Free Event: Family History at the University of Nottingham

FHDIt’s a familiar tale — an ancient family album filled with black and white photographs, yellowed and dog-eared with age, the faces of young men and women in uniform gazing proudly from the pages.

The problem is the only people who knew them in life have long since passed away, often taking the many stories of these brave ancestors to their grave.

Now, The University of Nottingham is to offer a helping hand to people interested in finding out more about the part their family may have played in the First World War at a free community open day later this month.

Hidden Histories — First World War Family History Day will take place on University Park campus on Tuesday July 21 and will feature a range of speakers who will share their expertise and offer beginners tips and advice on how to make the best start in researching their past.

Keynote speakers for the day include:

  • A representative from the Imperial War Museum who will talk about the museum’s Lives of the First World War — an online resource which offers the opportunity to commemorate service men and women through a mix of official records, photographs and personal testaments
  • Anne-Marie Kramer, a lecturer in The University of Nottingham’s School of Sociology and Social Policy, who will speak about the development and use of family history
  • Professor Kurt Barling who will offer insight into the Middlesex Family History Project, which is seeking family stories and photographs of those who served in the Middlesex Regiment from their descendants
  • East Midlands Oral History Archive, which has been gathering oral histories of the home front in Leicestershire and Rutland during the First World War
  • Nottinghamshire Archives, home to the World War I: Nottinghamshire Memorials Project, a resource commemorating local soldiers who fought and died in ‘Flanders Fields’.

The event will also feature exhibitions from the University’s Manuscripts and Special Collections department and Laxton History Project.

The Hidden Histories — First World War Family History Day takes place on Tuesday July 21 from 9.30am to 4.30pm in the Department of History, Lenton Grove and the Digital Humanities Centre on University Park Campus. A buffet lunch is included in the day.

The event is completely free but it is essential that those interested in attending register online beforehand.

Remembering the Chilwell Munitions Explosion

Munitions workers at Chilwell
Munitions workers at Chilwell

Some of you may recall our blogpost on the Chilwell munitions factory explosion. The disaster, which occurred 97 years ago this week, destroyed much of the No. 6 Filling Factory, which had been used for adding the volatile chemicals to shells prior to shipment to the frontline. 134 people were killed and a further 250 injured and the blast could be felt as far away as West Bridgford.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the disaster, and hearing some of the recorded testimonies of people who remember it, you may be interested in a series of events organised by Excavate Community Theatre.

This weekend (4th and 5th July), an exhibition will be held in Beeston Town Square, with photographs and audio interviews from relatives of those who worked at the factory. A new play about the disaster will also be performed at 11am, 1pm and 3pm on the Saturday and 12pm and 2pm on the Sunday.

On Sunday, from 10am to 2pm, Chetwynd Barracks, which lies on the site of the factory, will be open to allow people to visit the memorial on the site and to see a small exhibition.Pedestrian entry will be from Chetwynd Road; vehicular entry from Swiney Way where photographic ID will be needed.

A series of related events will also be held at the White Lion pub in Beeston. On Saturday night, an evening of First World War storytelling will begin at 7.30pm (tickets £6 on the door, or £5 advance from the pub). On Sunday, the pub will hold a screening of the BBC film The Killing Factories,  with an introduction from the director Tony Roe. This will start at 7pm and will be free of charge.

The project has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Broxtowe Borough Council.

Chilwell2For more information, please visit excavate.org.uk

‘I looked towards Chilwell and I saw a wall of black smoke rising into the sky’

Chilwell resident Michael Noble looks at a dark event from the district’s wartime past…

It wasn’t over by Christmas. The extended duration of the war wasn’t entirely unexpected (eagle-eyed members of Kitchener’s New Army will have spotted that they’d signed up for ‘three years or until the war was over’) but it wasn’t necessarily planned for either. Several months of heavy shelling, with hungry guns well-supplied by rail, led to the rapid depletion of high explosive shells by early 1915. The resultant ‘shell crisis’ was a notable scandal in many combatant countries and in Britain led to political turmoil that saw the creation of a coalition government and the founding of a Ministry for Munitions, led by David Lloyd George.

Munitions workers at Chilwell
Munitions workers at Chilwell

Existing arms factories were brought under tighter official control and several new installations were created, among them No. 6 Filling Factory at Chilwell in Nottinghamshire. The dangerous duty of the filling factories was to take the explosive chemical compounds and add them to the empty shells that had been made for the purpose. The Chilwell factory, like many such places, was staffed largely by women, nicknamed ‘munitionettes’ or ‘canaries’, owing to their yellow complexions, caused by their absorption of poisonous chemicals.

The Chilwell factory was efficient (evidence suggests that Chetwynd was a hard taskmaster) and filled over nineteen million shells during the war. It was, nevertheless, dangerous work. Factory staff wore rubber boots in an effort to avoid making sparks that could set off a deadly conflagration. Rings and shoelaces were banned. You can never be too careful. Sadly, you can still never be careful enough. On the 1st July 1918 a massive explosion occurred, destroying much of the installation, killing 134 people and injuring 250 more.

A plaque at the burial site of the killed workers
A plaque at the burial site of the killed workers

The disaster had an understandable impact on those who survived it. It did not, however, break their spirit or commitment and the factory continued to produce shells, achieving its highest weekly output within a month of the explosion. The event was subjected to a thorough investigation and, while Chetwynd suspected sabotage, this could not be proven.

Of course, the factory did eventually cease production several months later when the Armistice was declared. The site is now owned by the Ministry of Defence and is home to the Chetwynd Barracks. a memorial to those who died in the explosion was erected in the grounds and still stands today. A plaque offers some details of the events of wartime, but like the factory staff themselves, remains focused on the output of shells:

Erected to the memory of those men and women who lost their lives by explosions at the National Shell Filling Factory Chilwell 1916 – 1918
Principal historical facts of the factory
First sod turned 13th September 1915
First shell filled 8th January 1916
Number of shells filled within one year of cutting the first sod 1,260,000
Total shells filled 19,359,000 representing 50.8% of the total output of high explosive shell both lyddite and amatol 60pd to 15inch produced in Great Britain during the war
Total tonnage of explosive used 121,360 tons
Total weight of filled shell 1,100,000 tons

If you’d like to find out more about the Chilwell Filling Factory, you can hear an audio recording of Emily May Spinks, recalling her time as a teenage employee and her memories of the explosion. A 30 minute documentary, The Killing Factories is also currently available on the BBC iPlayer.

The impact of the explosion
The impact of the explosion

‘And then, about eleven o’clock, I saw a Christmas tree going up on the German trenches. And there was a light’

HWW
Henry Williamson, Private, London Regiment

The Christmas Truces are among the most celebrated events of the First World War. But what did they mean to the men who observed them?

As we have discussed before, the question of the Christmas Truces on the Western Front in 1914 is a vexed one. Although truces and ‘fraternisation’ are a matter of historical fact, they have been mythologised and turned intro material for ceremony, advertising and jokes. It’s easy to see why. The truces, symbolic of common humanity amid chaos and destruction, make for stories that are at once heartwarming and heartbreaking. But can they be more than that? It is to be hoped that they can and that this compelling phenomenon might prompt people to question the nature of war in general and this war in particular.

The truces certainly prompted questions back in 1914 and gave its participants cause to question what they were doing in the trenches, what their opposite numbers were doing and what they had both been told.

One of the highlights of the BBC’s Great War interviews, conducted in the early 1960s in advance of the half-centenary, is the series of anecdotes by Henry Williamson, who was in 1914, serving at the rank of Private in the London Regiment. At Christmastime 1914, he and his comrades were sent into no man’s land to hammer in some stakes to secure a key position. They were fifty yards from the German lines and, fearful of machine gun fire, began their sortie by crawling across the frozen ground. As time went on, they noticed that no gun fire came and they could walk freely on two legs, laughing and talking. ‘And then’, according to Henry ‘about eleven o’clock, I saw a Christmas tree going up on the German trenches. And there was a light’.

http://youtu.be/dUA8DSkSmBE?t=54m44s

The British soldiers approached the barbed wire which had been strung with empty bully beef tins so that it would rattle if a man drew near. Very soon they were exchanging gifts with the Germans. Smoking, talking and shaking hands, they swapped addresses so that we could write to one another after the war. And then they stopped to bury their dead.

The Germans used ration box wood to create makeshift memorials for their fallen comrades and offered a few words. ‘Für das Vaterland und Freiheit’, [For the Fatherland and freedom]. Williamson stopped him there. ‘How can you be fighting for freedom?’ he asked. ‘You started the war and we are fighting for freedom’.

‘Excuse me, English comrade’, replied the German. ‘But we are fighting for freedom’.

‘And here, you’ve put “Hier ruht in Gott” [Here rest in God].  ‘Yes,’ said the German,’ God in on our side’

‘But he is on our side’ replied Williamson.

That was, according to Williamson, a tremendous shock. ‘Here were these chaps, who were like ourselves, whom we liked and who felt about the war as we did, who said would be over soon because they [the Germans] would win in Russia and we said no, the Russian steamroller is going to win in Russia’

‘Well, English comrade’, replied the German ‘do not let us quarrel on Christmas Day.’

And quarrel they did not. Very soon, of course, both sides received stern orders to cease their fraternising and get back to their own trenches. But when the German machine guns resumed their fusillade, they were fired deliberately high and the British were advised to keep under cover in case ‘regrettable accidents’ happened. The truce, however, was over.

Henry William Williamson 1st December 1895-13th August 1977

 

Merry Christmas everyone.

The Oral History of the First World War

Michael discovers a war-memorial-webwonderful audio collection of wartime memories

We have mentioned before how the diminishing number of people who were alive during the First World War is having an impact on the role of memory in our understanding of it. Direct experience is becoming a rarer commodity and  those snippets that we do have are of tremendous value.

It’s a joy, then, to review the First World War collection at the East Midlands Oral History Archive (EMOHA). Based on a collection of 300 recordings made in Leicester in the 1980s, the archive has been listened to, catalogued and made available for listeners via Soundcloud.

Grouped under the headings ‘The Start of the War’, ‘Life on the Home Front’, ‘Death and Absence’ and ‘Aftermath’, the clips offer a personal insight into how the war was experienced by people in the Midlands. We can hear about peoples’ attitude to the Germans, ‘I knew the First World War was coming because my dad, right from when we was kids, was always talking about the Germans coming down the street’, about access to food in wartime: ‘The bread was almost black…there were a lot of shortages really…we had to make potato dripping for instance. My aunt was very good at contriving, she was a good cook’ and, dramatically, on unexpected Zeppelin attacks ‘All I heard was a thud on the door…the windows came in. Everything was in confusion’

A treasure trove. Have a listen for yourself.