Pic: © Historic England

The Lie of the Land

23rd November 2018

As we continue to mark the centenary of the first Armistice Day, Jack Watkins follows Jennifer Lipman’s exploration of how the Great War changed society (published in our 10 November issue), with a companion piece looking at a new book that examines the legacy of the war years from a different and rarely explored angle…

In the years since 1918, much time has been devoted towards examining the causes of the war, the reasons why it unfolded as it did, and its social consequences. However, relatively little attention has been paid to its impact on the English countryside and coastline and its built environment, or to the physical remains left across the land by wartime activity.

In the 1990s, English Heritage (as it then was, before it was cleaved in two by the austerity ideologues after 2010, with its funding slashed and left to look after its historic properties, while a tiny, relatively muzzled, new creation called Historic England was charged with the statutory and advisory functions) had begun the process of surveying the remains of airfields, coastal fortresses, military hospitals and the like, a process that has continued to the present day. Now a fascinating new book, Legacies of the First World War, edited by experts Wayne Cocroft and Paul Stamper, brings together, probably for the first time under a single cover, the current state of understanding on the subject. It is both profusely illustrated and comprehensive: wherever you live, it is likely there is at least one paragraph somewhere in the book linking the legacy of the war effort, whether visual or archival, to your area.

If you want a physical symbol of where the country considered its physical might to lie at the start of the war, you could do worse than head to Horse Guards Parade, where the massive Admiralty Extension building looks out across the yard towards St James’s Park. The building was added to Admiralty House, whose facade and screen can be seen on Whitehall, in the 1890s, to accommodate extra staff as Britain embarked on a naval arms race with the Germany. This new building, as the book says, epitomised ‘the might of the Royal Navy reflected in stone and red brick,’ because in 1914, the country’s security, as well as that of the Empire, was thought to lie in the hands of its navy.

Yet fears about new, faster steamships which could break through maritime lines of communication and pave the way for a land invasion, led to the creation of a mass army. This is what one of the book’s contributors, Peter Kendall, describes as ‘probably the single greatest achievement by the British state during the war.’ It required the creation of a massive supporting infrastructure, from army camps, practice trenches, rifle ranges and bombing grounds, many of whose physical remains survive as evidence from the period today, along with installations for the defence of the coastline.

Yet the First World War also heralded the arrival of air power as a weapon of attack. While casualties were relatively  small in comparison to what would follow in the Second World War, the psychological impact of bombing raids by Zeppelin airships and Gotha bombers was immense, terrifying Londoners. More than 300,000 of them took shelter in Underground tube stations between May 1917 and May 1918 when there was sustained attack by the Gothas – a far greater number than during the Blitz of 1940. Concern about the inadequacy of air raid defences and facilities for the protection of the civilian population paved the way for the creation of the world’s first independent air force, the RAF, in 1918, after the merger of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Army Flying Corps.

However, RAF Hendon airfield emerged out of the London Aerodrome Hotel and the sheds and workshops of Claude Grahame-White’s aviation training schools and aircraft construction business. This had been in operation for some years before the war started. Its Hendon Air Shows had became part of the social calendar. A 1920 photo in the book shows two of the old hangars which survive today, incorporated within the RAF Museum complex, along with the London Aerodrome Hotel, the manufacturing shops and viewing platform, surrounded by fields which have now disappeared beneath the new flats of Colindale.

However, one of the best preserved airfields, with a remarkable amount of the infrastructure, including barracks and hangars, still intact is RAF Netheravon, on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire. Along with other surviving pre-war sites at Larkhill and Upavon, and the training stations at Yatesbury and Old Sarum, the book concludes that the Salisbury Plain area has the most coherent grouping of military aviation sites and structures from the 1908-1918 period in the world. Anyone keen to know more about the heritage of the country’s early airfields, some still surviving, some now under bricks and mortar, is directed to the website of the Airfields of Great Britain Conservation Trust, which has an easy-to-use airfield search facility.

Another consequence of the bombing raids was the establishment of the London Air Defence Area, part of whose remit was to establish intercept squadrons and anti-aircraft gun batteries around the capital, the Thames and the Medway areas; the anti-aircraft battery from 1913 which still survives at Lodge Hill, on the north side of the Medway estuary, is now considered the earliest surviving example in the world.

Unsurprisingly, London had the highest concentration of factories involved with the manufacture of ammunition in the country. An important one was at Enfield, where the Royal Small Arms Factory produced swords, bayonets, machine guns and rifles, the most famous of the latter being the Lee-Enfield, of which it made 2 million during the course of the war. The oldest of the manufacturies was the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, which built naval gun barrels and army artillery. Waltham Abbey’s Royal Gunpowder Factory was the major producer of cordite. Greenford had a chemical shell assembling station on the south side of the Grand Union Canal, as the allies responded to the enemy’s first use of chlorine gas – ‘the ghastly dew’ – in 1915, by manufacturing it themselves.

The most pictorially nostalgic chapter in the book is devoted to Feeding the Nation, with archive photos showing such curiosities as an early tractor at work in the fields, and convalescent soldiers posing for the camera in the middle of helping women and children with the haymaking in the Sussex Weald. The year 1917 saw the formation of the Woman’s Land Army, in which females took on all aspects of farming, from dairying, carting and driving the tractors, to horticulture and forestry. Again, as with so much associated with the 1939-45 conflict, the origins lay in the First World War.

Inevitably hospitals proliferated, while the most unlikely of places were utilised to provide care. The artist Douglas Fox-Pitt was even able to produce a painting of Indian soldiers convalescing under the multi-coloured dome of Brighton Pavilion. Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, now an English Heritage property, which was offered up to Winston Churchill by Lord Lucas as a hospital for naval ratings at the very start of hostilities, gets an entire section to itself. While you can see little physical evidence of the hospital on a visit to the property today, the archival record is both outstanding and evocative.

For most people now, of course, it is the memorials which, in the words of Roger Bowdler, constitute ‘the most enduring, tangible legacy of the conflict’. London has some of the grandest to explore, from Whitehall to Battersea Park, but among the most remarkable, and far humbler, are the street shrines of St Albans, where ten stone plaques list the names of the town’s fatalities on the streets where they lived. Anyone interested in the course of the Great War, and its still visible impact on the fabric of this country will relish this book.

‘Legacies of the First World War’ is published by Historic England (£30 hardback)

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