We receive a number of interesting questions from those researching different themes around the First World War and Everyday Life. In this section we share some of these topics with a wider audience. If you would like to respond to any of the thoughts below, or have sources or information which would be helpful then please follow this link to our community forum where we can start conversations which will enrich all our research. https://community.historypin.org/c/collection/first-world-war-centenary
Q: How did women cope with everyday life during the First World War? Do you have any ideas for things we could explore?
The subject of women and how they coped with life during the war offers a real range of topics to explore. The image of women during the war which often springs to mind is of smiling girls in munitions factories or on farms, but these were just a small number and women’s experiences were also tied in to their age, family responsibilities, economic situation, local geography, and a range of other factors which then as now might mean very different responses to the situations in which they found themselves. It is also worth bearing in mind that topics such as Conscientious Objection and Resistance to War are sometimes told as if they involved only men, but many women took a political stand against conscription and the war, and support networks relied on women for disseminating news, organising meetings and supporting the families of those who were imprisoned.
Below are some ideas for the sorts of things you might like to think about. There are a wide range of sources which can be helpful. As a first step, newspapers are a great resource as you will find here details of daily life in your location, plus it is a way of picking up mention of women in a number of roles which otherwise might get lost. Do remember that newspapers do have their own particular editorial policies and opinions so don’t just take things at face value, but for uncovering the stories of what might be called anonymous women as they go about daily life newspapers do give us an enormous amount of valuable material. Another rich source are parish magazines which can give details of local families, initiatives around growing own food, collections for charities; the contributions of the sort of people who would otherwise be lost to us
Where you will find women and (if you are lucky) hear their voices
- Organising social events e.g. Sunday School treats at Christmas, summer picnics, fetes etc.
- Running local charities as fundraisers, organising charity events
- Campaigning on issues such as food shortages, inflation, queues, rationing.
- Joining local government committees e.g. Food Control Committee, Women’s Agricultural Council, War Savings Committee and Military Tribunals – the last is quite rare but there are some examples of women taking a role. It is interesting to see just which women were approached to take on these roles – are they the wives, daughters, sisters of those men who are already involved or are women putting themselves forward for these posts?
- Moving in to new areas of work – often commented upon and held up as a good example for others to follow although often there are concerns expressed around the threat to women’s morals, especially where working alongside men. How welcoming are their male colleagues? Are they recognised as skilled workers? What is the attitude of the unions? You can pick up some idea of numbers from reports of the applications for exemption to the Military Tribunal by business owners.
- Magistrates’ court for examples of petty crime by women and the attitudes of the magistrates to things like scrumping by children, or keeping children away from school to work or queue for food as shortages hit. Very often it is the mothers who come to the court to defend themselves and gives you an idea of how they are managing.
- Advertisements – give an idea of what women are buying
These are just a few ideas to get you going. You might also like to click on the tags or keywords on our website to see what other groups have been doing and how your own research compliments what they are finding. There are common experiences to all areas, but the value of local projects is that they can offer new thoughts and evidence of how women experienced everyday life in the war.
Q: Can you help with some ideas for starting research on what was happening in our village during the First World War?
There are quite a few sources which can help with uncovering the local story and it might help to think in terms of the particular areas in which you are interested.
The men who went away: the obvious starting point for this is any surviving local memorials; rolls of honour in churches, chapels, schools or – if you are very lucky – local businesses, plus of course the local war memorial. Using the names of the men – and occasional woman – listed, you can cross-check their details with the 1911 census. This is available online at www.findmypast.co.uk and www.ancestry.co.uk . It is a subscription service, but local libraries offer access for free if you are a library member. The census will give you information on where the individual lived, who they lived with, their age, occupation and where they were born.
Another source is the Trade Directory which covers your area. Some Trade Directories are available online at http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16445coll4 and these are free to search. Again, the local library or record office may hold hard copies of directories covering a wider range of years in their reference section. These will show details of the local worthies, businesses, schools, charities, etc. You may also find details of individual streets and the people who lived and worked on them, although this will only really happen for larger towns.
The local newspaper is a fantastic source for discovering some personal details of those men who were in the military. Many carry photographs of men who enlisted and sometimes there will be a group photograph of men from the same family or local employer. Those who died or were wounded would often receive a small write up in the paper, often with extracts from their letters from the front line.
There are numerous records available for finding details of the men who served. A good starting point is the Imperial War Museum’s guide to finding family history which has lots of links and useful information http://www.iwm.org.uk/research/tracing-your-family-history
The value of the census and the trade directories is that you get so much more than just an individual’s name; you can see him or her in the context of their neighbourhood and start to build up a picture of where the people of your part of the world worked, shopped and found their entertainment. This can then lead you on to consider the stories of those who stayed at home.
Those who stayed at home:
Farming, Food and Rationing – Sources and Questions
For an overview of this theme see Rachel Duffett’s blog on Food and the First World War https://everydaylivesinwar.herts.ac.uk/?p=195 or Julie Moore’s piece on Farming in the First World War where you will find suggestions for a wide range of sources which can help to build up the picture of the local experience, the problems people faced and how they organised themselves, both officially and unofficially https://everydaylivesinwar.herts.ac.uk/?p=320
It is worth checking with your local record office to see just what has survived for your area; a particularly rich source are the Minutes of the Local Food Control Committee where you may find lists of local businesses, caterers etc. applying for special rations and detailing how many men and women they have working for them. You can also see how shortages were impacting on local events as there will be applications for additional amounts of sugar etc. to make cakes to sell at fetes or feed children at parties, community sports days etc.
Newspapers are a fantastic source for discovering how life carried on as normal in so many ways. Looking at the notices of films, theatre performances, exhibitions, concerts, lectures etc. can give you a real sense of how people entertained themselves; one interesting aspect is how people were concerned to provide entertainment for the children of those whose fathers were away.
Advertisements are a great way of seeing how local businesses tapped into the war to promote their goods and services.
A good mini-project is to see how events such as Christmas are celebrated, and whether there is evidence of any change as the war goes on and food shortages worsen.
The Military Tribunals as a way of researching local stories
The introduction of conscription saw the setting up of Military Tribunals across the country to hear applications from men who did not want to join the army. They had a range of reasons, from a conscientious objection to harming another individual, to seeing their role as the village’s last remaining butcher as of more value to the war effort than becoming one more soldier on the front line. The accounts in local newspapers of the cross-examining of these men throw up some fascinating insights into how the local economy functioned; some businesses were thriving as they picked up contracts to supply the military with equipment, from firearms to boots, whilst others were struggling to attract workers or customers.
At the end of the war, the government instructed local authorities to destroy their tribunal records as they were seen to be potentially divisive in the post-war climate. However, some officials, either through oversight or a sense that such records should be kept for posterity, did squirrel away their records and for those people lucky enough to live in those areas there is a fantastic array of material available.
A number of projects are taking place at the moment on working with these records so it is worth contacting your County Record Office to see just what they have. You can see some more ideas on how to research this subject at https://everydaylivesinwar.herts.ac.uk/?p=290 and there is a link to a list of areas where some records still survive.
You can also access a film of a workshop held on the value of the military tribunal to local historians which was held at the University of Hertfordshire in 2015 at https://everydaylivesinwar.herts.ac.uk/?p=1659
Q: Can you help with ideas for researching the availability and use of herbs during the First World War?
Answer: This was a really interesting question which came in to us from an HLF project in Arundel (www.arundelmuseum.org ). We sent out a request for help to members of the Centre. Owen Davies, who has worked on popular medicine, was aware of concerns around shortages of herbs for medicinal purposes during the war as the main suppliers were Germany and Austria. A search of the British Newspaper Archive online revealed there were real concerns around this dependence on foreign herbs; as an item in The Dundee Telegraph put it, ‘It is astonishing to discover how insidiously our German enemies have, within the last half-century, invaded even the precincts of our gardens’.
The British Newspaper Archive can be found at www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk . It is a subscription service but you can search for free to identify possible items of interest. It can also be accessed for free at the British Library www.bl.uk and it is worth checking your local library to see if they offer free online access. A reminder that any researcher can access material at the British Library, but will need to join first so check their application procedures to save a wasted journey.
If you are not able to access the newspaper search facility, but do have access to newspapers in your local library then a good starting point for checking out local initiatives would be from spring 1916 onwards as this seems to be when concerns around shortages really kick in, although the government were aware of the potential problems around supply from the start of the war.
A quick online search revealed articles in newspapers from across the country, and in particular on the formation of a National Herb-Growing Association which was set up in spring 2016. It was not just about encouraging people to grow herbs in pots to fill the gap left by the failure of imports, but had the larger aim of meeting the demand for herbs for the chemical industry.
Of particular interest are the references to the Women’s Herb Growing Association. A search for the association in google books https://books.google.co.uk/ throws up mention of them quite frequently in 1916, including this in a suffrage journal
An alternative source was suggested by Centre member, Jennifer Evans, who works on early-modern medicine. Her thought was that books on botany, cookery books and medical herbals aimed at the popular market which were published during the war might offer insights into which herbs were particularly valued or in short supply. A search of the British Library online catalogue www.bl.uk threw up several including:
David Ellis, Medicinal herbs and poisonous plants (1918)
Medicinal Herbs and their cultivation (1915) in Archives and Manuscripts
M.A. Fairclough, The ideal cookery book (1919)Again, though, check with your local library or archives as many of these hold older material which is of local interest but may not be on the open shelves.
There is also a lovely image of Girl Guides collecting herbs which can be accessed for free at http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205288420 This is clearly a staged photograph which was one of many taken of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides ‘doing their bit’ during the war. It’s not clear what type of herbs the girls are gathering, but it is a lovely photo.
If anybody knows of the existence of the archive for the Women’s Herb-Growing Association, or has ideas for alternative sources, then do get in touch. This is a fascinating subject and appears to be one which has not received a lot of attention from researchers.
 ‘Women’s Herb-Growing Association’, Somerset and West of England Advertiser, 10th March 1916, p.2.
Q: Why, when tracing ancestor FWW service, do you sometimes see fractional numbers before the regimental names, e.g. 2/4th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry?
Answer (With thanks to Nicholas Mansfield): At the beginning of the war, part-time regiments of the Territorial Force, were each asked to raise a separate second line unit, as part of the enormous expansion of the forces. (Volunteers for Kitchener’s New Armies were in a separate parallel development.) Pre-war Territorial soldiers only had to sign up for home service and though at the war’s outbreak a majority volunteered for overseas duties, a sizeable minority did not, so these individuals were transferred to the second line unit which were stationed in the UK for training duties. Examples include the 6th Suffolk Regiment, 6th Royal Sussex Regiment and 1st Cambridgeshire Regiment where 40% opted to stay at home. It was even higher in the county Yeomanry – the mounted part of the Territorial Force, which also raised a second line. Consisting partly of rural landowners and farmers’ sons, these did not want to leave their agricultural holdings and generally stayed working at home during the war.
To complicate matters Territorial regiments also briefly raised third line units (e.g. 3/4th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry) but these were quickly absorbed into centralised training and reserves and lost their local connection.
Answer (with thanks to Chris Bennett, county archivist for Hertfordshire): many Record Offices apply a blanket 100-year rule on their holdings, but in practice disclosure of information from FWW logbooks is a low risk. If worried about using such material, consult the RO; sensitive information can be anonymised. Before reproducing a complete transcription check with the current owner of the source. Always remember to include a REFERENCE to material, whether a direct quotation or not, so that others can follow in your footsteps.
Q: Do the Lord Chamberlain’s papers in the British Library contain any plays with a Welsh connection?
Answer: Yes – but I don’t think it’s a treasury of lost masterpieces. E.g.
Thomas Jones, Kindness Repaid (1916) `An ingenuous and amateurish domestic drama of Welsh life, showing an old farmer’s mistake in preferring as suitor for his daughter the apparently prosperous steward, Lloyd, to the tramp sheltered by him out of kindness and subsequently employed as a farmhand. When the thieving steward turns out to be in the pay of the Germans the humble tramp proves to be a fugitive of position and means, both willing and able to repay for the farmer’s kindness by helping his family out of its troubles.’ Guild Hall, Carnarvon. 1 May 1916.
L. Mortimer When Love Creeps in Your Heart (1916) – melodrama set in a Welsh factory where a German spy is intent on sabotage. `A sentimental melodrama, with many confused issues loosely connected by sentimental songs and social politics of today’. In a secondary plot the son of the foundry owner tries to lure the girl he has seduced away to London
E. E. G. Those who Wait (1918) 1 Act. ` A simple and moving little sketch of the great day in the lives of an old Welsh collier and his wife, who find the telegram in which they fear news of their soldier-son’s wounding or death, announcing his award of the VC and conveying their invitation to Buckingham Palace for the investiture. The piece is full of pretty homely touches: and its references to the King’s kindliness and its appreciation by his humbler subjects are marked by perfect taste and sincere feeling.’ Royal Assembly Rooms Tenby, 29 November 1918
And so on.
Q: My late grandfather began his acting career in 1910 and went on to become a well-known performer on stage and in many films. He was born in 1891 and so was fit for military service by the time WW1 arrived, but I know he was performing during the war. He was in the Edward Compton Comedy Company in 1914. Is there any way a performer – someone who entertains those going to the theatre – could be ineligible for conscription? I know he did not see active service, but would want to know if acting/entertaining were a valid service for staying put.
Answer: Theatre was never a reserved occupation despite some calls for it to be made so (usually from entertainers themselves). Having said this, there was quite a debate as to whether theatrical types would make good soldiers (detractors said they were likely to be too sensitive and not `manly’ enough…). If you read through stage magazines like The Era or The Stage it becomes fairly clear that not every actor of military age enlisted – or was required to enlist. Possibly they had health exemptions but it may also be a reflection of the fact that we assume that every man of military age was called up and this may not have been the case.
Edward Compton was quite a famous figure. He ran his own company with his wife but reputedly would only do period drama. This was because he was bald and would only perform if could sport a periwig.
I have done a quick check with the British Newspaper archive online http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ and the company does get mentioned in a number of papers which might help to plot their tours around the company e.g. in Feb 1915 they are in Sunderland.
Compton himself died in July 1918 and notice appears in The Times.
Q: I’m looking for any references there may to reading any fiction during the war in contemporary accounts by ordinary British readers (while on active service or on the home front) in memoirs, letters etc. – the more local the better. Any help would be appreciated.
Answer: I have looked at literacy although more in terms of soldiers’ ability to write and read letters home and there’s quite a bit of work on this – have you read Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes? That has interesting material on reading in the era of WW1. People like Paul Fussell and Samuel Hynes have argued that it was a ‘literary war’ – and their bibliographies might be helpful if you haven’t already used them, but it’s evident from some soldier’s experiences that reading didn’t come that easily to all, e.g. Stephen Graham comments on this in his memoir A Private in the Guards.
There’s also this database that the OU have set up (http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/RED/):
The UK Reading Experience Database (UK RED) is an open access database and research project housed in the English Department of the Open University. It is the largest resource recording the experiences of readers of its kind anywhere. UK RED has amassed over 30,000 records of reading experiences of British subjects, both at home and abroad, and of visitors to the British Isles, between 1450 and 1945. These include both famous and anonymous readers.
I’m not sure how searchable it is now – last time I looked the answer was ‘not very’ but that was a few years ago and it was something that they were working on.
It might be worth searching the IWM online collections if you haven’t already done so – I did a quick one for ‘reading’ in WW1 and got a lot of hits, but it would mean having to trawl through and see what’s useful.