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Letters from the Front, hospitals and Hun Stuff

What must life have been like for the millions of women and children who were left at home during World War One – waiting for loved ones to return, waiting for news, asks Matt Shinn?

For Kent Fedorowich, who is Reader in British Imperial History at the University of the West of England, one of the stand-out stories from the World War One at Home project is about just this kind of private torment, which must have taken place, behind closed doors, in countless homes during the First World War.

Unusually, this particular World War One at Home story takes the form of a song. ‘Last September’ was commissioned by BBC Radio Bristol from singer-songwriter Daisy Chapman. It is a love song, accompanied by piano and strings, based on letters that were sent home from the Western Front to Lizzy Brain, in Bishopsworth in Bristol. The letters brought news of the death of her husband James, and gave details of his funeral; Lizzy also died a few months later, of what her family said was a broken heart.

‘I imagined her gazing out of her window to the East,’ says Daisy Chapman, ‘trying to pick up a sense of what her loved one was doing.’ The song includes lines from the letters that Lizzy Brain received, and it ends: ‘your coffin wrapped in the Union Jack – I’ll see you on the other side.’

The technological war

While Lizzy Brain’s experience was common to many across the UK, other stories from the BBC West region are more specific to the area. Life in Bristol, for example, was very much affected by the fact that the city was a major manufacturing centre, with new technologies being put to military use.

A facility at Chittening, just outside Bristol, was used to fill gas shells with the blister agent mustard gas, also known as Hun Stuff, which was manufactured nearby at Portishead. Situated in the middle of farmland, the factory needed good transport links, and so it was given its own train line and station to ferry workers and munitions to and fro.

The site also had to have its own hospital. Workers at the factory suffered from extremely high rates of sickness, which resulted in their being given one week’s holiday for every twenty days worked – something that was almost unheard-of at the time. Nevertheless, over 1,200 casualties were reported at the site during the war. As Kent Fedorowich says, ‘the gas shells that were produced at the factory probably did more harm to the people who worked there than they did to the Germans.’ The story is a reminder that it was not just those on the front line who found themselves in harm’s way, during the First World War – and yet now, there is hardly anything left at the Chittening site, to indicate what happened there. 

The gas shells did more harm to the people who worked at the factory than they did to the Germans

Other new technologies that Bristol was associated with include motorcycle manufacture (the Douglas factory in the city made some of the best motorbikes in the world, and turned over pretty much its entire production to making machines for the front). 

And then there’s the association of Bristol with aircraft. The World War One at Home project includes the story of Frank Barnwell, who developed the single-seat Bristol Scout before the war, as a private racing plane, but then had his design commandeered by the Royal Flying Corps, for use on reconnaissance missions. After serving as a pilot himself on the Western Front, Barnwell was recalled to Bristol to work on what is widely seen as one of the outstanding aircraft of the First World War, the Bristol Fighter. Generally known as the Brisfit, by the end of the war over 1,500 were in service in the Royal Air Force.

And Bristol is still associated with aircraft manufacture today: in 2010, apprentices at Airbus built a working replica of the Bristol Fighter, while in 2013 the company named its new engineering headquarters in Filton in Barnwell’s honour.

The road to recovery

As a busy port, and with excellent road and rail connections, Bristol was also the place that many wounded servicemen were brought to, to be treated. Charles Booth, Associate Professor at the Bristol Business School, points out that the city was ‘at the forefront of medical advances during the First World War, with pioneering surgery and medical technology being developed.’

A number of new hospitals were established in Bristol, with several even being donated by private individuals. One such was Bishop’s Knoll War Hospital which was converted at his own expense by a former Australian wool-baron, Robert Edwin Bush, and which treated Australian wounded servicemen In its own way, Bristol Zoo also contributed to the recovery of wounded servicemen: by the end of the war, some 32,000 had attended morale-boosting events there.

Kent Fedorowich and Charles Booth discussing their research at the World War One at Home roadshow at the Bristol Balloon Fiesta

The crossroads of Empire

Elsewhere in the region is what for Charles Booth was one of the most extraordinary places in the First World War. Taking up around a ninth of the county of Wiltshire, the army training areas of Salisbury Plain ‘give you a sense of the truly international nature of the conflict. It was here that civilians from all over the Empire – from India, South Africa, Australia, Canada, New Zealand – found themselves, and where they were turned into soldiers.’ Photos from the time show soldiers of many different nationalities passing through.

Salisbury Plain gives you a sense of the truly international nature of the conflict

With its wide-open spaces lending themselves to large-scale manoevres, Salisbury Plain became the British army’s main training ground. That training itself was hazardous – the area contains the graves of soldiers who were killed in accidents. And you can still see traces of the dummy trenches, built to give recruits an idea of the kind of combat they would be facing in this War to End War – trenches that now sit alongside remnants from more recent times, and subsequent wars.