people critically engaged or merely encountered them. Were these national events, exhibitions and installations sufficiently challenging of historical myths?
There has been much work on myth-busting over the past four years but it can be tough going up against advertising executives and picture editors who are not historians. An enduring myth, reinforced by TV adverts and wrongly credited photographs, is that the Christmas Truce of 1914 happened throughout the western front and that football matches were organised between German and British troops. Neither is an accurate picture of what happened. (Check out Dan Snow’s mythbusting articles for the BBC.)
At a regional and local level, however, I feel very positive about the projects and events that have taken place. Over the last four years much of my work as an education officer has focused on researching Wiltshire’s role in the First World War and passing on that learning to others, especially primary school teachers and pupils keen to make the most of the local history study that is part of their curriculum.
Another aspect of my work has been supporting other organisations in delivering the educational side of their FWW projects. My colleagues in archives and local studies have also been busy acquiring new collections and publications that support the study of the Great War.
The number and range of FWW projects in Wiltshire has been impressive and sadly I cannot list all of them, but a good place to start is the History Centre’s own Wiltshire at War – Community Stories project.
Beatrice’s Illustration of the Anatomy of a Bat (from 4313/2/3)
Alongside our parish, ecclesiastical and local government collections, the History Centre is also home to many fascinating personal archives. I have recently completed cataloguing one such collection; the papers of the ecologist Beatrice Gillam (1920-2016). Beatrice was a dedicated observer of wildlife, and a vociferous advocate for the county’s natural history. As the cataloguing project comes to a close this seems a timely opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of this local hero.
Beatrice’s interest in ecology began in her childhood, partly spent in Exmouth where she enjoyed exploring the local countryside. She began her career as a teacher of natural history and physical education in Somerset and later became an occupational therapist. But Beatrice never lost her interest in wildlife and in the 1950s took evening classes in natural history through Bristol University. This led to the award of a mature scholarship at London University to study zoology and botany in 1963. In 1966, she gained a Certificate of Proficiency in Natural History. Beatrice’s study notebooks give us an insight into the teaching of natural history at this time.
Beatrice’s Drawing of a Whinchat (from 4313/10/1)
Observer and Campaigner
Beatrice devoted many hours to observing wildlife at numerous sites across the county, and used diaries and notebooks to record species sightings and their behaviour. Beatrice also took part in many national and local wildlife surveys. Even when she was well into her seventies, Beatrice was out in the field, contributing to initiatives by the British Trust for Ornithology, such as their survey of skylarks (1996-1997) and annual Winter Farmland Bird Census (in the years up to 2000). Thanks to her long-standing commitment to many such surveys we can develop a picture of the changes to species population over time. Another component of the collection are the reference files which Beatrice compiled on butterflies, snails, ladybirds, deer, bats, grasses and many other species. These files typically contain printed articles, correspondence with conservation groups and habitat surveys.
One of the best things about my job is visiting different museums around the county, seeing behind the scenes and finding out about all the exciting things that are happening. Last week I was lucky enough to go to two museums and get a peek at things not normally seen by visitors.
First up was a visit to the Fox Talbot Museum https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lacock-abbey-fox-talbot-museum-and-village/features/learn-about-the-history-of-photography in Lacock, with the Wiltshire Museum Group. The Museum tells the story of the history of photography, from the very first photographic chemical processes to the modern smartphone. It also celebrates the life and work of William Henry Fox Talbot who lived in Lacock Abbey. A Victorian pioneer of photography, Fox Talbot created the earliest surviving photographic negative, taken in 1835, of a window of the Abbey. Upstairs there’s a gallery with a changing temporary exhibition programme, which explores photography as an art form.
Curator Roger Watson, told the group about a current project to acquire and manage the Fenton Collection. Thousands of photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries were collected by James Fenton, along with a wide range of photographic technologies – including cameras, exposure meters and stereoscopic viewers. He displayed them in his own Museum of Photography on the Isle of Man, before donating them to the Museum of the Moving Image in 1986. All the items had been in storage since the museum closed in 1999 and last year the British Film Institute had donated them to the National Trust’s Fox Talbot Museum.
Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund www.hlf.org.uk and the Prism Fund www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/prism the project has brought the collection to Lacock, where it is being catalogued and cared for, including being re-housed in a newly created store.
The new store is built inside one of the traditional buildings in Lacock – from the outside you wouldn’t be able to tell what’s kept within. A room has been built inside the barn to house the objects. This is insulated to help keep the environment stable and the conditions the best possible to ensure the preservation of all the treasures kept within.
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.
Conservation has been undertaken on a rare Visigoth Brooch here at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. We were honoured with a visit by the finder of the artefact Matt Smith, who came for a tour of our facilities and to view the work being undertaken.
Thought to be only the second of its kind found in the country the iron and copper alloy brooch has been identified as a late 5th, early 6th-century AD type, predominantly found in southern France and central Spain. The brooch was uncovered during excavations undertaken by Operation Nightingale and Wessex Archaeology at Barrow Clump on Salisbury Plain.
The brooch formed part of the grave goods associated with one of the female burials on the site, and Matt’s first solo grave excavation. Significantly, well preserved organics remain on the surface of the object with the weave of the fabric visible through the microscope.
The brooch arrived at the conservation labs after x-radiography revealed the decorative copper alloy inlay. Still covered in corrosion products and soil from the burial environment, clues to the presence of preserved organics were just showing through the soil covering. Cleaning started slowly with scalpels and pins under the microscope to remove the soft chalky soil and reveal the extent of the organics.
Now that summer fades away and crisp/wet autumn arrives, one would expect the museum staff in Wiltshire to take advantage of the impending winter months and retreat into their archives until spring. However, there is still much to see and visit throughout the county – indeed an intrepid traveller could embark on a grand circular tour this weekend, starting at Royal Wootton Bassett, then heading south west towards Trowbridge, due south to Mere and return via Market Lavington.
The museum at Royal Wootton Bassett is an iconic site in the town. Half-timbered, supported on fifteen pillars and dating from 1690, the former town hall was a gift from Lawrence Hyde, MP, (later the Earl of Rochester) to the citizens and incorporated a store room and a lock up or Blind House for drunks and other undesirables, used before local police stations contained their own cells. The building has seen many uses, including a school and a courtroom. After extensive restoration in 1889 the town library was based in the town hall and since 1971 it has housed the museum.
Currently, the museum is marking the closure of the Wootton Bassett railway station back in 1965 with an exhibition and marvellous scale model depicting the station in the 1960’s. Visit the slide show telling the story of the station and its various buildings and its early links with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Look at railway life through the eyes of a signalman and discover the impact of the Swindon rail works on Wootton Bassett.
Royal Wootton Bassett Museum is open every Wednesday and Saturday (10-12).
Travelling across the county we reach the administrative centre of Trowbridge and its wonderful museum which is situated in The Shires Shopping Centre. The museum collection covers Trowbridge and outlying villages and contains a multitude of artefacts relating to the history of the town including its past industries and notable townspeople, one of which was Sir Isaac Pitman, developer of phonetic shorthand. Trowbridge Museum is located on the second floor of Salters Mill, the town’s last working woollen mill which closed in 1982. The cloth industry was a huge factor in the town’s development and in 1820 the place was nicknamed the ‘Manchester of the West’ with over twenty cloth-producing factories - the museum possesses one of only five Spinning Jennies left in the world.