Archives and Special Collections: First World War

First World War on the Special Collections blog

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The Great War - as it happened

John Hammerton & Herbert Wrigley Wilson, ed. The Great War: the standard history of the all-Europe conflict (London: The Amalgamated Press, 1914-19).

The first volume of this work was published in 1914, and sets the tone with the first sentence: "The greatest war of modern times, and perhaps in the whole history of the human race, was begun by Germany using the crime of a schoolboy in Bosnia as her excuse" [Volume I, page 3]. The work claims to be "a standard history" but, written so soon after the individual events it narrates, cannot give a truly balanced view as there was no way for the authors to be in possession of all the facts surrounding them.

The great interest of this work lies in its immediacy. It shows what the general public in Britain knew about the war during the war, and what they were encouraged to think. The tone and content reflect the attitudes and social structure of the time, as when prominence is given in lists of casualties to whose men who were related to peers. Naturally the text is full of patriotic language - chapter titles make frequent use of words such as "glorious" and "triumphant" - and admiration for British troops' bravery and skill, and for the design of their ships, planes and weapons; but recognition is made of the German forces as a formidable enemy with admirable qualities.

The volumes are, as the title-page indicates, "profusely illustrated". There are maps and plans to show defences and strategy; photographs of events and of key people; diagrams of submarines; illustrated spreads on forces joining the war from overseas; and, most poignantly, drawings of battlefield scenes sent by eyewitnesses. 

As well as the narratie of the war itself, there are chapters on broader topics including "Influence of the war on English LIterature" [volume XII], and "Marvels of the British Transport Service on the Western Front" [volume VIII], to address wider and longer-term issues.

The twelfth and final volume, published in 1919, ends with a "roll of honour" detailing the numbers of men killed, wounded, and missing, with the numbers analysed in various ways; civilian casualties are estimated too, and a swift overview is given to show the range of men who died, and some of their talents and achievements in sports and professions. 

The work that started with grandiose phrasing about "the greatest war" ends, fittingly, in tribute to those who bore the greatest cost: "To praise those who gave their lives for their country would be an impertinence, but they cannot be left entirely without a tribute of respect and thanks." [volume XII, p. 600].

This series is part of the Rare books and periodicals collections. Please contact if you would like to access this collection.

Mary A.M. Rainer - child in wartime, witness to a Zeppelin raid, ANZAC troops

Typescript account of a child during wartime

"The men began to return to their homes, most of them unsung heroes as usual, suffering from all kinds of health troubles, most of them without prospect of work and long queues at the Labour Exchanges"

  • Education during wartime: outdated Victorian school buildings
  • Cultural traditions: Christmas family gathering, traditional music playing and singing. Absence of particular foods due to expense and rationing
  • Wartime fashions: gradual disappearance of long skirts from everyday wear due to increasing participation of women in public life and activities
  • Attitude of the public towards the declaration of war: overwhelming excitement, enlistment treated as an adventure
  • Attitude of the public towards non-serving eligible men: relative given a white feather despite being wounded in first weeks of war
  • Observed wartime incidents, including witnessing a Zeppelin crash (Potters Bar, 1916) and various air raids
  • Experience of arrival of colonial troops: influx of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) troops (Salisbury, 1915) citing their kindness, sociability and gift-giving
  • Acitivities of the often older, non-serving men on the home-front: managing chicken and egg production, working in institutions such as hospitals. Woken by the "knocker-up" who patrolled houses at 6am tapping windows with a cane
  • Food shortages, particularly towards the end of the war. Scarce products included potatoes and fats. Children were sent to shops to buy whatever was permitted, then repeated the process after returning home from school and changing their clothes
  • Observance of the end of the war: most returning men were 'unsung heroes' with various health issues and few job prospects

Her autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (2:644). Please contact if you would like to access this collection.

William Belcher - naval diary

Serving in the navy between 1903 - 8 and 1914 - 19, he was then an electrician from 1919 onwards. Much of the interest in his autobiography lies in the supporting documents that accompany his ntoebooks: his school certificates, shorthand qualifications and his naval career record.

His autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies (BURN 1:53). Please contact if you would like to access this collection.


Nancy Day - village life in WWI

Born in 1912, her mother died when she was a baby so she (and five brothers and sisters) was raised by an aunt and uncle who already had five children of their own. She recounts memories of a rural childhood in the 1920s and the impact of WWI on her village.

Her autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (2:220). Please contact if you would like to access this collection.

Mabel Lethbridge - WWI munitions factory girl

A factory girl working during WWI. She volunteered to work in the Danger Zone filling shells, and the 'monkey' machine. She faced a major explosion and TNT poisoning. She was later awarded the OBE.

Her typescript account of her experience of munitions factory work, includes:

  • Working with TNT
  • Architectural structure of factory and grounds including security measures
  • General staff of the factory (including military guard)
  • Significant presence of working women (10,000 employed in total)
  • Camaraderie of factory life
  • Accounts of injury and death eg body parts crushed by machines. Author severely injured by shell explosion, causing blindness and leg injury.

Her autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (part 4). Please contact if you would like to access this collection.

Channel Tunnel Association Archive

Material relating to the First World War includes debates over its value to national defence and reports on rendering it unusable in the event of an invasion. Parliament was addressed on this subject in 1914 and there were objections to the tunnel on security and defence grounds. 

The Channel Tunnel Association Archive is a large collection dating between 1802 and 2002, chronicling the history of building tunnels under the Channel and related political and security issues. It includes correspondence, press cuttings, articles and plans.

Please contact if you would like to access this collection.

Percy Wall - conscientious objector

Born in 1893, he was one of 13 children, of whom five survived to adulthood. He had various jobs, including newspaper boy, errand boy, photographer's assistant, coal miner, labourer, fish hawker and was unemployed for a while post-war as he had been a conscientious objector. He experienced 30 months in prison following two court martials for ignoring call-up notices for WWI.

His autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (3:186). Please contact if you would like to access this collection.

J.T. Haskins - first submarine through the Dardenelles

Naval log (1915), newspaper clippings and artwork reveal the account of a young seaman serving in the British Navy.

"I was with the E14 through the Dardenelles"

  • Insight into naval work: personal recollections of action at sea
  • References to naval incidents
  • Part of the famed E14 submarine crew, which made the first successful trip through the Dardanelle

​His autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (part 4). Please contact if you would like to access this collection.

Susan Frith - nurse and midwife

Susan Frith was a nurse and midwife whose career spanned thirty years, between 1912 and 1942. Her personal diary covers both of the World Wars and leads up to the foundation of the NHS. She went to people’s homes and stayed with them, assisting at the births of babies and caring for those with long term health conditions or who were terminally ill.

Her autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (part 4). Please contact if you would like to access this collection.

Mary Denison - child in wartime

Typescript account with images of a child during wartime.

  • References to child wartime culture: 'Punch' magazine featured propaganda cartoons. Well known songs (eg Long way to Tipperary)
  • Experience of war: heard about war from adult conversations. Recounts memories of neighbours informing family of deaths of local soldiers
  • Experience of Belgian refugees in her village
  • Accounts of returning soldiers. Villagers cheer wounded soldiers residing in military hospital. Shell-shocked soldiers are treated as 'pathetic figures' and subject to laughter.
  • Changes in diet: certain types of food become scarce and others are substituted, eg margarine instead of butter
  • Radical shift in domestic service sector: maids left the vicarage to go to munitions factory work and shops. Women of the household forced into homemaking
  • Observations of the end of the war: jubilation, processions and flags

Her autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (part 4). Please contact if you would like to access this collection.

E.W. Johnson

Typescript account of a young man during wartime.

  • Experience of engineering sector during war: detailed descriptions of telephone and telegraph electrical engineering processes
  • Exempted from military service due to vital civilian work
  • Awarded OBE for restoring communications during enemy action
  • Discusses the impact of war on the general population


His autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive (Part 4). Please contact if you would like to access this collection.

Other accounts from the Burnett Archive

Dora Bargate (2:35) - Autobiography includes her impressions of WWI, written in verse

Bertrand Twinn (4) - His autobiography includes his war memories in the Roayl Canadian Navy. He eventually emigrated to Canada.

Fred Worrall (1:774) - Emphasis on war adventures 1914-1918