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British Culture and the Great War (HI384)

The Modern Records Centre holds many documents which date from the period of the First World War. Just a small selection of these are shown below, organised into four sections - Military Service, Home Front, Pacificism and Opposition to the War, and The Immediate Aftermath.

Most archive collections at the Centre come from trade unions or employers' organisations, so, although we do hold some examples of documents written by ordinary combatants, the majority of our records relate to the organisation of the war on the Home Front. The anti-war beliefs of many in the labour movement are also reflected in our collections. 

How to find out more about the documents:

Click on the reference codes of the documents to go to their descriptions in our on-line catalogues. This can help you to put the documents in context and find similar items. 

Where to find more sources:

To mark the First World War centenary, 100 contemporary documents on the conflict have been digitised and are available online.

Try searching our online catalogues to find other sources.

You can also run a 'ready-made search' of our catalogue for documents relating to The First World War: military and aid, The First World War: home front, The First World War and women, and The First World War: opposition and the peace movement. These are not exhaustive lists of all potentially relevant material - further information may be found, for instance, in an organisation's minutes and its periodical publications, if these exist for the war period.

Interested in using primary sources in your work? - find out more about using archives. 

 

Military Service

Joining the army: all about the new Military Service Act

Foreword from a pamphlet on the Military Service Act, 1916

The pamphlet outlines the provisions of the Act, which introduced compulsory conscription for men between the ages of 18 and 41. It also includes some "helpful hints to men who are "called up"", such as be cheerful and bring a razor.

[From the papers of George Patrick Sarsfield LaGrue, carpenter; document reference: MSS.345/3/1/7. This collection also includes documents relating to protected occupations]

Recruiting journey from Western Siberia

Description of a 'Recruiting journey from Western Siberia' made by Donald Gill in 1914-5

Gill was employed as the assistant manager of a mine in Russia. At Christmas 1914, it was agreed by the British staff that they should all volunteer for military service. The men who were accepted as being medically fit (two, including Gill) made the long journey back to Britain. Gill survived the war, his companion did not.

[From the papers of Lady Allen of Hurtwood, landscape architect and campaigner for child welfare; document reference: MSS.121/F/3/5/1]

Letter from Colin Gill

Letter from Colin Gill (at Amiens with the British Expeditionary Force) 16 July 1916

This rather upbeat letter is addressed to his sister Marjory Gill (later Lady Allen) and includes a description of flying. Colin Gill survived the war.

[From a file relating to Colin Gill, included in the papers of Lady Allen of Hurtwood, landscape architect and campaigner for child welfare; document reference: MSS.121/F/3/4/3]

[Lady Allen's archive also includes correspondence from Oswald Horsley and Oliver Wade, both of whom were killed in the war: document reference: MSS.121/F/3/9/1-9]

Letter from Helen Haslam

Letter from Helen Haslam, aged 19, describing her arrival in France, 20 October 1917

Helen Haslam worked as a Young Men's Christian Association administrator at YMCA headquarters, Abbeville Area, British Expeditionary Force. The Modern Records Centre holds a series of letters that she wrote to her old schoolfriend Marjory Gill from France and the United States of America.

[From a file relating to Helen Haslam, included in the papers of Lady Allen of Hurtwood, landscape architect and campaigner for child welfare; document reference: MSS.121/F/3/8/1-45 (this item: MSS.121/F/3/8/7)]

Typescript copy of the diary of Private John Davidson Young

Typescript copy of the diary of Private John Davidson Young, January 1917-February 1918

Daily diary of personal experiences on the Western Front. Private Young served with the Australian Imperial Forces and arrived in France at the end of 1916. He survived the war.

[From the papers of Arthur Primrose Young, works manager, British Thomson-Houston; document reference: MSS.242/YO/4]

Letter from Private John D. Young

Letter from Private John D. Young, 25 April 1917

This letter is one of a series sent to his brother Arthur Young between 1916-1919. In this example, he talks of the experience of being under constant shell-fire for three weeks ("very trying on the nerves"), the atrocious weather, and a dogfight between British and German aeroplanes.

[From the papers of Arthur Primrose Young, works manager, British Thomson-Houston; document reference: MSS.242/YO/2]

Cartoon by Bruce BairnsfatherCartoon by Bruce Bairnsfather

Cartoons by Bruce Bairnsfather, published as 'Fragments from France' by 'The Bystander' magazine, c1917-1918

Bruce Bairnsfather joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment at the outbreak of war and served as an officer on the Western Front. He was wounded in April 1915 at the second battle of Ypres and diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock on his return to England. His cartoons, some of which were drawn whilst on active service, reflected some of the reality of trench warfare and proved extraordinarily popular, particularly with soldiers.

The cartoons shown here refer to ongoing problems with the censors and to the appalling conditions in the trenches (the second is from a series following the introduction of United States troops to the Western Front).

[Three volumes of the 'Fragments' series are included in the papers of Arthur Primrose Young, works manager, British Thomson-Houston; document reference: MSS.242/MI/12-14]

Copy of communication from General Officer Commanding Force D to Chief of Imperial General Staff

Copy of communication from General Officer Commanding Force "D" to Chief of Imperial General Staff, 3 March 1917

The communication proposes the occupation of Baghdad. It also comments on the state of the Turkish army and methods of dealing with the Arabs.

[From the papers of Sir William Guy Granet, document reference: MSS.191/3/4/51/1]

[Sir William Guy Granet held a series of senior posts relating to military transport during the war, including Director-General of Military Railways, 1916, and Director-General of Movements and Railways, 1917. His papers include several files relating to the organisation of military transport, together with some general items of military intelligence]

Daily summary of intelligence

Daily 'summary of intelligence', 27 August 1917

The summaries had a limited circulation, which included the King, the War Cabinet, officials in the War Office and Admiralty, and senior military commanders. This example includes information on the morale of the German troops, as well as on the progress of the war on different fronts.

[From the papers of Sir William Guy Granet, document reference: MSS.191/5/1/14]

Plan and description of a German designed signal-thrower

Plan and description of a German designed signal-thrower, August 1917

This is an example of a circular on enemy technology issued by General Staff (Intelligence), Advance General Headquarters.

[From the papers of Sir William Guy Granet, document reference: MSS.191/5/1/9]

Summary of report on air organisation and home defence against air raids

Summary of report on air organisation and home defence against air raids, produced for the Army Council, August 1917

The report puts forward the argument that there should be a unified air service, separate from the army and navy. It concludes that "it is important for the winning of the war that we should not only secure air predominance, but secure it on a very large scale; ... air supremacy may in the long run become as important a factor in the defence of the Empire as sea supremacy".

[From the papers of Sir William Guy Granet, document reference: MSS.191/3/4/177]

 

Home Front

Twelve good reasons why every able-bodied man should enrol for National Service

'Twelve good reasons why every able-bodied man should enrol for National Service', February 1917

Recruitment leaflet for the "industrial army", to provide the forces with "everything they need to secure victory" and increase supplies at home.

[From the 'Miscellaneous series' of records, document reference: MSS.21/2031]

Commission of Enquiry into Industrial Unrest: report of the Commissioners for the London and South-Eastern Area

Commission of Enquiry into Industrial Unrest: report of the Commissioners for the London and South-Eastern Area, 1917

The Commission was appointed to identify the causes of industrial unrest across the country. It produced reports on the conditions in 8 separate divisions or regions of Britain, as well as a summary report.

The report shown here focuses on London and the South East of England (no.5 division), where the situation was seen as particularly perilous - "the unrest is real, widespread and some in some directions extreme, ... we are at this moment within view of a possible social upheaval or at least extensive and manifold strikes". Particular causes of unrest were food prices, profiteering, "industrial fatigue", "inequality of sacrifice", "uncertainty as to the future" and "want of confidence in the Government and resentment at undue interference".

[Included in a file on industrial unrest, from the records of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC); document reference: MSS.36/I9]

Circular regarding the organisation of a Labour, Socialist and Democratic Convention to hail the Russian Revolution

Circular regarding the organisation of a "Labour, Socialist and Democratic Convention to hail the Russian Revolution", May 1917

Labour leaders, including George Lansbury, James Ramsay Macdonald and Philip Snowden, were amongst the delegates who gathered in Leeds to celebrate the February revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar. Resolutions passed by the convention included proposals for peace negotiations, a British charter of civil liberties and the formation of Workmen's and Soldiers' Councils.

[One of four documents relating to the Leeds convention included in the records of the Postal and Telegraph Clerks' Association; document reference: MSS.148/PA/2/5/2]

Circular letter from Emmeline Pankhurst, Honorary Treasurer of the Women

Circular letter from Emmeline Pankhurst, Honorary Treasurer of the Women's Social and Political Union, 13 August 1914

The letter announces that the WSPU would be temporarily suspending its activities following the outbreak of the war and the release of its members from prison. Whilst wishing that international differences could have been resolved without bloodshed, Mrs Pankhurst states that "with that patriotism which has nerved women to endure torture in prison cells for the national good, we ardently desire that our country shall be victorious". The WPSU was finally dissolved in 1917.

[From the 'Miscellaneous series' of records, document reference: MSS.21/1816]

The Catholic Suffragist

First issue of 'The Catholic Suffragist', journal of the Catholic Women's Suffrage Society, 15 January 1915

The front page contains an article by Alice Meynell, explaining the principles of the society and why it was thought necessary to produce "a new paper dedicated to the cause of Votes for Women" at a time of war.

[From the 'Miscellaneous series' of records, document reference: MSS.21/1822]

The position of women after the war

Report of the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women's Organisations on 'The position of women after the war', [c.1916]

The report was presented to the Joint Committee on Labour Problems after the War, a body made up of trade union and Labour Party representatives. Subjects covered by the report include the effect of war on women in industry, the conditions to be in place on declaration of peace and a proposed reconstruction policy, including factory legislation, trade union organisation, housing, maternity care and political enfranchisement.

[From the 'Miscellaneous series' of records, document reference: MSS.21/1546]

Letter from the Barrow branch of the Federation of Sailmakers

Letter from the Barrow branch of the Federation of Sailmakers, 22 June 1916

The author asks for advice on how to stop the introduction of "females" into the sailroom. The women workers are seen as "cheap labour", undercutting the wages of the men.

[From the records of the Federation of Sailmakers of Great Britain and Ireland; document reference: MSS.87/3/11/18]

list of householders in the Irlam area, near Manchester, and particulars of the number of rooms and occupants

First page of a "list of householders in the Irlam area, near Manchester, and particulars of the number of rooms and occupants", 1917

Irlam, now part of Salford, was a centre for steel manufacture. This list shows the number of people inhabiting each house, including extended families and lodgers - this ranged from 2 to 15 occupants in houses with 2 or 3 "upper rooms".

[Included in a file on housing, from the records of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC); document reference: MSS.36/H18]

Leaflet from the War Emergency WorkersLeaflet from the War Emergency Workers

Leaflet from the War Emergency: Workers' National Committee on communal kitchens, June 1917

Two communal centres were opened by Croydon Borough Council to provide 1,000 dinners at each centre daily.

[Included in a file on food, 1916-1950, from the records of the Transport and General Workers' Union; document reference: MSS.126/TG/RES/X/1015/3]

War Emergency WorkersWar Emergency Workers

War Emergency: Workers' National Committee memorandum on the increased cost of living, 1917

It includes figures which show the rise in the cost of an average family's food for a week between July 1914 and July 1917.

[Included in a file on food, 1916-1950, from the records of the Transport and General Workers' Union; document reference: MSS.126/TG/RES/X/1015/3]

 

 

Pacificism and Opposition to the War

Satire

Edition of the monthly magazine 'Satire', May 1917

The front cover shows the figure of death in the form of 'International Capitalism' sweeping across the battlefield and being offered the children of the British and German nations. 'Satire' described itself as "a paper of social criticism" and "a workers' paper", which invited contributions from "all comrades in the rebel movement".

[From the papers of William Wess, trade unionist, socialist and Jewish activist; document reference: MSS.240/W/4/1/10]

The Court-Martial Friend and Prison Guide

'The Court-Martial Friend and Prison Guide', undated

Booklet issued by the No-Conscription Fellowship. This outlines the procedures regarding conscientious objectors at Court-Martial, and includes a digest of certain prison rules.

[From the papers of Reg Groves, Trotskyist; document reference: MSS.172/W/3]

Letter written by Rowland Barrett

Letter written by Rowland Barrett, a conscientious objector, on the 50th day of his imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs, 13 July 1917

The collection of Rowland Barrett includes a series of documents relating to his time in prison. This includes correspondence, verses and a transcript in 'sound spelling' of his diary as a conscript and conscientious objector.

[Document reference: this item, MSS.83/3/PR/13; related documents: MSS.83/3/PR/1-20 and MSS.83/3/RS/1]

 

Postcard asking for the release of the 1,500 conscientious objectors still in prison at Christmas 1918

Postcard asking for the release of the 1,500 conscientious objectors still in prison at Christmas 1918

[From the records of the Howard League for Penal Reform; document reference: MSS.16A/7/23/1]

Opposition to peace negotiators

Opposition to peace negotiators from the National Sailors' and Firemens' Union, 1917

The National Sailors' and Firemens' Union boycotted ships carrying peace negotiators in 1917. This document includes an account of speeches made by J. Havelock Wilson, General President of the NSFU, and Mr Henson, Secretary of the Cardiff branch, at the Trades Union Congress. Atrocities such as the sinking of the 'Belgian Prince' and 'Lusitania' are cited as reasons for the war to "go on until the Germans confessed they had had enough".

[From a file on J. Havelock Wilson and NSFU attitudes to Germany, pacificism and reparations, included in the records of the National Union of Seamen; document reference: MSS.175/3/11/1-6]

Newspaper front page showing photographs of an attack on a pacifist conference by a large crowd

Newspaper front page showing photographs of an attack on a pacifist conference by a large crowd, 29 July 1917

The conference, organised by the Workers' and Soldiers' Council, was to be held at the Brotherhood Church in North London. According to the accompanying article, an armed crowd stormed the church, whilst singing patriotic songs, and destroyed the interior. The majority of delegates were escorted out by the police, some were beaten by the crowd.

[From the papers of Henry Sara and Frank Maitland, Trotskyists; document reference: MSS.15/3/10/1]

 

The Immediate Aftermath

Labour Party campaign leaflets

Labour Party campaign leaflets, c1918

These examples are aimed at returning soldiers and sailors, and ask "Who shall pay for the war?" ("The Labour Party insists that the rich must bear the burden").

[From the papers of Reg Groves, Trotskyist; document reference: MSS.172/LA/1-7]

Booklet containing information for soldiers on demobilisation and finding civil employment

Booklet containing information for soldiers on demobilisation and finding civil employment, December 1918

Includes information on rationing and "remobilization in case of a grave national emergency".

[Included in a file on demobilisation, from the records of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC); document reference: MSS.36/D6]

Government leaflet issued to demobilised servicemen

Government leaflet issued to demobilised servicemen, 1919

This suggests that the new civilians should "aim at success!" by investing their money in Government War Savings Certificates.

[Included amongst the discharge papers of George Sims, from the records of the Central Labour College; document reference: MSS.127/LC/6/1/13]

Outline of Ministry of Labour scheme for the employment of disabled ex-servicemen

Outline of Ministry of Labour scheme for the employment of disabled ex-servicemen, September 1919

The scheme suggests that all employers with a workforce of more than 10 men, women and juveniles should have a minimum of 5% disabled ex-servicemen amongst their workers.

[Included in a file on disabled workers, 1914-1919, 1948-1949; from the records of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC); document reference: MSS.36/D24]

The Future of Our Disabled Sailors and Soldiers

Photographs from 'The Future of Our Disabled Sailors and Soldiers: A description of the training and instruction classes at Queen Mary's Convalescent Auxiliary Hospitals, Roehampton, and at Queen Mary's Workshops, Pavilion Military Hospital, Brighton, for sailors and soldiers who have lost their limbs in the war', c1917

This illustrated booklet describes the attempted rehabilitation of servicemen who had lost limbs during the war. The training was intended to aid their recovery by giving them hope and removing the "fear of not being merely crippled but useless for life".

[Included in a file on disabled workers, 1914-1919, 1948-1949; from the records of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC); document reference: MSS.36/D24]

Illustrations of unskilled employment obtained for Roehampton men

"Illustrations of unskilled employment obtained for Roehampton men", undated

List of soldiers, with details of their regiment, disablement, previous occupation, new occupation and wages.

[Included in a file on disabled workers, 1914-1919, 1948-1949; from the records of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC); document reference: MSS.36/D24]

Newspaper front page showing photograph of a riot in Downing Street during a march of the unemployed

Newspaper front page showing photograph of a riot in Downing Street during a march of the unemployed, 19 October 1920

The march was estimated at "20,000 men, many of them ex-soldiers". Fights between demonstrators and the police started whilst representatives of the demonstration were being received by the Prime Minister. The accompanying article puts the blame on a small number of "red flag hooligans", incited by foreigners and, in some cases, aided by "Amazon" women wielding iron bars.

[From the papers of Henry Sara and Frank Maitland, Trotskyists; document reference: MSS.15/3/10/3]

Memorandum by the Advisory Housing Panel on the Emergency Problem, Ministry of Reconstruction

Memorandum by the Advisory Housing Panel on the Emergency Problem, Ministry of Reconstruction, June 1918

Memorandum proposing short term solutions to the difficulties that will follow the end of the war. It makes a point of saying that they will be unable to attempt to set right the permanent problems of slum dwellings and the pre-war housing shortage.

[Included in a file on housing, from the records of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC); document reference: MSS.36/H18]

Bungalow Class A

Plan of 'Bungalow Class A' (2 houses), 1919

This was included as a supplement to 'Housing' magazine, published fortnightly by the Housing Department of the Ministry of Health. The bungalow was designed to be built economically and speedily without using scaffolding.

[Included in a file on housing, from the records of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC); document reference: MSS.36/H18]

Why food is dear

Pamphlet: 'Why food is dear' by Christopher Addison, c1925

Addison had been Minister of Munitions during the war and crossed from the Liberal Party to the Labour Party in the 1920s. He identified the cause of rising food costs to be profiteering by the small number of companies that controlled food supply.

[Included in a file on food, 1916-1950, from the records of the Transport and General Workers' Union; document reference: MSS.126/TG/RES/X/1015B/1-2]

Circular from the Leicester branch of the No More War Movement

Circular from the Leicester branch of the No More War Movement, 1928

The No More War Movement was a left-wing organisation that campaigned for "war resistance" and strongly opposed the move towards rearmament in the 1930s. Members signed up to a declaration that stated "War is a crime against humanity" and agreed not to take part in any war, international or civil, and to work for total disarmament. It also argued that the main causes of modern war were economic and imperialist.

[Included in a file on the No More War Movement, from the records of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/906.8/5]