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  • Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War by Sally White

    Belgian refugees arriving in the Netherlands, 1914. (Courtesy LOC, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    One of the joys of being a museum curator is all the odd bits of information that come your way.  I worked in Worthing Museum for almost 20 years and relished the salmagundi of snippets that I picked up.  One day I was leafing through an album of old press cuttings when I spotted one from 1920 that reported Worthing’s decision to adopt a town in France under the auspices of the British League of Help for the Devastated Areas of France. Like most people, I had never heard of this organisation and had no idea what they did.  Information was very thin on the ground in those pre-internet days but I set out to investigate.

    My research regularly encroached on my holidays and when I was in France I did a detour to Richebourg l’Avoué, the town that Worthing adopted.  I called on the Mayor and was delighted to find that his wife was the granddaughter of the man who had been Mayor in 1920 and whose visit to Worthing had been reported in the local papers.  They whisked me off in their car to visit a nonagenarian clog maker, Monsieur Sénéchal, who was happy to share his memories of the adoption with me, mentioning a number of the gifts that had been sent over to help the local people rebuild their lives and their town. He also enthused about the height of the Bengal Lancers and seeing The Prince of Wales at the opening of a local war cemetery. I visited a number of other towns that been adopted and helped in the aftermath of the First World War.

    The sheer scale of the effort needed to care for the refugees is illustrated by this photograph of 600 refugee children being given tea at Earl's Court London. (c. Imperial War Museum, ref. HU88813, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    After a while I felt I had gone as far as I could with my research, wrote an article about the adoption scheme, presented a paper at a conference, and put it all aside.  Some years later I was made redundant and dug out my notes. I broadened my research to include other civilian-run schemes that helped people here and abroad during and just after the war.  I soon realised the enormous scale of the contribution made by civilians, often acting on their own initiative and with great bravery and imagination.

    In 1929 a journalist called Mrs C. S. Peel wrote that one day someone could write a book about all the work civilians did to support the war effort.  I was amazed to find that nobody had ever tackled this subject and that most books about the war limited their references to civilian volunteers to enthusing about the efforts of VADs on the Western Front and to disparaging the efforts of those who busily knitted socks and mufflers for soldiers. The further I went with my research the more determined I became to write a book giving readers an insight into what hundreds of thousands of civilians achieved here and abroad.

    Having got an excruciating job with the local council to pay the bills I had to research, write, and give talks in my ‘spare time’.  In practice this meant getting up at 5.30 am so that I could get an hour’s work in each day before starting my main job, carrying on in the evenings, heading off to archives or the university library at weekends and using much of my annual leave to visit archive offices and museums.  I loved it and it kept me sane when the day job was at its worst. New areas of interest kept opening up.

    I had been unaware that 250,000 Belgian refugees fled to Britain in the early weeks of the war and had to be welcomed fed, housed and generally cared for.  Many of them stayed for the duration of the war and the volunteers who looked after them soon struggled to collect enough money to support them. I spent months engrossed in reading about the refugees and how hosts in different areas looked after their guests.  The committee in Cambridge produced a very useful booklet for the refugees to help them find their feet in England.  However, I suspect that recipes for dishes that included Toad in the Hole and Shepherd’s Pie may have seemed bewildering.

    Weaving was one of the crafts that the Quakers established at Knockaloe Camp on the Isle of Man to help occupy the internees and enable them to earn a small income. (c. Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    Hospital units not only worked in France and Belgium but went off to Serbia and Russia where the volunteers battled extremes of weather, isolation, epidemics, being taken prisoner, working through the Russian Revolution and joining the Serbian Army on the Great Retreat over the mountains of Montenegro in the cruel depths of winter in addition to helping thousands of wounded soldiers in incredibly primitive conditions.

    The Quakers took on various roles that nobody else recognised.  During the war groups went out to France to help civilians living close to the Front.  They built simple wooden houses, provided furniture, clothes and other goods, ran a maternity hospital and an orphanage and helped on farms.  When the rebuilt villages were shelled the Quakers set about restoring them again.  They helped support refugees in camps in the Netherlands and set up feeding programmes to help starving people in Germany and Austria after the Armistice. Some of their workers were vilified when they realised that enemy aliens interned in camps on the Isle of Man and on mainland Britain were in desperate need of help.  They helped the internees’ families and set up craft workshops in the camps, reducing the incidence of mental health problems among the internees.

    A poster advertising the need for recruits to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment. (Courtesy LOC, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    Groups set out onto the midge infested moors of Britain to collect sphagnum moss to be made into highly absorbent dressings and the Prince of Wales set up a centre for this work on Dartmoor. John Penoyre collected cricket sweaters from his friends and colleagues, which he dyed khaki and sent out to troops, when uniforms were in short supply.  Lady Smith-Dorrien recruited women to make thousands of cotton bags to hold the personal belongings of men in hospital. Other volunteers made unimaginable numbers of sandbags, knitted, sewed, rolled bandages, invented appliances to help amputees and men with other wounds, collected unwanted silver to raise money to buy ambulances, collected eggs and cigarettes for the sick and wounded, sent parcels to prisoners of war and were available to apply their ingenuity and adaptability to any other area where they could be of use.

    Many of the women who volunteered to work overseas were brave, indomitable mavericks who longed for adventure and who relished many of their experiences.  Over time stress took its toll on them. Some died, either through illness or injury. Some came home when they could no longer cope. It is no wonder that many of them found adapting to normal life difficult after the end of the war and a number stayed away, working in hospitals and orphanages in the countries they had come to love.

    Like many writers I could have gone on researching indefinitely but had to recognise when the time had come to start writing.  It is a strange feeling when you are no longer immersed in a particular subject and I am happy to be able to give talks about various aspects of the work these civilians did.  Now I have to turn to the subject for my next book.

    Sally White's new book Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War is available for purchase now.

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