Tag Archives: Devon Libraries

Devon Voices in World War One

There has been an abundance of tributes to those who made sacrifices during the First World War to coincide with the centenary of the Armistice on 11thNovember. In this post I draw attention to a local project that focuses on the everyday impact of that war upon Devon; and acknowledges the 11,000 local people who died in the hostilities.

There is a bookish connection.

Devon Remembers Heritage Project

We honour and remember the fallen soldiers, airmen, seamen and medical staff who gave their lives in the First World War. Our dominant image of the war is of the infantryman, in the trenches on the Western Front, with his round helmet. Somewhere in this picture there will be poppies.

We must also remember the effects of the war on other people. I have been admiring the Devon Remembers Heritage Project. It has involved ordinary people (that is, not historians), supporting their research into how the war affected life in Devon 1914-18. There have been about 30 projects. In addition there has been an arts programme, some events and other notable outcomes, such as an exhibition and a book. I like the idea of citizen history

Devon During the First World War

Many of the projects have been written up in the book Devon During the First World War. Sadly this book will only have a single print run, but it is available from Devon Libraries.

Devon is predominately rural and projects have explored farming and food production, including in-shore fisheries. The German blockade made it important for Britain to develop more home grown produce, and Devon people responded by finding all kinds of nooks and crannies for their allotments. In-shore fisheries were affected immediately by restrictions but Stephen Reynolds, who had come to live in Devon, worked tirelessly to ensure the work continued and the fish were harvested and fishermen did not loose their livelihood.

Exeter became a hospital centre for the South, taking wounded men from the trains via Southampton, who were cared for in no less than eight hospitals in the city. Some of those affected by shell shock were cared for at Seale-Hayne. Ordinary households in Exeter provided accommodation for the sick and wounded and they received treatment at the local clinics.

Plymouth has always had a central role in defending the country and in maintaining the naval fleet. Some very young midshipmen from Dartmouth were involved in action, sometimes fatally.

Industries all over Devon were affected by the shortage of labour and materials, and filling the gap meant that women and young people were recruited into new roles. An addition the refugee population, especially from Belgium, was welcomed by local people.

In Ottery St Mary, for example, the Verschoren family arrived with three children. The father had suffered a gas attack on the Front and been sent to Britain for treatment. Mrs Verschoren led the three children to safety, and they were settled in Devon. They were liked and well known in the area, and the whole family stayed on after the war. (see p43-44 Ciaran Stoker: Belgian Refugees in Devon)

Women took up roles previously denied them, and I especially warmed to the ambulance driver who was responsible for the transport of patients in Devon, as well as the maintenance of her vehicle. Sometimes her task was to return an injured soldier to his home when no more could be done to help him. (Devon Voices exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter).

Devon writers, workers, the Jewish community and Canadian lumberjacks also made a substantial contribution to the war effort in Devon and have been researched by the citizen historians.

Here is an account of a notable act of bravery by 20-year old Ella Trout in September 1917.

Ella was rowing beyond Start Point with her 10-year old nephew, Willie Trout, when she heard a loud explosion from a torpedoed ship. Ignoring the risk of a submarine surfacing, Ella rowed for more than a mile through dangerous cross-currents, arriving in time to rescue a seaman clinging to a piece of wreckage. She hauled him on board, but unable to row back again against the strong current, started to drift further out into the Channel. Fortunately a nearby fishing boat had rescued the eight other seamen from the ship. The skipper took Ella’s rescued seaman onto his boat and towed her boat to safer waters where a naval patrol boat took the crew of the sunken ship to Dartmouth. Ella was awarded the OBE for bravery. (p99-100 Tom Reeves: Lifesaving at sea)

You can find details of the Devon Remembers Heritage Project on their website here: https://www.devonremembersheritage.org

I visited the Devon Voices and the Canadians in Devon War Photographs exhibitions at RAMM, Exeter in October. Both were moving and instructive.

My own choice of object to honour those whose lives were so affected by the war is made by Clare Read, Little Burrow Designs and called We Will Remember Them.

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