Armistice Day, 11 November, is a sombre reminder of the shocking death toll of the First and Second World Wars, and of those wars that followed.
The First World War was the first time in history that the whole country was on a war footing. The population suffered fear of invasion, air raids, food shortages, the repatriation of thousands of wounded soldiers, factories working seven days a week producing armaments and equipment, the requisitioning of buildings for the war effort, women taking on what had been men’s jobs, and the accommodation and training of troops in camps all over the country.
100 years later, evidence of some of this is still visible today in the streets of our cities, towns and villages. We probably pass by without ever realising the true significance. Here are 8 examples:
1. First World War evacuation arrows, Saffron Walden and Ugley, Essex
Essex was geographically closest to the Western Front and the government created a secret master plan in 1915 to evacuate the county’s 1.4 million people to Oxfordshire in the event of an enemy invasion.
The Defence of the Realm Act had been passed on 8 August 1914, four days after Britain entered the First World War, giving the government sweeping powers over people’s lives. Under the evacuation plan, Essex residents would be told they could only take jewellery and money and food for up to 3 days. Crops and livestock were to be destroyed, along with firearms, petrol, tyres and vessels. Alcohol would also be destroyed, following rumours of drunken Germans behaving barbarically in Belgium and France.
In August 1916, all evacuation plans were cancelled without explanation. The Army Council said that the civilian population were to remain in their homes, except in the face of heavy air raids.
2. Air raid damage, chapel and Stone Buildings, Lincoln’s Inn, London
On 13 October 1915, a German Zeppelin bomb exploded close to the chapel of Lincoln’s Inn – one of the four Inns of Court – destroying two of its ancient stained glass windows, pock-marking the stonework and causing superficial damage, but no injuries. It had just previously bombed London’s Covent Garden, Theatreland and the Aldwych, killing 20 and injuring 36.
Two years later, on 18 December 1917, Lincoln’s Inn was hit again. Two bombs exploded in Stone Buildings. Shrapnel blasted holes in stone and brickwork.
Again, there were no casualties because the ‘Benchers,’ who were involved in governance of the Inn, had been warned a Zeppelin was approaching. They hastened from their meeting to shelter in the bomb-proof wine cellars. One of them, Sir Arthur Underhill, wrote in his memoirs ‘Change and Decay’: ‘We…ate…oysters to the accompaniment of champagne’.
3. Shrapnel damage on sphinx, Cleopatra’s Needle, Victoria Embankment, London
The night of 4/5 December 1917 saw the first night-time raid by German Gotha aeroplanes. A 50 kg high explosive bomb, dropped around midnight, exploded close to Cleopatra’s Needle, smashing through the pavement and destroying a gas main. The blast killed the driver and two passengers of a passing tram, and injured 9 others. One of the two sphinxes that sit either side of monument still has holes in the belly and paw where the shrapnel penetrated the bronze. Shrapnel scars are also visible on the base of the monument.
4. Air raid damage, Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London
On 24 September 1917, German Gotha aeroplanes bombed Kent and Essex, before continuing on to bomb London. The deadliest attack was in Bloomsbury, outside the Bedford Hotel. A high explosive bomb killed 13 people there and injured 22. After bombing Soho, a Gotha made a direct hit on Burlington House, home to the Royal Academy, Piccadilly.
A high explosive bomb went through the rooflight of Gallery 9, exploding on the floor, stripping plaster from the walls and embedding shrapnel in the stone flags. Evidence of the blast can still be seen today on the scarred marble doorway that leads from Gallery 9 to the Lecture Room.
5. Shrapnel scars, Sheerness, Kent
On 5 June 1917, twenty-two German Gotha aeroplanes set out to attack targets on the Essex and Kent coasts. After dropping bombs on Shoeburyness, Essex, the aircraft headed towards the garrison and dockyard town of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent.
Five high explosive bombs hit the dockyard. A 50kg bomb exploded in the Blue Town High Street, badly damaging the Criterion Theatre, killing the manager and two other people.
6. HM Stationery Office commandeered as a hospital for wounded troops, Waterloo, London
Today’s students at Kings College, Waterloo would be surprised at the previous life of their building as one of the country’s largest First World War hospitals.
At the outbreak of the war, the War Office commandeered what was then a vast, newly-built 5-storey warehouse of His Majesty’s Stationery Office for use as a Red Cross military hospital. It had 1,850 beds and over 500 medical staff. Wounded troops, brought from the Western Front by boat train to nearby Waterloo station, were transported for treatment via connecting tunnels, out of sight of the public.
King George’s was an advanced hospital with patients very well looked after. Each bed had an electric light above and a pink and white quilt. There was a Gift Store, nicknamed ‘Harrods-in-Miniature’, that provided everything from peaches to bootlaces. It sourced around 60,000 cigarettes a week so men could smoke up to 7 a day each.
There was a roof garden with revolving shelters and a telescope, recreation rooms, concerts, readings and afternoon drives out for recovering patients. King George V and Queen Alexandra visited.
The King George hospital closed on 15 June 1919, having treated around 71,000 patients.
7. Soldiers’ graffiti, Beverley, Yorkshire
The East Yorkshire Regiment had its headquarters in a former grammar school in Beverley which was converted to a drill hall before the First World War.
The hall did not have its own grounds, but a passageway nearby led to what was once an open patch of land where soldiers probably underwent training. It is likely that the graffiti, scratched on a wall diagonally oppsite the drill hall, was made by these troops before they were sent to the front.
8. Street Peace Signs, Bungay, Suffolk
After the end of the First World War, the town of Bungay in Suffolk decided it would commission new street signs in honour of the peace and as an act of remembrance to its 101 men who died. Their names are inscribed on the war memorial in the centre of town.
At least 32 signs were cast locally by Harry Rumsby’s Ironworks & Foundry and are still in place today. They are virtually identical; white with black lettering and 1919 in the bottom right-hand corner. A tiny handful bear the words ‘Peace Year’. A few signs have been lost. Gas House Lane was renamed Rose Lane at some point, with the old sign re-appearing on an online antiques site.
If you have spotted hidden evidence of the First World War in your neighbourhood, Historic England would be interested in knowing about it. We will forward any information to the Council for British Archaeology who are making detailed records of places and events on the home front associated with the First World War. Please email brief details and an image to: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Ian Castle: Zeppelins, Gothas and ‘Giants’ Britain’s First Blitz 1914-1918 – more info
- Lost Hospitals of London – more info
- The home front legacy – Historic England website
- Council for British Archaeology – help to record the legacy of the First World War
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