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

Comments are closed.