10 Things You Should Know About WWI

In popular imagination the First World War is associated with the trenches of France and Belgium, the beaches of Gallipoli, and the deserts of Arabia. The following images – the majority sourced from Historic England’s Archives – highlight some surprising and little-known stories of the war’s impact on England.

1. Troops were prepared for battle

Training trenches at Beacon Hill, Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire (NMR24863-047)
Training trenches at Beacon Hill, Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire (NMR24863-047)

It is commonly believed that ill-trained troops were sacrificed in the trench war against the Germans on the Western Front. But archaeological evidence in England, in the form of elaborate training trenches, instructional models and full-size mock-ups of the German lines, is increasingly revealing the military’s attempts to provide soldiers with realistic training. Despite these preparations, the murderous firepower of artillery and machine-guns meant that millions died on the battlefields.

2. People feared German invasion

Infantry blockhouse (pillbox), Spurn Point, East Riding, Yorkshire © Roger J.C. Thomas
Infantry blockhouse (pillbox), Spurn Point, East Riding, Yorkshire © Roger J.C. Thomas

Most people think pillboxes were constructed in the Second World War but in fact they were originally built to counter fears of invasion in vulnerable areas during the First World War.

3. 700,000 women entered the workforce

Two female workers at Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham Abbey, Essex (BB94/08006)
Two female workers at Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham Abbey, Essex (BB94/08006)

During the war women increasingly entered the previously male-dominated industries. By the end of the war around 700,000 were employed in metals and chemical works, the majority producing munitions. One very visible effect of this change was the growing acceptability of trousers as an item of women’s clothing.

4. Millions of horses were used by the warring nations

tenthingsnicky4ArborfieldRemountDepotInfirmaryStables
Remount Depot, Aborfield, Berkshire, where horses destined for the Western Front were temporarily housed © Wayne D. Cocroft

Horses served in a traditional role in the cavalry, but were also required in vast numbers by the transport services. Britain sent agents all over the globe to buy tens of thousands of horses and mules, especially from the United States and Australia. The animals arrived in converted ships and were housed in vast stable complexes known as Remount Depots, often near railway lines, prior to being shipped to the front.

5. Tanks were first used at the Battle of the Somme

Tank Erecting Shop, Fosters of Lincoln © Imperial War Museum (IWM Q48212)
Tank Erecting Shop, Fosters of Lincoln © Imperial War Museum (IWM Q48212)

In 1915 David Lloyd George, the Minister of Munitions, declared ‘this is an engineer’s war.’ And in the same year Fosters of Lincoln, a firm of agricultural equipment manufacturers and engineers was awarded the contract to manufacture a new weapon, the tank, for which there were great hopes.

On 15 September 1916, just 49 were deployed on the Somme – the weapon’s first use on the battlefield – but in November 1917 over 400 went forward at the Battle of Cambrai, the first significant use of tanks in battle. In all, over 3,000 tanks were manufactured in Britain during the First World War.

6. Britain manufactured and used poison gas

tenthingsnicky6poisongasNFFBanburyNMR15442-15
National Filling Factory, Northamptonshire. Drivers on the M40 today pass over a former poison gas factory. Its earthwork remains in bushes to the right of the image are a scheduled monument. (NMR1544-15)

Poison gas was first used by the Germans on the Western Front in the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. Britain responded by manufacturing a number of ‘war gases’ at several locations across England, and in Banbury, a local engineering firm perfected a machine for filling mustard gas shells.

The earthwork remains of National Filling Factory in Banbury are protected as a scheduled monument, as is the circular gas-testing trench at Idmiston Down, Wiltshire.

7. Roll on/roll off ferries were developed

Lost port of Richborough, Kent (Aerofilms EPW000660)
Lost port of Richborough, Kent (Aerofilms EPW000660)

The Port of Richborough in Kent was a 2,200 acre, state-of-the-art port, built by Royal Engineers from scratch in just two years. From 1916, it handled nearly all the hardware of war shipped to France, as well as salvage in the form of spent shells and damaged vehicles which were brought back to Britain from France. It employed 20,000 men housed in three large army camps.

It was here at Richborough that Roll On/Roll Off ferries were developed to speed up loading and unloading. Very little remains today, however, one of its innovative loading ramps was relocated post-war to Harwich and later protected with a Grade II listing.

8. Many Indians, Africans, African-Caribbeans and Chinese served alongside the British

The Muslim burial ground at Horsell Common in Surrey, was established in 1917 to inter soldiers of the Indian Army who died in war hospitals on the south coast. English Heritage is supporting Woking Borough Council and the Horsell Common Preservation Society in their restoration of the burial ground. Listed Grade II. (BL23738_006)
The Muslim burial ground at Horsell Common in Surrey, was established in 1917 to inter soldiers of the Indian Army who died in war hospitals on the south coast. English Heritage is supporting Woking Borough Council and the Horsell Common Preservation Society in their restoration of the burial ground. Listed Grade II. (BL23738_006)

Many people from all over the British Empire volunteered to serve Britain in the First World War, not only on the front line but also in the Labour Corps on construction projects, such as the Chinese Wall sea defences at Orford Ness, Suffolk, and on the Western Front handling supplies and building camps.

9. Buildings in London were damaged during the war

Zeppelin raid damage to the window of the chapel at Lincoln’s Inn, City of London. 1915 (DD55_00003)
Zeppelin raid damage to the window of the chapel at Lincoln’s Inn, City of London. 1915 (DD55_00003)

During the First World War, Britain was the first country to suffer attack from a sustained, strategic, aerial bombing offensive. Bombing by German airships alone killed 557 people and in London many historic buildings were damaged, including this medieval window in Lincoln’s Inn, London. In the City, plaques and scarred buildings still bear witness to these attacks.

10. Major advances were made in prosthetics

A young man sits next to his prosthetic leg at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, the main English limb-fitting hospital. (BL24278)
A man sits next to his prosthetic leg at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, the main English limb-fitting hospital. (BL24278)

Many servicemen lost limbs or were severely disfigured during the war. This led to great advances in the development and production of prosthetic limbs and in pioneering plastic surgery.


Further Links

3 responses to 10 Things You Should Know About WWI

  1. Erik Von Norden says:

    I came across your blog over at First Night History. Sobering, yet very informative. Thanks for helping to dispel these myths.

    Like

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