Wiltshire at War: Community Stories is a five year Heritage Lottery Funded project, aiming to discover, explore and share stories about Wiltshire’s response to the First World War. Since 2014 we’ve travelled the county collecting stories of the amazing men and women who were affected in some way by the war a hundred years ago, such as ‘Fiesty Aunty Olive and the Women’s RAF’, ‘Young Freddy Butler – from the farm to the Royal Flying Corps’ and the ‘Soldiers and Sailors Free and Easy Club’.
While we’ve written about the project before, it’s worth taking another look as we’ve just launched the fascinating fourth exhibition – ‘Keeping the Home Fires Burning’. This explores how the war affected everyday life in Wiltshire, including the new roles taken on by women, rationing, daylight saving and the refugees who fled to England from Belgium.
The new exhibition was launched on Friday 3rd March at Athelstan Museum in Malmesbury. A large crowd gathered for the event and following the official opening of the exhibition, musician and singer Louise Jordan took to the stage. Louise spent a year researching and writing songs about the remarkable women involved in World War One, who are often overlooked in conventional histories.
The title of Louise’s show ‘No Petticoats Here’ is inspired by Sir Arthur Sloggett’s words to Dr Elsie Inglis. Elsie graduated from the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women in 1892 and started working with the poor in Edinburgh. Through this work she became aware of the needs of greater rights for women and was an active suffragette. When war broke out, Elsie offered her medical knowledge and expertise, coming up with the idea of treating wounded soldiers from mobile hospital units, run entirely by women. When she presented the idea she was told by Sir Arthur:
‘My good lady, go home and sit still. We don’t want any petticoats here’.
Not to be discouraged, she set about raising the funds to set up hospitals and field units across Europe, staffed by over 1000 women, often in dangerous situations. A truly inspirational woman whose contribution deserves to be remembered.
Louise weaved beautiful melodies through the fascinating tales of these women, with plenty of audience participation along the way! We learnt about many incredible women including engineer Hertha Ayrton who amongst other achievements invented a fan to clear poison gas from the trenches, Louise de Bettignes a French spy employed by the British army and Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, keen motorcyclists who joined Dr Munro’s Flying Ambulance Corps on the front line.
Also celebrated was one brave woman who is already familiar to Wiltshire at War – Dorothy Lawrence. In 1915 Dorothy was a teenager living in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury, with ambitions of becoming a war correspondent for the newspapers. Determined to report on the fighting in Europe she set out from England by bicycle, heading for the Somme. With a uniform borrowed from soldiers she met along the way she posed as Sapper Denis Smith, spending 10 nights on the frontline before giving herself up.
Since I started at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in November 2015, the main project I have been working on has been Wiltshire at War: Community Stories. I would like to let you know what the project has achieved so far, what we would still like to do, and how you can get involved.
What is Wiltshire at War: Community Stories? Wiltshire at War: Community Stories aims to bring people together from across Wiltshire to discover, explore and share stories about Wiltshire’s response to the First World War. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
What has been achieved so far? During 2014, enthusiastic people from museums and heritage organisations were trained to carry out oral history interviews and community engagement sessions relating to gathering stories about the First World War. Throughout 2014 and 2015 (and now into 2016) research has been carried out by museums, history societies, and individuals from all over Wiltshire who have donated the stories to the Wiltshire at War project. In January 2015 the Wiltshire at War website went live. Do visit the website and explore this growing archive of stories.
The Call to Arms, the first of the five exhibitions, launched in February 2015 and is currently on display in the Springfield Campus Library, Corsham, until 3 March 2016. The theme focuses on the soldiers called up to fight, and the preparations for war in Wiltshire. The second exhibition, Wiltshire Does Its Bit, launched in September 2015, and is currently on display at Chippenham Museum, until 27 February 2016. The theme focuses on the contributions of ordinary people to the war effort at home in Wiltshire. Both these exhibitions are currently touring Wiltshire, and are available to hire, free of charge.
There are four identical schools’ exhibitions that have launched, are touring, and can be booked free of charge. They come with a handling kit to bring the exhibition to life, and complimentary teaching resources for key stages 1-3 are available on the website. There were library talks in 2015 from the likes of Stewart Binns and Elizabeth Speller, in Corsham, Salisbury, Warminster, and Mere, and they have been accompanied by a comprehensive book display.
In June 1915, armed only with a bicycle, her wits and a burning journalistic ambition, a young woman named Dorothy Lawrence set out from England determined to reach the frontline of fighting in northern France.
“I’ll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish. I’ll see what I can manage as a war correspondent!”
Sleeping in ditches, haystacks and flea-bitten dugouts, Dorothy wheedled, charmed and hoodwinked her way past suspicious gendarmes and the unwanted attentions of frustrated soldiers, to spend ten days under heavy shelling in the French town of Albert shortly before the Battle of Loos.