In the Trenches

In the Trenches: Those Who Were There - by Rachel Bilton

Books describing the personal experiences of soldiers fighting in the various theatres of the First World War invariably fall into several categories; those from soldiers in the front lines seeking to explain and describe their direct experiences of war; those from combatants attempting to justify a particular personal view; those from participants wishing to exculpate themselves from feelings of guilt brought on by taking the life of another human being in the service of their country. Of these, the ones from soldiers describing directly and without exaggeration their own experiences of the war are relatively familiar and the current Centenary of the First World War has prompted the publication of many such accounts. Where Rachel Bilton’s book differs from many other publications is both in the unembellished directness of the seventeen accounts published in her book, and the scope of the campaigns highlighted, ranging from the trenches of the Western Front to the dust and flies of Gallipoli and the Middle East.

Rachel is a young author and this is her first book, forming part of a trilogy, the third part of which she has edited. Her most recent book, Prisoners and Escape, was published this year so perhaps Rachel has found her metier in this field of personal experiences from the First World War. In compiling first-hand experiences of war between 1914 and 1918, Rachel has undoubtedly produced a most enjoyable read. While many of the personal experiences are necessarily recollections of those involved in the particular events, with some being quite detailed accounts written years after the war, the immediacy of many of the accounts makes them very powerful, bringing home both the horror of war and the incredible resilience of men in combat. Many also produce interesting asides on peoples’ characters, especially those in command, often interspersed with intuitive overviews of their circumstances together with moments of comedy and personal reflection.

There is a good balance of accounts chosen, following the chronology of the war and focusing on the main campaigns fought by British soldiers in the First World War. Starting with several stories covering the early battles of the war, the book then moves on to vivid recollections of the first gas attack at Ypres and the exploits of Captain A.O. Pollard VC, on the same part of the front. Accounts of Gallipoli, the battle of Kut and Salonika are combined with those from the main campaigns of 1916 and 1917, and the book concludes with several fascinating narratives of men caught up in the German spring offensive of 1918 and the final Allied advance. Of personal interest were the experiences of R.H. Mottram, rather plainly entitled A Personal Record, but containing the most perceptive memories of his time as a front-line officer and later as a liaison officer dealing with complaints about damage caused by British soldiers. Such is the nature of the military machine that even in the midst of a titanic struggle, the wheels of military bureaucracy had to keep turning and good relations between allies maintained.

In her biographical notes, Rachel expresses her wish to find answers as to why so many men wanted to kill complete strangers for four years. This is a very laudable aim, occupying many writers over the recent past and contributing much valuable research to the canon of literature on the First World War. Certainly this book will add to that scholarship from the British point of view and hopefully might be the prelude to additional volumes covering the experiences of combatants from the other belligerent nations. While this book might have benefitted from a preface or introduction to set the personal accounts in context, the stories on their own are potent examples of ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances. If you are looking for an absorbing and interesting collection of personal stories from the First World War, consider purchasing a copy of Rachel Bilton’s book without delay.

Review by Heathcliffe Bowen


 Book cover of 'The Western Front Landscape'

The Western Front: Landscape, Tourism and Heritage

Modern Conflict Archaeology

By Stephen Miles

Hardcover: 186 pages

16 pages of colour photographs.

Pen & Sword


 Western Front Landscape and Tourism
 Images the author's own collection 


Many years ago while working in France I read a book called ‘White Gold’ (L'Or Blanc) about the exploitation of the Alps as a winter tourist destiny; it added an economic, human geographical and socio-political dimension to my annual trip to the Tarentaise which until then I had only seen in winter as a place to ski. The Western Front: Landscape, Tourism and Heritage achieves something similar for anyone who has interest in the Western Front and who until now has only seen it as a First World War battle zone - you begin to see the Western Front in context as an important series of destinies for pilgrimage, education, reflection ... and tourism.

Like so many of us, when visiting the Western Front, or rather a small fraction of the previously British-held part of the Western Front, my focus has tended to be on trying to see and feel it. I want to put its landspace in context having read the books, and while having listened to my late grandfather’s stories. Like one of the characters on a coach trip the author describes, I too am the person who prefers to ‘enjoy’ the landscape, the cemeteries and cemeteries alone - I feel these are sanctified places that like stepping into a church, should be treated with reverence. One of the problems addressed in this book is how this ‘sanctified ground’ is becoming (or has always been) a tourist destination, as well as a pilgrimage.

The Western Front: Landscape, Tourism and Heritage is about the period 1918 to the present day and considers the first pilgrims and visitors to the Western Front - tourists by another name as so many travelled with Thomas Cook. The book takes a multidisciplinary approach - it is all the more fascinating because it takes in the human geography of the landscape over time. In percentage terms most of the land fought over is back in the hands of farmers, urban and transport planners: there is potential 'conflict of use’ with each of these activities and the 'Western Front' industry.

There is, as the series editor Nicholas Saunders writes in the introduction a ‘spider’s web of issues that is part History, part anthropology, and part heritage and tourism’.

Anything that is the product of the First World War interests the author: His interest includes the kinds of items that now fill national museums to cafe museums and private collections, and ranges from machine-guns, to war memorials, whole battle-zone landscapes, to photographs, diaries, films and uniforms, as well as ceremonies, re-enactors and high-tech installations all financed to serve the perceived needs of visitors, as well as meeting national government obligations in these ‘Centenary Years’ of 2014-2018.


 Western Front Landscape and Tourism
 Images from the author's own collection 


The Western Front: Landscape, Tourism and Heritage therefore makes for a different and fascinating read.

Stephen Miles provides a succinct history of the Western Front, then facts I was not aware of, and ideas that had not crossed my mind, fill the book. For example, I am intrigued to learn that out of 14,000 civil parishes in England and Wales there were only 53 where everyone returned. These ‘Blessed Villages’ are surely a succinct way of proving that it was a ‘total war’ - it touched everyone in the UK. I am intrigued to learn that Thomas Cook was taking visitors to the Western Front during the war, and only suspended trips in March 1915 due to French opposition. After the war the visitor figures picked up quickly, 60,000 visiting in 1919, though numbers fell away in the key years of the Depression then increasing up until the outbreak of the Second World War with visitors to France from 1921-1930 reaching 559,905 to 1,058,936 then peaking after the depression at 1,446,737 in 1937. In 1928, the British Legion organised a Western Front pilgrimage of 11,000 visitors, that included 6,000 ex-servicemen.

We learn how visitor numbers waxed and waned after the 'Great War', and we learn from the author how the visitor figures are calculated from amongst other things, signatories to visitor books at cemeteries, before we enter the ‘modern era’ which is bookmarked by ex-soldier Major Holt and his wife's organising a coach trip for the Military Book Society Tour in 1977 and ending in 2016 with the new edition of their 'Definitive Battlefield Guide'.  Interest in, and visitors to the Western Front has increased greatly. 

Can there be a substitute for being there? The author thinks not. There may be, in his words, a ‘poor physical legacy compared to stately homes, castles and religious buildings’ but increasingly there is enough information, in the form of 'markers' (site text often in the form of an information board) that helps each visitor engage with the location. Many, will of course, have a battlefield guide as their companion, or be attentive to a battlefield tour guide. One way or the other, they could well drift into that ‘tourist gaze’ which the author describes so well, as we in turn imagine our great-uncle, or great-great grandfather in a shell-torn landscape of a century ago.

I’d never heard of ‘Dark Tourism’ but immediately understand it. This is part of the nature of humankind, or morbid fascination, as well as our interest in past battles. It is an eye-opener to reflect on how Stephen Miles explores the reasons for our interest in the Western Front as a landscape: out of curiosity, entertainment, emphatic identification, compassion, nationalistic motives, pilgrimage, event validation, identity search, education and social responsibility. He suggests that this leads to tolerance, humanity, empathy, insight, and understanding - it should do, though as the author mentions, Adolf Hitler was one of these visitors, you could say the only one, during the Second World War.  For most of us, whether by desire, or obligation as a school student, one appeal of a visit to the Western Front, as the author puts it is for ‘Travel with a deeper purpose’.

This is an academic book, but if it is based on a paper or dissertation, the outcome is nonetheless very readable, ‘heavier’ than an extended series of Sunday Colour Supplement articles, but just as enjoyable. We learn the meaning and value behind phrases that may not be familiar to us, such as the Western Front continues as a ‘mise en scene’ or the ‘lieux de mémoire’.

These are usual ways to see it, as a stage where the actors have gone, and much of the set removed - yet we still have to find a way to recreate in our minds eye the actions that took place 100 years ago and importanly to discover a way to find empathy with the soldiers’ experience. The museums, from the well-financed, recently refurbished and re-invented to the modest farm or cafe ‘museum’ or collection, each in their way, try to bring the First World War and the Western Front to the contemporary visitor, as the author says, ‘in a commercially driven consumer society war is a commodity like any other product or service designed, packaged and sold to the consumer in a competitive market. (p103)


 Western Front Landscape and Tourism
 Images from the author's own collection 


In the final pages the author ponders the relevance of The Western Front as a visitor destination in the 21st century, and values it for how it cannot help make us reflect on conflict, nation states, soldiering and refugees, as he concludes, the Western Front ‘is a complex place and continues to shock, appal, intrigue or fascinate in a variety of ways’. (p142).

Not only is there more to the First World War then military history, battles, their tactics and statistics, so there is more to the Western Front, forever a battle-zone of the First World War 1914-to the present day, but increasingly a region, a series of destinies, islands of cemeteries and museums, strung out from the English Channel to the Swiss Alps like the Caribbean Islands, each floating in a sea of modern agriculture.

Reviewed by Jonathan Vernon. 

 Front Cover of Shell Shocked Britain


Shell Shocked Britain The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health

Suzie Grogan

Pen and Sword History


First published 2014


8pp photographs


Suzie Grogan’s interest in ‘shell shock’ was inspired by a tragic incident in 1922 involving one of her ancestors, Alfred Hardiman. The event was hushed up by the family, and only re-awakened when Suzie discovered the story in The Times archive in 2005. Although Grogan does not directly attribute the tragedy to Hardiman’s experience in the First War, she describes how it stimulated her interest in the long term effects of combat and goes on to explore in great depth the effects on both military and civilian populations of their experiences in the War.


The book explores the mis-use, both historically and currently, of the term, ‘shell shock’ and Grogan sets her story securely in a historical period where attitudes and expectations were rigidly defined. She challenges several commonly held assertions about the war and reveals the attitudes of the military and medical establishment which showed a class conscious and highly unsympathetic view towards ordinary men and women. She argues that ‘there is (not) a clear boundary between the Front Line and Home Front experience. Troops were faced with situations of indescribable horror, and were subject to long periods of intense anxiety and hours of ear-splitting bombardment by enemy shells, yet the loneliness, the ‘not knowing’, the guilt of the survivor, all had a psychological impact, too.’


Grogan quotes Professor Jay Winter that ‘shell-shock’ could be a particularly British construct used to describe medically a form of nervous collapse, more readily attributed before the war to women, with no direct translation in other languages. She suggests that shell-shock has always been a cultural rather than medical construct, used, from its inception in 1915, to describe thousands of otherwise healthy men. Initially there was a supposition that to be ‘shell-shocked’ must have involved a physical wound caused due to the proximity of an exploding shell. It took some while for medical officers to link the term to the psychological effects of being exposed to the noise and fear of the war. Even so, she argues that the medical establishment was reluctant to acknowledge any psychological aspect for fear of damaging morale and encouraging other sufferers to come forward.


Suzie Grogan's central argument is that for the men who came home, many found themselves unable to sustain or make relationships, keep their jobs, assuming they had one, homeless, operating on the fringes of society. Society, expected the men to resume the life they left behind before they joined up and had no solutions to deal with them. Grogan compares it with the present day situation where, although there may be an awareness and sympathy towards those who have experienced war zones, we are no nearer solving the problem of the many military personnel who are unable to cope with civilian life.


Grogan makes clear there was a class divide, with the writings and art of officers describing emotions and experiences, but only in recent years has the experiences of the working class narrative been recognised. Even so, there was still a taboo about mental illness despite 80,000 men being diagnosed with shell-shock by the end of the war. In 1920 a Parliamentary ‘root and branch’ investigation of the causes and treatment of ‘shell-shock was set up and reported in June 1922. The all male, conservative, middle and upper class, committee interviewed only six servicemen, although over 60,000 were drawing disability pensions for mental ill-health and 9,000 were still under treatment. It concluded that the term ‘shell-shock’ should no longer be applied as a diagnosis and soldiers suffering with concussion should be defined as battle casualties whilst those with neuroses should not. The report quoted an unattributed ‘well known’ doctor as saying that many recruits were already neurotics and did not want to serve, effectively branding them cowards. The blame for breaking down was poured entirely on the rank and file soldiers and that, whilst ‘shell-shock’ could affect anyone, only the ‘inferior’ broke down. Even as the report was being written, more and more ex-soldiers were being incarcerated as ‘insane’. 


Grogan questions just how far we have come in recognising and addressing the issue of shell-shock and notes the issues facing ex-service personnel today. She also highlights the casual way the term has been appropriated to cover ‘the least desperate emotions’ such as a surprise sports victory. What is clear is that many of those affected were nowhere near a shell, despite being described as ‘shell-shocked’. The effects on civilians at home, especially those affected by aid raids, who were experiencing the noise and damage of the zeppelins and aeroplanes, often coupled with the anxiety of loved ones engaged in fighting, should not be underestimated.


Grogan has thoroughly researched her book. She covers a period still embedded in repressive nineteenth century constructs and values, confronting the first real citizens’ war and not being able to acknowledge or understand it or treat it with compassion. She reminds us of the class conscious attitudes of the time and of the sexist approach that saw pre-war mental health issues as hysteria for women and weakness for men then being attributed to ‘shell-shock’. She writes knowledgably about the perceived gender imbalance, proving that the war had accentuated it, rather than causing it, explores the frightening and evil role of the eugenicists and the link to mental health.


Suzie Grogan’s book is not just a well researched analysis of an issue often not given sufficient knowledge or understanding by historians of the period, it is as relevant today in a world still beset by conflict. She quotes that over the six years to 2014, referrals to the charity Combat Stress have increased by 66%. They are, on average, men in their forties who have served for about ten years. Of those, 82% were soldiers. She ends her book reflecting on modern combat stress, linking it to previous conflicts. We cannot expect people who have gone through the horrors many at the Front and at home experienced not to be permanently altered.


Her final quotation from a Combat Stress leaflet aptly sums this up. ‘The man who lost his life in Iraq now lives in Birmingham.’


Review by Malcolm J Doolin, (East London Western Front Association member and author of The Boys of Blackhorse Road. The Story of an Elementary School War Memorial.)


St Paul's Cathedral First World War Altar Frontal

 A sumptuous altar piece and the men who made it are celebrated and remembered in this unique book


 St Paul's Cathedral Altar Cover and coffee cup


The St Paul’s Cathedral First World War Altar Frontal is many things: it is one of those 'coffee table' books you love to own as an 'artefact' in its own right; it is a glorious photographic record of an amazing piece of craft work; it is a fascinating and unique history that spans 100 years from the creation of this sumptuous piece of embroidery, to its rediscovery, restoration and re-use, and it is a special, and complete, photographic reproduction of a moving, distinct memorial book signed by the men who did this work during their recuperation in various British hospital after serious injury on the Western Front. Added to this, you have the men's life and service history to add to the picture of who they were, where they came from, where they served, how they were injured and where they were later hospitalised. Most touching of all, must be a group photograph of a dozen men, all amputees, in a group photograph on a ship returning them home to Australia. 


Page spread in St Paul's Cathedral Altar Frontal book


So often it is only those who died who are remembered but here we remember those who were severely and often permanently disabled and how they found themselves hospitalised in the UK and as a form of recovery handicrafts were used, and how in this case some 138 men became embroiders for an altar piece for St. Paul’s Cathedral. The text is thoughtfully researched and written, explaining the process, introducing the hospitals, the staff and the men -  from the vast military hospital at Netley to a children’s hospital at Chailey.


 St Pauls Cathedral First World War Frontal


We then move onto the frontal design, its execution and first use on 5 July 1919 - and then again in the presence of the King & Queen at the National Service of Thanksgiving the next day.


The rich photographs give a wonderful impression of how glorious the altar piece is in its newly restored form.



The second part of the story starts with the Blitz of World War II when the Altar Frontal was safely stored, only to be retrieved some 73 years later, carefully restored and shown once more on the high altar to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of war on 4th August 1916.


St Paul's Cathedral Memorial Book pages


The memorial book forms the second part of the book and is a vital complemenaty part to it.

To remember those who worked on the Altar Frontal as each person dedicated to each hospital. To add to this research into each man and their lives supported by photography helps to complete the story.


 St Paul's Cathedral Altar Pages


The St Paul’s Cathedral First World War Altar Frontal is a pleasure to read, and will be a delight to dip into many times over the years. It shows and tells the story of the beautiful piece of embroidery, while also bring to life those men, shattered by the war, who then spent months working on their respective pieces of the embroidery. Seriously injured men from the UK, but also Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are remembered.


St Paul's Altar Frontal Front Cover  

The book goes on sale in the St Paul's gift shop on Friday - 11 November, Armistice Day.


See the St Paul's Altar Front yourself. Details here - 


For further information regarding purchase of this book please vist the 'From The Hands of Heroes' website. 

Andrew Humphries at Memory Lane Media Ltd

Tel: +44 (0)1708 740 235

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Attachments / downloads
Download this file (Altar frontal PR.PDF)St Paul's Cathedral First World War Altar Frontal [St Paul's Cathedral First World War Altar Frontal ]110 kB

 Colchester in the First World War


The Church of England and the Home Front 1914 – 1918 : Civilians, Soldiers and Religion in Wartime Colchester


Most historians disregard the Church in the First World War. Speaking to Robert Beaken this afternoon I think I understood why: you need to understand the Church, its beliefs, practices and structure in the context of a practising Christian, as so many where 100 years ago and so few are today. 


‘The Church of England and the Home Front 1914 – 1918’ is several books not one: it is a book on the Church of England and the First World War, and of ‘Colchester in the Great War’, it is also something of a ‘Who’s Who’ with a biography of each of the bishops, and other key figures of the ‘Colchester elite’. It is, in the author's words "a jigsaw puzzle with all the bits fitting together'". The tone, pace and depth of research makes it at times like a specialist encyclopaedia. There are a myriad of curiosities, to name just one -  how 200 acres of rose-beds were turned into 2,200 allotment.


It was with trepidation that I began to read The Church of England and the Home Front 1914 – 1918’, as the book is as broad in scope as the title suggests. I am glad to say that I was soon captivated, though glad to have the book in digital form because it made highlighting passages and looking up meanings I didn’t fully comprehend such as episcopal ministry, suffragans bishop, intercessions and pulpit hangings.


‘Colchester in the Great War’ would be an apt title for a good part of the book, the first chapters for example; it is the angle on the Church ‘on the home front’ that makes it unique. You are left wondering if the Church of England lost an opportunity to re-establish its relevance to the communities it served during the First World War, or was it already on a downward spiral? Or, did God and the church cease to matter to a soldier who had served the war? How could God let something like Gallipoli, the Battle of the Somme or Passchendaele happen? I know my own grandfather, taken to Church as a boy, serving from early 1916 to demobilisation as a machine-gun then RAF pilot, never entered a church after the war except for a family marriage or funeral.


It is valuable to be reminded that the people ‘executing’ the war were Victorians: Victorians ran the war and served in it overseas and at home. Their outlook, background and attitudes were bound by the circumstances of their youth, growing up in an empire, more likely to be living in poverty, than wealth, without universal suffrage, healthcare or many opportunities. Statistics on the deaths of infants highlight the considerable poverty that so much of the population had to endure. Statistics on sexually transmitted diseases and illegitimate births give us a sense of what was going on behind closed doors, not just in front of them.


 Photograph of vicar and author Dr Robert Beaken
 Dr Robert Beaken


I feel the author is disingenuous to suggest that Colchester, because it was as a garrison town, was unlike any offer - I rather think it had more in common through its people and Church. There are other insights you gain on Colchester that you can transpose to other cities and towns around Great Britain too, for example, the comprehensive list given of where you will find First World War memorials, from the Post Office to the Railway Station, places of work and in schools, in parks and in Churches of course.


The author comes into his own, having set the scene, when he talks about the Church of England and religion and how it had to change to accommodate grief and bereavement. In the early 16th century, ’prayers for the dead’ and the ‘indulgences’ sold to profit from bereavement, was at central cause of schism in the Church and the following Reformation. Four hundreds years on, the scale of bereavement and loss caused by the war forced the Church of England to accommodate certain Roman Catholic practices in relation to the dead.


The Place of Meeting
 'The Place of Meeting' by Thomas Noyes-Lewes

I find ‘The Place of Meeting (at the time of Communion)’ by Thomas Noyes-Lewes’ kitsch, thought the author may only go far as describing it as badly drawn. It deserves a place at the heart of The Church of England and the Home Front 1914 – 1918 because this rather mawkish, sentimental and old-fashioned painting by T. Noyes Lewis shows a Requiem Mass on behalf of the dead. Is this what the Church of England became during the Great War? There are ghostlike figures of soldiers from the Great War and in British history above the altar on the steps to Heaven going back to the Knights Templar and earlier. I am reminded of the Second World War movie with David Niven ‘A Matter of Life and Death’. Here we see how the Church of England, a reformed version of the Catholic Church, interpreted prayers for the dead as a way to 'send people on their way' with your love and prayer. 

This postcard became hugely popular and for that reason gives us an insight into how people felt and dealt with bereavement.  It is this insight - the cause and effect of change then on behaviours and institutions today that so often shows how bound we are to the events of 1914-1918. Was this not when the concept of the ‘National Day of Prayer’ or ‘mourning’ was established? Could the Anglican Church return to a time when praying for the dead was considered wrong?


Though written as ‘little history’ dealing with one town with the perspective of and from the Church, the issues are often ‘big history’ in fact we can see through Colchester’s experience, the experience of the country and towns like Colchester. When the author talks of ‘Colchester’s close-knit, interdependent social elite’ coming apart ‘from the Church of England’ which ‘came to occupy a peripheral position instead of being an element woven amongst the strands as hitherto’ the same can be said of Britain as a whole. The First World War stimulated, instigated and even drove through changes in society and politics.


I recommend ‘The Church of England and the Home Front 1914 – 1918’ as considerably more than a history of Colchester, the home front point of view, during the Great War. I will dip into it often as a reference work on the changing role, views and behaviours of the Church and as an insight to society as it was constructed before the war and changed forever during it. The First World War was seismic: Colchester was never the same, neither was British society or the Church.


Review by Jonathan Vernon 


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