Reports from 2018
Trench Art in the North East
by Dr Andrew Marriott
Dr Marriott began by defining ‘trench art’ as anything which is used to prosecute war which has been turned into something decorative and possibly memorial. Samples can be seen in the National Museum of Scotland.
Napoleonic POWs made bone models of ships to sell. In the Boer War, when naval guns were brought ashore the seafaring tradition of decorative scrimshaw work on bone was adopted by soldiers.
In WWI, trench art was made either by individuals or on an industrial scale – often a cottage industry – with soldiers and displaced civilians working in an assembly line with very basic tools to mass-produce items to acquire money or benefits. The often-intricate artefacts were targeted at soldiers returning home and civilians on pilgrimage to battle sites, and are difficult to date.
We were able to examine a number of brass, aluminium and copper items including a model of a tank, a jug, a bracelet, a bell and vases, mostly naively worked by untrained men, and an elaborate clock made by Sapper Pearl, an Australian engineer who was clearly a craftsman. A form of recycling, all the components – made from ammunition including detonator caps, a German bullet, a copper drive belt and shell cases of different sizes, would have been familiar to allied soldiers in WWI. (From 1914–16, anyone found using shell cases would be court-martialled, because the cases were sent back to the UK for refilling and reused up to four times. Enemy shell cases could be used because they wouldn’t fit British army guns.)
Most pieces had not been made in the trenches, but behind the lines. In the course of excavations in northern France for the TGV, a stash of trench art was found in a German POW camp.
Some trench art was subversive, cocking a snook at authority: an army biscuit tin was turned into a photograph frame, inscribed with the words ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ and also ‘Our king and country need us, but this is how they feed us’.
Sometimes the art was memorial: soldiers of the Durham Light Infantry used military timber to form crosses for the dead at the Somme, some with graffiti and others with careful writing on the reverse. A piece of a wounded soldier’s thigh bone was formed into a brooch for his fiancée; the heart motif was rarely used, rather flowers alluded to love.
All ranks in Field Marshall Haig’s staff were involved: in recorded interviews they described making or buying umbrella stands, candlesticks and paper knives.
Many pieces have survived over 100 years, presumably because these poignant memorabilia were placed in a prominent position and became heirlooms, symbols of respect for the maker or giver.
Victoria Crosses are perhaps the most well-known trench art, made exclusively by Hancocks, the London jewellers, and said to be made from bronze from the Russian guns seized at the Siege of Sevastopol (1855) (though Dr Marriott’s research suggests that some of the metal may have a different source).
A more recent example of trench art is the Camp Bastion cross, paraded at St Paul’s Cathedral and now in the National Memorial Arboretum.
Dr Marriott’s talk and the artefacts showed us that in trench art, human ingenuity and creativity survives in the most appalling circumstances.
Northumberland Place Names
by Dr Jonathan West
‘What’s in a name’? Linguist and place-name specialist Dr Jonathan West initiated us into the complexities of working out the meaning of place names. Many of us know that the meaning of ‘Wooler’, where we have our meetings, has nothing to do with wool or even sheep. But how do we know this? And how to decide between several different theories about its name?
Our speaker made it clear that we should never take for granted an apparently obvious origin for a place name. Instead we have to delve into the archives for records where places are mentioned. And when we do so, we will find that spellings vary from document to document. This happened, our speaker explained, because until the seventeenth century or so, few people could read and write, and so did not think about how the name they used to refer to a place was spelt. Instead, clerks representing perhaps landlords, or church authorities, had to write down what people told them. And, just as now, people from outside Northumberland often find it difficult to pronounce the names seen on signs, or spell the names referred to them in local accents.
But where do place names come from in the first place? Sometimes it is possible to track down a specific origin, as when a place is named after someone of whom a record can be found in a relevant document. However, for many names, the skills of a linguist are needed. In Northumberland, this means having a deep knowledge of the Old English and Brittonic (or Welsh) languages, which predominate in the place names to be found in the county. Elements like ‘lee’, ‘law’, ‘ham’ , ‘haugh’ and ‘ho’ indicate that names were given by the Anglo-Saxons who came into our area from the sixth century or so. Sometimes, these are combined with earlier Brittonic elements. Dr West used as an example Pendle Hill in Lancashire, a very striking feature in the local landscape there. Pendle is a combination of the Brittonic word for hill, combined with Old English ‘hyl’, contracted to Pendle, and then with ‘Hill’ added for us moderns who have forgotten these old words. As a result, Pendle hill means ‘hill-hill-hill’. Brittonic words, it turns out, commonly survive in landscape features such as rivers. Our Celtic ancestors sometimes named rivers after gods and goddesses, with the river Severn recalling the goddess Sabrina. Or else they just used a term for river, as with the Avon. In Northumberland, the Aln, the Till and the Tyne are all Brittonic names. Interestingly, linguistic specialists have been able to find parallels between such names and their equivalents across western Europe.
Dr West helped us to understand these naming complexities by explaining that we had to think of place name origins in terms of settlement history, each linguistic group contributing its own layer of naming, with all kinds of dialect variations in each period to add to the interpretive challenge. Place name evidence in Northumberland reflects the predominance of the Iron Age Brittonic tribes living in our area before, during and after the Roman period. It was these tribes who interacted with the Anglo-Saxon groups as they filtered in from across the North Sea. Presumably, these immigrants asked local people what key features in the landscape were called and then proceeded to stake their claim to their own villages, creating names such as Eglingham, Edlingham and Roddam.
Dr West said that there is very little sign of Viking place names, in contrast to Yorkshire and Lancashire. This supports other evidence of a strongly Anglo-Saxon society in Northumberland and the Scottish Eastern Borders throughout the period of Viking settlement and control of other parts of the British Isles. Then along came the Normans. Our speaker suggested their main contribution was in writing down the names of places, as part of their project of taking control of the country.
Where then does the name Wooler come from? Place name detectives have two theories. One tracks down the meaning to a ‘spring’ on a ‘ridge’, both from Old English. The other suggests the name comes from ‘wolf’ combined with ‘slope’. Our speaker favoured the former, linking the name to the configuration of the Kettles Hill above Wooler with the Pinwell below.
In case we too wanted to become place name detectives, Dr West encouraged us to look at his recent book, Place Names of Old Northumberland.
A special event commemorating the end of World War
The Home Front in World War I – what we in the North East would have experienced
by Anthea Lang
Our usual focus on the Great War is the appalling loss of life and health of the armed forces, but, on this occasion, attention was given to the impact of the war of the civilian population.
Unlike WWII, WWI was not expected. Most people were not aware that war was likely until 2 weeks before war was declared. The important issues of the day were the militant suffragettes and the Irish question, rather than international treaties and the assassination of the Hapsburg heir.
On 1st August, life went on as usual. The TAs were at camp (their role was to defend the UK, not fight abroad). The Fusiliers were training at Alnwick and Hexham. Boy Scouts were stationed along the routes to disembarkation ports (on the south coast).
By 12th August, foodstuffs were being stockpiled, but it was widely said that “The war will be over by Christmas”.
The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) brought in regulations including no keeping of pigeons, no flying planes or lighting bonfires, no buying guns or binoculars, and taking control of the railways, effectively nationalising them.
German immigrants were regarded with suspicion, even those who were naturalised, especially ‘aliens’ (those born outside the UK). Many Germans anglicised their names, for example the royal family (called Saxe-Coburg Gotha) became Windsor.
Kitchener expected the war to take time. Kitchener’s New Army recruited widely. The Tyneside Fusiliers did not accept Irish and Scottish, so they formed their own battalions. The ‘bantams’, no taller than 5 ft 3”, went into a designated unit. The Northumberland Fusiliers included a Cycle battalion; one of its advertisements read ‘Bad teeth no bar’, and a 1916 advert was headed ‘Free Trip to Europe’.
Large buildings such as schools and stately homes were requisitioned for use as hospitals and for training. Public notices challenged the wealthy about their need for male servants, and the famous advert applied to the middle ranks read ‘What did you do in the war, Daddy?’
Women were encouraged to give white feathers for cowardice to the men who remained, though this was often unjustified as the men were engaged in essential work such as producing food, or debarred as a result of ill health. Eventually the government issued badges for those in reserved occupations.
Initially it was thought that the cavalry would win the war, so horses were conscripted, causing severe hardship, especially to farmers.
There were many fundraising events and appeals, for example for the Belgian refugees, Armenia Day, and The Wounded. Schoolchildren were exhorted to save their pocket money pennies to buy sweets for soldiers. Belgians were told to flee, either to the Netherlands or the UK, but when they arrived in England their different lifestyle caused some friction.
Knitting became a significant part of the war effort, producing balaclavas, socks, sweaters and seamen’s helmets. ‘Kitchener stitch’ was used to eliminate a ridge in socks which could contribute to trench foot, important for men in the trenches.
The postal service to the front was highly efficient. Wooler on Monday, front on Friday! Readymade Christmas boxes could be bought.
The quality of army uniforms declined as the war progressed. Fenwick’s and Bainbridge’s made to measure the officers’ uniforms, with better quality cloth; and everyone needed mourning clothes, a custom which died out as the war progressed.
Women of all classes were employed in jobs previously though unsuitable or impossible for them. Two months’ training was planned for female tram clippies, but the women mastered the requisite skills in two weeks! Jarrow had a ladies fire brigade. Women worked in the Women’s Land army and in heavy industry, so for safety their clothes had to change. Skirts became shorter, some women even wore trousers – though with skirts on top. Liberty bodices replaced restrictive corsets for those engaged in manual work.
Near Gateshead was Elizabeth Isle, a unique Belgian colony which produced munitions. For that work women could not use pins in their long hair, which had to be kept out of machinery under elasticated cap.
The football league stopped, but there were local teams, including the ladies munitionettes including Palmers at Jarrow and the Blythe Sparkles.
Training trenches were dug at Rothbury and Otterburn. Seaplanes were launched at the coast.
In December 1914 the Scarborough bombing shook the nation. It was a totally unexpected attack on the civilian population and prompted more volunteers for the army. In 1915, a Zeppelin randomly offloaded bombs on Cramlington and Bedlington, showing that all coastal towns were at risk.
The sinking of the Lusitania similarly targeted civilians, provoking riots against German immigrants in North Shields, Liverpool and Gateshead, and the consequent internment of even naturalised Germans.
British summertime was introduced in 1916 to increase agricultural production.
Existing hospitals such as RVI became military hospitals. Long convalescence was provided in country houses such as Howick Hall, staffed largely by women volunteers in ‘hospital blues’ uniform.
The war also affected diet. Lloyd George (opposed by Asquith) promoted temperance, and basic foods including flour/bread and sugar were rationed: ‘Complete the victory – eat less bread’. People were encouraged to grow their own vegetables.
The ‘Battle of the Somme’ film, shot in June 1916 to be shown to mark the victory which eventually came in November, was screened in August. It caused widespread panic; no doubt some viewers recognised their menfolk in dire circumstances.
Many children were given names relating to the war: some referred to the battle where their father had died, such as over 900 children called ‘Verdun’, many were called ‘Peace’ or ‘Peaceful’, and there was at least one ‘Zeppelina’.
Anthea Lang’s talk explained how much of our modern world began to evolve. Despite the huge loss of life and immense disruption of the war, with the benefit of hindsight we can be grateful for the huge social changes brought about by life on the home front, especially in the relationships between people of different stations in life and the role of women.