Wiltshire at War: Community Stories is a five year Heritage Lottery Funded project, aiming to discover, explore and share stories about Wiltshire’s response to the First World War. Since 2014 we’ve travelled the county collecting stories of the amazing men and women who were affected in some way by the war a hundred years ago, such as ‘Fiesty Aunty Olive and the Women’s RAF’, ‘Young Freddy Butler – from the farm to the Royal Flying Corps’ and the ‘Soldiers and Sailors Free and Easy Club’.
While we’ve written about the project before, it’s worth taking another look as we’ve just launched the fascinating fourth exhibition – ‘Keeping the Home Fires Burning’. This explores how the war affected everyday life in Wiltshire, including the new roles taken on by women, rationing, daylight saving and the refugees who fled to England from Belgium.
The new exhibition was launched on Friday 3rd March at Athelstan Museum in Malmesbury. A large crowd gathered for the event and following the official opening of the exhibition, musician and singer Louise Jordan took to the stage. Louise spent a year researching and writing songs about the remarkable women involved in World War One, who are often overlooked in conventional histories.
The title of Louise’s show ‘No Petticoats Here’ is inspired by Sir Arthur Sloggett’s words to Dr Elsie Inglis. Elsie graduated from the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women in 1892 and started working with the poor in Edinburgh. Through this work she became aware of the needs of greater rights for women and was an active suffragette. When war broke out, Elsie offered her medical knowledge and expertise, coming up with the idea of treating wounded soldiers from mobile hospital units, run entirely by women. When she presented the idea she was told by Sir Arthur:
‘My good lady, go home and sit still. We don’t want any petticoats here’.
Not to be discouraged, she set about raising the funds to set up hospitals and field units across Europe, staffed by over 1000 women, often in dangerous situations. A truly inspirational woman whose contribution deserves to be remembered.
Louise weaved beautiful melodies through the fascinating tales of these women, with plenty of audience participation along the way! We learnt about many incredible women including engineer Hertha Ayrton who amongst other achievements invented a fan to clear poison gas from the trenches, Louise de Bettignes a French spy employed by the British army and Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, keen motorcyclists who joined Dr Munro’s Flying Ambulance Corps on the front line.
Also celebrated was one brave woman who is already familiar to Wiltshire at War – Dorothy Lawrence. In 1915 Dorothy was a teenager living in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury, with ambitions of becoming a war correspondent for the newspapers. Determined to report on the fighting in Europe she set out from England by bicycle, heading for the Somme. With a uniform borrowed from soldiers she met along the way she posed as Sapper Denis Smith, spending 10 nights on the frontline before giving herself up.
Since joining the team at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre as a ‘Transforming Archives Trainee’ with The National Archives, life has certainly been full! Over the last 5 months I’ve been involved in several HLF funded projects, completed a university module on Education and Outreach, have undertaken various in-house training sessions on traditional archive skills, as well as attending training conferences in London, Bristol, Manchester, Warwickshire, Gloucester and Dorset. In a few weeks I’ll be off to Edinburgh for another ‘basecamp’ week, training with The National Archives and Scottish Council on Archives. How time has flown!
Something that has struck me deeply over the course of my traineeship so far, which I’d like to share here, is a realisation about the vast importance of learning from our history - particularly the individual lives and stories of people who have gone before us.
Working on the ‘Wiltshire at War: Community Stories’ project, which focuses on the lives and culture of Wiltshire and its residents during WW1, has brought this home to me most of all. Traditionally, when remembering the World Wars, historians tend to concentrate on military or political strategy, and we subsequently have a multitude of movies, books and magazines concerned with the armed forces and the battles they fought. Whilst this is all fascinating information, the Wiltshire at War project seeks to collect and share the stories and memories of the individual people across Wiltshire, who lived through the troubled times of 1914 -1918. We feel it’s equally important to understand how the Wiltshire community adapted during this time, how life continued, and what individual sacrifices were made. What support did Wiltshire provide to the war effort? How did people across the county ‘pick up’ their lives again, once peace was declared? How did they cope with so much change? The project seeks to bring all this community history back into the community, and to share those stories through our fantastic website and ongoing exhibitions.
Recently I was publishing a story which came to us via our Wiltshire at War Twitter feed. It’s the story of a young farmer’s son called Freddie Butler, who grew up on Rookhaye farm in Bowerchalke, and tragically died in a flying accident whilst serving with the Royal Flying Corps. I was looking at a photo of Freddie as a child feeding hay to one of the horses, happy as can be. I wondered about that child – his hopes, dreams, memories... In that one moment captured through a camera lens, he, like all the people around him, had absolutely no idea what was to come. I wondered too about Freddie’s mother, shown in a separate photo – how did life continue for her, after the loss of her beloved son?
Looking at some of the family photos that have come in with other recent stories - some dating back as far as 1905 - I find myself peering at each individual face, pondering the complex network of unique memories, life experiences, struggles, choices and relationships that each, single person represented. Was it even possible for those individuals to comprehend that, in the not so distant future, these photos and associated stories may be all that’s left to prove that they even existed? Questions then arise in me that are fundamentally about the human condition: What lessons can we learn from these people and their experience - fellow human beings who lived 100 years before us, in circumstances even more challenging than our own? If I consider that in another 100 years, researchers might be sitting at a desk and pondering photos of me and my family, reflecting on the lives we perhaps lived – might I now choose to live mine differently? What legacy would you choose to leave?