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The Great War: 1914-2014 Kent remembers

PUBLISHED: 18:13 27 July 2014 | UPDATED: 18:13 27 July 2014

Leigh schoolchildren lay a wreath at the Menin Gate

Leigh schoolchildren lay a wreath at the Menin Gate

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Every single person living in Kent in 1914 was affected by the events of the First World War. Families and communities were changed forever and now, 100 years on, villages, towns, and organisations are uniting once more to share experiences and pay their respects through a variety of projects

In their own voices

You didn’t have to be on the front line to have your life dramatically altered by the events the First World War and the Kent History Centre has used letters, diaries, recorded interviews, personal objects, official documents and photos to voice some of Kent’s personal stories.

Such as those who took part in a Sevenoaks photographer’s project to offer free portraits ‘in neat unbreakable cases… that will take up very little room in the pocket’ to all military and naval men and Red Cross women.

A patriotic gesture that may never have come to light if the glass plate negatives hadn’t been found in the walls and ceilings of the studio when it was being renovated. Or the testimonies recorded in the incredibly rare Kent’s Conscientious Objectors Tribunal files.

Some of the exhibition’s stories will no doubt sound familiar, but others are sure to surprise you.

● This exhibition is free and open from 4 August to 31 October. www.kent.gov.uk/leisure-and-community/history-and-heritage/kent-history-and-library-centre

Welkom Vriend

As familiar male faces disappeared from towns and villages, strange ones filled with loss, pain and bewilderment took their places.

When Antwerp fell in October 1914, 10,000 Belgian soldiers stranded in Ostend were quickly evacuated to Britain. Many were wounded and, with only a few hours’ notice, the Kent VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) turned some of Kent’s largest houses into hospitals.

Quex House in Birchington, now known as the Powell-Cotton Museum, was one of the first and, incredibly, the museum still has the Admission and Discharge Registers for the hospital. These rare records list each patient’s personal information together with details of their wounds and treatment.

Oscar Van Audenhove from Ghent was a patient who spent several months of his recovery working with Major Powell-Cotton on his dioramas. The mural he painted can still be seen today and several of the patients’ stories are now being told, together with those of the nurses and volunteers who worked in the area, through a new exhibition.

● The exhibition runs until August 1915 and will be followed by Life on the Belgian Front Line, www.quexmuseum.org

Children at Menin Gate

Many of the surnames listed on Leigh’s war memorial are as familiar today as they were 100 years ago. Families have remained friends for generations and distant relatives of those lost are now at Leigh Primary School, which gave added significance to a recent trip to Belgium.

Through a series of talks by local residents, the children learnt what it was like to be evacuated and live with the fear of bombing, to hear about zeppelins flying overhead and learn about the loss of local men.

Thirty one men are listed on Leigh’s First World War memorial and with the help of Leigh’s Historical Society, the children tracked down their final resting places. Herbert Upton and Albert Towner are commemorated on the Menin Gate and on 20 June, 130 children and adults from the village visited the memorial to lay a wreath and pay their respects.

Light in the darkest hour

We’re all being asked to turn off our lights at 11pm on 4 August and light a candle to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War.

As darkness envelops the county, 550 lanterns will be lit at the Shorncliffe Military Cemetery near Folkestone to represent the lives of the soldiers buried there.

Several Canadian Military establishments were stationed around Shorncliffe during the First World War and of the 471 graves from that conflict, 300 of them are Canadian.

Christopher Shaw, the Shorncliffe Trust’s Chairman, hopes these lanterns will “shine a light on the men who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and show the world we have not forgotten them.”

The lighting of the lanterns will begin at 10.30pm on 4 August and a public commemoration service will take place between 11pm and 11.30pm.

● The Shorncliffe Trust, a recognised charity, is hoping sponsors will donate £10 for a soldier’s lantern and is seeking volunteers to light them. All proceeds will help save the site’s First World War trenches from redevelopment and turn the area into a heritage park and education centre. www.shorncliffe-trust.org.uk

Centenary statue challenge

Imagine trying to take everything you know about the soldiers who died in the First World War and turn it into a design for a new commemorative statue.

That’s the challenge Tonbridge Memorial Garden Trust and Pam Mills, the Youth Worker for Tonbridge Royal British Legion, set pupils from six secondary schools. More than 200 designs were submitted and Guy Portelli, a local sculptor, worked with the 18 finalists to turn their designs into 3D maquettes for a public exhibition.

The teenagers were inspired by tales of local men who fought in the war and facts about how their own schools were involved in the war effort, through collections for the Kent Prisoner of War Fund, the making of socks and mittens for the front line or by digging up their playing fields to create vegetable patches.

The winning design was created by Ellie Baxter from Hillview School and chosen by public vote. Guy Portelli will now turn it into a bronze statue, with a square plinth inspired by Kasey Trow from Hugh Christie, for the newly re-developed memorial garden.

● Several events, including a 100-mile, historical costume-changing bike ride on 23 and 24 August, are planned to raise funds for the project and you can discover more at www.tonbridgememorialgardenstrust.net

Strangers no more

The shops on Tontine Street in Folkestone were filled with families and visitors enjoying the Whitsun Bank Holiday when, without warning, an air raid devastated the area.

It was the first hit on the town and of the 71 people killed in the streets, 27 were children. Eighteen soldiers also lost their lives at the Shorncliffe Military Camp Site and there were hundreds of injuries. Many of the dead were placed in hastily dug, unmarked graves but, unlike military personnel, civilians don’t receive a commonwealth war gravestone and some of these graves are still unidentified.

Peter Anderson, a local author and First World War historian, has now found some of their final resting places and is seeking volunteers to help him, and his newly created charity ‘Strangers No More’, raise funds to put a gravestone on each site.

● You can contact him at pp.anderson@btinternet.com and the first marker will be for Walter Moss who was just two months old.

Frontline coast

Kent’s coastal towns were our ‘frontline’ and their particular struggles are now being told through an online project developed by Screen South with the backing of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

It aims to make the stories of those involved become real through an online hub that will allow information to be shared freely. Nineteen mini-sites have been set up to explore each town in detail and photos, letters, maps and mementoes are displayed alongside films and interviews.

Diary entries by ‘Rose and Joe’, the site’s cartoon characters, reveal the roles and difficulties faced by civilians and service personnel throughout the war and members of the public are encouraged to share their own family’s stories.

● The website is of interest to all ages and sharing events and workshops will also be taking place in Shepway and Dover, Thanet, Swale and Medway and Sheppey and Romney Marsh. Volunteers are welcome. www.kentww1.com

Flanders’ poppies in Kent

Going for a walk around Dartford and Greenhithe has recently taken on new purpose as volunteers have been spreading thousands of tiny Flanders’ poppy seeds along roadsides and pathways, across gardens and roundabouts, and through gardens, parks and churchyards. Anywhere in fact the germinated poppies will be seen.

The project was inspired by members of the Greenhithe and Swanscombe Royal British Legion branches and the aim is to cover the entire Dartford area in a sea of blood-red poppies to mark the start of the First World War.

Through a partnership with B&Q and with the support of local councils, millions of seeds have been sown by local schools, church groups, clubs and individuals and visitors to the area in August will be treated to displays in Dartford’s Central Park, outside the Royal British Legion, around St Mary’s church, outside the new Redrow development in Ebbsfleet and on various town roundabouts.

The project has been so successful that it’s spread nationwide and, with your help, it’s hoped that millions more seeds will be sown over the next four years.

● For more information visit www.britishlegion.org.uk/remembrance/ww1-centenary/centenary-poppy-campaign.

You can locate other events in your area by visiting www.1914.org and typing ‘Kent’ in the search box or view a timeline of events created by volunteers at the Kent History and Library Centre at www.kent.gov.uk/about-the-council/news/campaigns-and-events/kent-and-medway-in-the-first-world-war

The Home Front

What was life like for those left behind – particularly the women? It’s a question that doesn’t always get asked when talking about the First World War

Understandably, when it comes to remembering the conflict, most attention gets focused on what happened to those caught up in the fighting. But for those back in Britain, what occurred still had a tremendous effect upon daily life.

“A conflict that went on for so long and which diverted so many resources to its end, was always going to leave an impression upon the domestic population,” says Prof. Mark Connelly of Kent University, and one of the UK’s leading experts on the war.

“Although the human cost of the war was unquestionably that which caused the greatest impact on people here in Kent, there were many other areas where life would have changed.”

Many historians have argued that one section of society particularly affected by the war was women, viewing the conflict as a watershed for women’s rights. And it’s easy to see why.

Prior to the war, the position of women in society was poor. In the workplace, ‘women’s work’ (generally domestic service) tended to be quite badly paid and seen as second-rate when compared to, ‘men’s work’.

It was also still expected for women to give up work after marriage, and to take on the roles of wife, mother and housekeeper.

The absence of millions of men during the conflict, combined with the need for the war economy to maintain production meant that this situation changed.

According to the National Archives, just 2,000 women were employed in government dockyards, factories and arsenals in July 1914. But by November 1918, this figure had risen to 247,000.

The number employed in the transport industry also expanded, rising by 555 per cent to roughly 100,000. And in other areas such as agriculture, banking and the civil service, there were smaller, but still noticeable, increases.

In total, at least one million women were formally added to the British workforce between 1914 and 1918.

But although many women enjoyed the liberation of moving from domestic service into the industrial workforce (where the pay tended to be better), the war was not necessarily the watershed moment that many historians claim.

Many jobs remained closed to women and once the war ended, and the men returned, there was a backlash, specifically against the continued employment of married women.

As soon as the conflict ended, the number of women working in munitions factories and transport fell away rapidly.

“What’s more, during the war itself, the temporary liberation of women was not universal” says Laura Probert, the Ramsgate-based author of Women of Thanet Rally Around the Flag 1914-1918.

“Lots of women had to look after children and at the same time get by without the help of husbands, fathers and brothers, people upon whom they had relied prior to the war’s outbreak,” adds Laura.

“Although many younger women grasped the opportunities available, for older women, specifically from the working class, life remained tough.”

Apart from the impact upon women there were other changes affecting the county. Think of Kent today and you can picture a place indelibly linked with London and populated by a number of big towns.

But back in 1914 this was a county still heavily tied to agriculture, with a significant rural population. And in a place such as this, one filled by hundreds of small villages, the conflict’s demand for manpower was always likely to have a major impact upon daily life.

In Great Chart near Ashford for example, the village population of 120 had been reduced by a quarter by the end of the war. But despite the effect that this would have had on life, the villagers refused to let the conflict dim their spirits.

An archive of letters exists from the war that illustrates how strong the community spirit was and how those left behind did what they could to keep the village alive and alleviate the suffering of those local men at the front.

“Elizabeth Quintin Strouts, who lived in the village, formed a committee to send ‘useful and comforting items’ every week to the men of the parish to lighten their hardship and remind them that they were not forgotten,” says Ian Wolverson, chairman of Great Chart Remembers.

Soldiers from the village of Great Chart received nearly 7,000 letters and parcels from home while they were serving in the First World.

“Those that have survived show how appreciative the men were of what the village did, how supportive local people were of the sacrifice the men were making and the way in which the spirit of the village remained strong and united in the face of such adversity. They’re hugely inspiring,” adds Ian.

Although the impact brought about by the war unquestionably affected the whole country, according to Prof. Mark Connelly, there were some aspects of the conflict that were unique to Kent.

“You have to appreciate that in many ways, Kent was very integrated into the war machine. Troops passed through on their way to the coastal ports, there was a huge hospital network for servicemen in Tunbridge Wells, Dover was effectively wired off.”

The county was also hit by war-related tragedies, such as the massive explosion that ripped through the gunpowder mill at Uplees, near Faversham in 1916. The 200 tonnes of TNT that was detonated was the worst accident in the history of the British explosives industry and cost the lives of 115 local men and boys, 108 of whom (seven were never found) were buried in a mass grave in Faversham cemetery.

“For the people of Kent there was a sense that the war could not be escaped from. In other parts of the country, reminders of the conflict were less apparent and so people could grab some respite. But not in Kent,” says Mark.

“Here there were daily reminders of what was happening on your doorstep. Let’s not forget that in some parts of the county they could even hear the ‘big guns’ of the Western Front, which would have made the war seem very real.”

Allied to this inability to escape the war, the people of Kent also felt vulnerable in a way that few other citizens experienced.

“Kent would have been the starting point for any possible invasion during the war and so the people living in the county would have endured a level of insecurity and fear fairly alien to those further north or west.

“And this wasn’t necessarily a baseless fear. After all, Kent was bombed during Zeppelin raids, defensive trenches were dug in the county at places like Hoo and those living around the coast would have been aware of German naval activity in the North Sea and the Channel.

“The people of Kent experienced the war in a different way to others living in Britain, one that made life that bit more difficult to endure,” adds Mark.

It’s understandable that when it comes to remembering the First World War that most attention gets focused on those who lived through the horrors of the fighting. But life at home for many came with plenty of hardships, particularly for the people of Kent. And so, while it’s right that we remember those who got caught up in the conflict, this year we should also take time to give a thought to those who were left behind too.

Arch of remembrance

A royal visit is set to make Folkestone the centrepiece of the county’s commemorations to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War

The unveiling of a commemorative arch by His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Wales (better known as Prince Harry) on Monday 4 August has put the seaside town into the public eye in a big way, but while the event itself will take just a few hours, the legacy of this year’s anniversary will last much longer.

Step Short, the charity behind the arch – essentially Folkestone residents under the chairmanship of local MP Damian Collins – has made sure that there will be a number of lasting reminders of its efforts to pay tribute to the bravery and sacrifice of the men and women who travelled through the port en route to and from the Western Front.

Prince Harry’s visit highlights the way the dedication of the arch on The Leas, close to the top of the Road of Remembrance that leads down to the harbour, has been accorded national significance by the government alongside religious services at Glasgow, Westminster Abbey, Belfast and Mons.

The Road of Remembrance used to be called Slope Road because of the steep incline it takes down to the harbour. Troops would be given the order to ‘Step Short’ so that they could shorten their stride and avoid falling as they negotiated the last quarter of a mile of their march to the waiting ships.

Those who made that journey on their way to the battlefields were not just troops but included Red Cross nurses, politicians and other civilians, all of whom made up the millions of people from many different countries being recognised by the stainless steel arch designed by Philip Gearing of Foster Gearing.

The arch dedication will follow a military and civilian march along The Leas, an event that will echo a similar march that Step Short has organised for a number of years, albeit this year’s will be on a slightly grander scale.

As the marching troops and civilians descend the Road of Remembrance on this occasion they will find it looking tidier than it has for many years, after a group of volunteers, supported by Folkestone Town and Shepway District Councils and joined by local Soroptimists, cleared the nearside verge and replanted fresh rosemary ‘for remembrance’.

The ceremony will also feature one of the legacy projects organised this year when the Band of The Brigade of Gurkhas plays the Step Short March composed by Major Dennis Burton, Director of Music of the Band of the Royal Welsh Regiment.

Major Burton’s piece won a military-style ‘Battle of the Bands’ organised by Step Short to find a new march to honour those who took part in the 1914-18 conflict.

The charity invited the Directors of Music of the three Armed Forces to compose a military march, but when the Royal Marines were unable to compete because of other commitments, the judges heard two entries each from the RAF Central Band and the Army before selecting the winner.

The Gurkha Band played the pieces for the judges and will air the winning march in public for the first time on 4 August.

Did you know?

● The BBC will be bringing its major World War One at Home exhibition to the town on the day, siting it in the harbour area so that visitors can explore some of the other aspects of the conflict and how it affected those back home.

● The National Army Museum is staging a major exhibition at Folkestone Town Hall until early May 2015.

Your Country Calls: Enlistment to Embarkation draws on a host of artefacts, photographs and stories local to the area from the NAM’s rich collection. It highlights Folkestone’s position as one of the main gateways to and, in the case of refugees, from Europe between 1914 and 1918.

● A second exhibition, Folkestone in the Great War, opened in the Sassoon Room of Folkestone Library in Grace Hill on 7 July and will remain in place until 21 September.

It includes artefacts as well as photographs and has been organised by Step Short in association with Folkestone Camera Club and the Folkestone and District Local History Society with support from Kent County Council.

● Step Short volunteers have also spent tens of thousands of hours digitising and uploading 43,500 names contained in a series of visitors’ books that were signed by soldiers, nurses and others who enjoyed a cuppa in the harbour canteen before leaving these shores, or as they arrived back from the Front. The names have proved a fascinating new resource for historians, researchers and family history enthusiasts.

● As well as helping people to understand the past, Step Short has looked to the future by including a time capsule within the commemorative arch project. It will stay hidden for the next 100 years before being opened in 2114, when it will offer people a snapshot of what life is like today.

The charity has been supported by the Roger De Haan Charitable Trust as well as by the county, district and town councils.

Then and now

The Heritage Lottery Fund’s First World War; then and now programme launched on 2013 to provide grants to help communities mark the centenary. Here are just some in Kent

Anniversaries are a moment to stop and remember the past but they are also a living event, a time to re-evaluate and make new discoveries.

Helped by lottery money, people across Kent are helping to ensure that stories from the First World War are remembered for at least another 100 years by exploring the impact of the war on their local area and understand its relevance for today.

The Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘First World War; then and now’ programme launched last year to provide grants of between £3,000 and £10,000 to help communities mark the centenary in a way that best suits them.

There has been significant interest in the programme and in the south east £403,600 has already been distributed to 54 projects. It will remain open for applications until 2019. Funding for projects larger than £10,000 is also available through their open programmes.

Stuart McLeod, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in the south east, said: “We’re delighted that so many people across the county have responded to our call to explore the First World War stories in their area.

“It’s a privilege to be able to empower so many people, in particular young people, to conserve and share their First World War heritage. I hope that together we are creating a centenary legacy that future generations can look to and draw upon.”

Sing the War

Grant amount: £7,500

Children and retired people from Folkestone are using music to learn about the war and the role their town played in it. Just 23 miles from France, Folkestone was the gateway to the front line and more than 10 million soldiers marched through the town. Schoolchildren and participants from local AgeUK centres are learning to sing songs from the time and are discussing their context. It’s all building up to a final event when everybody sings together in a 700-seat theatre.

Football and peace

Grant amount: £32,500

Using the iconic 1914 Christmas truce football match as a starting point, people in Kent are exploring the relationship between sport and conflict. In particular they are looking at the importance of football to the soldiers who served in the war.

An exhibition of young people’s work is being produced displaying memorabilia gathered from local sports clubs. A celebration day was held at Maidstone United Football Club’s Gallagher Stadium.

Women of Thanet – Sisterhood and Solidarity

Grant amount: £9,900

People in Thanet are exploring the impact of the First World War on women. Using two books written by local author Laura Probert, they are seeking to understand the importance of Kent women in Britain’s War campaign and how their lives changed forever as a result. The project will involve workshops, talks and free visits to local sites including Quex House which was used as a military hospital.

War Memorials Trust - Remembering their history

Grant amount: £9,900

Young people in Kent are discovering more about the county’s war memorials and the people and events they commemorate.

Kent was chosen as the pilot area for this project, which could be replicated across the country, because of its diverse collection of war memorials - all with powerful stories to tell. Learning Volunteers are being trained to work with local young people and give talks and guided tours.

FIND OUT MORE

If you have an idea for a First World War project and would like to find out more about securing a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, visit: www.hlf.org.uk or #understandingWW1

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