Northampton and the First World War: Tourist Information Centre Display.
In December 2014, I was tasked with putting together a display to showcase the Conflict and Community Project, a Heritage Lottery Funded initiative that focuses on Northampton and its involvement in the First World War. The display can be found in the Tourist Information Centre at Sessions House, and has been running bimonthly ever since. The display has covered themes like Christmas on the front line and life on the home front, as well as showcasing the lives and achievements of local soldiers through personal artefacts. As Autumn grows nearer, it’s time for the display material to change yet again; for the latest set of objects, selected from the Northampton Regimental Collection, the emphasis has shifted to trench warfare.
Trench warfare is the aspect of WWI we perhaps are the most familiar with. A landscape of horror, constant shelling, and the oft romanticised notion of ‘going over the top’ were the bread and butter of wartime poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Despite this, only a relatively small proportion of the army actually served in the trenches. Of these soldiers, only around fifteen percent would have been in the firing line at any one time. The British Army regularly rotated troops between the trenches and other stations behind the lines, with the average soldier spending only a few days in the trenches with each rotation. The BBC quote an incredible statistic regarding trench warfare: on average, not including days of exceptional loss (for example, the Battle of the Somme), nine out of ten Tommy soldiers survived the trenches (link here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/z3kgjxs#zg2dtfr). Nonetheless, the unpleasant environment of the trenches and the lingering threat of battle and death remained constant for those on the front line.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
– Dulce Et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen (1920).
All of the items on display throughout September and October represent aspects of trench warfare, each having a unique resonance of an experience so unimaginable that we can hardly begin to picture it.
The first item I chose for the display was a pair of German-made Emil Busch binoculars. These found their way to Northampton in the care of Private William Green – my great-grandfather (you can read my previous blog, telling his incredible story here https://northamptonmuseums.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/tic-display-for-conflict-and-community-project/.The binoculars originally belonged to a German soldier, and were taken as a souvenir of the battles William fought on the Hindenburg Line. During the final assault on the line, William earned a Military Medal for acts of bravery under fire, the highest commendation an Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) could receive. I have often wondered about those binoculars and how they came to William’s hands, the grisly circumstances only too easily imagined.
Also on display is an officer’s Derby boot. This boot was probably made as a government sample, and almost certainly never saw action on the front line. However, millions of similar, locally manufactured boots did. Northampton played an important part in shoeing the soldiers, even making boots for the allies. Approximately two thirds of the seventy million boots produced for the British forces were made in Northampton. The First World War was a lucrative time for boot makers, with business booming and women being employed to help with the workload. Boot makers and repairers were vital on the front line, relied upon to mend soles and keep the soldiers marching.
The display also features a selection of artillery, including shell cases, a grenade, and a 1lb brass shell. The term ‘shell case’ refers to the outer part of an artillery shell, which would have housed the charge and ignition. Shells contained explosives and were fired behind enemy lines. The shells on display were probably never fired, given their excellent condition. Unused shell cases were often transformed into pieces of trench art, referencing theatres of war or locations of battles. Such pieces were usually kept by soldiers as souvenirs and brought home to England. Dramatically smaller in size were the 1lb brass shells, used with early anti-aircraft guns throughout WWI as a part of the home defence. They were nicknamed ‘pom pom’ shells for the sound they made when they discharged. Smaller still, but no less deadly, were the factory-built white phosphorus grenades that were introduced in 1916. Following this, around 250,000 grenades were produced per week. Phosphorus was popular in incendiary munitions as it burns quickly and produces a smoke blanket to offer camouflage.
Finally, the signallers’ whistle is perhaps the most iconic artefact of WWI. One blast would signal the troops’ advance over the top, something featured frequently in films, drama and poetry. It is difficult to imagine waiting to hear the whistle, knowing that it could signal your death.
Choosing and researching the artefacts for display was a privilege. During my second year as an archaeology student, I travelled between WWI battlefields and memorials in western Europe, writing a research project. I was trying to learn about different types of memorials, and how they engaged the public. I personally found that museums were the most effective form of memorialisation. As a young person with no concept of what it truly means to be at war, I found it very difficult to connect with stone monoliths and bronze statues. They did not bring history to life like the museums did, each display showcasing remnants of soldier’s lives. For me, this was far more emotive than standing upon long-healed, empty fields. So, with this display, I have tried to bring memories of WWI to life, so that we may continue to remember it.‘If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.’
– The Soldier, Rupert Brooke (1914)
Name of author: Vikki Green
This article has been written as part of the HLF funded Conflict & Community Project. The project commemorates the contributions of the people of Northampton to World War I. To learn more about the project please visit http://www.northampton.gov.uk/info/200246/events–and–exhibitions/2139/conflict-and-community